Being a writer has been a lifelong dream of mine.
From a young age, I’d tell Mum and Dad I was going to be an author, an illustrator and a teacher when I grew up.
Dad used to always reply, “oh good, if you’re a writer you’ll make lots of money and then you’ll be able to pay for me to travel around Australia.”
I abandoned the dream of being an illustrator as soon as I learned that basic drawing skills were a prerequisite, but I’ve always held tight to my dream of being a published author.
It’s this dream (and the looming pressure of having to pay for Dad’s Australia trip) that have led me to participate in many writing classes and courses over the years. And it’s these courses that have helped me to hone my skills as a writing teacher in schools.
You see, as I’ve participated in these courses, I’ve been struck by the differences in how published authors teach writing compared to how us school teachers usually do it.
One difference in particular completely changed how I teach writing in schools.
In the writing world, this concept is known as ‘short assignments’.
In the school world, I like to think of it as a ‘less is more’ approach.
Let me explain…
Less is more
In the writing world, I’ve rarely been asked to write a full and complete piece of writing from start to finish in one go.
I’ve always been tasked with completing ‘short assignments’:
- Write the opening paragraph for a story.
- Write a scene of dialogue.
- Write a character description.
These tasks were usually preceded by explicit instruction and worked examples that set me up for success with the task.
Upon reflection, I can see there are many reasons for this ‘short assignments’ approach (some of which, I’ll discuss shortly).
Contrary to this, in the school world (particularly in the lead up to NAPLAN) teachers tend to fall into the trap of believing in ‘long assignments’ or ‘more is more.’
This is usually characterised by units of work that require students to draft multiple examples of the target genre (rather than working on just one or two pieces over time and building them up to become quality, completed pieces).
My old approach of drafting on Monday and Tuesday, revising on Wednesday, editing on Thursday and publishing on Friday is evidence of a timetable supporting a ‘long assignments’ approach to teaching writing.
Although I never stopped to consider my beliefs about teaching writing at the time, I think I generally believed one or all of the following to be true:
- The more time students spent in the drafting phase of writing, the more writing stamina they would build.
- The more opportunities students had to write complete pieces in the genre, the more they would improve their skills in that genre.
- The more words students wrote during writing time, the more they would improve their skills as a writer (after all- you learn to write by writing…don’t you?).
Decades into my own writing apprenticeship however, I’ve come to realise that if we’re serious about improving students’ skills, knowledge and passion for writing, we need to invest in the belief of ‘less is more’.
As alluded to earlier, there are many reasons for engaging in this approach, and today I’m going to share just 3 of them with you.
3 reasons teachers should adopt the ‘less is more’ approach to teaching writing.
#1 Writing stamina is necessary but not sufficient
One common realisation that pops up around NAPLAN time is that students need to build stamina to last the duration of the writing assessment (40-42 mins).
There are ways to build writing stamina that don’t involve continually starting new genre pieces from scratch though.
The Writer’s Notebook is an example of a tool you can use to increase the amount of writing students are doing and slowly build their stamina, including increasing concentration and reducing ‘hand soreness’ as they write.
(Side note: According to my student writing survey, hand soreness is one of the most commonly cited reasons for students to dislike writing.)
Yes, stamina is important in becoming a strong writer, but stamina itself is not enough to produce quality writing.
#2 effective feedback is a Necessary Ingredient of writing instruction
Effective feedback has many elements to it, but the one that is particularly relevant to teaching writing in a ‘less is more’ approach is this one:
“Next time” feedback is ineffective. The longer the time between receiving the feedback and recalling it, much less using it, the more the feedback message fades from specific descriptions and suggestions to a general memory of evaluation.(Brookhart, 2017)
Step 1 of effective formative feedback for writing instruction is to give timely and specific feedback to students on their writing attempts.
Step 2 is to give students the opportunity to respond to that feedback by providing time and space for them to implement the suggestions they’ve received on the piece of writing for which the feedback was given.
In a ‘less is more’ approach to teaching genre, where students are slowly guided through the creation of a single piece of writing over several weeks, students are given the time and space to continually receive and respond to feedback on their piece.
This helps them better understand the concepts being taught in the minilessons and builds their knowledge of the craft of writing. (The very thing that’s assessed on NAPLAN and, more importantly, the thing that will improve their writing for life).
#3 The work of ‘real’ writing is in revision
In classrooms, we seem to spend the largest portion of our class time in the drafting phase of writing.
Whereas in ‘real world’ writing, we spend the largest portion of our time in the revising phase.
“It’s during the revision process that the real work of writing – the work of good writing – happens. If we’re not making time for that part of the process, are we really teaching writing?”(Messner, 2011)
Good writing happens when writers slow down and consider what their message is and how that would best be delivered to their reader.
This is a skill that takes time and practise and teaching.
To make time for this practice in my teaching, I had to drop my long-held belief that students needed to be writing pages of text in every writing lesson in order to become better writers.
I had to replace this with the belief that students need explicit instruction in strategies they can employ to improve the content and delivery of their message. (i.e., the CRAFT of good writing.)
I had to explicitly teach them how to revise their writing.
I also had to ensure this instruction was followed up with the provision of time for students to trial the taught strategies on their own writing as well as receive feedback on the effectiveness of their attempts.
As a teacher of writing, I had to focus on doing less and doing it well.
Less writing pieces overall, but more quality and learning within those pieces.
This approach to teaching writing requires deep teacher content knowledge in the craft of good quality writing.
It requires the teacher to take on the role of writing coach (someone who knows the sport inside out and can give valuable tips for improvement) rather than writing manager (someone who assigns the task and tracks its completion with only surface level suggestions for improvement).
Expecting less texts in a genre but slowing down to teach more specifics about writer’s craft within that genre will support students to raise the quality of all pieces of writing they do in the future.
So, if they ever find themselves having to write a persuasive GoFundMe page to fund their dad’s trip around Australia, they’ll have the skills they need to do so…
Do you take a ‘less is more’ approach to teaching writing? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below or over on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook Group.
- Brookhart, S., 2017. How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students. 2nd ed. Alexandria: ASCD.
- Messner, K., 2011. Real revision. Portland: Stenhouse.