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4c: Preston College

Freewriting: a Key to Unlocking Our GCSE English Resit Learners

Preston College

This project explored breaking down barriers to writing and empowering learners to explore and trust their own thoughts and ideas. By responding to prompts, learners soon produced creative stories with relative ease, and some were able to write stories that meet the requirement for GCSE grade 5 and above.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).

Rationale

Too often, learners studying English arrive with a fixed mindset of failure; ‘I failed before, so I’m just not good at it’. This mindset shifts focus to confidence and resilience-building, curtailing already limited time to practise and improve reading and writing.
Typically, the creative writing component of the GCSE course is met with much resistance. Creative Writing is often perceived as ‘foreign ground’ or an ‘unnatural component’. Learners seem to perceive it as one step too far. Most are reluctant to put pen to paper and those who do get caught up in self-doubt, self-editing, and fear of being judged.
This project sought to ‘unlock’ behaviours associated with a fixed mindset. We aimed to convert learners to a growth mindset where they can:

  • think of themselves as writers
  • develop the positive habit of writing creatively for their own interest and enjoyment
  • meet the GCSE English Language criteria by writing a clear, descriptive, creative story that demonstrates a good standard of skills.

Our inspiration was Peter Elbow’s ‘Writing Without Teachers’ (1973). Chapter 2 starts, ‘Most people’s relationship to the process of writing is one of helplessness.’ That’s where we were. (See Appendix 3: Project Lead’s inspiration and reflection).

Other Contextual Information

Our action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 Programme. Four teachers participated from the English Department at Preston College, a general further education college in Lancashire. We worked primarily with L1, 2 and 3 GCSE English learners, but included a non-accredited SEND group and, later, an accredited Functional Skills English SEND group.

Our mission at Preston College is, ‘making our learners the most employable, now and in the future.’ As English skills play an important role in our learners’ employability, it is taught as a core subject, essential for employment and higher education. Teaching staff are well-equipped to contend with ‘resit’ culture and the college’s core values create a strong foundation as we aspire not only to teach English, but to build our learners’ confidence and resilience along the way.



Approach

Initially, learners were given an A5 notebook with a creative handwritten depiction of the narrative story arc and one of two quotes on the cover: ‘You can make anything by writing’ by C.S. Lewis and ‘Writing is the best way to talk without being interrupted’ by Jules Renard.

Learners also had access to ‘fancy’ coloured gel pens for their freewriting. Every writing session began with a set prompt, chosen by the teacher. Learners were instructed to write without stopping for ten minutes. The following parameters were given: no worrying about spelling, punctuation, and grammar; no talking; no questions; no editing; just writing until the timer stops.

Teachers aimed to complete the freewriting exercises with learners and make observations of their reactions to the exercises. We recorded whether they wrote intermittently, continuously, or not at all. We recorded whether they engaged in any resistant behaviour or low-level disruption, such as talking, asking questions or use of mobile phones, and physical behaviours like getting out of their seats or fidgeting. Learners were told that notebooks would be anonymised, and that self and peer review activities would take place later in the process.

As the project evolved, we found that we could not make adequate observations and complete the freewriting exercises. Writing continuously and in silence did not meet the needs of our learners and seemed to increase resistance, so we opened up to a variety of methods. Some parts were done in silence, some with discussion. We collected learner feedback and responded to concerns about how we were approaching the freewriting. We opened up to questioning and increased the time and frequency of the freewriting, got rid of the timer, and linked the freewriting to session content, images, or let learners choose from a list of their own prompts. Some groups engaged in sharing their writing when comfort levels allowed, and some opted to share verbally and through discussion. Some preferred not to share.

When we began the narrative writing aspect of our research as a department, the freewriting book became ‘the notebook’ where learners did their freewriting, starters, and creative writing. The freewriting was then integrated seamlessly into both reading and writing lessons, rather than perceived as a ‘stand-alone’ starter. Freewriting could be initiated at any point in the lesson, alongside other activities designed to improve learners’ creative writing.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

Both teacher and learner participants recognised that, for the majority, practising freewriting before assessment had a positive impact on assessment performance. Improvement was noted across quality of content, spelling, punctuation, grammar, and word count for some learners. Learners articulated this improvement as a change in confidence, a way to get organised, calm down and prepare, adopting freewriting as a class ‘ritual’. The teacher participants also agreed that the freewriting has resulted in most learners engaging with and enjoying writing, and most responding to it with interest. Teacher participants reported positive outcomes of gaining opportunities for reflective practice, collaboration and collecting learner feedback as well as increased confidence in teaching story writing. The most inspiring outcome unfolding is that our learners want to write good, creative stories, full of surprises and palpable tension and description. In short, they now know that they are writers, and they have goals and aspirations.

The research team have observed the following early outcomes for learners:

  • Most learners no longer resist the practice of freewriting
  • Most learners have written at least one creative short story early on
  • Some GCSE learners have written outstanding stories, which would achieve high grade (5 and above) for GCSE English Language.

GCSE learners reported positive outcomes, including:

It’s helped:

  • me become creative with story writing
  • me to plan and organise my writing
  • to clear my mind
  • make my writing clearer.

and:

  • working as a team to gather ideas was helpful
  • I liked to put the plan in my freewriting book
  • it gave time to think about the question
  • I like that we could write about anything
  • it released the mind of prior stress so, with the real question, I can improve on my writing.

SEND learners also reported positive outcomes, including:

  • increased confidence and willingness to share their writing with peers, family and friends
  • increased writing. Learners are now writing 2 – 3 pages
  • learners are asking questions around how to improve, without being prompted.


Organisational Development

This action research project has opened a collaborative space in our department. Teacher participants have enjoyed a monthly lunch meeting where we can share progress and challenges and brainstorm ways to approach shared objectives in future. We do not currently have any other meetings or spaces for this. We have established a collaborative community of practice, not only about teaching creative writing, but teaching the GCSE English and Functional Skills curriculum as a whole.

This community has enabled all participants to remain open and honest about our teaching as we share good practice and learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses. This was particularly beneficial in terms of how learners were provided with prompts, how they gave feedback and how we recognised their writing. Resources were shared, tried, and amended. Lessons learned were disseminated and used to inform next steps.

Future plans include extending the project cross-college as online CPD training will be rolled out by the project team to help meet the OFSTED target of embedding English across Vocational areas. Both the Quality and research teams agree that this initiative will also foster good practice in terms of inter-department collaboration and support.

Learning from this project


See also Appendix 5: Uncomfortable Lessons

Regularly ask learners for feedback to ensure we are meeting their needs

Teachers need to remind themselves to collect feedback regularly to evaluate and challenge practice and meet learner needs. The information collected here has been invaluable. It is crucial that we ‘tap into source’ and remain mindful of learner views and experience. We are now questioning other aspects of the course and how collecting learner feedback could improve teaching and learning.

Respond to feedback in a clear, open and honest manner

The real catalyst for change was what we did with feedback. Ensuring that learners understand the purpose of freewriting, and reassuring them of how to go about it, was a step forward and a way to gain trust. Making explicit use of learner feedback in the classroom was a turning point as it acknowledged and valued their contributions to the process.

It is worth shifting the focus from curriculum to skills building

The teaching and learning year is usually based on a set curriculum. In July, as teachers we already know ‘what we should be working on’ on any given date. The curriculum has prescribed what we do in the classroom day to day. In this post Covid-19 year, we have been forced to pause, take stock, and listen to learners. (See also Appendix 6: Shifting the Focus from Curriculum to Skills Building Post Covid-19).

The most significant finding from learner feedback was that they wanted more time. Freewriting was another way to achieve the ultimate goal: creating literate, competent writers. There was a lot to gain by breaking away from the comfort of routine and, ultimately, nothing to lose.

Assessment is not the only way to measure progress and learning

According to a report that compares school standards in 22 countries, ‘English children are tested longer, harder and younger than anywhere else in the world’ (Woolcock 2008). Our research confirmed that over-assessment seems to do our learners more harm than good.

I [the project lead] observed some learners thrive in their freewriting, persuasive, and story writing only to perform poorly at formal assessment. I observed learners growing from the joy they were experiencing in their own writing and absolutely seizing up when presented with a timed assessment of the same type of task. Our research outcomes have led us to recommend that teachers find innovative ways to reduce assessment and approach their teaching with an attitude that the proof is in the process. The pudding will come.

Trust in teacher professionalism and establish time for a community of practice to meet regularly

This project has enabled us to be proactive about meeting our needs: sharing good practice and lessons learned, confidence building and feeling supported by a community. Action research is already a part of teaching and perhaps we should behave as such. (See also Appendix 7: Creating Space).

As teachers of writing, our job initially is to help learners find and value their voice

I learned that if our learners don’t recognise and value their own voices enough to write, progress is not possible. Much as we are teaching our learners to write, we are teaching them how to organise and trust their thoughts and feelings. English teachers need this to be recognised and we need the space to achieve this with confidence. This means less formal assessment and prescription around how to deliver competent readers and writers. The action research process forced me to create that space and do what I felt was right, given the circumstances. (See also Appendix 8: Teacher Reflections).

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

See also Appendix 4: Professional Standard 3 Inspiring, motivating and raising aspirations of learners.


  • 1. Reflect on what works best in your teaching and learning to meet the diverse needs of learners

    Our project has created an opportunity for teachers to examine our methods and how our learners respond to these. Whilst we are keen on learner reflection, we had forgotten the importance of teacher reflection. Teachers kept a journal to record what was and was not working in our classrooms. We brought the journal to our monthly meetings to collect lessons learned and ideas for next steps. Because of the nature of the challenge, it was very important that we met learner needs. After all, they could just not write, something we observed early on. It was vital that we examined what we were doing, asked learners what they needed and responded appropriately. Had we not engaged in this consistent reflection, we could not have moved forward and would not have achieved our current positive outcomes.

  • 2. Evaluate and challenge your practice, values and beliefs.

    We created a space where the team could reconnect with this professional standard. The project dictated that we experiment, get feedback and, more importantly, reflect on feedback to evaluate and revise our practice, values and beliefs. We had been following a rigid curriculum where learners were prescribed story prompts and tasked with writing and revising (usually) the same story throughout the unit. The project enabled the learners and teachers to try new prompts and new topics every session. We observed how learners were responding, thought about what we were doing and changed how we were delivering the prompts and what they were.

  • 13. Motivate and inspire learners to promote achievement and develop their skills to enable progression.

    In the interim stages of the project, my [the project lead’s] learners and I transformed our writing sessions into ‘workshops.’ We were ‘vibing’ – connecting, making references to pop culture, science fiction, social media, discussing possibilities for their writing and acknowledging what went well, what could be better, what outcomes they wanted when the story was over, etc. It seemed a love for stories and writing was infectious after all.
    Learners wanted to write better stories. They wanted to get the dialogue, spelling, punctuation, and grammar right. They are accepting responsibility and feeling accountable for their own stories.

Appendices

Appendix 1: The Project Team

Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Project Lead’s inspiration and reflection

Appendix 4: Professional standard 3: Inspiring, motivating and raising aspirations of learners

Appendix 5: Learning from this project (Uncomfortable Lessons)

Appendix 6: Shifting the focus from Curriculum to Skills Building Post-Covid

Appendix 7: Creating Space

Appendix 8: Teacher Reflections

Appendix 9: Learner Feedback Video

References

Asraf, M. (2018). ‘Using Focused Freewriting to Stimulate Ideas and Foster Critical Thinking During Prewriting’, TESOL International Journal, vol 13, no 4, Pages 67-81. Available at: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1244111.pdf (Accessed: 15 February 2022).

Elbow, P. (1973). ‘Writing Without Teachers’. 25th Edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Woolcock, N. (2008). ‘English children are most tested in the world’, The Times (London), 8 February 2008, Page 31. Available at: https://cprtrust.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Times_English_children_are_most_tested_in_the_wor.pdf (Accessed: 16 February 2022).

4b: North Lincolnshire ACL

How to create a ‘fast track’ L2 FS English curriculum model, with positive impact on attendance and achievement rates

North Lincolnshire Council Adult Education and Community Learning

This project allowed our service to evaluate and revise the way that we design and deliver our English Functional Skills, Level 2 curriculum. We are now able to successfully provide a condensed, intensive, and fast track English curriculum for individual learners who can complete the full Level 2 qualification in a total of 17 weeks.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).

Rationale

Before starting this project, the Senior Lead Tutor had conducted research into how other adult education and community learning (AECL) providers deliver ‘Fast Track’ English courses. Historically, North Lincolnshire Council AECL has only provided a very traditional approach to delivering Functional Skills (FS) English at Level 1 and Level 2, in the form of a programme running from September to July, with learners completing all exams and assessments at the end of the academic year. Increasingly, tutors within the English department were finding that more academically able Level 2 learners were being ‘held back’ by this delivery model. Similarly, tutors were becoming increasingly concerned about allowing learners onto courses towards the end of the academic year when the course had been running since September.

A university centre opened in Scunthorpe in September 2018 and over the past 2-3 years there has been an increase in the aspirations of the local area, as adults can now progress without having to travel further afield, fitting in with work and family life. After IAG with the university, learners are being referred to AECL, as entry requirements include Level 2 FS English. This often occurs later in the academic year, so we recognised the need to revise the programme to enable learners to achieve their English qualifications by the University’s September intake.

In addition, the pandemic has prompted a lot of self-evaluation for people who have reflected on their personal and work lives, and now want to develop themselves. However, many jobs and qualifications have a minimum requirement of Level 2 FS English. As a result, some adults have been frustrated and do not want to wait a full year to gain a qualification, which is ‘just’ a steppingstone to their future goal. An example of this is from one of our September 2021 intake,

“I’ve been in aviation for 30 years but my passion is the ambulance service. I applied for the Yorkshire ambulance service, got through all testing but was denied the post due to education history and no English GCSE.”

(Diane)

Examples from learners who started the qualification in February 2022 and needed the English qualification before September include:

“I want to go back to college in September to do Level 3 in Engineering. I need this qualification before September.” (Jake)

“I need to achieve a higher English grade so that I can progress to University in September.” (Natalie)

“I already work as a social worker but need the Level 2 FS English qualification to secure my job in the sector. I need the qualification quickly as I am also going to University in September.” (Shandel)

The focus of this research project has been to investigate and evaluate whether NLCACL can successfully deliver a condensed version of the English Functional Skills curriculum, to allow specific learners to progress quickly onto their chosen next steps and meet their personal goals and aspirations.

Other Contextual Information

Our action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 Programme, the action research taking place in the English department of our Adult Education section. We worked with two different cohorts of Level 2 learners to explore and evaluate the success of a 13-week, ‘Fast Track’ English Functional Skills curriculum. Because of the intensive nature of the programme and the time commitments expected of learners during the course, the first cohort of learners was selected by academic ability assessed through initial and diagnostic assessment.

On reflection, we identified that we needed to take a more holistic approach to the selection process and consider the learners’ motivation, time factors, commitments, IT skills and ability to learn independently. This was recognised when learners expected the tutor to be available at all hours. As part of our destination collection, one learner gave feedback

“You should have someone on hand throughout the week. As it is a fast track course it would be better to have someone available full time in case we have any questions.”



Approach

Networking with other AECL providers to research current methods of ‘Fast Track’ delivery:

  • Senior Lead Tutor set up networking meeting with seven other AECL providers, prior to undertaking project.
  • Research undertaken to investigate the varying ‘Fast Track’ models and to evaluate the most suitable.

Recruit learners for new course:

  • Create promotional material regarding new course type (see Appendix 2)

Ensure learners are appropriate candidates:

  • More robust initial and diagnostic assessment used
  • Step 1: ‘in house’ initial assessment to gauge rough level and assess personal commitment and motivations
  • Step 2: attend ‘Preparation for Online Learning’ workshop and complete more detailed and level specific ‘My Dynamic Learning’ initial assessment which generates percentage score.
  • Step 3: complete ‘My Dynamic Learning’ diagnostic assessment to identify existing knowledge and skills gaps (appendix 3)
  • Step 4: if learners score above 80% in initial assessment, then offer place on Fast Track course.
  • Step 5: Reflection and evaluation of the programme after the first cohort
  • Step 6: Revise the initial assessment process to include a more holistic approach

Decide on timings/ structure of course:

  • Previous networking revealed that the average length of a ‘Fast Track’ course was 13 weeks.
  • Decision to start with the reading unit first, as this knowledge needed to be secure before starting the next units. Six weeks were spent on this with a mock exam paper used as a summative assessment.
  • Speaking and listening was delivered second, for a total of two weeks including the assessment. This was because the tutor decided to run the assessments during the half-term break in October. Doing it this way allowed the learners to apply their reading skills orally before moving on to the writing unit.
  • Writing was delivered last, with a delivery time of 5 weeks. This was the final component of the course as the learners had to thoroughly understand and evaluate the varying reading techniques and skills, before beginning to apply them within their own writing.

Review and plan delivery of curriculum:

  • Originally, the speaking and listening component was due be delivered after the completion and achievement of the reading unit. However, this was brought forward into the middle of the reading unit, as learners felt confident completing this sooner.
  • Data collected from initial and diagnostic assessments was analysed to make informed decisions about how long to spend on each topic and which method of delivery was going to be used. This has now been evaluated and revised to include more holistic information. For the second cohort we have taken into consideration the learners’ overall commitment and motivation for completing the course in a short timeframe, as this will have an impact on their success.

Plan contingency for exam failures:

  • If learners failed exams, plans were put into place to provide a one-to-one tutorial-style delivery to provide personalised support in their areas for development.

Outcomes and Impact

As a result of the action research project for cohort 1:

  • 5 learners enrolled on the course
  • 100% of learners who took their exams passed (4 out of 5).
  • All learners passed the speaking and listening unit.
  • All learners passed the reading unit
  • 4 out of 5 passed the writing unit
  • 1 learner didn’t take the writing exam due to extenuating personal circumstances

Cohort 2 started in February 2022:

  • 7 learners enrolled on the course
  • All learners have passed the speaking and listening unit
  • All learners are making good progress and will take the reading exam on 26 May 2022 and have passed 2 practice papers
  • The writing exam is due to be completed by the end of June 2022

Although the intensity and length of the course cannot be directly linked to the success of the learners, they are now able to apply for their university courses and sustain employment and progress towards their goals and aspirations as a direct result of the Fast Track delivery model. For example, one of learners gave the following feedback:

“Completing the course has helped me gain the level of qualification that was required for the job that I want to do.”

(Adrian)

Feedback from the tutor indicated that, due to learners’ personal and work commitments, the intensity of the course has meant that they retained knowledge and addressed misconceptions more effectively. Learners have given feedback, in their tutorials, that they would have struggled with this over a longer 36-week period.

This project has allowed our service to provide a more challenging, intensive and personalised programme to a specific group of learners which has never been done before, carefully considering and heavily weighting personal motivation and commitment to the course.

It has allowed both tutors and senior management to review the current delivery model to ensure that it is appropriate, challenging, and timely for learners to complete the relevant qualification. By completing this project, tutors have been able to review and evaluate the structure and sequencing of the Level 2 curriculum to ensure that no learner is held back in their progress towards achieving the qualification due to time constraints, e.g. waiting until the end of the academic year. Due to the success of the project, tutors are now discussing whether this delivery model can be replicated for level one English learners and also maths learners.

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

As a result of undertaking this project, teaching, learning and assessment has been heavily reviewed. Historically, a Functional Skills level 2 course at North Lincolnshire AECL has been delivered over an average of 36 weeks in the academic year. The tutor delivering this new ‘Fast Track’ course has had to meticulously reflect upon, review and evaluate the structure and sequencing of the curriculum and teaching activities to ensure that it can be effectively condensed in to 13 weeks, carefully planning and scheduling assessments and relevant exams. As part of this process, the course delivery model will be extended to 17 weeks in the Autumn Term 2022. This will allow for more tutorial time, in response to learners’ feedback, such as:

“One to one tutorials were very helpful and more of these would be useful in the future.”

(Adrian)

Furthermore, the tutor has reflected that speaking and listening assessments needed more tutor-led input to strengthen these skills for learners to be more competent. Another key factor that has led to lengthening the fast-track model is because the first cohort were required to attend their assessments out of term time, which caused issues for some learners around childcare, and tutor workload.

Due to such an intensive programme, teaching, learning and assessment has become more rapidly responsive to learners’ gaps in knowledge and emerging needs (see Appendix 3.1). This was to ensure that misconceptions or misunderstandings can be swiftly dealt with and support mechanisms put into place effectively by the tutor in a very short time frame. The data collected at the initial and diagnostic assessment processes was key when prioritising certain learning outcomes and skills areas. It was appropriate for some learning outcomes to be omitted from face-to-face teaching activities and substituted with online learning using our chosen platform: learners had already shown strong skills within these areas, only needing a knowledge recap on their understanding. Using this platform allowed the tutor to provided differentiated resources according to learners’ abilities. After further reflection from the tutor, a new self-study area will be added to Google Classroom. This will provide learners with a wider range of learning resources for each topic that will lead to more opportunities for independent study, for example, You Tube links, websites, example banks, bite-size tutor instructional videos etc.

In addition to the above, tutors are currently working on creating a discussion board for each topic to promote learners to discuss their dilemmas with peers. The expected impact of this will be to enable learners to seek peer as well as tutor support. This will also help develop study skills to support their future progress and personal goals.

Similarly, the tutor had to carefully plan and appropriately schedule key assessments to ensure that learners’ understanding, knowledge and long-term retention was evident, throughout the three main components. The completion of such assessments allowed the tutor to tailor and adapt her teaching activities accordingly, to ensure learners were fully prepared and ready to complete their exams. It was crucial that the tutor knew her learners and their abilities well so that she could support and challenge each learner individually. Additional time was given to the tutor delivering this course to ensure that all learner work could be marked promptly and teaching activities adapted within a very small time frame, as at least double the amount of topics and learning outcomes were delivered each week compared to a ‘normal’ Functional Skills Level 2 course.



Organisational Development

Working practices were developed within the English subject area due to the large-scale review and evaluation of the curriculum that was undertaken. Regular meetings were crucial to review and evaluate the progression of learners and to problem-solve any arising issues promptly. As a result, the project lead had a close oversight of how the project and the learners were progressing. Learners were heavily involved in ongoing course evaluation as the tutor regularly collated learner voice to evaluate the delivery of the course. Learners knew that they were the first cohort of Fast Track learners and, therefore, an open and reflective culture was created by the tutor to encourage their reliable and valid feedback.

Learning from this project


Our main learning point has been that we, as a service, are able to provide a successful offer to a particular group of learners. Previously, a very traditional approach was taken towards delivering Functional Skills English. However, we now have confidence in our ability to provide a differentiated offer, more responsive to the needs of our learners.

After evaluating the availability of a second cohort for the project, it became evident that six out of seven learners could attend as one group on an evening. The seventh learner, who was of very high ability, has a young child and could only attend in the day. For this reason, we chose to create a more holistic approach. We are now delivering one fast-track class in an evening, and a tutorial-based session during the daytime for the other learner. This tutorial-based method of delivery will facilitate a flexible roll-on, roll-off programme.

(For further learning and reflection on adaptations in teaching and learning approaches, and marketing see Appendix 7)

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.


  • 15. Promote the benefits of technology and support learners in its use.

    Both learners and tutor have relied heavily on the online learning platform to support activities. An informed decision was made by the tutor to omit some topics from face-to-face teaching and substitute these with the online learning platform which has played a large role in progression and achievement. However, feedback from learners has led to further evaluation and therefore tutors are exploring other online options to support self-study.

  • 17. Enable learners to share responsibility for their own learning and assessment, setting goals that stretch and challenge.

    More emphasis has been placed on learner’s personal motivation, commitment, and responsibility for their own learning. A proactive culture has been created whereby learners have taken this responsibility very seriously to ensure that they are progressing well towards achievement.

  • 18. Apply appropriate and fair methods of assessment and provide constructive and timely feedback to support progression and achievement.

    Our project has allowed us to review and evaluate the most appropriate and fair methods of assessment for such an intensive course. The tutor has had to provide timely and highly effective feedback to support learner progression and achievement due to the shorter, more intense timescale of the course.