Student writing: Making a real difference
May 24, 2010
The following is the script of a video sequence I shot for Education Queensland, the state’s education authority. The video is currently being used as a part of their literacy training for Middle School teachers throughout the state. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Script: There’s been some really interesting research done into what makes a difference in writing that gains a mid or a high range grade in the Queensland Core Skills Test Writing Task for year 12. Commonsense might suggest that accuracy in spelling, punctuation and grammar would be the distinguishing feature. In fact, the work of students receiving high and mid-range grades showed no significant difference in these so-called basics. However, other features of the work did appear to make a difference. Students with high grades
- Made an effective and appropriate match among the chosen genre, the register and language. Moreover, this was done at a macro-level (i.e. the best language for the genre and audience) and at a micro-level (i.e. the best language for both stages of the piece, and phases – the mini stages within each big stage).
- They wrote in depth, elaborating their writing through the use of extended noun groups and embedded clauses.
- They wrote authoritatively, taking a strongly positive or negative point of view.
- They made careful selections in their choice of evaluative words. For example, the use of ‘exquisite’ instead of ‘very beautiful’ or the use of ‘slunk’ or ‘strode’ instead of ‘walked’.
- They used figurative language, including similes and metaphors.
In addition, students receiving high grades generally avoided first person – under test conditions, if you use first person there’s probably a greater chance of slipping into everyday, colloquial language that isn’t highly regarded in demand writing tasks. Moreover, work with a high grade tended to draw on ‘exotic’ knowledge – that is, knowledge about the world that went beyond the students’ immediate, adolescent experience.
What is particularly striking, though, is that similar features can also be found in sample work published in the report on the 2008 NAPLAN writing task, albeit at a less sophisticated level. It is interesting to note, also, that although the high achieving younger students did tend to use first person, their subject matter went beyond everyday lives and allowed these students to demonstrate a broad vocabulary and quite sophisticated grammatical features.
A couple of other features have also struck me as I’ve read through both the Year 12 Writing Task and NAPLAN examples. Firstly, students who wrote narratives and achieved high grades tended to write stories that were very compressed – the whole story jumped straight into the action at a crisis moment in a character’s life, that is ‘in media res’ – and the problem was one that could unfold and resolve itself in a short period of time, probably 5 to 10 minutes of real time.
In students achieving high grades, there was also evidence of grammatical metaphor (especially nominalization – turning verbs into nouns) in even younger students, and in both narratives and expository pieces. This supports a finding by Bev Derewianka and Fran Christie that grammatical metaphor should be emerging between the ages of 9-12. Where this doesn’t occur, students continue to struggle with the demands of academic writing throughout their schooling.
By immersing students in the language features outlined, through explicit modelling, joint construction and guided practice, teachers can help students not just ‘fall over the line’, but also add significant value to their writing – for both demand writing tasks and for writing more generally.