5 Useful and 5 Not-So-Useful lessons from 'The Writing Revolution'

Hochman and Wexler's book The Writing Revolution (TWR) has come up in conversation a few times among Econ Teachers over the last month or two. There are some bits that I didn't find particularly useful, but, like the sword of Gryffindor, you can choose to take in only that which makes you stronger (love a good Harry Potter reference). If you're short on time, I reckon you could get 90% of the useful info by reading the foreword, chapter 1, the 'Bring in the Authorities' section of chapter 5, and chapter 8. If you've got time, chapter 6 might also be worth a look.


In case your 'to read' pile is as long as mine is, I've tried to sum up 5 useful takeaways and 5 things I didn't find especially helpful.


5 useful things


1) Students can become better writers.

Secondary school teachers (with the exception of English teachers) generally don't spend lots of their lesson time on grammar and writing, instead, we probably spend more time making the most of the skills they already have. For me, as an A-Level Econ teacher, I didn't really feel that I could do a huge amount to improve a student's writing. Yes, I could teach them a bit about structure and tone, enough to allow them to access more exam marks, but I didn't spend much time on style or sentence structure. I certainly didn't believe I could help a fundamentally weak writer to become a strong one, but Hochman and Wexler outline a pathway for this. What's more, as David Didau argues in the foreword, writing, thinking and reading are indelibly linked. If we can get students to be better writers, they might in fact become better thinkers. I like the Joan Didion quote used: "I write to know what I think".


2) Writing activities can make good teaching activities.

That teaching can improve students' writing does, however, raises the question of responsibility: how much time should secondary teachers devote to teaching writing? After all, there's something of a free-rider problem at play. I could just let History or English pick up the slack, and spend more time teaching content. Aside from the ethics of this, and Teaching Standard 3 (are teaching standards still a thing?), the authors argue that the suggested that there might not be a straightforward trade-off between teaching content and teaching writing. They argue activities designed to improve writing can be embedded in lesson content.


We have discussed in EconEdChats how producing good A-Level results and producing good economists are not necessarily the same thing, and also an A-Level essay achieving full marks wouldn't always be classified as great writing. However, there are things that we, as teachers, can do that are in the intersection of all three.

3) Sentence activities are especially useful

Probably the most well known TWR strategy is 'because, but, so', and I reckon this works really well in Economics. Even before I had read the book, I had used a similar strategy for students who knew stuff but didn't think to write it down in exams; the sort of students who answered the question in as few words as possible, and, as a result, who often didn't jump through the examiners' hoops to get the marks. I had trained those students to write 'because, for example, which means, in addition' on the top of the page or on the front of the exam paper. When they thought they had finished a question, they had to add something to it. While their answers now weren't always focussed completely on the question, so it got them into bad habits in that sense, it did get them into the habit of elaborating on their answers and ultimately they pick up more marks.


The 'because, but, so' activity is much more useful because it can act as a short activity to get students thinking or for recall. Mark Enser has written about how some forms of recall practise are better than others, and while I think a straight forward 10 question short answer test is valuable, I think this sort of activity has a place too. Essentially you give students a sentence stems with each of the basic conjunctions, and students have to copy and complete. This activity really lends itself to Economics, because so much of what we study is about cause (because), effect (so), or casting doubt/opposing (but). This is particularly useful for looking at case studies or news articles as it assesses whether they understand the text and encourages students to use the data to offer new information. For example:


The UK inflation rate is low because...

The UK inflation rate is low so...

The UK inflation rate is low but...


Other subordinating conjunctions offer an alternative to this sort of activity, for example:


While expansionary fiscal policy may reduce cyclical unemployment...

Unless revenue raised from the sugar tax is redistributed to the NHS...

Since national debt is at around 85% of GDP...


I also like the suggestion of giving students a selection of sentences or sentence fragments and asking them to combine them with conjunctions, because it encourages them to think about the relationship between ideas.


Another useful set of activities are those which encourage the use of appositives, which not only improve writing stylistically but also encourage them to show off their knowledge. You can give the students a selection of sentences and ask them to add appositives for extra detail, for example:


Division of labour may increase productivity

could become

Division of labour, the process of separating production into different parts, may increase productivity


Not only does this encourage recall, but it also gives you the language to communicate how students can improve their writing and include more detail into their answers.



4) Teach students how to use quotations

Students often need to refer to an extract or data. Giving them the language do to this is helpful, but there are a few other tips mentioned that might help students to give their quotations or references a bit more mileage.


Somewhat ironically, most of the good stuff in this chapter is quoted from They Say/I Say. I particularly like the idea of quotations as 'words that have been taken from their original contexts and need to be integrated into their new surroundings". The book likens them to orphans, but the image in my mind is when you buy a goldfish from the pet shop and you have to let it acclimate to your new fish tank (or something like that, my fish never survived long).


The suggestion of incorporating it into students' writing using a 'quotation sandwich' - introduction, quotation, explanation, might also be helpful. I wasn't initially convinced that an introduction is necessary (especially in an exam scenario where every word has to count) but if a student can use it to pave the way for some discussion on the validity of the source, an introduction to a quote could have potential. The authors recommend using an appositive to point to the authority of the source, for example:


Data from BP, an oil and gas MNC, indicates renewable energy consumption rose much more than oil consumption in relative terms. This could suggest that consumers are becoming more environmentally conscious.


Compared to 'Extract 5 indicates...', this opens the possibility for easier discussion of the source, so for the sake of an extra 5 words it might be worth it. I don't know. I'm not convinced, but the message of explaining the quote is important.


5) Summarising is difficult

I guess we already knew this, but the book makes explicit the reasons why summarising is both important and difficult. They cite lots of benefits (e.g. improving reading comprehension, developing the ability to generalise, aiding retention) as well as pointing out that being able to generate a summary is useful in lots of settings, not just when students are specifically asked to summarise. In Economics, we might ask students to read and summarise news articles or require them to refer to the general message of a case study or some data. However, they also point out that it's often very domain-specific, and the difficulty of summarising varies with the material to be summarised, as well as the complexity of the language and other factors.


As a result, they ask teachers to consider 4 questions before asking students to summarise:

1) Do students have sufficient knowledge of the topic to summarise it?

2) Who is the audience for the summary - ie are students writing it for their own notes or for the teacher?

3) What is the purpose of asking them to write the summary?

4) What is the format - what do you want their summaries to look like? paragraphs? bullet points?


The book offers some strategies students can use to help them summarise. I'll talk in a minute about how I'm not completely convinced by some of the strategies, but the simple suggestion of asking 'who/what? did/will do what? when? where? why? how?' and then asking students to combine these details into a summary sentence, could be a useful starting point, especially for weaker students. The difficulty comes, however, with working out which of these questions is relevant. For example, in many of the extracts we use, the 'where' might not be especially helpful. Similarly, for 'when' a weaker student might write 'April 2020' whereas a more inciteful answer might be 'following the introduction of the Job Retention Scheme'.



5 things I didn't find so useful

Caveat: There is a (more than decent) chance that I didn't find these ideas particularly useful because I didn't fully understand the point of them. Maybe if I fully understood them, I'd feel differently.

1) SPOs and MPOs

As I understand it, Single Paragraph Outlines require students to write their 'topic sentence', get down all the related points in note form and pick three of four of the best ones. They write all of this up, then finish off with their 'concluding sentence', which seems to just reword the topic sentence.


First of all, in an exam the repetition is unnecessary. Sure, students can refer back to the question to keep themselves on track, but this needs to be more sophisticated than just rewording the first part.


My bigger concern is that I can't see this method being particularly useful with the sort of analytical writing students need in Economics. Often, the points students need to make aren't discrete points relating to a main idea, but interrelated points or chains in an argument. Maybe it could be adapted, but as it is I think this method might get students into the habit of just listing points.


My complaint about Multi-Paragraph outlines is similar: it almost encourages students to neglect the relationships between arguments, and that could be very damaging. Again, maybe it would be useful with some adaptations, but I'm not enamoured with it in it's current form.


2) Dotted vs solid lines

TWR stressed that if you expect students to write in full sentences, they should be given solid lines to write on, whereas if they are expected to write notes, the lines should be dotted. Maybe this is more useful for younger kids, but to me, this seems unnecessary.


3) Advice on Notetaking

I'm not sure whether the advice given in the book is universal notetaking advice, but I found the use of forward slashes very confusing: from the examples given, I'm not sure I would really understand enough to put this back into full sentences. In addition, whilst they mention using arrows for causation, these seem to be used a bit randomly, and I was confused about the direction of causation in a few cases, and this could be a dealbreaker in student's writing.


4) Editing/Revising

Whilst I agreed with a lot of the message of this chapter, it probably has limited significance in exams, because students simply don't have the time to revise their work. I appreciate that practising editing their writing might make students become better writers so that they perform better in the exam, in the same way that a musician replaying a bar they didn't play so well in rehearsal will likely improve their performance in a recital even though they won't have the opportunity to 'edit' themselves whilst in concert. I'm also aware that thinking of work as 'drafts' has powerful effects on mindset: it makes tasks less intimidating and fosters the idea that we should always be improving. However, I don't know how much value there is in making several revisions to a draft, compared to taking those lessons forward to another piece of writing. As a result, it probably goes in the green section of the Venn diagram above: useful to make better writers and economists; not a useful exam skill.



5) The GST-TDG method for introductions/conclusions

This final one arguably falls into the green section in the venn above: it's not bad general advice for writing introductions, and it's probably a useful crutch for economic communication too, as long as, as recommended in the book, you recognise that as writers become more experienced they may well decide to move away from it. However, I'm not sure it's great exam advice.


The idea is that while learning to write introductions, students should write a general statement, a specific statement and then a thesis statement. One of the examples given is 'Penguins are the most popular animals (general). However, they have become an endangered species as sea ice disappears from their habitats (specific). Rising sea levels are among the most dangerous effects of climate change and should be viewed as an urgent issue (thesis)'.


Conclusions, on the other hand, should go the other way, starting with a thesis statement, moving to a specific statement and then a general statement.


I'm not an examiner, but I feel like, in an exam situation, a general statement in an introduction is a bit redundant and a waste of time. Instead, I'd point students towards Paula Worth's article on essay introductions in Teaching History (there's a paywall but your history department might have membership).


Similarly, I worry that this will just perpetuate to students the idea that a conclusion is just a repetition of the introduction, which would mean they could lose a valuable opportunity to tie their ideas together and gain evaluation marks.



Overall

This post sounds negative, but I found the useful bits really are very useful, so it was definitely worth a read. With the bits I didn't find useful, perhaps if I return to them in a few years with fresh eyes, I might better understand them?