Practice

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

Mission Mapping (i)

Mission Map 1Crafting school culture begins with the mission of the school; it is the sky that generates the daily climate, it should be what we can all see and feel no matter where we are in the organisation or who we are talking to. Families and visitors should feel its warmth every time they are with us. It is our mission, it is our sky; we decide that the sun should always shine.

Mission Map 2

Beneath the mission, the values sit; they should form the absolute predisposition of the school. Each value should support the mission and be purposefully tied to the culture of the organisation transcending any structures or roles within it. Leaders, staff and students should adhere to the same values and thus, the same behaviours. At Trinity, we have three core values; we understand the power of three and use this across our organisation: three core values; three features of a lesson; three cycles every year.

Mission Map 3

The values are defined with razor-sharp clarity and we return to these words every day. Recently, we filmed our students talking about what our values mean to them – without scripts. Even though they were talking about wholly personal experiences of the values in action, we were fascinated to hear them return, unprompted, to the exact language of the definitions, casually dropping the phrases into their conversational speech. This language is alive in our school because we live it.

Mission Map 4

The values are made real through our daily actions – on the middle floor of the building a whole wall is dedicated to a sign that states: actions speak louder than words. For this to be more than decoration, we have to ensure our values are made manifest through daily artefacts. These are the rituals and routines, the language, stories and heroes of our organisation.

Mission Map 5

An example of this mapping would be going from our mission…

“The academy ensured that all students succeeded at university, or a real alternative, thrived in a top job and had a great life.”

…to the value of Hard Work. It is indisputable that the mission will only be realisable with the value of hard work applied every day. Just telling our students to work hard (even with the razor-sharp definition) would be ineffective – maybe even cruel. Our students deserve to be supported through our artefacts, we design them; we show them exactly what we mean by hard work so they are facilitated to succeed. We tell them what the right thing to do is and we show them how to do it. One artefact that exists in the school as a daily routine is our No Hands Up policy. This means that questions at Trinity are directed by the teacher to a specific student – but the routine is key. As a staff, we practise this regularly to make sure we get it right. Ask the question, pause; allow all students time to think, then direct the question to a student by name. If the teacher wants to litmus test the class by asking a student by random selection, the name can be drawn from the class set of named lollipop sticks.

This routine ensures every student knows that every question is their responsibility, they can be called upon at any point. At Trinity, there is no slackening off, learning opportunities are maximised for every student. Committing to an artefact means seeing it through, in this case, that means staff training, coaching, practice; it means administrative support to ensure the class sets of lollipop sticks are ready for the teachers; it means everyone doing it all of the time.

A question being directed, a lollipop stick, these are mission made manifest.

The value of driven values

At Dixons Trinity Academy, we live by the three core values of Hard Work, Trust and Fairness, which pervade everything that we do. To guarantee that these values are lived and underpin our behaviour we have further installed three drivers: MASTERY, AUTONOMY and PURPOSE, outlined by Dan Pink in ‘Drive’. We would go as far as to say that the living presence of these Drivers have led many to regard our school as ‘revolutionary’ in its approach as they ensure that everyone associated with Trinity is inspired to succeed.

While the values safeguard a certain code of conduct, it is the Drivers that motivate us all to meet these high expectations with determination and rigour. In essence, the drivers are what get us up in the morning. They are the fuel to our fire. Without them we would not have the wherewithal to meet the demands set by our core values. Let me explain!

In MASTERY, we seek to achieve great things; refining our practice and investing in what matters. By hanging this Driver around the three core values we ensure that we focus on the right things and seek mastery in an environment aligned to a deep-rooted set of principles. For example, upholding the value of Trust with authenticity must be underpinned by a desire to see AUTONOMY develop in all corners of the academy – with autonomy comes an inherent trust and where there is genuine trust, there exists the sovereignty of autonomy.

At Trinity, we believe core values cannot simply live within a vacuum in and of themselves. The Driver of PURPOSE is integral to ensuring that there is a reason for doing what we do. Our individual and collective purpose clarifies what we are working towards and what each and all will take from their academy experience:

The Academy Sentence

“The academy ensured that all students succeeded at university, thrived in a top job and had a great life.”

The retrospective nature of our sentence obligates us to strive towards a successful future – with clear goals set out in no uncertain terms.

As the school has developed and matured, so have the Drivers become increasingly the imperatives for understanding and working within the remit of our core values. They are, in a sense, the ‘slow burners’, and it has taken us a period of time to truly work out how they give us all real meaning – a raison d’être.

At Dixons Trinity, how do we define Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose and so make them our own?­­­

Mastery is the urge to get better at things that matter made manifest through our commitment to Practice (Doug Lemov, ‘Teach Like a Champion’). We practise key techniques collectively as a staff twice every week during Morning Meetings and engineer more tailored practice during one to one coaching sessions. We have also adapted ‘the cycle of highly effective teaching’ developed by Achievement First and introduced ‘data days’ to ensure that evidence about learning is used to adjust instruction to better meet student needs.

Autonomy is the drive to direct our own lives; at Trinity 100% of students present an exhibition of their Stretch Project at the end of each assessment cycle. In addition to their more traditional curriculum, Stretch Projects allow students to explore an area of interest within a given theme. We aim to develop students’ autonomy and grow their love of learning. Teachers are free to teach as they want as long as students learn and make progress.

Purpose is the drive to connect to a cause larger than ourselves. Those who have visited the school have recognised that our structures liberate teachers to teach and students to learn – because students know why we do things, they buy into them. To keep motivation that lasts, we focus on two important questions. First, we ask a big question to orient our life toward greater purpose – what’s my sentence? In one sentence we state what lasting impression we want to leave on the world. Then we keep asking a small question for day to day motivation – was I better today than yesterday?

With these Drivers to push us forward, our core values permeate all that we do to realise our mission (our Academy Sentence); giving us direction with absolute clarity. In effect, the Drivers are our quality assurance.

Matt Fitzpatrick
Vice Principal

Useful links:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc
http://connectedprincipals.com/archives/2202
http://www.danpink.com/drive/