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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).