5b. Leicester College

Improving writing through teaching
grammar and style within the context of
authentic texts

Leicester College

This project aimed to move away from the traditional pattern of teaching writing. It focused on supporting learners to use studied texts as a starting point for discussing their writing choices. Learning was scaffolded to evaluate and develop specific parts of learners’ writing. There was progress in the phrasing and structure of learners’ writing, as well as improvement in their confidence in these skills.

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


Our thinking was informed by Myhill’s research (Making Meaning with Grammar: A repertoire of possibilities, 2011) with a focus on using selected grammatical structures from authentic texts to improve writing, rather than traditional discreet grammatical teaching. We considered that this would allow learners to see reading and writing as inextricably linked and encourage them to begin to see themselves as writers, making some of those same choices in their own writing, thus leading to improvements in writing quality.

Other Contextual Information

Our action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 Programme. Leicester College is a large multi-cultural inner city FE college, with several campuses. Most of the project focused on one campus where courses are mostly vocational and four learners, from the construction department, were approached to participate as part of a steering group. Also included were three adult learners from the online GCSE; these learners had elected to complete the qualification. Two others from a different campus were asked in January, as numbers were reduced after the November exam results. As the course materials had been rewritten to allow Myhill’s principles to be embedded and used for the whole cohort, views of staff from all three campuses were considered.

It became apparent that we need to acknowledge that this cohort is not the traditional grade 3 standard. The data reflects what we believed. We had entered 496 learners for the November exam: 8% achieved only grade 1 and 10% achieved a grade 2. These lower-level learners found it very difficult to articulate and discuss their grammatical choices, making the teachers’ job even harder than usual.


Our research was based on the promising results from Myhill’s research with schools. Although her participants were younger and had more lessons per week, we felt that we could apply some of the principles in the two hours a week that we had with our learners. We chose to apply the principles that we considered would have the greatest impact. Debra Myhill supported us throughout the research and herself advised that discussion was the most critical principle, particularly as the age group was different to those in her own research. She was available via email for us if we needed clarification or help and, before the project started, we were able to have a conversation with her over video call about the research.

Stage 1
The research began with some adult learners who were on the online GCSE course. These were very motivated and articulate. Our rationale was that the 16-18s were all being prepared to sit the November exam and we needed to focus on covering the whole syllabus in six weeks. These learners formed part of our stage 2 approach.

Authentic texts used for reading sessions served as a basis for learners’ writing. They were encouraged to be more imaginative in their choices and used these texts to mimic textual structures, particular phrases found in certain textual formats, and sentence construction. In addition, they were helped to examine choices that writers had made from authentic texts used in the lessons and to discuss why these choices may have been made, using principle three of Myhill’s research: ‘Build in high-quality discussion about grammar and its effects’.

This led on to the practical application of that learning in the writing part of each session. For example:

  • writing a section from a different viewpoint or in a different tense
  • using creative imitation, for instance to mimic a textual structure and sentence construction
  • improving and rewriting sections of writing after discussion and targeted feedback.

Stage 2
After the November exam, we had the opportunity to review how directed study was working. Learners who were making the expected progress and completing independent directed study to a good standard, remained on this timetable. However, learners who were not making progress, or not completing directed study on a regular basis, were placed in a supervised directed study session. These provided further opportunity for discussion with learners and for them to experiment with texts and target specific areas of their writing.

In December 2021, the Skills for Life team were contacted with resources and help given, to enable them to join with us to apply and look at the impact of some of these principles. They did not participate directly in the research but did begin to apply many of our suggestions in their teaching.

The rest was continued as above, although some participants were able to complete in January 2022, as they had passed the November exam and were no longer on the qualification.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

We achieved all our objectives and we feel that we have a framework that will be even more successful next academic year, once we are back in the classroom for two sessions each week, as that would give us more chance for discussion and explanation.

Every learner found it helpful to ‘borrow’ from authentic texts and to play around with grammatical structures in their own writing and again these learners reported that they felt less ‘overwhelmed’ by the writing process and more able than before to write something with a hint of style. Within class, all were able to discuss their choices and improve paragraphs to a much higher standard. All students were then able to apply this to longer pieces of writing, although the standard was not always maintained. However, their writing generally improved; it was no longer fossilised.

Results in writing tasks proved more creative from an early point in the year than usual, because of the mimicking of writing styles. Many learners have performed better in Paper 1 writing assessments in exam conditions than we have seen in recent years. In every case, learners have improved their writing in class and in mock exams, but some improved significantly. The minimum improvement from the diagnostic writing at the start of the year for those in the steering group (who sat the mock exam), was a 12% increase [+3], with the highest increase being 32.5% [+13]. Although those figures reflected all steering group members across two sites and including the adults, they were mirrored when we split the results between the two sites. More details on individual improvements, and examples of learner writing and comments from them, are included in the appendices.

Pleasingly, Freeman’s Park Campus learners had performed well with all taking the final assessment and achieving the above, (see Appendix 2). Exam pressure seemed to reduce the standard compared to what they had been able to complete in less pressured settings; we must remember that this cohort of 16-18s have been severely impacted by the pandemic and sat very few exams as a result. However, they were able to apply some of what they had learned, with one in particular improving radically.

Abbey Park Campus included the adult online learners who were undertaking distance learning. However, one 16-18 learner chose to leave the mock assessment due to anxiety and did not complete it, and the adult learners involved had started at a far higher level, but there was still a 22.5% to 25% increase from their diagnostic writing, (see Appendix 2).

Impact on Staff

Three teachers have been fully involved in this research with each having learners who had agreed to be part of the steering group. However, the whole team has been teaching in this way throughout the year, as the resources that were written before teaching began were written with these principles embedded. All staff attended an East Midlands Regional Network event with Debra Myhill as the guest speaker, on Strategies to Improve Learner Writing. They also watched further podcasts and read a precis of her research for delivering teaching in this way, prior to the start of teaching and before the research. Professor Debra Myhill herself has been keen to support us in our research and has given advice on how to apply the principles to this young adult cohort.

Staff who are active participants have responded that they have felt more involved, supported and valued than usual. One felt that:

‘the framework of the project has allowed everybody to feel ‘equal’ ‘.

They feel that this is the beginning of something that is effective, and they are pleased that we plan to continue this approach in the next academic year. More detailed responses are included in Appendix 3.

We were able to broadcast our research at a national level as a member of our team also works part time for Edexcel and was asked to present our research at Edexcel’s national webinar to 65 delegates, which was well received.

Staff have attended training on developing writing delivered by the ETF. One recently elected to do more training on Development Day. The Project Lead attended Investigating Grammar – Supporting Your Learners to Understand How Texts Work and Developing Grammar for Reading and Writing. This was disseminated to the full team, who had been unable to attend.

Overall, staff felt that this method has applied better to imaginative writing (than transactional), given our time constraints of one lesson a week this year; it has certainly been easier to teach and monitor the impact. However, in terms of results in mocks, we have seen a strong increase in scores for Paper 2 (transactional writing); perhaps the modelling of phrases and textual format fed into increased results there. Going forward, we can look again at how we can better embed it into transactional writing resources also, with the re-introduction of two lessons a week next academic year along with the removal of directed study, there will be more time for discussion and detailed feedback.

Impact on students

Typical responses from 16-18 steering group members are:

  • So many of the forced resit students have taken the GCSE 3-5 times (if they have been entered for November exams) and have lost hope in their abilities. However, being approached to be part of a steering group and having regular discussions about their work and grammatical choices has meant that all learner participants have reacted well to this attention and seem to be beginning to believe that they can improve.
  • Staff observed that, with these ‘stepping stones’ to their ultimate goal, learners have begun to see the link between reading and writing, which has helped them to begin to see themselves as writers; their writing has improved. They also feel that learners initially joined the research to help us, but have discovered the benefit and are now totally committed to this process.
  • Students fed back that authentic texts give them a structure and a framework as a starting point. They have clearer options and the development and rewriting of one or two paragraphs, rather than the whole, has meant that it is not so ‘overwhelming’.
  • The adult learners involved responded well, although they naturally took part in less ‘discussion’. This was via online chat initially. To facilitate this, we recently created an online group tutorial session for discussions and support. This has proved so effective that this will be included in next year’s programme for this course.

Organisational Development

A range of learners was considered. From the Online GCSE our adults range from 19-50. This was offered to all, but only some females agreed to join. With our mainstream 16-18s, Freemen’s Park Campus learners were asked, both male and female but only males responded. Learners were selected because we felt that they would be honest and were attending classes regularly.

We have positive and collaborative relationships with the three other parts of our college who teach GCSE English Language, but, whilst they were keen to learn from us and were sent detailed information on our research and given access to Myhill’s research, they did not want to play an active part, becoming indirect participants. Firstly, the GCSE team within the Skills for Life Department have been applying some of the suggestions for improving writing and have also been developing reading using suggestions which we shared with them from the Project Lead’s time as an Edexcel examiner.

Secondly, in the ESOL Department, the GCSE teacher, has been applying the discussion principle, however much of her teaching of grammar must be discreet, given the needs of their learners. Time has been set aside to collaborate with these departments to share our findings.

Finally, throughout the year I have had positive and constructive conversations with my counterpart in Functional Skills. She has also applied the idea of using authentic texts as a basis for her learners, but again, was not an active participant.

Learning from this project

We discovered that, as a team, we were naturally reflective practitioners, it was embedded in our practice, but this was an opportunity to reflect weekly on the application of broader principles.

What went well

  • Using the same text for both the reading and writing lessons proved helpful in providing a good example that could be mimicked or borrowed from, in terms of words, structure and rhetorical devices.
  • Learners felt valued and involved in the process and were better able to articulate their thoughts.
  • Learners began to believe that they could write.
  • Learners felt less overwhelmed by the writing tasks and the blank page. They were given a starting place that felt achievable.
  • Learners began to see themselves as writers and to think about their writing choices and to experiment with writing in different ways and styles. It gave them a framework.
  • Students gained in confidence and their ability to use style in the writing improved. It also had the added benefit of them spotting more devices and style, in the reading texts from established writers that we used, thus increasing their scores in the reading section.

Even better if

  • Our understanding of the research and how it would be applied, has developed throughout the year. As we wrote all the study guides in June and July 2021, our ideas have changed. Going forward we will be more explicit about which grammatical structures we choose to concentrate on making it clearer in next year’s resources.
  • The time frame was short and we had to write the materials before we had fully grasped the principles. Not all staff who were involved in writing the course materials had fully grasped the ideas so a small amount of material was ‘misguided’ leading to plagiarism, rather than a base from which to mimic grammatical structures.
  • It would have been better to have begun this across all cohorts at the start of the year. However, we had entered everyone for the November exam so could only start with the adult online GCSE learners, which limited its scope. Next year, we are not entering students en masse and so will be able to be more playful with texts from the onset.
  • The project had to start before we could choose our learners with any insight, so sometimes our choices were, in hindsight, not the best.

Professional Development

By its nature, our research applied a theoretical understanding of effective practice in teaching, learning and assessment, as we drew upon Myhill’s research and sought to apply some principles of it, albeit differently, to our context. We have chosen to focus on three professional standards. Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

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

    Engaging in this research has enabled us to focus on the particular needs of learners on one campus, whilst applying it to two other groups of learners, who are more academic. We have been able to judge whether our research has made a difference to writing that, for many, had appeared ‘fossilised’.

    Using existing research by Myhill’s team which was conducted on a younger cohort with more regular English lessons, we have been able to apply some of the principles and measure their impact on students. It has meant that learners were able to have a dialogue with teachers on how they learn and what has helped them.

    The steering group’s responses and regular feedback ‘in the moment’, enabled us to build upon the research and apply it more specifically to the learners in our college.
    We have been better able to appreciate learners’ reactions to the chosen texts and to the way that these have been applied.

    We have already begun to make changes to the way that we teach and amend resources, in view of these.

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

    As reflective practitioners, we review, improve and rewrite our resources every year to continue to meet the diverse needs of our learners. Our evaluative process is always rigorous; we try to make changes to value cultural diversity, to motivate and connect with our learners, who have often lost interest and hope. However, this research gave us the time to evaluate throughout the year in a meaningful way and to gather students’ views too.

    It was helpful to challenge our own views of what would work. We are keen to act on the recommendations of the steering group and embed this research further. Staff fed back that they feel better teachers now that they have the choice to explore, put into practice and then properly reflect on individual professional practice. We also feel that this has helped us to be more collaborative and has prepared us for the trial of changing to a new specification of the GCSE at this campus.

  • 3. Inspire, motivate and raise aspirations of learners through your enthusiasm and knowledge.

    Staff observed that, because we taught generally demotivated resit students, in some cases we had reduced our expectations of our students’ capabilities and therefore reduced the challenge too much. However, this research has re-envisioned and re-enthused staff, as well as students.

    It also provided the chance to break the traditional pattern of teaching writing; much of this was a challenge for our teachers. We are beginning to gently push learners more and expect more of them. This research has created a space for 1:1 time with individual learners and this discussion of writing choices has been critical to the improvements seen in students’ writing.
    Being involved in the steering group with a view to making changes, has proved motivating for learners. Some of these have begun to acknowledge that they are improving and have shared that the writing process is now feeling less ‘overwhelming’ as they can ‘borrow’ some style from the texts that they consider in class. This increased enthusiasm and recognition that that the teachers are undertaking research has begun to make a positive difference to learners’ attitudes.


This project was carried out (and report written) by Caroline Weedon (Project Lead) and Michelle Bilby (Project Deputy) alongside their project team: Maria Leah, Rehana Pirmahomed and Beth Kemp.

With thanks to their mentor Dianne Robinson and Research Group Lead Claire Callow, for their support.


Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Staff responses on the impact of the research on them


Myhill, D. et al, (2011), mETAphor Issue 2, ‘Making Meaning with Grammar: A repertoire of possibilities’, University of Exeter [Accessed April 2021] [Accessed April 2021]
[Accessed 4 November 2021]