“The loftier the building, the deeper must the foundation be laid.”
Thomas à Kempis
I’ve used David Didau’s Slow Writing technique for a number of years now. For those few of you who may not yet have heard of it, it’s a simple but effective idea (as the best ideas often are). Students are provided with explicit writing instructions, one instruction per sentence. They then write a short piece, ensuring that each sentence includes its corresponding instruction. A set of instructions might look as follows:
- Begin with an adverb.
- Include a simile
- Use a colon
- Begin with the preposition ‘beyond’
- Use the conjunction ‘although’
I’ve found it dovetails beautifully with Rainbow Grammar, and acts as a bridge between direct, explicit grammar teaching and independent application into writing. All too often, grammar is taught, and students understand and can compose technically accurate sentences. You then unpick a writer’s use of the technique, you model its use within a paragraph, and as they write something longer you provide constant reminders to apply technique. But you look at the finished writing, and it’s as if the technique had never been taught. You briefly consider tattooing ‘use subordinating conjunctions’ to the inside of their eyelids in frustration.
But students, despite all of the input, for the most part aren’t thinking about subordinating conjunctions; they are thinking about content: what they want to say. Slow writing makes them think about technique: how to say it. In David’s own words:
“The idea is to get students to slow the hell down and approach each word, sentence and paragraph with love and attention. Obviously they’ll write less but what they do write will be beautifully wrought and finely honed.”
The aim of this blog is to not walk you through Slow Writing. You can do that by reading David’s blog posts here and here. Rather, it is to provide some thoughts on how to lay the groundwork before students put pen to paper, something I’ve found particularly necessary with primary aged students. And one strategy I’ve used more than any other over the years is to have students dissect pre-witten passages of text that have been written to a set of Slow Writing criteria – Slow Dissection, if you will.
It Is Possible To Fly Without Motors…
To my mind there are four types of knowledge that students need if they are to produce any piece of successful writing, no matter the teaching approach used. This blog isn’t about these, but it’s worth touching on them, because without these foundations in place, Slow Writing (like any other writing) can be an uphill struggle.
Knowledge of Content. If I were to ask you to use the 5 sentence rules above to compose a short narrative about something that happened over your weekend, assuming you understand the the rules, I’m sure you’d make a good fist of it. But if I were to ask you to write about the causes and consequences of Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon in 49 BCE I suspect many would find the task impossible. If you don’t know enough about what you are writing, you’ll produce bad writing.
Knowledge of Vocabulary. This goes hand in hand with knowledge of content. To write about the crossing of the Rubicon, it might help to know such tier 3 domain specific words and phrases as legion, proconsul, province and imperium; and tier 2 words such as boundary, conflict and inevitable.
Knowledge of Text. If you ask students to write a fairy tale, it’s essential for them to know typical fairy tale structures such as the happy-ever-after, key themes such as good vs. evil and recurring motifs such as the number three (little pigs, billy goats gruff, rooms full of straw to be spun into gold, etc.).
Knowledge of Grammar. Students may well write sentences that include non-finite clauses without you ever teaching them, but if they are taught and understood, they can do so with intention and purpose. And with Slow Writing, understanding of grammar is doubly important. It’s fairly obvious, but you can’t write sentence 3, Use a colon, if you don’t know how to use a colon.
Without these things firmly secured before a Slow Write, we set students up to fail. We want working memory focused squarely on answering the question, ‘How do I craft a sentence that meets this rule?’ If knowledge of content, vocabulary, text and grammar aren’t securely stored in, and easily accessed from, long term memory, then working memory will be overloaded, and the resulting writing will be less successful.
The Bricks That Others Throw At You
So, you’ve done the above. They know their stuff. You’re ready to Slow Write. Not so fast. Checking student’s understanding of the sentence criteria before they put pen to paper is easier than correcting misunderstanding after they’ve written. Prevention is better than cure.
I draw upon two strategies to do this. The first, and not the subject of this blog (although I might blog about this at some point), is to model. Demonstrating how to craft sentences that follow the criteria is invaluable as students get to see how an expert tackles each sentence, and in doing so students’ prior knowledge of the technique being employed within the sentence is activated.
The second, is to analyse pre-written pieces.
The idea is simple. You write a piece that follows the sentence criteria you have selected, and the children dissect the writing to find the criteria hidden within. This won’t guarantee that students’ will write successful sentences – we tend to be better at picking apart others’ work than reflecting on our own – but it has several benefits.
- All students can demonstrate their understanding, or lack of it. If they can’t find the relative clause, they don’t understand it well enough.
- You can respond to misconceptions before they write. You might recap relative clauses, or model a sentence using a relative clause.
- It’s quick. I’ve had classes students work through a set of 8 sentence patterns in five minutes. Of course, you’ll need to add on the time to address any misunderstandings.
Below, a Year 5 student (all examples are from Chetwynd Primary Academy, Nottinghamshire) dissects a piece I had written based upon the Scottish folk tale of The Stoorworm Dragon.
This was simply handed out, the task explained, and a time limit set of 5 minutes to complete. To make this run more smoothly, I’ve found a few things to be helpful.
- Miss every other line when you type out your pre-written piece. Students will place numbers above the text to indicate where they have found the sentence criteria, and this provides adequate space to do so.
- Standardise the format. Ensure that students all layout the task in identical fashion. This makes it quick and easy to check their work. In this example, students have neatly underlined the criteria in each sentence, using the correct Rainbow Grammar colour as appropriate (non-finite clauses in light blue, adverbial clauses in dark blue and so on). They have also numbered each example clearly above the correct sentence.
As these are being completed, it’s easy to see and address individual misconceptions, and to identify patterns in students’ misunderstanding which we can then address as a whole class. On occasion, I’ve noticed such a severe lack of understanding that to address would take considerable time, and have asked students simply to cross out that criteria, explaining that they shouldn’t use that criteria in their writing and that we’ll cover the subject knowledge more comprehensively at a later date.
The example below is from Year 2 (we’ll use a ruler next time), who were also writing about the Stoorworm Dragon.
The criteria for this were on a separate sheet (below).
Now, I appreciate that for those of you unfamiliar with Rainbow Grammar this must look bewildering. But the important thing is that the Year 2 students at Chetwynd Academy understand the sentence elements that each colour represents. You can see that the Sentence 1 has been underlined using the same sequence of colours as the criteria (and represents a sentence beginning with a fronted adverbial of time). And has been done so correctly – as has every other sentence pattern.
There are two key differences in how the Year 2 students were asked to approach this task.
- Whereas the Year 5 students were given the criteria (sentence 3) ‘Start with an adverbial clause.’ and were asked to underline only that clause, the Year 2 children analysed the same pattern (sentence 2), but no terminology was necessary. They are also underlining the main clause too – doing so helped many of them to then find the adverbial clause, a step the Year 5 students didn’t require.
- Whereas the Year 5 students were simply given the task and a time limit and instructed to get on with it, we took a more measured approach in Year 2. We showed the instruction for Sentence 1, asked them to underline it, then unpicked it as a whole class, clearing up misconceptions, before moving onto to Sentence 2, and so on.
Variations On The Theme
To add additional layers of challenge for older, or more able, students, I use a few variations on the theme.
Spot the Mistakes
A simple variation is to provide the pre-written piece alongside the criteria, but make deliberate mistakes in the writing: sentences that don’t match the criteria. In the example below, students have correctly identified that sentence 7 does not end with a relative clause, and that sentence 8 only contains two predicates and not the required three.
There are two ways to introduce the Spot the Mistakes variation. You can either tell students how many mistakes there are (Can you find the two sentences that contain mistakes?), or you can simply tell them that the writing contains mistakes, but don’t indicate how many. For the above piece, we went with the latter.
Once the mistakes have been identified, have the students correct them by rewriting the sentence to fit the criteria. Oliver & Charlotte rewrote sentence 7 as:
The travellers dismounted from their horses, which were too scared to continue.
One of the major challenges with Slow Writing is ending up with a cohesive piece of writing. Students are so focused on the criteria of individual sentences that they struggle to make them flow one into another, resulting in disjointed writing. Rewriting sentences in this way encourages them to attend to context; to be successful they must ensure their sentence follows on from the last and leads into the next.
Mix It Up
A more challenging variation is to present students with the pre-written piece and the the sentence criteria, but with no indiction as to which sentences match which criteria. Students have to figure out which sentences have been written to which criteria.
The difficulty can be adjusted with a few tweaks. To make things easier, ensure that only 1 sentence fits each of the criteria. This makes it more obvious which sentences and criteria match.
To make things trickier, write sentences that fit several criteria at once. In the above example, three different sentences match the criteria ‘use three adjectives’, three match ‘start with an adverbial clause’ and two match ‘start with a non-finite clause’. This encourages students to closely analyse every element of each sentence; they know they can’t simply find a non-finite clause and tick it off the list. The year 5 students loved the fiendishly difficult challenge that this presented.
So, there you have it. I’ve found Slow Dissection a great way to prepare the ground for Slow Writing, and setting this foundation firmly in place has usually led to loftier writing as a result.
Look out for a follow-up post coming soon, in which I explore the lessons I’ve learned about selecting Slow Writing sentence criteria, which work best and which to avoid. And how to add a little variation into the Slow Writing process too.