The 5 Secrets to Teaching Great Writing
The underlying principles of the Seven Steps
How many tales of boring weekends, long family car trips, or ‘and then, and then, and then…’ stories do you have to read before they drive you crazy?
Luckily, there’s a simple set of principles (we call them secrets) that can stop you from reading yet another repetitive text. Let’s bring your students’ writing to life!
Seven Steps breaks down writing into seven key techniques that professional authors use. Students focus on just one Step at a time, which gives them a chance to understand, practise and master each individual skill – all before they try writing a whole text. Taking small, manageable steps builds students’ confidence and makes writing fun and achievable for all ability levels.
Here we unlock our Five Secrets to teaching great writing.
Secret #1: Chunk large tasks
Chunky isn’t just how we like our peanut butter – it’s how we like everything.
Ask us for our phone number at Seven Steps, and we’ll say: ’03 9521 8439′. Instinctively, we’ve grouped the numbers and added spaces between them. This is an example of chunking.
Focusing on one specific skill, as a small part of a larger goal, is a hugely effective teaching practice. If you want to play tennis, you’ll start by learning the forehand, then backhand, and eventually learn to serve – all before playing a full match.
Yes, chunking works – even in writing.
Trying to teach students to write by getting them to write a full text is like asking them to build a whole house before they’ve learned to lay a single brick.
Let’s explore the nuance of chunk sizing, because this makes a big difference.
Going back to our phone number example – you could break our number down into pairs of digits, like so: 03 95 21 84 39. Or how about single digits? 0 3 9 5 2 1 8 4 3 9.
Most things can be broken down into smaller and smaller units, but sometimes that’s not helpful. It’s easier to mentally process a phone number when it’s made up of a pair (03) and two sets of four, rather than 10 individual digits.
When we teach writing, the chunk might involve grouping related skills together (like the 8439 in our number).
The trick is defining a ‘chunk size’ that suits the ability of your students. If it’s too small they’ll get bored; too large and they’ll give up.
The Seven Steps does this for you. The techniques of writing are broken down into chunks, and grouped together in a way that helps students learn.
Just as we wouldn’t ask our students to play a tennis match before learning the forehand or backhand, we shouldn’t be asking our students to write an essay or a story without first practising the individual skills.
The Seven Steps chunks writing down in two critical ways:
First, by separating the creative process from the physical writing process (see Secret #3). Not even professional authors create and write at the same time. There’s lots of planning, researching and throwing around ideas before the first sentence is written. This is encapsulated in Step 1: Plan for Success and, when done right, it can be one of the biggest game-changers for your students’ writing.
The second way is reflected in Steps 2–7. These Steps chunk writing into individual techniques that real authors use to transform a creative idea into a compelling story.
Here are the Seven Steps that enable you to teach students the building blocks of great writing. Any writer can use these techniques to engage their audience and create engaging narrative, persuasive or informative texts.
[Related] – What are the Seven Steps?
When designing a lesson, set the learning intention to clearly focus on a specific skill. Identify what to means to achieve this task to a competent level, and ensure that you’re not marking or judging things like spelling and grammar, which are not the focus.
Summary of Secret #1: Chunk large tasks
- Don’t chunk tasks too large – students will give up.
- Don’t chunk tasks too small – students will get bored.
- Only provide feedback on the specific skill you’re chunking.
Secret #2: Repetition builds muscle memory
We all know that you have to practise something to get better at it. But actually, even before mastery, you need to practise (or at least repeat) something in order to memorise it.
Without getting too technical, we can draw similarities between your brain and a typical muscle in your body: it grows stronger or weaker the more (or less) we use it. Targeting specific muscle groups can make them stronger. The same goes for practising skills that our brains use.
Simply put, the more we study something, the ‘stronger’ the memory, and the easier it is to retrieve.
Long-term memory (and more specifically, implicit memory) is where we want the skills of writing to sit. When this is the case, students find it automatic to brainstorm, plan, draft, edit and finalise a written piece.
Repetition is the mother of learning, the father of action, which makes it the architect of accomplishment. – Zig Ziglar
Summary of Secret #2: Repetition builds muscle memory
- Repeat skills as many times as you can. Think sessions per week, sets per session and reps per set.
- Don’t be scared to reduce lesson complexity, even after a few sessions, if students are struggling.
- Don’t correct everything; allow students to practise without fear and submit only their favourite(s).
Secret #3: Think first, write second
Something we know teachers struggle with the most is getting students to plan before they start to write. Students may jot down an idea or two before deciding that’s enough and starting to ‘wing it’.
‘Planning’s boring,’ they say. ‘I already know what I’m going to write about.’ Or, ‘Why should I plan? It’s wasting time when I could be writing.’
But planning requires different skills. Often, the planning for a student project – such as a design task, a science experiment or a presentation – is done in advance, in several sessions if needed. In writing, we ask students to switch from brainstorming to writing immediately. Sometimes we don’t even signal how to do this. No wonder they want to take their first idea and wing it! Try separating the thinking tasks (brainstorming and planning) from the writing task, and we think you’ll see a change.
[Related Article] – Creativity in the Classroom
Before we ask students to write us a story, we should explicitly teach them how to plan. We might give them the topic ahead of time, help them to plan it out, give them time to think of an interesting hook, work out a bit of conflict and resolution, and do some research (especially for informative texts) before they come to writing. After all, we don’t say, ‘You have a maths test on Monday, but I’m not telling you whether it’s on algebra or calculus.’ Planning ahead gives students an idea of where they’re going and what is expected of them before we ask them to write.
The only issue is that testing situations do require students to flip from one type of thinking (brainstorming, planning) to the other (word creation, flow). So, after they’re up to speed with planning and we have taught how to do it, then we can do some speed trials and help this become familiar.
[Related Article] – Top Three Brainstorming Tips
When students are throwing ideas around, sharing back-stories and playing mini-games with each other, you can turn planning, the ‘boring’ part of writing, into something fun and engaging. How do we do this? With quick games and collaborative exercises that focus on the thinking skills in planning (brainstorming, then sorting and selecting the best ideas). If you’ve ever been to a Seven Steps Workshop, you’ll remember that sometimes we can’t even stop teachers when it’s time to move on from the planning games.
‘I already know what I’m going to write about.’
A great phrase we use in Step 1: Plan for Success is that your first idea is usually your worst.
Instead, generate 10 good ideas to find 1 great one.
If it didn’t take long for you to think of the idea, it’s likely that someone else has already thought of it as well.
If we tell students the topic is ‘Lost’, we ought to expect 26 stories about a lost little puppy. But if we tell them the topic is ‘Lost’ and then we brainstorm together, we could get stories about: ancient mysterious lost cities; where the second sock goes in the laundry; the day I lost my house keys; being lost in a foreign city; lost at sea; a lost art from the past; my first day of high school, when I got so lost I couldn’t find my classroom … and so on.
For older students, you could explain that if an assessor has to read 10 versions of the same story, with the same ideas and the same resolution, they’ll be easy to compare and rank and only one will get the best mark. Having a completely different and creative approach will make your story stand out from the crowd.
For younger students, explore image prompts in groups and see how the first few ideas might seem unique and interesting, but are really quite similar to each other. Want to write an engaging story? Find a unique angle on the topic. Brainstorming will help you find it, and this is why ‘Think first, write second’ is one of our Five Secrets.
‘Planning is wasting time when I could be writing.’
Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe. – Abraham Lincoln
Once students start to see the power of an original idea (not your first idea), they should realise that getting straight into writing isn’t always the best approach. Sure, get that idea on the page, but learn that we can generate more and more and more ideas – so we don’t need to get attached to the first one. After brainstorming in groups, students often realise how much more fun it is to write about a quirky and interesting angle on the topic.
[Related Article] – Two great ways to hunt for ideas
Summary of Secret #3: Think first, write second
- Planning makes writing easier; it can also be the fun part.
- Teach brainstorming as a separate skill, then how to select and order ideas.
- Where possible, students should spend a third of their ‘writing’ time brainstorming and planning.
- Practise shortening this time – do rapid-fire brainstorming activities to be ready for testing conditions.
[Related Article] – The Quest for Originality (The Narrative Story Graph)
Secret #4: Verbal is vital
Language, verbal or non-verbal, is critical for the development of literacy skills.
– Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA)
Your brain can think a lot faster than you can write, type or even speak. When the creative juices are flowing (often called being in a state of flow), everything’s pouring out of your brain and the rest of your body has to try and keep up.
Since we can speak faster than we can write, removing the need to write things down will increase the flow of information, and thus reduce the bottleneck.
Another trick is to reduce the amount of information that has to be processed. Writing, especially for younger students, can be mentally straining; it takes a lot of effort to form the words on the page or screen. They may get distracted by not knowing how to spell something or how to use the correct grammar. This sort of distraction can severely limit their creative ability.
Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid. – Unknown
Speaking also encourages collaboration – something highly regarded in the learning world, but we seem to forget that it has a place in writing. Think of a team of writers working together on a TV series: these professionals value the process of throwing ideas around the writers’ room to see what sticks. They know that by bouncing off each other they can develop better and better ideas. They may even act out scenes or scraps of dialogue to see what the characters would do in certain situations.
Get your students to actively engage in the writing process, with their minds, bodies and voices.
[Related Article] – Collaborate, Create and Celebrate Great Writing
Summary of Secret #4: Verbal is vital
- Reduce bottlenecking (sometimes the physical act of writing can get in the way).
- Speaking drives collaboration.
- Speak it out, act it out – ideas will come!
Secret #5: Consistency creates change
This secret might seem like a variation of Secret 2 (repetition builds muscle memory). However, let’s use this one to focus on the bigger picture.
Consistency from lesson to lesson, and even year to year, can rapidly accelerate the learning process.
Consistent expectations, goals, practice, language and feedback all form a solid foundation on which students can build with confidence. When they know what to expect, they can focus on the development of their skills and worry less about all the distracting peripherals.
It’s not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives. It’s what we do consistently. – Tony Robbins
It’s easy to grab a few lesson templates and resources off the web, but it’s difficult to align them all to your concepts in the same language and design. Designers talk about beautiful design as invisible: unseen because of how intuitive it is. Design your lessons with consistency from top to bottom and watch their absorption rate skyrocket. The Seven Steps does this for you. It can be as simple as ensuring that you always refer to the opening of a text as a ‘Sizzling Start’, instead of interchanging multiple terms like introduction, beginning, start, or opening.
Summary of Secret #5: Consistency creates change
- Use a common meta-language to make it easier to teach and allow targeted feedback (the Seven Steps does this for you).
- DON’T go for the quick fix. Build the change into everything you do.
- Collaborate with your colleagues to extend consistency beyond a single year.
There you have it: The 5 underlying principles (Five Secrets) of the Seven Steps!
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