My low attaining year 10 class (average aspirational target of a grade 3) have been struggling with descriptive writing. I have provided some structure (e.g. using zoom boxes to focus in on areas of the image) and we’ve explored what makes good descriptive writing, with lots of modelling and practise, but, invariably, students in this group have found it difficult to move from writing with ‘some success’ to producing writing that is ‘consistent and clear’. In timed conditions, they have been struggling to get started and some have barely managed a couple of paragraphs in the time allowed.
I’ve been reading a lot recently about cognitive load theory and I’ve come to the conclusion that, for these students, the cognitive load in our descriptive writing lessons has been excessive and therefore their learning has suffered. They’ve been battling a plethora of demands: starting effectively; structuring sentences accurately; using paragraphs; using a range of punctuation; spelling accurately; using interesting words… Their lack of written work is not, I think, wilful disobedience or laziness but the product of cognitive overload – I’ve been making too many demands of their working memory.
So, for this class, I’m trying something different: I’ve given them a scaffold for opening every descriptive writing piece so that they can ‘get in and get on’ next time they complete a timed piece of writing and access some parts of the mark scheme in their very first paragraph (e.g. variety of sentence structures and a range of descriptive devices). We’re going to use this every time we open a piece of descriptive writing and I want them to get to automaticity with it.
Here’s the scaffold I’ve given them:
- Begin with a simple sentence about the setting (time/weather)
- Use a simile about the setting e.g. The light was like… The wind was as…
- Describe the sound – what can be heard?
- Use an embedded clause about the sound
- In the distance…
I’m not saying that this is the perfect way to open a piece of descriptive writing and I’m certainly not advocating it for every student. However, I think that it serves the purpose of giving these students a starting point (getting going is where mine seem to struggle most) and a way of setting the scene in their descriptive writing. In subsequent paragraphs I’d expect them to zoom in on parts of the image and focus on other aspects of effective descriptive writing.
In the first lesson I introduced this scaffold to students I picked an image of a beach (I think the Geography department were at Lulworth Cove that day which inspired me) to practise with and I modelled the first attempt with them and they copied it down:
I then allowed a student to pick the next image (the picture of Bournemouth beach at night at the top of this post) and they had a go.
We looked at a few of these under the visualiser and talked about what worked and what didn’t work well. Finally, in the same lesson, students had another go with an image they chose of the Eiffel tower.
The writing they produced was far better than that which they’d produced before – though they’re clearly not all following the scaffold. Partly this is because it doesn’t always work well with what they want to say (and the scaffold shouldn’t be a straitjacket) but partly it’s because they don’t always understand how to meet the demands of the scaffold which has highlighted areas we need to cover again.
We’ll keep practising using this model and I’m hopeful they’ll get to the point of automaticity with it so that they’ll be able to start their descriptive writing with confidence.
Here’s a link to a Dropbox folder with some beautiful resources made by Grainne Hallahan (@heymrshallahan) using this idea. I like to call her the resourceasaurus!