Developing Writing

Sheffield Lifelong Learning

This project aimed to address the disconnect between the speaking and writing skills of many of our adult learners, particularly those from an ESOL background. The project enabled them to use innate grammar instincts, gained from their everyday use and experience of spoken English, to build stronger, clearer sentences on the page.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.


As a community learning provider seeking to furnish adults with full Functional Skills qualifications, we have recognised a pattern of learners achieving success in the speaking and listening and reading elements of a course, who struggle to reach the equivalent level in writing. This has led learners to lose confidence in themselves and in the exam process and has, on occasion, threatened to derail their progress altogether. This pattern has also been recognised within our organisation’s English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) provision. This project offered an opportunity to target specific issues with sentence construction that frequently frustrated Level 1 and Level 2 learners. It was further anticipated that the principles could then be adapted for learners in different contexts, including 16-18 study programmes (including Special Educational Needs (SEND)), family and community learning, adult programmes and apprenticeships.


Adult learners are often expert jugglers, balancing the demands of study with the responsibilities associated with families, jobs and being part of their communities. During a typical week they may often converse in English, they will sometimes read, but they rarely write. This, inevitably, leads to a ‘spiky profile’, which in turn creates difficulties for learners and teachers alike, particularly when they join an accredited course. Too often teachers see confidence wane and impetus disappear as the familiar refrain of “I’m just no good at writing!” echoes around the classroom. In an effort to tackle this, the project aimed to develop a ‘back-to-basics’ approach to grammar, that would enable a deeper understanding of the grammatical tools used to build a strong sentence. The idea was for learners to take sentences apart, in order to better understand how they work grammatically, and then to create their own clauses, sentences and paragraphs in a free writing context, where they could begin to enjoy writing creatively, skilfully and with greater confidence. This concept quickly evolved into an approach that could harness the fact that many learners express themselves more accurately vocally than on paper. This innate grammar resource, developed from years of everyday linguistic exchange in a variety of contexts, needed to be formally acknowledged and ruthlessly exploited to help learners more confidently recognise and correct mistakes in their writing by reading out loud. Those areas that remained uncorrected could then be targeted with specific, pedagogical support. This approach became known as using ‘grammar ears’.


Image of work produced before using ‘grammar ears’.

Before using ‘grammar ears’.

We first designed an online course that would explore this approach with a group of learners in a writing for employability and study skills context. Although these learners had passed Level 2, their writing skill and confidence was somewhat shaky, due to a learning experience that was disrupted by the pandemic. Based on discussion with the learners, we agreed that the writing would have a broadly autobiographical theme and would encompass a range of different text types. The course was delivered on Zoom and designed with two phases.

In the first phase, early tasks were collaborative and learners produced a written text which was then read out to the rest of the group. Learners were encouraged to focus on listening for grammar mistakes in each other’s work, emphasising the idea that learners hear more mistakes than they see. Written work was assessed for grammar alone and mistakes were highlighted in pink, but not corrected. This reinforced the focus on self-correction and grammatical self-reliance. The teacher began to build a profile of the needs of individual learners, noting those mistakes that some learners simply couldn’t hear or see. These were then addressed in Phase Two.

Image of work produced after using ‘grammar ears’

After using ‘grammar ears’

Phase Two employed online delivery we dubbed ‘bending’, rather than flipping the classroom. Once vocalisation had determined individual grammar issues – for instance subject-verb agreement, or use of the definite article – learners were expected to independently re-visit their learning and understanding of grammar rules through homework exercises, using self-marking, online resources. Following this, learners completed creative writing tasks designed to use the particular grammar rule studied. Work was drafted at home then posted on Google Classroom, so it could be ‘brought to class’ on Zoom, where it was shared and discussed. Learners were then expected to respond by producing a final, corrected version for marking.

The practices from this course were also embedded in Functional Skills learning at Level 1 and Level 2 and used with individuals in online tutorials.

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

George Bernard Shaw said “Progress is impossible without change”, but this year has been one in which changes in teaching, learning and assessment have been an educational necessity, as well as a choice. However, our learners quickly adapted to the Zoom classroom and engaged enthusiastically with lockdown lessons on screen. We were reminded of the important sense of community that is created by learning together.

The initial premise had been to find a ‘system’ that would help ‘fix’ the stubborn grammar issues that so frustrated our learners and tutors alike. However, we soon learnt that there was no instant solution, or quick fix that could be imposed, rather a more organic process was required, that grew and developed to meet the needs ofthe learners. Good, active listening was key to this from the outset. The approach was informed and guided by listening to the learners, but also focused on them listening closely to each other’s writing and, ultimately, listening to their own sentences. It was good to be reminded that true listening creates focus and encourages thought and reflection, which in turn builds academic confidence.

It was also good to be reminded of the joy of writing without so many of the constraints we so frequently experience in accredited learning. Giving learners the liberty to tell their own stories, to use language freely, not to worry about spelling and punctuation, unleashed unexpected creativity and depth in their writing. Asking learners to trust their aural memories, their innate grammar knowledge and instincts and asking them to look to themselves, rather than the teacher, felt counter-intuitive. So too, did highlighting any written errors and then returning work ungraded and uncorrected, but it was revolutionary in giving them ownership of the improvement of their writing. They were released from being focused on a test and could concentrate on what it really means to be ‘good’ at English – to be a clear, confident, yet empathetic communicator.

The learners’ response has been extremely positive overall. The auto-biographical nature of the writing tasks has proved surprisingly powerful and created a wonderful bond amongst the initial course members, who were drawn into a writing community, through sharing common human experiences that span social and cultural divides. As they read their work aloud, everyone found a voice. The whole group listened with respect and empathy and, with time, sensitively critiqued and refined each other’s work, with an eye for detail that was truly exciting.

By the end of the course, the group dynamic had proved so motivating and inspiring that a final Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) session demonstrated a tangible boost to learner aspiration.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

This project sparked the interest of several colleagues, who were keen to find new and innovative ways of developing writing. The approach was adopted within three Functional Skills classes at Levels 1 and 2 and proved sufficiently flexible to support learners in different ways, in group and individual contexts, with encouraging results. It was particularly good to see learners with a variety of first language backgrounds feel more supported and develop more confidence in recognising and addressing elements of cultural interference in their writing. Our ESOL department were very keen to explore this approach with some of their more advanced learners and, although plans have been delayed by a variety of COVID-19 related factors, it will be taken up next year. The lead tutor for Functional Skills has been particularly supportive of the project and has recently initiated a ten week, non-accredited ‘bridging course’, drawing directly from the project’s work, that will help learners transitioning from Level 1 ESOL to Functional Skills, or from Functional Skills Level 1 to Level 2, to fill the gaps in their grammar and improve writing confidence. The success of remote learning means that we propose offering learners the option of both blended and online only courses next year.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Using Google Classroom as a ‘hub’ for learners proved to be an excellent means of clearly recording achievements and progress. Work can be easily annotated in its electronic form, immediately returned and improved, producing a bank of learner progress data over time. A particular joy has been collating an anthology of the different texts that the learners on the Christmas term course produced, week by week, which will be published in book form as a memento for learners, but also as a resource for future delivery. The anthology provides a record of progress; there is a clear difference in the ambition and complexity of the sentences written at the beginning of the course and those they produced at the end. Although the grammar was still far from perfect, the frequency of flawless sentences was appreciably higher, as learners gained confidence and targeted recurring mistakes over time.

All learners who have taken part have wholeheartedly engaged and persevered with the approach and many have commented on its benefits. One learner from the Christmas course related in her summative blog, that, having managed to secure her ‘dream job’ as a teaching assistant:

“Now I am fluent in my speaking and much better at writing and doing my daily work with full confidence.”

Another recounted:

“Focusing on grammar gaps and correcting the mistakes, all these strategies helped me and improved my English, especially writing. I can say now I am in better control of how I am able to correct my work grammatically with confidence and my writing skills…changed significantly for the better.”

Learning from this project

What went well

  • Our learners were adaptable and flexible, quickly engaging with a new approach in an online context.
  • In the Christmas term course, sharing work aloud not only engaged the innate grammar sense of the group, but helped to build a supportive, vibrant community of writers who cared about improving their own work and that of others. It was a delightful experience.
  • Learners became more self-evaluative, confident and accurate writers.
  • In recent one-to-one sessions, where this approach has been used to support those with particularly strong cultural interference, there has been a transformation in learners’ attitude towards English grammar. As difficulties are singled out and recognised, sentence writing feels more manageable and learners start to trust their ‘grammar ears’, but, furthermore, are keen to immerse themselves in spoken English on a daily basis in order to soak up standard grammar and apply it to their own written communication; very exciting!
  • Managers have been incredibly supportive and keen to turn this action research project into an integral part of our English offer. The approach is currently being used in a new ‘bridging course’ for learners transitioning from Level 1 to Level 2 Functional Skills.

Even better if

  • It would have been preferable if all learners had seen through the process of revising pieces several times for ultimate accuracy and training of those grammar ears.
  • It would have been valuable to test how the approach could be integrated more effectively within Functional Skills courses, as well as working as a standalone course.
  • More opportunities to collaborate with colleagues would have allowed us to find out if, and how, elements of the approach work in different contexts and with different cohorts.