Primary Education News

6 May '13

News Writing like a historian: developing students' writing skills

Using Michael Halliday's theory of functional language, history teacher Lee Donaghy transformed his students' speaking and written work

"Why are we doing English in history, sir?" came the question as I asked my year 9 history class what kind of word disarmament was. Having anticipated this kind of reaction I had an answer prepared: "Do we only use language in English lessons?"

The question was anticipated because I have heard it from other classes, and indeed other teachers, since I began to include an explicit focus on language development in my history lessons 18 months ago. And the question goes to the heart of what I believe is a fundamental reason for the attainment gap between children eligible for free school meals and their non-free school meal counterparts in Britain; the misalignment of these pupils' language use with that which is needed for academic success and the need for teachers to explicitly address this misalignment in their teaching.

My year 9 class are typical of many classes I've taught over the nine years of my teaching career; enthusiastic, bright, of limitless academic potential. But when it came to marking their written work I would be left tearing my hair out at their inability to express their understanding clearly. I wanted my pupils to be able to read, speak and write like historians; to be able to express their knowledge and understanding of history in language. After all, we would cover the material in class, I would check their understanding through various exercises and careful questioning and then I would give them frameworks for writing answers, using sentence starters and model answers. Yet, this had always been something of an elephant in the room for me as a history teacher, an issue whose cause and therefore solution I could never quite unpick: why can't I teach my students to write properly?

My answer arrived 18 months ago when I was introduced to the ideas of Michael Halliday and his theory of the functional model of language. Halliday describes language in terms of a 'register continuum' from everyday, informal and spoken-like at one end to abstract, formal and written-like at the other. It's at this latter end where the language of school subjects operates, but the other end where the majority of my pupils operate.

So, I began to focus on shifting my pupils' language use explicitly from everyday to abstract, from informal to formal and from spoken-like to written-like. One very important aspect of this was to use classroom talk and discussion as a way to bridge the gap between pupils' exploratory talk in pairs or groups and their individual written work. Paying conscious attention to the language they use to express understanding in different contexts, from discussion to reporting back to presenting, is a powerful way of scaffolding pupils' ability to write accurately and effectively.

In practice this means two things: developing pupils' knowledge of technical, subject specific vocabulary, like disarmament, and giving them a framework for talk in the classroom. To give you an example, when considering the impact of the Wall Street Crash and the subsequent Great Depression on levels of international co-operation, I divided pupils into six groups. Three groups were given information about international co-operation in the 1920s and three were given information about the same topic in the 1930s. Each group had to discuss the information and be ready to feedback to the class their judgement on the level of co-operation in their period. I emphasised to the pupils that each group only had half of the information needed to answer the question.

As a result of this information gap, each group investigating the 1920s had to explain clearly and explicitly to the 1930s groups what their judgement was and which information they had used to come to it, and vice versa. By feeding back to the rest of the class in this way pupils were pushed to produce longer, fuller and more explicit stretches of language.

This move provides a bridge for pupils into writing. The longer stretches of language with explicit explanation help them to reproduce this on paper. They then begin to speak like historians – although they hated me describing them as historians at first – and then in turn find it easier to write like historians. Consistently using this formulation has increased my pupils' confidence and for my year 9s it has now become second nature to answer questions and report back from discussions formally and at length, with noticeable impact on the quality of their writing.

All of which means marking their books should no longer lead me into premature baldness.

Lee Donaghy is an assistant principal at a secondary school in Birmingham.

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