This is the second blog post on my ‘Notes from the Field’. Based on a 1:1 clinic I held at Portslade Aldridge Community Academy (PACA), mainstream secondary school teachers in various subjects gave me issues which affect students with literacy difficulties and SEND.

#2 My students struggle to plan

Planning is a vague term isn’t it? If I ask a student what it is, they would probably say a spider diagram but rarely, in exam situations particularly, do I see good planning.

I once taught a student (Simon for the purposes of this post) who would give me palpitations in the exam hall. He would sit chewing his pen and staring at the ceiling completely ignoring all my advice to begin writing after ten minutes (this was in 1998).  I’d hear Simon huffing and puffing, and I’d walk past his desk as if my sheer presence might encourage him to begin but no, he chewed and thought, continued thinking and chewing.  Suddenly, in dramatic fashion, my A level English and Theatre Studies ward, with a flourish, and an audible sigh of relief from me, would begin writing and then not stop until the time was up.  When I read Simon’s work, it was always stunning, original and so well planned, I wanted to cry. Simon, from my large comprehensive school in Dorset, went to Oxford University and in my early career, was the first student I met who was already producing better work than me.

Some students cannot do this, especially those who struggle to achieve in the typical academic way.  People who are good at chess can.  I remember JK Rowling saying how all the Harry Potter books were planned in her head, that she just needed to put it down in writing. If a young person has sequencing and planning difficulties, this will be nigh on impossible to hold in their head all that information let alone in a structured way.  What happened in Simon’s head was likely to mean he had excellent executive functioning which allowed him to plan, sequence and organise his thoughts into a coherent pattern.

So how can we help others order information?

Metacognition and discussion is helpful in collaboration for children to know what they can and can’t do and speaking to others to find out how people plan can be eye opening to the student who struggles.  Even just talking to my husband about planning, he uses notes as an aide memoir and then while writing, if something comes into his head he might add to his list or, if he’s already covered it, will tick this off.  I’m much more random and find typing my thoughts out in a stream of consciousness order helps and then attempting to cut and paste paragraphs into a coherent and sequential manner after I’ve ‘dumped’ my thoughts down.  Guess which one of us did better in handwritten and timed exams at school?

Modelling planning for writing is a powerful way for pupils to be shown explicitly how the decision-making process works.

Shared writing can allow pupils to work with others or whole class. In my previous school, Thomas Hardye, we held a yearly collaborative writing project where different year groups would work on a story – the planning processes used for a year 3 and year 12 group as an example was an excellent experience for younger children.

Part of Examination Access Arrangements for some students need to take in account the difficulties with planning.  Extra time, rest breaks and using a word processor could all help mitigate such learning differences.

Zoom in & zoom out – Learners who may struggle with planning may need to see in a big and spread out way to plan while then focusing on a small area can be difficult and a little overwhelming.  Using a task such as a mind map for the zooming out but then perhaps a slow writing exercise for one of the paragraphs (zoom in) may allow the student to make links and feel that the task is more manageable.

Decoding exam questions – this is a great way to analyse an exam question and use it to plan the answer.  Use two colours to differentiate between the command language (analyse, explore), the subject specific language (microscope, denouement).  What is left is the carrier language (and, there) which can be ignored.  Try this exercise as a way to plan.

Using Tech

Microsoft Word has a number of free and easy ways to help with planning.  One, however, is rarely used and yet can be perfect to help with planning.  Structured documents are an excellent way of planning – it is the ribbon at the top of the documents with Title, Heading 1 and so on.  By using this structure and having the navigation pane down the side, it is a really easy way of keeping organised with paragraphs and has the added ability of being able shuffle them around.

Concept Mapping Software

When a student is asked to plan work it might seem like too much to be asked to write it again. This may affect students differently:

  • It may seem pointless to a student with autistic spectrum condition (ASC) – they’ve already done it why would they want to do it again?
  • It can seem overwhelming for a student with dyslexia – they have spent a long time and a lot of effort writing the plan concentrating on the spellings and neatness and can’t bear the idea of rewriting.
  • Too many elements of planning and organising into a coherent structure has sent a student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) into a panic; they have lost their temper and refuse to write anymore. If a teacher, then asks the student to create a presentation; this might the final straw.

Software such as Inspiration can make planning and editing work easier. The student can plan in a spider diagram then click a button which turns it into a linear essay. Not only does this remove the task of having to rewrite, it also does the structure for you. For students, this can be feel liberating and leaves them to concentrate on the content. Inspiration can even turn the essay into an impressive slideshow in minutes; not only preventing having to rewrite the words, it also gives the outline of each slide – it looks impressive very quickly allowing the student to make changes to a frame provided for them rather than starting from scratch.

This is such a simple adjustment but for some can change everything. Is their handwriting messy? Is it painful for them? Are there a lot of scribbles, asterisk and arrows? Word processing takes the secretarial away. The student can cut and paste and, importantly, read what they have previously written during the drafting stages. While some students find handwriting helps with their thought process, others prefer to dump ideas down first and then structure.

If this does become the student’s usual way of working, it’s useful if they are encouraged to learn to touch type, this will speed the process up. Some schools have touch typing clubs, which are great to encourage these skills.


Notes from Twitter

@Sue_Cowley – do a number of essay questions where you only write a plan, not the essay itself, I suggest a series of mini mind maps – one per paragraph for an essay

@AspieDeLaZouch Agree with @Sue_Cowley suggestion. Sometimes get students to write conclusion first then back chain. I like Venn diagrams for some writing.

E.g. essay for/against social media; characters of Jack and Ralph in Lord of the Flies.

@DiLeed >1/2conversely, sometimes kids have too many ideas to know what to do with (me, 3 hour Tragedy finals paper