17 May 2022
A good education certainly involves more than ‘the three Rs’, but any less is surely a marker of a failing system. In affluent, ‘educated’ England, 7.1 million adults are functionally illiterate. But Alex Quigley’s motivation for writing this book is not rooted in statistics. His father “left school unable to write confidently, along with all the limitations, challenges and missed opportunities” that represented, and – driven by that experience – Quigley decries our propensity for platitudes and abstract rhetoric about raising standards.
Closing the Writing Gap is a clarion call to take the three Rs seriously, and among them, to prioritise writing specifically on the grounds that it “will either unleash or circumscribe the talents of our pupils”.
Beginning with a potted history of writing pedagogy, and a section on the science of writing (more on that later), Quigley then turns to two crucial nuts and bolts of the craft: grammar and syntax.
Like many teachers my age, I was not taught grammar explicitly at school; or at least, I can’t remember if I was. I learned it on the job, preparing my students for their grammar tests. It was then that I realised the power of sharing with my students what Daisy Christodoulou describes as the ‘meta-language’ of words.
Explicitly teaching grammar means I can unpick with my students the reasons for the mistakes they make. Even so, Quigley’s work in this chapter provides an exemplary argument for and approach to teaching grammar and embedding it within the wider writing process that will prove transformative for my practice and hopefully the teaching of many others.
But what is likely to be even more revolutionary in my classroom is the following chapter on sentence construction. Referencing a swathe of research I am definitely going to go away and study, this short treatise alone makes the book worth the investment. From it, I realised that I have not been explicit enough in my teaching of syntax and how important it is in closing the gap for my weaker writers.
Yes, we all teach ‘sentences’ in primary education. But as a profession we must think harder about the value of teaching the nature of sentences, how to manipulate them and evaluate them in light of writing purposes and how to choose words confidently. I am utterly convinced of the need for us all to look again at our curriculums to evaluate the progression of this important aspect of writing. We have already begun.
So, this is a book that covers an admirable amount of ground, and I would highly recommend it to all teachers. But while the history of writing was a worthwhile discussion, and the practical approaches for grammar and sentence-level teaching invaluable, the chapter on the science of writing left me with more questions than answers.
Before moving into the practical elements, I was keen as a leader of primary English to gain a deeper insight into the science of writing. Some might feel we teachers don’t need this, but I am inclined to disagree. Not only is this understanding central to curriculum design, it helps us to develop precise mental models of how students learn to write. In turn, this allows us to diagnose errors and problems as they emerge with accuracy, so that we can teach responsively.
Closing the Writing Gap does offer a simple conceptual model. But for me, it was not robust enough to fully grasp the full spectrum of the development of writing. Early years, key stage 1 teachers and, equally, those who work with struggling writers at all stages of education, would have been helped by a more comprehensive model. For example, I would have loved to have read Quigley’s take on Joan Sedita’s ‘writing rope’ model, which is far more detailed (and arguably more helpful). Maybe he’ll do that soon.
That said, the practical strategies, the seven steps for improving writing, Quigley’s wealth of experience and his passion for seeing illiteracy become a thing of the past still ring in my ears. I hope the revolution it has started in my classroom is repeated everywhere.