If In Doubt, Circle It Out! How To Create A Class Of Independent Spellers

This is another post in our series on the topic of creating independent writers.

The Standards & Testing Agency have in some ways made the marking of spellings more problematic than it’s ever been. They state quite clearly, that individual spellings should no longer be pointed out to children if you wish to mark it as an independent piece. This, coupled with Ofsted’s move away from heavy amounts of marking needing to be seen in books, could make the marking of spelling seem tricky.

What the The Standards & Testing Agency do say is that you can tell a child, through marking, that there are spelling errors in certain paragraphs that they’ve written. I actually think this is quite sensible if we wish to develop children as independent spellers.

How we have tried to create a culture of independent spellers in our classroom is by splitting up the writing process for children – and you can read more about that here. Regardless of the particular style the children like to write in – be it Vomitter, Paragraph Piler or Sentence Stacker, they have to ensure they attend to their spellings.

We taught the children, at the very beginning of the year, that when they are writing and they get to a word they want to use but can’t spell, they are to:

Invent It -> Circle It -> Continue.

According to Burns et al, (1999), invented spellings plays an important role in helping children learn how to write. When children use invented spellings, they are in fact exercising their growing knowledge of phonemes, the letters of the alphabet, and their confidence in the alphabetic principle. It also indicates that the child is thinking on their own about the relationship between letters, sounds and words. It therefore also aids their reading.

Once at the editing stage, they then attend to these spellings by looking them up on the computer, using a dictionary, their electronic speller checker or by using their vocab book. This has proved very successful in identifying maybe 80% of spelling errors within a piece.

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If In Doubt, Circle It Out

Now, at the end of a writing session, we also give the children around 5 minutes to ‘If In Doubt, Circle It Out’. This is where the children, alongside their talk-partner, circle any ‘unsure’ spellings – spellings they think they might need to attend to at the editing stage. This takes care of a further 15% of spellings. Finally, we, as the teachers, will then look to identify where the last 5% spellings may be hiding!

What we don’t do during their writing time is spell words for them. Doing so would transform us as ‘writer-teachers’ to human dictionaries. When we spell words for children, our students are simply taking dictation. This is not how spelling is learned. Just the opposite infact. Students learn to spell by approximation and then seeing the conventional form (Jacobson, 2010, p.41).

We should add that the children in our class take the editing of their work quite seriously because they know they may well want to publish it into our class library. We talk about the importance of publishing in developing independent writers – here. 

To find out more about our approach to teaching writing, which we call ‘Real-World Literacy’, you can follow this link.

If you would like to receive updates from our blog, you can click the follow button in the top right-hand-corner of the page. Alternatively, you can follow us on twitter at @lit4pleasure

**Please note that the views expressed on this blog are our own and may not represent our employer.**

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Meeting Children Where They Are: Using Pupil Conferencing.

This article is based on, and written in relation to, findings of educational research (see end of article). The tenor of this article is simply to allow the reader to reflect on these findings and is in no way a criticism of any school(s) policy or teachers’ practice.

Why Written Feedback Might Not Be As Effective As Verbal Conferencing

Traditionally, the teaching of writing has been a thankless task. For the writing teacher, it has meant long, long hours of marking and commenting on student compositions, with little reason for confidence that this effort would have any positive effect.” – Bereiter & Scardmalia

As Frank Smith (1982, p.203) states: writing is not learned in steps. There is no ladder of separate and incremental skills that if written down for a child they will automatically apply and so ascend. Writing develops as an individual develops, in many directions, continually, usually inconspicuously, but occasionally in dramatic and unforeseeable spurts. And like individual human development, writing requires nourishment and encouragement rather than a rushed scribbled jointing on a pupil’s writing piece.

Research (Fisher, 2010, Jean, Tree, & Clark, 2013, Oxford University – Education Endowment Fund, 2016 ) seems to indicate that swathes of ‘after-the-event’ written feedback is neither efficient nor effective. As Dylan Wiliam says, feedback like this is often the equivalent of telling an unsuccessful comedian that they need to be funnier. So how are teachers meant to provide meaningful and accountable feedback to their pupils despite the pressures of ‘after-the-event’ written feedback?

Time To Consider Pupil Conference?

There appears to be effective ways and it could be through teacher collaboration amongst students. As Corbett & Strong (2011) , Smith (1986), Atwell (2015), and Graves (2003) testify, a way to improve children’s writing outcomes is to write with children and not just sharing the product of your own writing but actually joining the children whilst they are engaged in the process of writing. Help them, by advising them on their compositions in real time.

Unfortunately, most children or adults have never actually seen a professional writer writing. They can be afflicted by the misconception that writing springs fully formed from an author’s head. They are unaware of the drafts, the blocks, and the alternating frustration and exhilaration. Without allowing children to be in dialogue, in actual collaboration with a writer, in real time, they will find it difficult to learn about these essential tools of the trade. As Frank Smith states (1986, p.199):

‘A lecture or a set of exercises are not an alternative to an apprenticeship. Collaboration empowers students; instruction leaves them dependent.’

Through pupil-conferencing you will be providing, on a daily basis, high quality teaching to individual students. You will be conducting not only assessment for learning but also assessment of learning. You must be a trusted adult in the eyes of your pupils. Children need to feel secure in a teacher’s presence and assume that they will be interested in their writing, responding  in the first place to what has been written and not to how it has been written. According to Tompkins, (2011 p.13) when teachers act only as judges, children produce writing mainly to satisfy the teacher’s requirements, and the writing is nearly always tentative.

The benefits of a conferencing approach however is that it can awaken you to the critical role of what John Gatto (2008, p.177) calls ‘feedback loops’. These loops between teacher and pupil create, what Gatto calls, a ‘customised circuit’ which promotes in children self-correction and self-development rather than feeling a slavish kind of need to follow the direction of a teacher’s responses. High quality composition, revision and editing comes when a child and a helpful adult work together on something the child is interested in producing – when the advantages are immediately apparent. Verbal feedback has maximum relevance to the child because the child, in effect, determines what is to be taught and what learning opportunities they require.

You literally can’t help but teach something – children can’t help but learn and apply something.

It’s important to note here that Pupil-Conferencing is only as small part of what LiteracyForPleasure’s writing approach consists of. Research indicates (Writing Is Primary, 2009), the most direct and relevant way for a teacher to demonstrate to a child the power of writing is to write with the child, not by requiring the child to engage in writing that you, the teacher, determines the child must do, but by helping to bring out of the child writing that the child would like to do.

Consider and reflect that when children are required to write something they are not interested in they will also not be overly interested in any feedback and in any corrections that ensue. As a result, will they learn as effectively? However, our pedagogy, which we are calling Real-World Literacy, does seem to support such an approach. The different aspects of a productive writing environment cannot be separated from each other and delivered to children one bit at a time. Reading, writing, talking and writing, and talking in order to write must surely be continual possibilities? They do overlap and interlock – so this would make sense and research does seem to back this up. Therefore, at present, this is what our approach advocates for. It can be read about in more detail – here. Alternatively, you can receive email updates from our blog by clicking the follow button in the top right hand corner of this page.

How To Conduct Conferences

Circulating the room – It is important to remember that an informal conference with a child need only be 40 seconds long, although it will take longer until the time when both you and the children are familiar with the idea. You should aim to see every writer at least twice a week, which, in experience, is quite manageable – even without the aid of a TA. Ask how the writing is going. Alternatively, ask the child what they feel they need particular help with. Do they have any ‘sticky’ places in the text? Finally, you should formulate a question or suggestion for the author, particularly if you sense that they lack confidence about their topic.

Ask how it is going -> Hear some of what is contained in the piece -> Formulate a question or a suggestion for the author. -> Leave.

A good technique is to play the naïve reader/listener and parrot back what you have learned from listening to an extract or skim reading the text. This shows your writer that, at this point, you are interested in the topic of their piece and not the transcription. When teachers point out mechanical errors during the drafting stage, they send a false message that mechanical correctness is more important than content (Tompkins, 2011, p.18). Your comments on transcription can wait until a ‘Revision Conference’.

All writers, no matter what their age, need to hear their own words coming back to them. Often, when you repeat back what you have learnt from their piece, children go on to give you more information verbally in response. This often finds it way into their writing. However, it’s important to realise you are not there to read the whole piece. Always be early in seeking out the children who seem lacking in confidence. Once children understand what a conference is, they may let you know that they do not require one at the present moment; in this case you simply move on to the next child.  

Things to remember: Don’t talk more than the writer. Don’t try to redirect the child onto something you find more interesting. Only direct the child onto a different course or subject if it’s clearly not working. Don’t ignore the writer’s original intention for the piece. Try not to supply words or phrases that you like, but if possible quietly guide the writer towards the means of expression.Don’t hesitate to say to a child that you don’t understand or that you’re confused by the subject choice. When you’ve finished a conference, simply mark the child’s book with ‘verbal feedback’.

Learning To Conference: Conferencing Prompt Cards

You may find these cards helpful when starting out on providing pupil conferences, or as an aid to classroom assistants or parent helpers participating in the process.

Revision Conferences

The purpose of revision is to find a significant meaning and make it clear – Donald Murray (2002, p.175).

Children soon come to know that you will talk with them while they are writing. It is a well-known fact that ‘after the event’ responses written in books come too late for children to do anything about them. Verbally conducted revision conferences, on the other hand, provide more opportunity for high quality teaching, alongside the child, in real time, and allow the child to act on the feedback immediately.

How To Prepare Feedback Ready For Revision Conferences

After school, in preparation for next day’s revision conferences, good writing teachers will step back from a child’s piece and look at the entire draft to see what it could become. They do not rush in and simply edit line by line. In fact it is the child who edits the piece. Teachers consider the content, the structure, the pace and the form of the piece.

These are the sorts of questions to be considered when receiving a child’s draft:

  • What is the subject?
  • What is the focus?
  • What is the best genre for them to explore their subject?
  • Where is the theme that will carry the reader through the piece?
  • Is it too general? Does the child need something specific to focus on?
  • Is it it too long or too short?
  • Where does the child achieve the most clear, consistent and appropriate writing?

After considering these points, simply write very brief notes at the bottom of their page (including any transcriptional problems), ready to share during the child’s  revision conference the next day. Take notes on what the child has done well and identify only one or two teaching points for discuss. Undertaking a revision conference requires skill on the part of the teacher, but this skill will come with practice. It should be noted that these conferences do take longer and you can only really fit up to three into a typical literacy hour, once you have completed your short conferencing commitments. 

Once a child has had their conference, they make the revisions and edits on the piece until they are ready to write a final copy. Remember, if it is a particularly strong piece, the child should seriously consider having it published into the class/school book stock.

If you would like to receive updates from our blog, you can click the follow button in the top right-hand-corner of the page. Alternatively, you can follow us on twitter at @lit4pleasure

**Please note that the views expressed on this blog are informed by research and may not represent our employer.**

Pupil Conferencing: The Research

Research References

  • Alexander, R. (2008) ‘Talking, teaching, learning’ in Alexander, R. Essays on Pedagogy, Abingdon, Routledge.
  • Alexander, R. (2008). Towards dialogic teaching. (4th ed). Cambridge: Dialogos.
  • Bereiter, C., Scardamalia, M. In Beard, R., (1993) Teaching Literacy Balancing Perspectives Hodder & Stoughton: London
  • Clark, J. (2010). Why talking in the classroom can be a good thing? In Literacy Today 63: 15 http://0-web.ebscohost.com.brum.beds.ac.uk/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?hid=107&sid=58116dfe-acf0-4bee-a203-199849af2570%40sessionmgr111&vid=3 (accessed May 2016).
  • Maybin, J. (2006) Children’s Voices: Talk, Knowledge and Identity, Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan.
  • Mercer, N. and Littleton, K. (2007) Dialogue and the Development of Children’s Thinking: A Sociocultural Approach London:Routledge
  • Myhill, D., (2006). Talk, talk, talk: Teaching and learning in whole class discourse In Research Papers in Education 21, no. 1: 19–41.
  • Nguyen, H. (2007) Rapport building in language instruction: A microanalysis of the multiple resources in teacher talk In Language and Education 21: 284-303
  • Norton, B. (2000) ‘Claiming the right to speak in classrooms and communities’ in Identity And Language Learning: Gender, Ethnicity And Educational Change, London, Pearson Education.
  • Nystrand, M., (2006) Research on the role of classroom discourse as it affects reading comprehension In Research in the Teaching of English 40: 392-412
  • Wenger, E., (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Wertsch, J. V. (1994) The primacy of mediated action in sociocultural studies In Mind, Culture & Activity, 1: 202-208

A Functional Grammar Table: CPD Subject Knowledge With A Difference

Before we start, it is important to point out that Functional Grammar makes up only a small part of LiteracyForPleasure’s writing approach, To read more about this approach we are calling Real-World Literacy please go here. Alternatively, you can receive email updates from our blog by clicking the follow button in the top right hand corner of this page.

Functional Grammar?

It would do children and teachers the world of good if they shifted their understanding of grammar and punctuation away from ‘rules to be followed’ to one that looked at its function. What can grammar and punctuation do for us as writers and what does it already do for the texts our favourite authors write?

If children can spot grammar and punctuation in real texts written by real authors and if they can be given opportunity to use these ‘writing secrets’ in their real writing, they will not only produce better texts but they will be skilled in the exercise of name-and-identify which is so popular (for some reason) in grammar tests.

It is possible to create pupils who can be their own critics and also be interested and motivated in trying to make their writing as clear and creative as possible for their readers.

We made the Functional-Grammar-Table below because we were fed up with texts which told you the rules of a piece of grammar but didn’t tell children (or indeed adults) why and where you might want to use it and the effect grammar can have on your writing. We were also fed up with the concept of ‘grammar deficit’. This is the teaching practice of continually passing judgement on rule errors in grammar-exercises as opposed to talking critically about what value grammar can have on writing or the effect of its absence has on the effectiveness of a piece. This realisation has transformed our practice. We explain how we now approach grammar teaching below:

Teaching Grammar Through Weekly ‘Writing Tricks’ Minilessons

What lessons will have a practical, lasting, positive influence on student writing? – Nancie Atwell

In many classes, minilessons precede daily writing lessons. Whether you’re teaching a grammar, writing-craft or genre study-point,  it is useful to follow Tompkins’ (2011, p.53) stages:

  1. Introduce the topic and its functional purpose ->
  2. Share examples ->
  3. Provide information ->
  4. Guided practice ->
  5. Assess learning.

Introduce the topic and functional purpose This can be anything from a writing strategy or skill, grammar function or a literary genre concept. Always share the purpose and the function with the class, before moving on to formalities or rules.

  • Share examples Look at examples from children’s or author’s real writing.
  • Provide information Provide information about the topic and how it can be used in ‘real’ writing. Clarify misconceptions and contrast a good and a poor example to see how the writing is affected.
  • Guided practice Children work individually or in pairs to practice what they are learning. Ideally, this will be in the context of an authentic piece of writing a child is currently working on (See our Real-World-Literacy approach for more details on how to do this).
  • Assess learning Teachers ask children to consider how they can use this linguistic feature as they write. They can also reflect on their authentic use of it by leaving a comment in their book.

The Importance Of Giving ‘Writing Tricks’

Whatever you choose to do in these minilessons you should ensure that you teach in context and in a way that will empower children’s writing intentions. Calkins (1998, p.198) suggests that to successfully apply this attitude is to perceive minilessons as ‘quick tip’ giving before Process Writing begins. This changes your perception of these lessons, stops them turning into exercises and instead creates a climate where children feel instructed in and taught something valuable.

So What Actually Is A ‘Functional’ Grammar Lesson And Why Teach In That Way?

These mini-sessions are essential for showing children the hows of writing. The main premise is that the use of punctuation and grammar is a skill to be developed, not content to be taught.

Graham & Perin’s (2007) highly reliable meta-analysis into effective teaching of writing makes it clear that the formal teaching of grammar has always negatively impacted on children’s writing. Functional grammar teaching, on the other hand, shows children how understanding what words and structures ‘do’ – helps them achieve their meaning and intentions in their real writing.

Fearn & Farnan (2007, p.77) suggest teaching grammar in this order:

  • Teach the purpose of the grammar and share its meaning potential with your writers.
  • Follow this up by allowing them to apply it in their real writing.
  • Finally, ensure that children can formally ‘define-and-identify’ it out of context.

Fearn & Farnan (2007) make clear that this is not only the key to good writing, but teaching in this way results in a deeper understanding of grammar for formal testing. This approach is also fully supported by the DfE (2012) in their own research on effective teaching of grammar.

Please see the bottom of this post for our Functional Grammar Table. This table is designed with teachers in mind. It differs from many other grammar tables in that its major purpose is to inform teachers of the function different grammatical items have in writing. It is written in a way that should make these functions easily understood and applied by children.

A useful technique we advocate for is discussion of a prepared text which does achieve its intentions as a result of good grammar use – or sometimes doesn’t. The act of reading requires understanding how writers use grammar to enhance meaning. Children will learn that if they ignore grammatical conventions, readers will not understand their text. Therefore, you should still encourage a culture of speculation about grammar use. This not only makes the sessions more interesting but also allows children to think more deeply and thus gain an authentic understanding of grammar. With all minilessons, whether it be grammar, writing or genre study, you should avoid using worksheets and instead have the children apply their newly acquired learning in their own authentic writing.

Wide reading has a strong impact on personal writing. Explore and promote high-quality children’s literature to understand the grammatical and stylistic choices other writers make.

This approach to minilessons is one part of a much larger approach being devised by ‘Literacyforpleasure’. For more information on our approach to teaching writing, please go here.

DOWNLOAD our Functional Grammar Table here.

functional grammar table

Interesting Reading Here: