3 Reasons You Need To Stop Talking In The Writing Classroom.Jul 23, 2023
I once participated in an online course for business owners that taught me more about the principles of effective teaching than anything about business.
Time and time again in that course, the instructor would ask us to spend time writing while they continued to talk at us. ‘I’m going to give you five minutes to fill out this section of the template. While you’re doing that, I’ll carry on explaining the next section.’
I ended up muting my speakers every time they asked us to write, as I just couldn’t concentrate with them rambling on in the background.
This experience reminded me of a critical teaching point that’s too often forgotten: students simply cannot write and listen to you at the same time.
This is a practice I see occurring a lot in the writing classroom, so today I’m sharing 3 reasons you need to stop talking while your students are trying to write.
3 reasons you need to stop talking while your students are trying to write:
Talking while your students are writing increases cognitive load
Cognitive load is the amount of information a person’s working memory can hold at any one time.
Writing is a task that creates a high cognitive load for even the most experienced of people. It requires you to simultaneously focus on everything from wrangling your ideas and considering your audience’s needs through to working out how to spell the words and form the physical letters on your page. Yep, there’s a lot going on in your brain when you’re writing!
Expecting students to listen to your verbal instructions on top of this already heavy cognitive load means something will have to give (i.e they either won’t be able to take in your instructions or they’ll have to stop giving their attention to their writing).
As I experienced in that online business course, there are only so many things us humans can focus on at any one time.
Talking while your students are writing interrupts their flow
Flow is the name of the state you reach when time seems to fade away and you’re completely and utterly engaged in whatever it is that you’re doing.
The blissful state of flow is Nirvana for writers. We don’t always get there, but when we do our ideas come more freely and the whole experience of writing is more joyful.
Research suggests that many things can interrupt one’s state of flow and that once it is interrupted it can be difficult to return to- if you’re lucky to get back there at all.
Classrooms are notoriously bad when it comes to supporting students to get and stay in a state of flow. There are a range of factors contributing to this, some outside of your control (e.g., when announcements are made over the school’s P.A system) and some within your control (e.g., your own teacher-talk).
You’re risking interrupting your students' flow every time you do one of the following things once your students have started writing:
- add in a bunch of last-minute instructions
- read out a piece of student writing as an example of a good start
- try and explain the next steps while your students are still writing or
- call out across the room to tell a student to be quiet.
The danger in breaking your students’ flow is that it jolts them out of their train of thought and can lead to them losing their way with their writing. It forces them into a position where they have to reset and start over again after each interruption. What’s important to understand is that this ‘getting started’ part is often the hardest slog in writing. It’s akin to riding your bike uphill from a standing start. (Too many standing starts and your students will be heading into writing reluctance territory before you know it).
Allowing your students to write with minimal interruptions can increase their chances of falling into the wonderfully meditative state of flow. This state is akin to the joyful wind-in-your-hair feeling you get as you sail down a hill on your bike. It’s this flowing, wind-in-hair experience that you want your students to have when they’re writing. This is something they’ll likely want to sign up to again and again.
Reducing your teacher talk and providing students with interruption-free quiet writing time can enable more students to experience flow in the writing classroom. (FYI- I talk more about the state of flow in my Teach Writing with Confidence course.)
Talking while your students are writing leads to overhelping
When I observe teachers talking over the top of their students as they’re writing, it’s usually from a place of well-meaning. They truly want the best for their students so continue providing support even as their students are writing.
This often sounds like:
- Remember everyone, first I did X when I was modelling and then I did X…
- Don’t forget you also need to think about X as you’re writing!
- Here’s some other sentence starters you can use…
- Don’t forget to look at X (e.g. the assessment criteria, the anchor chart) as you’re writing…
Besides the fact that these instructions increase cognitive load and disrupt flow (if delivered while the students are trying to write), they can also fall into the category of overhelping.
You see, many teachers throw in these extra tidbits of advice before they’ve checked if their students even need them.
What are the teaching implications?
My strong recommendation is for you to be confident in the power of your explicit modelling.
Trust that this modelling has empowered your students to be successful without the need for extraneous ‘add-ons’ or reminders.
Resist the temptation to throw in extra help before your students have shown signs of needing it. Instead, you should use the first few minutes of writing time to silently walk around your classroom and observe whether or not your students are on the right track.
Once you’ve allowed your students time to show you what they need, then you can make a decision about whether or not you need to provide extra assistance and what that could look like.
- Does it need to be whole class? (If so, use your non-verbal cue to stop your students writing so you can deliver the instruction).
- Does it need to be small group? (If so, quietly pull the specific students into a group so you can help them).
- Does it need to be individual? (If so, quietly assist the specific individual).
Note: ‘Quietly’ means using a tap on the shoulder or whispered instruction rather than a loud announcement such as “Sarah, Blake and Muhammad can you all come to the floor with your books please?”
As that business course so painfully reminded me, it doesn’t matter how intelligent you are or how experienced you are at writing, people simply cannot focus on writing and listening at the same time. So let’s stop asking them to.
P.S If you’d like to learn more about effective writing instruction, check out the ADVANCED Traits Masterclass. In this self-paced course, I teach you all about effective explicit instruction and even model an example for you. Learn more here.
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