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Writing in geography

Writing

‘Writing for a specific audience and in a specific style is an important skill, in both the classroom and the world of work.’

Nicola Walshe, 2017 

Topics on this page:

  • Different forms of writing
  • Making effective use of writing in geography lessons
  • Observe students’ writing in geography lessons
  • Writing frames
  • Making notes
  • Different styles and genres of writing
  • Providing stimulus for writing
  • Checklist: How good is my planning for students’ writing?
  • Improving the quality of writing
  • Spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPaG)
  • Reading

If writing is used well, it is a process that helps students to make sense of geography because they have to sort out information and order their thinking to express what they know and understand. Yet Ofsted reported in 2011 that students who showed good understanding of geography in their oral responses and in discussion failed to communicate at the same level in writing. 

It was noted that students often appear to spend a good deal of time writing in geography classrooms but complete only a paragraph or two in a lesson and it is common for them to copy text from other sources.

The 2014 the curriculum requirements raised the bar for expectations about writing. At key stage 3 students are expected to ‘write at length’. In the current GCSE examinations SPaG (spelling, punctuation and grammar) has increased in importance and has specific marks allocated for it.

Throughout your early career you should build up your expertise to use writing as an effective learning strategy, both to develop student’s geographical understanding and their own literacy skills. This webpage covers many ideas about ways to do this that you will need to return follow up the many readings listed here, as you hone your teaching skills.

Different forms of writing

In geography classrooms the most common form of writing is transactional; this means it is to inform others (usually the audience is the teacher) and it reports information that the student has found out from other sources. 

At a basic level this does not provide the best experience to develop geographical understanding because students can ‘report’ information without really thinking deeply about what they are writing. They effectively ‘copy it’. A teacher needs to set up transactional writing with care so that students really have to engage with the material they are writing.

Expressive writing is the form used for thinking and exploring ideas. This more personal form of writing involves students exploring the geography meanings in the topic they are studying to reveal what they believe and think. This form of writing is important to emphasise the personal view – a letter for example.

Poetic writing is for aesthetic and creative purposes and has an important role for writing to convey meanings.

  • Refer to Creative geography: developing geographical literacy in Walsh (2017) pp 205-7.

Making effective use of writing in geography lessons

Students need a clear reason for writing if they are to work hard at it. They need to know the intended audience and it helps if they see a good example or the teacher ‘models’ the expectations before they are asked to write. They need to be set clear parameters for the type or genre of writing that is expected and to know if any particular conventions should be followed e.g. in the type of language to be used.

It can help if some prompts are provided for students, such as a writing frame. Writing is often of higher quality if it is undertaken collaboratively, because through a shared effort it can be sharpened and improved as it is created. Students’ writing will develop if they are encouraged and given constructive feedback and guidance as to how it can be improved.

We often expect students to produce high quality ‘transactional’ writing in geography that is formal and structured. Good geographical writing should convey factual information in a logical and ordered sequence. This is often quite a challenge for students because a formal style is very different from the way they usually talk.

Students communicate with their peers in personal and expressive forms of language, known as ‘exploratory’ language which reveals how they think and feel. This is why it can be more productive to encourage students to discuss their geographical ideas before they write.

Consider the table showing different types of writing from Literacy in geography. Some pieces of writing will be combinations of different types, not all are clear-cut. Try to explore all of them to use them in your teaching.

Main categories of non-fiction writingExamples of how they feature in geography
Instructiongiving directions as part of a map-reading exercise
Recountwrite-up of a field trip
Explanationhow erosion occurs
Informationtourism in London
Persuasionecological flyer
Discursivewriting magazine article on changes in climate
Analysisanalytical essay about factors impacting on deforestation
Evaluationreflection on, and making judgements about, the outcomes of a traffic survey

Observe students’ writing in geography lessons

Writing requires careful planning in a lesson to ensure the required learning happens. In geography lessons, talking, reading and listening are precursors to successful writing. Teachers must structure the writing activity so it has a clear purpose and these intentions should be made clear to students.

Explore some of the following strategies with respect to students’ writing in geography and try to incorporate them in your lessons, as appropriate.

  • See Descriptions which is section 4.1 in Literacy in Geography. This includes several things to consider when you ask students to undertake a written description. Try out some of the suggestions in your forthcoming lessons.
  • Clarke et al (2003) identify that one of the challenges facing geography teachers is to improve students’ writing of descriptions and explanations and they suggest a practical model to help students give better written descriptions and explanations.
  • See Preparing to write which is section 4.3 in Literacy in Geography. This includes several ways of helping students to structure writing including reference to a card sorting activity (a mystery), comparing and contrasting and using connectives. Try out some of the suggestions in your forthcoming lessons.
  • See Developing students’ writing through geography: a GA Think piece.

  • Is most lessons students’ writing is done in short sections? Estimate what percentage of time they were writing in the lesson.
  • What type of writing did students do in the lesson. Was it structured by a writing frame in some form, answering questions or was it ‘free flow’?
  • How did the teacher set up the writing task in the classroom? What resources did they provide, if any?
  • Were the students working independently or in pairs/groups. Who did the writing – everyone?
  • Did the students talk about what they were going to write in their pair/group before they begin?
  • Did they write in one or more of the categories in the table above?
  • From the lessons you have observed, which types of writing do you think students are asked to do most frequently in geography?
  • As they complete their writing in the lesson, observe carefully any problems that students experience. Are they resolved in the lesson? How?
  • Does the teacher use any specific support strategies for students who face particular literacy problems? Are there any support staff working with individuals in the class? How do they support the student’s writing?
  • Gather in some samples of student work for the students that you have observed most closely in the lesson. Analyse their work. What is the amount and quality of the writing they completed? Is this what you expected – or was it more or less?

Writing frames

A writing frame is a form of scaffolding.  It is a skeletal outline – headings, questions, words or phrases – to provide a structure, with the aim to improve the quality of students’ ‘independent’ writing.

  • See Table 4.3 on pp 121-3 in Biddulph et al (2021) and try out different types of frames in your lessons.
  • See Jones et al (1997) which gives a detailed description of using writing frames with lower attaining students.
  • Clarke et al (2003) outlines other forms of support for lower ability students.
  • Owen (2001) describes a task to make a book about tectonic processes for 7-11 year olds involving a geographical enquiry and using writing frames to structure the writing process for the students (it includes examples of the worksheets she used).

Writing frames are not only used in key stage 3 classes, but have a role to play in constructing more complex forms of writing involving argumentation (see Argument in geography).

Another similar structure is QUADs grids (question, answer, details, sources) – see Walsh (2017) p 204. They are also used by Owen (2001).

A similar approach, is to focus on the use of sentence starters and connectives (see p 29 in Literacy in Geography). For other forms of support refer to the Clarke et al (2003).

Making notes

Note taking is a specific skill that requires to be taught. If left unsupported, students tend to copy out large chunks of text, for example from the internet, or fail to identify the key ideas e.g. from a video commentary. It is important for them to be clear about the purpose of the notes they are making e.g. prepare for an examination, to write an essay, give a presentation.

An important principle in note-taking is that it should be active. The student should focus on understanding the knowledge and concepts that they are recording. This is helped when they make the notes in their own words, rather than just copying from a source. It is also helps learning when students improve the quality of their notes with further reading and go back over their notes to emphasise or annotate what they have written.

Encourage students to:

  • Think about why they are making notes – how much detail do they need?
  • Look for answers to the questions they need to address: definitions, examples, theories
  • Look for connections between what the text says and what they already know
  • Make notes in their own words – this is essential to help them to understand the meaning – and to keep any direct quotes very short.

Different students find different strategies effective so encourage them to identify the format(s) that are most appropriate for them and the specific study activity. This can include:

  • Linear notes – use headings and subheadings
  • Diagrammatic notes – boxes/flowcharts
  • More visual notes e.g. spider diagrams or mind-maps
  • Look at the Cornell system of note taking that is widely recommended to students
  • Read Sullivan et al (2021) in which three ECTs report on their practitioner research into the impact of introducing different note making strategies to key stage 3 students.

Discuss with your geography mentor (or an English teacher) how to teach students to make notes by using activities such as highlighting specific information in text, note taking frameworks such as tables or diagrams or by you modelling note-taking for students.

  • Find out more in Lynch (2019) and Roberts (2003) p 74.

Different styles and genres of writing

You can also ask students to produce different genres of writing, such as persuasive writing, letters, report writing, stories. Discuss different genres of writing with the literacy coordinator or the English department in your school and find out what writing the students have done in other lessons.

As well as providing opportunities for students to write for different purposes in geography and in different genres, look for strategies that can help them improve the quality of their written work. Too often, assumptions are made about pupils’ ability to write in different forms and not enough attention is given to helping pupils develop the skills needed to write effectively in geogra­phy. 

Pupils frequently have the opportunity to draft work in English, yet this is not a strategy in common use in geography lessons.

  • Read Walsh (2017) pp 204-5 for an outline of strategies to assist students in successful writing.

Consider using some of these forms of writing that might better reflect the type of writing students might encounter in their everyday lives:

  • Posters e.g. about aid (see Jenkinson (2010) pp 63-4).
  • Display board information e.g. about a National Park.
  • Tourist brochure e.g. promoting a particular destination.
  • Letters e.g. to a local paper or to an MP about a local issue.
  • Newspaper reports e.g. about a flood, its causes and its effects.

Providing stimulus for writing

Activities can get students to think about a topic before they begin to write and ‘research into the process of writing has emphasised the importance of initial activities’ (Roberts (2003)).

  • Owen (2001) describes how she used a task to make a book about tectonic processes for 7-11 year olds.

When you are planning for writing tasks for key stage 3 lessons, ask yourself these questions:

  • What are the purposes of the writing task?
  • What type of writing am I asking the students to do?
  • How will I set up the writing task? Is there an introductory activity?
  • How am I going to structure the writing? Shall I ask them to make some choices?
  • Is there particular vocabulary I wish them to use?
  • Shall I adapt writing tasks for some students? How?
  • How will the students plan their writing?
  • Are they writing individual responses or in pairs?
  • How long will I give them to write?
  • How will I use their writing when it is finished?
  • Will the writing be assessed? By what criteria?

Improving the quality of writing

It is common for students to draft and re-draft work in English lessons, less so in geography. Harris (2017) discusses the advantages of using redrafting to improve students’ written work, and provides practical advice on how to go about doing this based on his own teaching experiences of using the F.A.I.L (First Attempt In Learning) and S.A.I.L (Second Attempt In Learning).

It is difficult to explain to students exactly what it is that makes one piece of geographical writing better than another. Yet they cannot improve their work unless they realise this. When teachers demonstrate improving writing as a whole class activity using an interactive display, they ‘model’ how to analyse geographical writing and improve it. Follow up this by asking students to work in pairs to improve each other’s writing.

  • Read Thompson et al for a discussion of how a department set about improving extended writing (pp 173-4).

If you want outstanding written work then you must give the students adequate time to produce it. Do not rush the writing element of an activity. Look through your students’ workbooks and note if there are many examples of unfinished work. Is it most or just some students who fail to complete the tasks you set? Consider how you can resolve this.

Spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPaG)

Find out the whole-school policy on marking of students’ work for SPaG. Follow this and expect students to be accurate when they write in geography. In GCSE examinations marks are awarded for accuracy of spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, grammar and the use of specialist terminology.

For example, candidates can gain up to three marks out of a nine-mark question, so it is an important way to gain – or lose – marks. To be awarded the highest marks a candidate must use SPaG with consistent accuracy and use a wide range of specialist terms adeptly and with precision.

Reading

  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. London: Routledge. pp. 121-4.
  • Butt, G. (2001) Theory into Practice: Extending Writing Skills. Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Butt, G. (2005) ‘Engaging with extended writing’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Butt, G. (2008) ‘Think Piece – Developing students’ writing through geography, Geographical Association on-line.
  • Cannell, J., Hopkin, J. and Kitchen, B. (2018) Critical thinking in practice, Geographical Association.
  • Clarke, J., Dale, J., Marsden, P., Davies, P. and Durbin, C. (2003) ‘Tackling lower ability students’ writing skills’, Teaching Geography, April.
  • Harris, M. (2017) Becoming an Outstanding Geography Teacher, Routledge. Chapter 8: Literacy in geography.
  • Jenkinson, C. (2010) ‘Using empathy to encourage extended writing at key stages 3 and 4’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Jones, B., Swift, D. and Vickers, D. (1997) ‘Writing about development’, Teaching Geography, January.
  • Lynch, K. (2019) ‘Note perfect! Taking notes in classes and lectures’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Ofsted, (2011) Geography: Learning to make a world of difference, Ofsted para 90-97.
  • Owen, C. (2001) ‘Developing literacy through key stage 3 geography’, Teaching Geography, October.
  • Rider, R. (2001) ‘Using literacy to enhance a scheme of work on rivers’, Teaching Geography, October.
  • Rider, R. and Roberts, R. (2001) ‘Improving essay writing skills’, Teaching Geography, January.
  • Roberts, M. (2003) Learning through enquiry: Making sense of geography in the key stage 3 classroom. Sheffield: Geographical Association. Chapter 6 ‘Focus on writing’ pp. 64-7.
  • Selmes, I. (2016) ‘From the archives: Extended writing in geography’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Simmons, M. (2016) ‘Developing written answers’, Teaching Geography’, Summer.
  • Sullivan, K., Thompson, H. and Willis, H. (2021) ‘Note making: it’s just writing stuff down…isn’t it?’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • E. (2004) Re-Presenting Geography, Chris Kington Publishing.
  • Thompson, L., Roberts, D., Kinder, A. and Apicella, P. (2001) ‘Raising literacy standards in geography lessons’, Teaching Geography, October.
  • Walshe, N. (2017) ‘Literacy’ in Jones, M. (ed) Secondary Geography Handbook. Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Walshe, N. (2016) ‘Developing students’ essay-writing’, Teaching Geography, Spring.