Improving writing: A shared grammatical metalanguage

‘Grammar is what gives sense to language… Sentences make words yield up their meanings.’ (The National Literacy Strategy.)

As the GCSE overhaul of 2017 fast approaches, and with students facing unprecedented changes to examinations in order for expectations to match and exceed high performing internal jurisdictions, one thing we do know is this: students will be faced with ‘high-quality assessment’ with more emphasis placed on written communication and technical accuracy. Therefore, in order to ensure our students fulfil the academy’s mission of “succeeding at university, thriving in a top job and having a great life”, we need to prepare students for life beyond exams; if they are to realise their full potential, they need to be able to communicate effectively in the work place and in life. Yet, how do we adequately prepare students for such challenges ahead? The answer: by raising standards of writing across the curriculum through a shared grammatical metalanguage.

At DTA, a common language permeates everything we do: it is alive in corridors, in the Heart Space and in every lesson, every day, so it only seems natural that a common language – a grammatical metalanguage – should exist for students’ written communication.

Step 1: A ‘Grammar for Writing’ approach

In 2014-2015, the English Department implemented the ‘Grammar for Writing’ approach influenced by Debra Myhill’s pedagogical model. The approach focuses on demystifying grammar for students, providing them with a sound understanding of the mechanics of grammar so that they can confidently experiment with the nuances of writing. In order for students to write in a sustained, coherent and effective way, they need to understand the rules of linguistics in an explicit yet contextualised manner, so that their reading becomes meaningful and their writing has purpose. The purpose of teaching grammar in this way is not so that students can correctly label the different parts of speech; it is about making children aware of the grammatical principles to increase the range of choices open to them when they write. Students explore the use of grammar for effect, see how texts are shaped and play with grammatical structures to enable them to apply the principles to their own writing.

To assess the impact of such a model, and to successfully embed a grammatical metalanguage, it was necessary to go back to basics – the key principles learnt in KS2 had to be re-taught; Y7 and Y8 received one whole-year group lecture per week for the duration of the academic year, focusing on contextualised metalanguage with models and worked examples to support. To ensure consistency, lectures were delivered by our Head of Department focusing on the effects of grammatical choices at first, such as the effect of noun phrases, progressing to manipulating coordinating and subordinating conjunctions by the end of the year.

Step 2: Scheme of work design

Whilst the lectures were having notable impact, consistency was key. Reading and writing assessment objectives – from the new KS4 specification – were mapped across every scheme of work to allow students the opportunity to practise what they had learnt in the lectures; importantly, this gave them time to experiment with writing (using the shared metalanguage) and develop their analytical skills through knowledge of how and why a writer uses particular words, phrases and sentence constructions. Gradually, this approach began to produce results: by the time students sat their end of year exams, students in Y7 could confidently craft a piece of discursive writing, experimenting with a range of subordinating conjunctions to create dependent clauses and were able to identify and explore a noun phrase in an assured and sophisticated way. Writing had improved; students had developed more confident and versatile language use and were using grammatical structures with considerable complexity. Yet the problem remained: how could we replicate this success across the curriculum?

Step 3: Create consistency

It became clear, through a number of quality assurance measures, that students were not transferring the rules, or stylistics of writing, learnt in English to other subjects, in part because these particular mechanics were not being reinforced before students completed a piece of writing or during the redrafting process; therefore, we set about crafting a common language for all staff to use with students – a language that students were already familiar with from their daily English lessons. We wanted students to know that to improve their eight mark response in PE they needed to use more adding connectives, or to write more succinctly, yet fluently or that, in RE, they needed to avoid the comma splice. As this grammatical approach had led to noticeable gains in the quality of both reading and writing in English, we began to devise a way in which a common approach to writing across all subject areas could form part of our culture, and so came the dawn of our writing surgery…

Step 4: The Writing Surgery

Before we could insist on particular writing expectations to be adhered to by all departments, it was our duty to ensure that all staff were comfortable with the terminology taught in English; we had to play fair; we had to teach our staff how to use this language so they could, in turn, improve the writing of our students in their own specialism. In September 2015, The Writing Surgery commenced. During Staff Morning Practice, staff attend a 25 minute session led by the English HoD which simply follows the same principles as the whole-year group lessons delivered to students: staff are taught, in a supportive manner, the grammatical metalanguage so that they feel confident when teaching and marking writing. To avoid staff becoming anxious about the sessions, pre-reading material is distributed at the beginning of each week and all tasks are completed collaboratively. Our staff are incredibly grateful to learn what sadly some were denied during their education; they demonstrate a thirst for understanding the mechanics of grammar – whether that is how to create an embedded clause or what constitutes a complex sentence. Initially, what started out as a 13 week programme is now – due to its popularity and impact – going to run all year as we support staff to improve their literacy which will provide them with the confidence to address misconceptions in their students’ writing. Comments such as: “This is the highlight of my week” and “I used the term embedded clause with my group and they knew what I meant” give the practice a real sense of purpose – it now finally feels that we have addressed a key piece of the puzzle: improving staff literacy confidence in order to improve student writing.

Next steps:

We know this is just the beginning of a lengthy process, but one which we undoubtedly know will have great impact in helping us achieve our mission. Even though we are still in the early stages of climbing this mountain, our grammatical metalanguage is now firmly alive in our staff, in our students and in our classrooms; a language that will enable our students to succeed no matter what writing challenges they are faced with in 2017, at university or in their lives beyond the classroom.

Natalie Brown
Assistant Vice Principal

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