A Crucial First Step In Improving Writing InstructionJan 17, 2021
I love a good inspirational quote.
My childhood gymnastics coach, Mr Palmer, introduced them to me. You couldn’t even go to the bathroom in his gym without facing uplifting words and advice.
He wanted to make us stars and believed that a positive psyche was an important element in our success.
In fact, looking back on it now, I realise Mr Palmer was on about mindset well before Carol Dweck made it a thing.
One of his favourite quotes -and one that’s stuck with me since my backflipping days- was:
“Your attitude determines your altitude.”
If you want to go far, you have to have the right attitude.
And, as research has consistently demonstrated, this applies to going far in all areas of your life – not just sport.
Backbends weren't the only thing I learned at Mr Palmer's gym. (That's me on the right and my twin sister Shirl on the left.)
Attitude and writing instruction
Writing instruction is an area of education where the influence of attitude rings true.
The interesting thing is though, it’s not just the attitude of your students that matters: as a teacher, your attitude matters too:
“Your attitudes toward writing can affect the strategies you use, how much time you spend on the subject, the quality of your instruction, and your willingness to try new strategies.”(Williamson, LeeKeenan and Peixoto, 2020)
Teacher attitudes towards writing
Your personal attitude towards writing affects the writing opportunities you provide for your students and the quality and choice of teaching strategies you employ (Bandura & Schunk, 1981; Street, 2003).
You don’t need to be the world’s most proficient writer to be an effective teacher of writing, but you do need a strong awareness of your own attitude towards writing and a knowledge of how this could be impacting your instruction.
Research by Street (2003) demonstrated that teachers with more positive attitudes towards writing spent larger amounts of time on writing instruction and chose more innovative methods when teaching.
Does this ring true for you?
- Is your attitude towards writing positive or negative?
- What has shaped this attitude?
- What impact could this attitude be having on your instruction?
Developing attitude awareness
“When you entered your first classroom as a teacher, you had years of personal writing experiences and had observed many examples of writing instruction. Over time, these experiences helped shape your attitudes toward writing and greatly influenced your orientation toward teaching writing” (Hall and White, 2019).
Here are some reflective questions to help develop awareness of your own attitude towards writing:
- Describe yourself as a writer.
- What memories do you have of writing in school?
- Describe a positive writing experience you’ve had (in or out of school).
- Describe a negative writing experience you’ve had (in or out of school).
- What is the easiest part of writing for you?
- What do you do well as a writer?
- What is the hardest part of writing for you?
- What do you need to work on as a writer?
- What are the qualities of good writing?
- As a teacher of writing, what do you see as your strengths?
- As a teacher of writing, what do you need/want to work on?
Ponder these questions and consider instructional implications.
- Do you need to work on developing a more positive relationship and attitude towards writing?
- How could you do that?
A note for literacy leadership teams
Many schools who embark on a writing improvement journey neglect the vital research around the impact of teacher attitudes on effective writing instruction.
Don’t be one of these schools!
Ensure that any plan you develop to lead change in the area of writing instruction is embedded in a deep knowledge of the attitudes and beliefs of your teachers around the teaching and learning of writing.
A great start for this work would be to survey staff using the reflective questions above. Read through the responses, look for trends and then develop a plan to implement differentiated support for teachers based on your findings.
Student attitudes towards writing
While teacher attitudes can influence the way writing is taught, student attitudes can impact how it’s learned:
“Students with more favorable attitudes toward writing have higher efficacy beliefs and are likely to write more often and exert more persistence and perseverance when obstacles arise.” (Hall and Axelrod, 2014).
Developing awareness of your students’ attitudes towards writing -and learning how your students see themselves as writers- is therefore a critical first step in planning for effective writing instruction.
So critical, in fact, that Fecho (cited in Williamson, LeeKeenan and Peixoto, 2020) stated any “assessments that fail to ask students what they think about their abilities will never be impactful for students.”
Learning about your students’ attitudes
The good news for teachers is that learning about your students’ writing-related attitudes and beliefs doesn’t require the purchase of any pot plants or Kmart teaching items (sorry Instagram).
It doesn’t even require hours in front of a laminator.
This low-investment but high-impact teaching strategy is as simple as surveying (or interviewing) your students at the start of the year / semester /term.
Here’s some sample questions to help you:
- Do you like writing?
- Why? Why not?
- Are you a good writer?
- How do you know?
- What do good writers do?
- What do you do well as a writer?
- What do you need to work on as a writer?
- What is a piece of writing you are proud of? Why?
Hint: I’m a Google girl so I like to ask these using a Google Form. No paper is necessary and all the responses are neatly compiled into a useful spreadsheet. Even better, the responses come in in perfect kid-speak (which can give you even more information about the metalanguage of writing they’ve been exposed to in their writing instruction up until now).
Like all effective assessments though, administering this survey is only the first step in the process; reading the surveys and adjusting your teaching in response is where the real power is.
One final word on attitude
As Mr Palmer drilled into us, your attitude does determine your altitude, however walking around with a positive attitude by itself isn’t enough. (Hello toxic positivity!).
Attitude is just one ingredient in the recipe for success.
Accordingly, building positive attitudes towards writing isn’t enough for consistent success in writing instruction; this important first-step needs to of course be backed up by ongoing explicit and effective instruction.
To learn more about the key elements of effective writing instruction, check out the Oz Lit Teacher Teach Writing with Confidence online course.
Related Blog Posts:
Bandura, A. and Schunk, D., 1981. Cultivating competence, self-efficacy, and intrinsic interest through proximal self-motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41(3), pp.586-598.
Hall, A. and Axelrod, Y., 2014. “I am kind of a good writer and kind of not”: An examination of elementary school students’ writing attitudes. Journal of Research in Education, 24(2), pp.34-50.
Hall, A.H., & White, K.M. (2019). Do My Students Know I Don’t Like Writing? Shifting Attitudes and Instruction. The Reading Teacher, 73( 3), 362– 366.
Street, C. (2003). Pre-service teachers’ attitudes about writing and learning to teach writing: Implications for teacher educators. Teacher Education Quarterly, 30(3), 33–5.
Williamson, T., LeeKeenan, K. and Peixoto, S., 2020. More, Faster, Neater: Middle School Students’ Self‐Assessed Literacy Concerns. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 64(3), pp.291-300.
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