Michelle Nicholson is an English Teaching and Learning adviser at HfL
Cross-curricular writing: using and applying English skills
How we can use a broad, balanced curriculum to further embed, extend and develop the writing skills of our students.
“Veuillez agréer l’expression de mes sentiments le plus distingués”
This is a set phrase that can be used to close a formal letter in French. Many of you will recognise it I am sure. I learnt this many years ago at school- along with many other stock phrases to be used in formal letter writing- and bizarrely can still recall it off by heart. However, the only occasion I ever had to utilise phrases such as these was in exams. Despite learning French for many years – and even teaching it at primary level – I rarely applied my linguistic skill in any way more challenging than ordering food in restaurants or politely asking for directions whilst on holiday. Until last year, that is. Last summer saw me briefly hospitalised in France in an area where English was not widely spoken. Not only was it necessary for me to reawaken my dormant skills to converse with the medical staff, I needed to quickly amass a range of subject specific vocabulary that I had never previously encountered. All medical documents were written solely in French and subsequent correspondence from the hospital’s finance department necessitated a reply in ‘the target language’. Finally, almost thirty years after leaving school, I was able to use my set phrase to end a formal letter in French!
How does this relate to cross-curricular writing? No, I am not advocating writing in French, but I am using an extreme analogy to show the importance of cross-curricular writing. Primary children spend, on average, an hour per day in ‘English’ lessons, learning the skills of writing in their ‘target language’. They have plenty of writing opportunities, but these are generally part of a carefully planned suite of skill building sessions. Most of a unit of work represents new learning- a rehearsal if you like- of a particular written outcome. Perhaps children are building up to a persuasive letter or an explanation text. Maybe they are exploring figurative language and honing their descriptive language in order to write a story. And then, once the final piece is written, it’s all change and we move on to a new unit. What if we saw other lessons as a chance to ‘use and apply’ these newly sharpened skills? Cross curricular writing provides the perfect opportunity for children to write for a purpose and to polish the language structures that they have been rehearsing. Furthermore, it is generally a chance to work in a more independent way.
A geography or science lesson involves a lot of subject specific vocabulary and content. There is no time to teach fronted adverbials or the passive voice. However, if after a quick recap of success criteria from a previous English lesson, children are able to independently write an explanation of how a volcano or the water cycle works, and they have used paragraphs, fronted adverbials and the passive voice, you can safely say that they have successfully grasped the skills practised in the English lessons. We are very used to the concept of ‘using and applying’ in practical, purposeful ways in maths, but English lags a little behind. That is not to say that cross curricular writing is never done, but more that it does not always offer a useful reflection of the standard of writing seen in the Literacy lesson. But how do we ensure the writing has a rich content and is at the pitch that meets the expectations of Curriculum 2014?
Modelled writing is the key to successful writing in primary school. In English lessons, teachers set the grammatical bar by presenting children with writing that demonstrates high level vocabulary and sophisticated sentence structures. In other subjects, modelled writing can be used to reinforce the expectations and remind children of particular elements of writing that they have found tricky in the past:
“Notice how I am writing the names of these places with a capital letter at the start.”
“I think I’ll add a conjunction here to join these two clauses and make this sentence flow better.”
“Buddhists believe… That’s one of the words we have been finding tricky. Who can remind me how to spell believe?” Certain subjects lend themselves perfectly to a particular writing genre. Scientific writing, for example, tends to be written in the passive voice as the person carrying out the experiment or research is irrelevant and it is the process and findings that are central. So rather than, “John recorded the temperature every five minutes,” we would write, “the temperature was recorded every five minutes.” If a teacher were to demonstrate the opening of a science write-up in this way, children would have a model to refer to and their writing style would follow suit. This approach to writing in the passive is real and practical; children usually find it a lot easier to apply the passive voice in this way than by changing disjointed sentences from active to passive and vice versa.
As well as modelling grammar, teachers can use cross-curricular writing as an opportunity to embed words from the National Curriculum spelling lists. Many of the words for KS2 fit more naturally into non-fiction texts and teachers would not find it artificial to incorporate words such as experiment, equipment, separate, material or temperature into a science model. Similarly, century, soldier, famous, reign and important would all fit readily into a model for writing in history. Like the grammar, the complexity of vocabulary and spelling patterns sets the pitch of a piece of writing at the level you would expect to see from children working at age-related expectations. Have the National Curriculum next to you as you plan your model so that you can easily spot what could be included.
One of the most effective ways of raising the quality and frequency of cross curricular writing is to plan outcomes in advance rather than deciding on opportunities along the way. Rigorous cross-planning of English against other subjects enables you to think ahead and plot in writing sessions that will enhance the work already done in the main literacy lessons. For example, it makes sense to ask a class to write an explanation text in geography, but only once they have rehearsed that writing genre in English lessons. That way, the models you give will be reinforcing existing learning of a text type, leaving room for the teaching to centre on the geography content. Mapping out all written outcomes in English lessons against topics for the year will enable you to plan a year’s worth of cross- curricular writing following each unit of work in English. Across the year you could thus ensure that all the major writing genres are represented in other subjects. If children can be seen to be writing securely in subjects other than English lessons and their work reflects the elements set out in their year group’s programme of study, then you can confidently assess them against the assessment criteria that you see evidenced.
In addition to providing useful AFL and evidence for writing portfolios for teachers, cross- curricular writing also gives an intrinsic motivation for children. Writing gives children an engaging way of applying their written skills- writing for a reason. Maybe, following geography sessions on town planning, children are writing a letter to the Town Council to persuade officials to build a bypass. Perhaps they are writing instructions to go with the model or sandwiches they made in DT. A trip to a Synagogue might lead to a recount of the day in an RE lesson. And of course, I have already mentioned the prospects provided by science to add formal writing structures to the humble science write up. Children seem to engage very naturally with such writing scenarios. This might be because they can relate the writing to a direct experience or perhaps because they value the reason behind it. Letter writing is particularly rewarding, especially when the recipient returns the favour. What a delighted class I had when an author took time to write back to each and every one of the children in reply to their questions. I have noticed that children often take extra care with their handwriting when they are writing for an audience. I remember a class painstakingly creating labels and captions for a class museum and proudly writing the invitations to their parents to come and visit. The very act of showcasing children’s work does raise the presentation bar and of course children like to see that their work is being valued.
When designing writing tasks in other subjects, teachers often seem to feel freer to let their creative streak shine out. History lessons provide a rich seam of writing opportunities from character descriptions or biographies of historical figures to diary entries or narratives written from the point of view of an imaginary person back in time. But we do like to go the extra mile when it comes to framing these writing sessions. I’d be lying if I pretended I hadn’t set off the smoke alarm whilst charring the edges of some tea-stained, pseudo Tudor paper. And perhaps the parents didn’t thank me when the children returned home with black fingers from writing wax–sealed letters from Henry to Catherine of Aragon in home-made quill pens. I also maintain that Year 6 wrote much more passionate diary accounts once I had evacuated them with their suitcases and gas mask boxes on the train to the next village. Sessions such as these stick in children’s minds and the final work is often showcased in eye-catching displays which leave children in no doubt as to the value of their creation.
If you would like some practical ideas for cross-curricular writing do join me on 22nd September at the Herts for Learning Writing Conference being held at Herts Development Centre in Stevenage. I will be running a workshop on this subject and look forward to seeing some of you there.