Bringing Writing to Life: Exploring the role of life experience in teaching writing

Mouton College

This project aimed to examine the role of individual lived experience for teaching writing. We trialled a range of methods, including dialogic questioning and tailored learning resources such as alternative peer assessment, in both Functional Skills and GCSE English lessons. We observed that when we used certain methods that encouraged learners to draw on their individual lived experience and existing knowledge, their writing improved.

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


Moulton College is a specialist land-based FE college in the East Midlands offering programmes including animal management, equine studies, construction, food and drink, sport, business and agriculture. A team of five English teachers took part in the project, as well as learning support assistants and the Head of English and maths (who also teaches English at the college).

Through the project, we were hoping to achieve a greater understanding of strategies that help FE learners to respond to writing tasks (both descriptive and transactional writing). We were particularly curious about strategies that could support learners to feel more motivated to write, to be able to generate ideas and to expand on their points to improve the quality of their writing. These aspects of writing were of particular concern, as our learners reported finding them challenging.


Analysis of learners’ GCSE exam transcripts in June and November 2019 indicated that the majority of learners achieve higher marks in the reading section than the writing section. English teachers commonly set targets in response to learners’ written work, both in class and in formative assessments, around particular aspects of their writing. Examples include improving the authenticity of their creative writing through the use of more vivid descriptions and improving their transactional writing by adapting more effectively to the required type of text, intended audience and purpose, as indicated in the question. Through attending network meetings, we discovered that many colleagues at other colleges report the same finding. A similar finding is also true for learners studying Functional Skills English. Learners typically require more attempts to pass the writing exam than the reading exam and often voice concerns around not knowing what to write, or how to structure their responses. This issue inspired our project.


We trialled a range of resources and methods in our English lessons, which all foregrounded the belief that an appreciation of individual lived experiences is important when teaching writing. English teachers and learning support assistants trialled the following activities:

  • Dialogic questioning, particularly around the planning process during transactional writing tasks and when facilitating group analysis of the work of their peers. See Appendix 2 for a more detailed explanation.
  • Live modelling, including class questioning to support live modelling.
  • Using excerpts from the book ‘Orangeboy’ by Patrice Lawrence (Lawrence, 2016) to inspire learners to write creatively, while drawing on their own lived experience. (See Appendix 3.)
  • Alternative peer assessment. In order to reduce barriers caused by learners’ insecurities about showing their own writing, we asked them to examine the work of other learners (not present in the class at the time). We used hand-written exemplars from a range of sources, including the work of learners from a different class at Moulton College this academic year; the work of learners from previous years at the college, and exemplars provided by Eduqas (the exam board we use for GCSE English). (See Appendix 4.)
  • Regular conversations with learners with a particular focus on getting to know the learners’ interests, past experiences and motivators.

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

The teachers involved in the project have a renewed understanding of the benefit of taking an action research stance to improve the experience for their learners. Teachers report that they have found the regular meetings beneficial, as talking to colleagues about how learners have responded to the new methods and approaches has helped them to understand what they need to do next in the classroom. One of the teachers who took part in the project recently moved to teaching in the FE sector, after years of teaching in secondary schools. She said:

“I love this form of CPD. It’s been brilliant and I feel like my thinking has shifted from talking about what learners should do, to thinking about what they could do, with the right approach”.

Some of the teachers involved report that, since taking part in the project, they now attend regular English Practitioners Network meetings to ensure that they also benefit from working collaboratively with colleagues in other organisations. They report feeling more receptive to trialling new ideas in the classroom.
Learning support assistants report that they have a better understanding of methods and approaches that they can use to support learners in both English lessons and vocational lessons.

The project findings have useful implications for teaching writing, both in English lessons and vocational lessons. The project lead has already delivered some CPD to the vocational teachers at the college this year and has plans to deliver more, in light of the project findings, to ensure learners are able to benefit across all areas of their study programme.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

The project has encouraged better collaboration between the English teachers at the college. It has been a brilliant talking point in our regular meetings, as the learners have been at the forefront of conversations. All teachers involved have enjoyed trialling the strategies with their learners and taking time to carefully reflect on their influence in the classroom. The project has facilitated more open conversations between teachers and learning support assistants about the different ways that we support learners and there are plans being put in place to ensure that these continue. There is a renewed understanding of the vital nature of collaboration and reflection as a team and, as a result, managers are now more conscious of the importance of dedicated time each week where teachers can come together. Going forward, this has implications for timetabling and scheduling of team meetings, to ensure accessibility for all team members.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Figure 1: One of the hand-written example pieces

Figure 1: One of the hand-written example pieces

Learners were seen to be more engaged in the lessons when hand-written examples of learner work were shown. When an example piece was handed out, learners who were previously visibly distracted, for example, using their mobile phone, were seen to put their phones down without being asked, and started looking at the examples and taking part in class discussions. The pieces seemed to support better engagement because learners could see that the pieces had been written by somebody who was, at some point, ‘just like them’. Learners re-sitting English at college often struggle to believe that they can succeed and, therefore, this exposure to the work of their peers who had improved their skills, helped them to believe they could too. This improvement in their motivation and self-belief was key, as these are often two of the greatest barriers to progress that we see in the re-sit classroom.

The learner was responding to the following task:

‘You have been asked to give a talk to your class about your hobby or special interest to try to encourage others to get involved.
Write what you would say in your talk.’

In one lesson, a construction student studying Level 1 Maintenance Operations was overheard quietly saying to a friend “this feels much easier, doesn’t it?” When the teacher asked him if he would mind repeating this out loud and saying a bit more about what he meant, he was happy to and added further explanation saying that he “liked seeing a full example that didn’t seem too hard to do [himself]”. Seeing a hand-written response from one of their peers seemed to help things to feel real and doable.

The vast majority of learners were seen to be writing more over time, as the project progressed, and the quality of their work improved.

In their creative writing, learners’ descriptions improved when they wrote about something that they could relate to and had personally experienced. (See Appendix 5.) We found that learners who previously found it challenging to structure their creative writing, did better when they were encouraged to write about an experience with a very clear, tangible structure in real life, for example, running a race or going for a short walk. Learners were seen to do better when they were given a specific title, set by the teacher, and a hand-written example piece to evaluate first. Teachers reported that it was great to see the different ways that learners took the title and made it their own. One teacher was particularly heartened to see

Figure 1: One of the hand-written example pieces continued

Figure 1: One of the hand-written example pieces continued

how energised and enthused learners were in a lesson where she asked them to use the title ‘The Chase’ to inspire a piece of creative writing. The teacher chose this title because the class had been listening to the audiobook of ‘Orangeboy’ by Patrice Lawrence (Lawrence, 2016) at the start of every lesson and, in the part they listened to that day, the main character and his best friend were being chased as they tried to escape from their enemies. The teacher was fascinated to see how well the learners naturally built tension and suspense in their own writing, after listening to that part of the story. A general observation from teachers involved in the project was that learners did better when encouraged to write naturally, rather than being directed to consciously include any particular language techniques. When reflecting on Professor Brian Cox’s 1991 report (1991, cited in Bleiman, 2018) on English teaching in schools, Bleiman (2018) says that ‘If English in schools becomes ‘exam English’ or ‘school English’, with no real connection to the ‘real English’ or ‘full English’ that can be found in other contexts, then students will engage in ways of thinking and writing that will neither fulfil any of Cox’s roles for the subject, nor get them the best possible grades in exams.’ Our project findings certainly seem to support this notion. Authenticity was a key theme underpinning the approaches in our project. Learners made better progress when they were supported to make links between English and their lived experiences.

The same finding was true for transactional writing, in GCSE and Functional Skills lessons (see Appendix 6). Teachers also noticed that learners seemed more generally inquisitive as a result of some of the dialogic questioning. For example, in one lesson on transactional writing, the teacher spent some time asking the learners questions about a piece written by a learner from a previous year, where they shared their views on pets. The questions were designed to encourage critical evaluation of the piece, so that the learners would be able to learn from it and use the insights they’d gained when they wrote their own piece in the second half of the lesson. The learners all took an active part in the task and were seen to make excellent observations about the piece. Afterwards, the teacher asked if anybody had any other points they wanted to make or discuss. One learner asked what the teacher thought about pets. The task seemed to facilitate an open dialogue where the learners felt comfortable to express their opinions and ask questions. The learners all then went on to write their own piece, where they confidently expressed their own views on pets. Similarly, in a Functional Skills lesson, the teacher reported that, when the learner was prompted to use his own experience of eating in a canteen, it really helped him to get started and he could think of what to write.

Learning from this project

Through the project, we have learned that:

Learners’ writing improves when they can draw on their own lived experience and, therefore, teachers should embrace methods that facilitate this process.
Learners benefit from seeing hand-written example pieces, written by their peers. Learners seem to be even more interested in reading and learning from the piece if they perceive the author as similar to them, for example, pieces written by learners who had moved from a grade 3 to a grade 4 or above; learners who studied the same vocational course as them and learners who studied at the same college as them. We noticed that learners were far more interested in looking at examples that were hand-written, rather than typed, perhaps because of the added ‘believablilty factor’. Our learners often feel insecure about their writing ability, especially if they are not confident in the accuracy of their spelling or use of grammar. Seeing the hand-written examples was powerful because learners could appreciate for themselves that there are many others who struggle with similar things, and that writing doesn’t have to be perfect to still be brilliant in lots of ways. We would stress how important it was for our learners to be given the right time and space to notice the areas for improvement, as well as the positives in the example pieces. Example pieces should be chosen carefully, to ensure maximum benefit for the learners.

Learners benefit from planning their writing, particularly transactional writing tasks, and they do better when they have taken time to ensure they fully understand and appreciate the purpose, audience and type of task required. However, we noticed that the majority of learners found it unhelpful for teachers to use the words ‘purpose, audience and type’, as they were confused by what these terms meant in the context of planning writing tasks. Bleiman (2018) talks about negative symptoms of the widespread shift to a very narrow focus on exams in the English classroom and states that ‘[o]ne answer to this, for us, has been to try to encourage the teachers we meet to step back from the assessment and to encourage their students, at the start of the course, to do the same. Just as a Year 7 doesn’t need to see a GCSE question, so a GCSE or A Level student doesn’t need to know that 30% of a component goes on context, right from day one. Rather, they need to start applying contextual knowledge in well-judged ways and learn what it means to do that.’ Our learners were able to show excellent understanding and appreciation of the ‘purpose, audience and type’ required, but this was best achieved when teachers asked learners to “highlight the important parts of the question”, for example. Teachers then asked the learners specific questions, to ensure that they had a thorough understanding of the implications of the task in their writing. For example, if learners had highlighted the words ‘write a talk’ and ‘to deliver to your class’, the teacher might say “I see that you have highlighted the words ‘talk’ and ‘to deliver to your class’. How might you start your piece of writing to show you have really thought about these things?” Learners’ writing improved when they made highlighting and annotating the question a regular part of their planning process and were seen to be taking time to draw on their ‘real world’ experiences.

As teachers, we feel that this project has reminded us how important it is to come together regularly to reflect on what we are seeing in the classroom and to share effective teaching strategies. We look forward to continuing our journey, working collaboratively as we discover more strategies that help our learners.


Bleiman, B. (2018) ‘’Real English’ Versus ‘Exam English’- The Case For Authentic Experience of the Subject’, English Association Journal for Teachers of English, Volume 69 (3). Available at: (Accessed 28/06/2021)

Lawrence, P. (2016) Orangeboy. London: Hodder Children’s Books

Lawrence, P. (2016) Orangeboy. Narrated by Ben Bailey Smith. Available at: (Downloaded: 7th July 2020).