Our approach to teaching writing is similar to the exercise programme, with easy-to-achieve goals leading to long-term success.

Writing – the process of making marks to express ideas – is a verb, an action, and as such is not nearly so amenable to study in the way we normally approach it as we would wish. Maybe it is not in fact a ‘skill’.

The only way we can teach children to acquire skills is to try to break the skill in question down into the knowledge it is composed of, teach that, and then get students to practice applying that knowledge. This being the case, it ought to be obvious that teaching writing can never be a ‘once and done’ operation. Whilst the required knowledge of how to write could, conceivably, be taught just once, the practice required to acquire any degree of skill is a continuous process. What this suggests is that the teaching of writing might best be served by a ‘little and often approach’.

How we tend to go about asking students to write is often counter-productive. Daisy Christodoulou’s observation that effective practice tends not to resemble the final performance is well rehearsed; her metaphor of the kind of training required to run a marathon is a useful way to think about writing instruction.[i] But, as most of us never run marathons, maybe it’s a more useful analogy to think in terms of getting students to write the equivalent of a five-kilometre run. As you’re probably well aware, the NHS’s Couch to 5K programme kicks off with interspersing periods of walking with 60-second runs. For anyone unused to running, 60 seconds is a challenge, but – for the most part – an achievable one. We are motivated by our success to believe that running for 90 seconds is also achievable and that, in time and with practice, we’ll be able to run for five kilometres if we stick to the programme. Any who has used the Couch to 5k app will probably remember some of the useful nuggets of running instruction: advice on keeping your head still, or how to use your arms, how to breath, which anyone can immediately apply and see improvements.

But imagine if the Couch to 5k exercise programme took a similar approach to the way we tend to teach writing. Imagine if, on downloading the app, you were expected to run 5 kilometres straight away. What would you do? The vast majority of us would quit immediately. This is precisely what happens to far too many students faced with the expectation to complete extended analytical essays. And those who do persevere rarely acquire the fluency and freedom that we, their teachers, seem to apply so effortlessly.

The notion of C25K writing is simple: we aim to make students technically proficient, through explicitly teaching how to master a range of written styles and to practice applying this knowledge to the point where it becomes ingrained. Then students will be able to apply this hard-won skill to whatever texts they encounter.

The principles of C25K writing are: 

  1. Gapless instruction: the reason why so many students fail to improve is that teachers tend to make assumptions about what students understand. Every assumption is gap into which some students will fall. Our approach is to attempt to eliminate gaps so that all students can be successful writers.
  2. Success before struggle: too many students believe they are bad at writing. To build motivation we focus on getting students to experience success early and often before expecting them to persevere with anything more difficult
  3. Less for longer: students are routinely rushed into extended writing before they have mastered the sentence. Our approach is focused on sentence-level mastery which we repeat not until students can write well, but until they can no longer write badly.
  4. Practice makes permanent: what we repeatedly do we get good at. This comes with a downside: if students practice doing the wrong things, they get better at writing badly. Many writing errors are caused not by a lack of knowledge but are due to bad habits. We recommend that students are held to account for ensuring that all errors are corrected, and feedback is requested where there is uncertainty.

Our C25K writing strategy is divided into two main strands: analytical writing (the deconstructed essay) and transactional/descriptive writing (Slow Writing).