Everything flows: is there such a thing as writing fluency?

    Published: 29 March 2022
    I'll never know which way to flow, set a course that I don't know…

    ‘Everything Flows’, Teenage Fanclub

    We’re just coming to the end of another round of our KS2 Winning at Writing programme. This is a programme that has generated a lot of positive feedback suggesting it supports healthy shifts in writing attitudes and behaviours.  A key development, seen repeatedly, has been the degree to which the young writers taking part have been able to improve their agility in moving from one sentence to another and how they develop their ideas.  This was one of our deliberate aims based on extensive analysis of writing in Year 4 and 5 that wasn’t yet meeting age-related expectations. That analysis, informed by a novel and wide-ranging set of measures, informed the initial design of the programme.  We’ve written about the observations we made, and the resulting programme. A core list of our findings bears repeating here. We found that our less confident writers often exhibited the following tendencies in their writing: 

    • no real concept of where the writing is going/writing that seemed to lack a sense of direction  
    • listing of events that lacked a strong sense of connectedness/cohesion 
    • limited use of cohesive devices and an over-reliance on a series of discrete statements, sometimes unduly repetitive 
    • writing that did not display a sense of rhythm, for example limited variation in sentence length or varied in terms of sentence structure 
    • lack of awareness of a reader 
    • either very little detail or too much detail where it wasn’t really required 
    • a shaky grasp of sentence structure (unconventional use of conjunctions; sentence fragments; omission of words) 

    The first three bullets, and arguably some of the later ones, pointed to difficulties in achieving something like a state of flow in writing.   For want of a better set of descriptors, the writing felt bumpy or juddery, disjointed – and not in a deliberate sense, as we might see if we were aiming to create a sense of tension or a particular kind of action, or perhaps an impression of breathlessness, say.  This was more about an overall sense of disconnection across sequences of sentences. Importantly, the writing felt laboured in a quite literal way. There was a real sense of how hard these young writers were having to work to get the task at hand done and dusted. 

    It’s important that we keep that real sense of labour in mind. Attitudes towards writing are hugely important in terms of how they link to outcomes, and if writing feels like grindingly hard work, we probably need a re-think of approach or to take stock of some underlying factors that might be causing unhelpful difficulties.  Not that writing isn’t hard.  Ask any adult – ask me, as I finally attack this blog – and they should be able to offer accounts of procrastination, writer’s block, occasional or frequent anxiety, and more besides.  But if you are writing on a very regular basis, as most of our children are, we probably need to think carefully about how to apply a good dose of writerly WD40.  In thinking about flow, and given our work elsewhere on reading, I couldn’t help thinking about the concept of writing fluency.  Is that what we are talking about here? It bears some further thought.  

    ‘Writing fluency is a slippery fish’

    Dr Tim Shanahan 

     

    Graphic with text

     

    The list shared above helped to focus us as we developed our  programme.  We quickly decided that we wanted to focus on how writing flows.  How well it moves through time or space or across a particular subject.  We wanted to find out how we might help more hesitant or directionless writers come to feel more sure-footed, and at the same time further develop writers across the attainment range.   The words flow and fluidity came up a lot in our discussions. Those words and others like them come up a lot when we take stock of writing outcomes in KS2.  Very often, when there is some debate around whether a piece of writing in Year 6 supports a judgement of GDS or not, the first thing we will do is read it aloud and see how it sounds and feels.  How well does the writing guide and prompt us in our own reading so that it feels like an appropriately tuned piece? We often talk of effect; how often do we talk of the immediate effect that writing has on our inner and outer (i.e. reading aloud) voice.  that said, I’m not always fully happy with the terms flow and fluidity. They suggest a smoothness that might not always be what we are aiming for in our composition.  Do they fully do the job or describing what we are looking for? Might writing fluency be the thing we are talking about? Is there even such a thing as writing fluency?  

    It seems that question is not as straightforward as it might appear.  I can’t say I’m surprised.  If reading is a complex beast, writing might well come along and ask reading to hold its beer. It’s a bit messy to say the least.  

    There certainly seem to be various attempts to define or exemplify what writing fluency might be, but there’s nothing like consensus on the matter. Instead, there are various ‘slippery fishes’, to pick up on Dr Shanahan’s observation above.  Once again this really doesn’t come as a surprise.  We’ve worked on reading fluency a great deal over recent years and defining what we mean by that term has always been an important task.  Definitions of reading fluency vary, and this matters more than some might realise.  As a team, we have nailed our colours to the mast, set down our working definition, drawing particularly upon the work of academics in the US. (You can see a breakdown of what we consider reading fluency to consist of)  For us, for now that’s reading fluency somewhat sorted, but what about writing? Are we ready to talk about, and work more explicitly on ‘writing fluency’ as an aim in its own right?  I’d say: not exactly – or perhaps, not in a clearly defined sense.  

    In Dr Shanahan’s blog, quoted above, he talks of there being many definitions and discusses how work around fluency has focused on various aspects of writing.  He considers how some of these aspects appear to have greater importance in the earlier stages of writing development, and then give way to other more dominant concerns over time.  In simple terms, for example, spelling and handwriting appear to exert a greater effect earlier on in terms of writing outcomes and attitudes towards writing.  Over time, idea generation, and written development of those ideas takes on greater importance as composition aims and demands increase. Setting aside the research base, that makes a lot of sense to me in practice.  

    Dr Shanahan’s blog is well worth a read.  He provides a typically accessible account of yet another complex field, and also offers a succinct list that highlights five areas of practice likely to be worthy of your time and attention. You can find it in the latter part of the blog. Have a look, but do come back.  There’s more to be said here, as I want to briefly consider two elements from Dr Shanahan’s list that have particular relevance to our own work in this area. 

    Two key obstacles for the maturing writer 

    All of the aspects that Dr Shanahan raises are of interest and have relevance to this question of how we might define writing fluency, and I could happily consider each.  For now, I want to pick up on two elements from his discussion. The first is reported difficulties in generating ideas and the other is concerns springing from what might be called ‘perfectionism’. 

    “They’re just not very creative…they don’t come up with ideas” 

    In my time as a teacher, a literacy leader, a tutor, a parent, and more recently an English advisor, I’ve heard various forms of this lament on a fairly frequent basis.  Dr Shanahan offers some space to this issue: 

    Kids often tell me that they don’t have any ideas, they don’t know what to write about. That may be an accurate appraisal of their situation, or a convenient excuse for avoiding what for them is an unpleasant and potentially embarrassing task (yes, there are both cognitive and affective reasons for balking at a white page). When students at any level voice this problem, I talk with them. Their ideas flow easily in our conversations but vanish in the monologic situation required of writing (Scardamalia, Bereiter, & Steinbach, 1984).

    How to Teach Writing Fluency, Shanahan on Literacy, Jan 2022

     

    This might be a good point for some personal reflection.  Don’t we all have times when the ideas just don’t come?  I rather hope so. For me, it’s a fairly regular feature in a job that ‘rests’ (not an ideal choice of word there) on a lot of writing.  This blog is already a couple of weeks behind the schedule I had set for it.  It needed further time for the ideas to percolate.  School-based writing doesn’t generally afford children that kind of helpful flexibility, so we need to be making sure that we are providing children with guidance around how ideas can be generated, and then developed. Dr Shanahan points out that ‘[r]esearch has long found that getting kids talking about what they want to write about improves and makes more efficient the flow of ideas.’  Once again, consider us unsurprised.  In our own work, in our various collaborations with the likes of the inimitable Pie Corbett, or the Opening Doors approaches shared by Bob Cox, talk is a fundamental driver of success. At this point, I feel almost legally obliged to insert a certain quote from James Britton. But I’m sure you know it.  Writing floats on a sea of talk. Timelessly true. 

    We knew that talk would be a key element in our programme, but we wanted to ensure that we were targeting a good amount of the talk in quite deliberate ways to further enhance confidence in independent composition. Returning to Dr Shanahan, who makes an explicit link between the two, we wanted to make a stronger connection between planning and discussion. Here we are talking less about planning at a whole text level, and more about planning for shorter stretches of writing across the drafting process. As such, we drew upon some techniques that had been refined in the course of developing materials for our Year 6 Growing Greater Depth (GDS) writing course.  

    We devised a very simple, graphic way of helping children to consider the essential shape of sequences of sentences or paragraphs of their text. We wanted them to have a sense of where they were going, in incremental steps, and of what they needed to ‘mention’ for the sake of clarity and what they might want to ‘linger’ on in their writing, keeping the engagement of their reader firmly in mind. As such, we were not just developing a surer sense of how to organise content, we were also helping children to have a greater sense of the potential rhythms of their writing. This is where things are getting exciting, and you might be able to see how we are moving into the realms of reading fluency here…but that will have to be another blog for another day. For now, though, one of the developments we are most excited about is the ways by which the children we have worked with are helped to think ‘while writing’ rather than as a prelude to writing, as Dr Shanahan puts it.  

    Perfectionism is the enemy of creation…

    John Updike

    Another potential obstacle to any notion of writing fluency discussed by Dr Shanahan is the curse of perfectionism.  He looks at in two ways. The first is that early but sometimes abiding influence of handwriting and spelling constraints. While these are fundamentally important, not least because they rank highly in how children tend to judge their own and others’ writing, removing pressures around handwriting and spelling during drafting can be extremely helpful.  We were glad to read this in relation to our programme.  From the outset, we were very explicit that the plans, resources, approaches, and training that make up the programme were squarely focused on unlocking or freeing up composition. That’s not to say handwriting and spelling are unimportant; it’s a reflection that we sometimes have to pick our battles when working to develop particular aspects of a complex field. Wherever possible we need to manage that complexity so that it does not threaten to overwhelm any young learners still determining whether this writing malarkey is for them.  

    Dr Shanahan goes on to consider how expectations around revision and editing can add friction to the writing process and the drive for more fluid composition. Agonising over writing that is already hesitant can lead to a kind of friction that can burn a young writer lacking in confidence. Does this mean we set aside another set of important writing skills? No. But we keep them firmly in their place. In our programme, we help children to recognise more deliberately some of the helpful sub-processes that are supportive in the act of drafting.  We support them to manage and deploy these processes more strategically. Revision and editing are in the mix of these processes, but children are taught to better recognise when to cast a critical eye, or invite a critical eye to take stock of their work so far.   

    To further support our young writers in developing confidence, perhaps even regaining it, we make use of two further strategies. The first is that we work within a very tightly defined field within which to promote and stoke that confidence. Drawing upon Donald Graves, and his hugely influential work on the process approach to writing, we prioritised chronological writing. Graves pointed out that without chronology, it is a very big ask indeed to expect children to be able to edit and improve their work. Within these parameters, we focus on a particular form of writing: the recounting of a journey. The second strategy is a sensitive narrowing of focus. Across the programme, the children work on three recounts inspired by some wonderful picture books or film clips.  Each differ in terms of setting and/or atmosphere, but each provide an opportunity to build incrementally on the composition that came immediately before it.  The first sequence in the programme slows things right down and allows the children to drift through a setting, taking in and describing the sights.  Sequence two does something similar, only with an atmosphere of menace and threat.  Sequence three, well that takes us somewhere entirely unexpected.   The shared stimulus provides both a common ground for our writers to work in pairs and groups to develop a workshop approach to initial idea generation, and then to further support one another as those ideas take the various shapes - rhythmic, controlled, connected – that each writer intends.  

    This is very much about drafting and crafting with confidence – and as such we press pause on the curriculum and some of the less welcome legacy effects of text-type driven teaching to allow children to work with, and develop real confidence. How often do we provide opportunities to linger in a particular form so that this confidence has better scope to develop?  And that, so far, has been one of the writing battles that we have been very happy to pick. We knew we had to help schools boost writing outcomes, but we dared to hope that this work would help to change attitudes around writing.  So far, it's looking extremely promising. But that’s not for us to say, so I’ll hand over to one of our participating teachers to bring this to a close:

    “I think one of my biggest takeaways is how engaging and encouraging this has been for my usually reluctant writers…they're happier taking risks and trying new writing techniques and it's been almost a missing puzzle piece and all of a sudden other things like paragraphs that I haven't even mentioned as part of this are now being used.”

    Joanna Marfleet, Wicklewood Primary School and Nursery School, Wymondham. 

     

    Graphic with text

     

    Winning at Writing KS2 is a programme made up of extended CPD, based around a set of three fully planned and resourced teaching sequences for writing that can be used on either a whole class or group based level.  Find out more about this innovative and sharply focused programme.

    You might also like to read this earlier blog that explores the programme's design and rationale.

    To find out even more, or to discuss hosting options, please contact martin.galway@hertsforlearning.co.uk.

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