Getting my year 9's to write paragraphs

When it comes to paragraph writing, a common phrase that my year 9 learners relay is 'I don't know how to start'.  I have wondered in the past at what this 'block' or 'bump' in the process was and when I talked to my kids about it, they say that they worry about getting it wrong.  With the affordances that the digital world offers (ie spell and grammar checks), I wondered if it was more of an intrinsic belief that caused them to stall rather than the lack of grammatical knowledge.

One of the ways that we will be looking at tackling this issue is to ensure that our students are supported in their learning through scaffolded teaching and learning tasks.  Marc Milford, our schools Student Achievement co-odinator has been coming to our department meetings and sharing strategies and writing templates that we could implement within our units.  He has been working with one of my level 3 students who is an ESOL student and has struggled with understanding basic terms and concepts.  When I checked her writing before Marc had helped her, I could see that she was not able to put proper sentences together and found it difficult to use words that made sense.  Marc developed a writing frame for her and I could see that she was learning to structure her writing a lot more clearer.  I asked Marc to share with us at our department meeting the template and the next day, I tried to use the same structure with my year 9's as they were preparing to write for their exams.

I introduced the framework to the class by saying that they could use the key words and ideas provided to help them but if they felt confident to write without them, they could do so.  The examples I provided were from the learnings we had around traditions in Tokelau and I wanted them to use the concepts to show their understanding of what they'd learnt in class.

Once I shared the document, I wondered around the classroom to check if anyone needed help.  One of the girls stopped me and said 'I don't know what to do miss' so I sat with her and explained what she needed to do.  I said I would come back and check on her after she'd written her first one.  I had given one period for the class to complete the activity, but feedback from the students I found was that they needed more time.

The next day, I checked student work and found a number of students had written some excellent paragraphs which really surprised me.  One example is from a student below, who I felt was often disengaged in class.

Another student who has struggled at times, felt confident enough not to use the sentence starter for his second paragraph, which helped me to understand that he can work with and with out the scaffold. 
An interesting point to note was that the girls struggled with completing the paragraphs set.  Only 1 of the 6 girls completed at least one paragraph and she completed it at home, whereas at least half of the boys completed the tradition and education paragraphs.  The boys also used any digital feedback I provided to motivate them to complete what they'd started whereas the girls needed more oral feedback.  This idea that different modes of feedback support all different learners supports a study that I'd completed 2 years ago, that compared digital, written and oral feedback.  With this in mind, I need to ensure that I address the importance of 'feedback' as a further strategy that could improve the writing of our students.  The next step is to ensure that students are provided more opportunities to write using scaffolds that support students. 

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