Fun puts motivation back into writing

Members attending the Centre for Professional Learning’s recent Secondary English Stage 6 Conference were provided with a barrage of suggestions for the HSC course, including that the teaching and learning experience can be fun.

The biggest change to the syllabus is contained in Module C, the Craft of Writing. The module is about the writing process and calls on students to expand their writing repertoire. The examination may require students to write imaginatively, persuasively, discursively, informatively and/or reflectively.

The conference’s first session offered practical strategies and resources for teaching, learning and exam preparation for the module.

Author and English teacher Jane Sherlock reminded members that the purpose of the prescribed text for Module C is for modelling writing. “They’re there for students to imitate, explore and use as a springboard for their own writing,” she said.

“I think it’s critical that every student is exposed to one of the ‘how to write’ texts,” she added later in session.

She praised Zadie Smith’s “That crafty feeling” lecture, on writing. “For me it was transformational [on editing your own work]: ‘You need to become its reader instead of its writer’.” Ulladulla High School English teacher Mark Rafidi said Smith’s insights into writing are “invaluable”.

Ms Sherlock encouraged members to expose students to more than the required two texts from the list of prescribed text, for their value as rich exemplars of writing. Conference participants were also given a list of non-prescribed texts to use and discuss with students as examples of types of writing for Module C.

Presenters shared ideas about what works well for improving students’ writing.

Offer engaging lessons

“Have some fun; it’s a serious year but enjoyment, playfulness and fun are great motivators,” Ms Sherlock said.

Author and English teacher Deb McPherson said text choices are vital: “The texts really need to speak to your students … What are the texts that are going to speak to them and get them engaged and excited?”

She recommended sharing text examples with students that they can use to improve and experiment with their own writing and “have some fun”.

“It’s really important — I’d hate to see a school becoming so serious that there’s no joy left.”

Elizabeth Macarthur High School English head teacher Narelle Nightscales explained the faculty had discussed how the possible texts choices would resonate with students. They chose Luka Lesson’s “May your pen grace the page” because they’d previously featured his slam poetry with students, so there was a familiarity and connection with his work, his experience and shared knowledge.

Members were pointed to the JPL article, “Teaching writing in secondary English: Approaches to building confidence, enjoyment and achievement”.

Give students choice

“Module C is an area that we could give students more choice,” Ms Sherlock said.

“I know a lot of people make choices based on what they know, but it wouldn’t hurt if we said, ‘OK, here are all the speeches, why don’t you divide into various groups and take a speech and read it, talk about it for a couple of lessons and then do a pitch on why the rest of the class should do that speech’. It just sort of liberates the students.”

Establish a writing community

Ms Nightscales described the “writing community” at Elizabeth Macarthur High School, where students in the standard cohort work in groups to discuss, refine and reflect on their own writing and on each other’s writing.

“Teachers have been completing their own homework tasks alongside students, to show them the joy of writing and to show them that we’re writers too,” she said. “It breaks down the apprehension about sharing writing and we invite students to critique our writing. It’s a bit confronting, but it works well; it’s all about empowerment.”

Create authentic purposes and audiences for writing tasks

Opportunities to publish students’ work are important because real audiences shape writing,” Ms Nightscales told members. “Publication will motivate them to create their best work,” she said.

Give students freedom to explore and reflect

Ms Nightscales urged teachers to encourage their students to experiment with their writing. “Give them permission to break the rules,” she said. “Not all writing needs to be analytical … Look at the syllabus; they have to be writing imaginatively, discursively, expressively, informatively and reflectively, so give them more opportunities to do that.”

Students record their thoughts on skills they already possess, what they need to do to improve and their plans for the future in Craft of Writing journals, Ms Nightscales said. “There’s no set structure for writing in the journals. They can chose to write a reflective entry, create tables, make bullet points or a combination of those,” she said.

Conference papers included a list of questions to help writers reflect on their writing.

Give students time

Ms Sherlock said the research on writing says we need to give students time. “One shot isn’t going to do it,” she said.

She recommends giving students plenty of opportunities to write in different styles, write under pressure, practice time management, progress their mental dexterity to respond to the potential range of questions and develop confidence in language choices.

Approaches for teaching Module C

Department of Education curriculum adviser Paula Madigan suggested showcasing sentence structures and vocabulary from the prescribed texts, to model the characteristics of better sentences and language choices. Ms Nightscales said the features of the prescribed texts then become the stimulus for students’ own writing. “There is so much richness in those texts for students to pull apart,” she said.

“We talk about the Four Levels Framework — the whole picture, down to the paragraph level, down to the sentence level and then down to the word level —and then use those as scaffolds for their own writing,” Ms Nightscales said. “It really is imitation, fan fiction, in lots of respects.”

Two-hundred words in 25 minutes writing challenges have been a “game-changer” for Ms Madigan. She pointed members to the “Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog” to learn more.

Deb McPherson suggested:

  • classroom tasks to help students explore texts (class board summaries, group work and role plays)
  • imaginative writing activities for the classroom
  • exam-style questions using Module C texts as springboards.

Ideas for imaginative classroom activities and examination possibilities were included in the conference notes.

Other sessions covered Module B (Standard and Advanced texts) and multi-modal texts and tasks.

Conference to be repeated

The conference was fully booked, so to meet demand an additional conference will be held on Wednesday, 15 May.

Completing the English Stage 6 conference will contribute five hours of NESA Registered professional development addressing: 6.2.2 from the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers towards maintaining Proficient Teacher Accreditation in NSW.

For more information about courses run by the Centre for Professional Learning visit

— Kerri Carr