Building teacher knowledge on effective instruction

The Critical Key To Improving Student Writing Data

Jul 30, 2023

It’s NAPLAN results time.

The time when teachers and leadership teams want to know how to improve their student data in the most efficient and effective way.

What’s the best program, approach or PD? What’s the silver bullet solution?

No-one wants to hear it, but the truth is there is no quick-fix program, approach or magic wand solution to improving student outcomes.

The real solution is much more complex and long term than running a one-off PD Day or seeking out a new documented curriculum.

“Two different comprehensive syntheses of research on the factors impacting student learning have come to the same conclusion: the most important variable in the achievement of students is the quality of instruction they receive on a daily basis (Marzano, 2003; Hattie, 2009)." (DuFour, 2009)


Improve teaching and you'll improve student outcomes. 



Not quite…


How do you improve the quality of teaching being delivered?

I consider there to be three specific areas of knowledge teachers need to develop, in order to deliver effective instruction in any content area:

  • Pedagogical knowledge
  • Content knowledge
  • Student knowledge

Build your knowledge (or your staff’s) knowledge in each of these three areas and you’ll strengthen the quality of teaching your students are receiving on a daily basis.

Let’s look at each of these types of knowledge in more detail and examine what they mean for effective writing instruction.

 What teachers need to know to teach writing well

The three areas of teacher knowledge required for effective teaching in any subject area.


1) Pedagogical knowledge

Pedagogical knowledge is the HOW of teaching.

Teachers who have deep pedagogical knowledge have a toolbelt of teaching practices, approaches and strategies that they can draw on in their lessons.


What this means for writing instruction

In terms of teaching writing, teachers with strong pedagogical knowledge have a deep understanding of how to explicitly model, use mentor texts and provide feedback.

They know the difference between modelled, shared and interactive writing and know when and how best to use each of these instructional practices.

They have flexibility in which tools they use, when they use them and with who they use them.  

Teachers with strong pedagogical knowledge understand the theory behind each of their teaching practices and, because of this, can adapt their teaching to be responsive to the needs of their students; tweaking lessons, approaches and pacing as required.

The good news about pedagogical knowledge is that it’s generally transferable between content areas. This means that once a teacher develops their understanding of the what, why and how of explicit teaching, worked examples or effective discussions for example, they can apply it to their instruction in all other content areas.


How can you build pedagogical knowledge in writing?

My ADVANCED Traits Masterclass is focused on teaching teachers how to explicitly teach writing. It’s all about the HOW of writing instruction.

I demonstrate how to explicitly teach writing, including outlining what modelled writing is and what it isn’t. This course aims to empower teachers to put all their existing writing content knowledge (gained through the original Traits Masterclass) into practice.

Click here to learn more about this course.



2) Content knowledge

Content knowledge is the WHAT of teaching.

Teachers who have strong content knowledge have a deep understanding of the content they’re teaching. Where pedagogical knowledge can be generalised between key learning areas, content knowledge is specific to each area.

This means that in order for teachers to teach any subject well, they need to know and understand the content of that subject.   

It’s a no brainer that Mathematics teachers need to understand the maths they’re trying to teach to their students. This understanding can’t just be surface-level either. Effective maths teachers need to know and understand the maths they’re teaching to a point where they can do it themselves and explain their processes and thinking aloud to their students as they do so.

Imagine trying to teach algebra without first comprehending it yourself...


What this means for writing instruction

Unfortunately, a lack of deep content knowledge is where too many teachers -through no fault of their own- come unstuck when teaching writing. (Is it any wonder this is the case when university courses are often completely devoid of any writing content knowledge!?)

Teachers with deep content knowledge in a writing classroom know and understand the strategies writers use to craft strong writing. Similar to Maths teachers, they know and understand how to write effectively- to a point where they can do it themselves and explain their processes and thinking aloud to their students as they do so.

Effective writing teachers understand why some pieces of writing work and others don’t. They can highlight examples of specific craft strategies that have been used in professional and/or student writing and go on to explain why these strategies are effective.

When teaching concepts such as complex sentences, noun group phrases or persuasive literacy devices for example, teachers with deep content knowledge in writing understand the what, why and how of the concept.

Without deep content knowledge in a subject, teachers will only ever be able to deliver surface-level teaching to their students. They’ll continue to struggle to diagnose their students’ needs and will lack the knowledge required to differentiate effectively.

(Side note: This takes me back to my early days of trying to teach fractions. I used to follow the lesson plans and use all the suggested materials, but had no real understanding of the concept, so couldn’t give strong explanations or differentiate the task. Thankfully, I was able to address my lack of content knowledge by seeking out George Booker’s Maths bible and educating myself to a point where I truly understood what I was teaching.)

With good pedagogical knowledge, effective writing teachers will know that they need to provide explicit modelling and feedback to their students but, if they don’t have the deep content knowledge to back this up, won’t know what to explicitly model or provide feedback on.

Teachers simply cannot teach content effectively if they don’t first understand it themselves.


How can you build teacher content knowledge in writing?

My Writing Traits Masterclass is focused purely on building teacher content knowledge. It’s the WHAT of writing instruction.

This course explicitly teaches a wide range of strategies that writers use to craft effective writing and teaches teachers how to identify these in published texts and in student writing.

Teachers: click here to learn more about this course 

Literacy / school leaders: click here to learn more about this course.



3) Student knowledge

Student knowledge is the WHO of teaching. (Teaching’s 101 has always been to know your kids)

When teachers have strong student knowledge, they know who their students are as humans and as learners.

They know what their students’ interests are and what makes them tick. Teachers know what their students’ strengths and weaknesses are in terms of learning and just how far they can be nudged (i.e. roughly how many times can you send that student back to revise their writing?).


How can you build student knowledge in writing?

As a start, I suggest using some of the Writer’s Notebook strategies I have listed in this free online resource.  

I also provide lots of suggestions for this in my Teach Writing With Confidence course.


The key to improving student outcomes

The sweet spot for improving the 'quality of instructions students receive on a daily basis' is the intersection between all three areas of teacher knowledge: pedagogical, content and student.

 How to improve teacher writing knowledge

The intersection of these three knowledge sets is the sweet spot for effective teaching.


When teachers understand the content and know their learners, they’re better placed to make effective decisions around pedagogy (i.e they can choose which teaching practice(s) specific students require to move closer to understanding the target content).

When teachers understand effective pedagogy and know their content, they’ll not only know how to teach effectively (explicit teaching) but they’ll also know what to teach.


What now?

When you sit down to look at your NAPLAN data and start theorizing ways to improve your students’ data, I strongly recommend considering these three areas of teacher knowledge.

Use these knowledge areas as a framework to guide any improvement plans you map out. Work out where your strengths and weaknesses are and use this to inform your professional development decisions.

Resist the quick fix and go for the effective, sustainable fix instead.


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