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How to Write Reports (Without Dying!)

How to Write Reports (Without Dying!)

That dreaded ‘R’ word.

In the same way that Covid-19 dominates every conversation these days, reports are infamous around this time of year for relentlessly weaseling their way into every teacher’s coffee break conversation. No one wants to mention them, yet one slip of the lip and the seagulls come flocking, each wanting to get their word in first…

“I wrote this but what I really meant was…”
“I write every report from scratch…”
“I conceded to the Copying & Pasting Devil 10 years ago and I never looked back…”
“I bet his parents won’t even read this…”
“We’ve got heeeaps of time…I’ll start writing mine in the weekend…”
“Did we even teach Health this year?”

So you might feel like you want to crawl into a hole rather than don your tramping boots and climb that mountain of reports…

…or you’ve half-finished half of your reports and are waiting for your colleague to write theirs so you can “proof-read” a.k.a. “borrow” a few (or more than a few) comments for your own.

Into my 9th round of this report writing tango now and it’s still not a fun process but I’ve learnt a trick or two that have helped me get into the swing of things. So let’s ditch the mountain climbing visual and go through some tips and tricks that I’ve found useful for waltzing through the report writing season (ok that’s an exaggeration…but you get the idea!).

Tip #1: Start early & stay ahead 📅

It’s always beneficial to be a step ahead with meeting your report deadlines. Of course this doesn’t mean you have to jump the gun and write your reports before you even know your students. If you begin working on them sooner rather than later, you’ll be over that first and hardest hurdle sooner and benefit from the boost of feeling on top of your teaching workload.

Remember that you still need to manage your usual daily planning, marking and inbox full of emails from parents so you need to get a solid handle on your report writing schedule. The worst feeling is when your daily planning and classroom teaching seems to fall apart at the hinges and you stumble into your Monday morning lesson with the last resort of recount writing about the weekend (I have to admit I’ve pulled this card one too many times).

Set deadlines for yourself. If your school provides recommended deadlines, use these as a guideline and set your own deadline slightly ahead (even if it is just a day). This way if anything unexpected comes up (as usually happens in our predictably unpredictable lives), you won’t be under the same pressure to whip writing out of nowhere. Having some time up your sleeve at the end is also great in case you have any changes you have to make (editing can sometimes take a surprisingly long time!).

Tip #2: Check the requirements 

It may sound like a given, but always begin by checking the report requirements. These can vary a lot between schools from length to tone and use of personal pronouns. What might be 20 lines of writing about English at one school might only be 4 lines each for Reading and Writing at another. While one school might encourage the use of personal pronouns and informal tone “I have loved teaching Timmy and wish him all the best for next year. Well done!”, other schools will expect a formal writing ‘voice’ “Timmy has made excellent progress in English and is encouraged to maintain his diligent approach to his studies.”

Read several past reports from your school before you start writing to get your head around the tone and language that is used. Even if you aren’t asked to, I highly recommend writing a practice section for each subject or one students’ report and getting it checked by your team leader (or whoever is responsible for quality control) BEFORE proceeding with writing the rest of your reports. There’s nothing worse than slaving away at something only to find that it isn’t fit for purpose so check early on that you’re on the right track!

Tip #3: Lay the groundwork 🚧

Spend a day simply getting ready to write. Some people might see this as a way of stalling the whole report writing process and maybe I have just convinced myself that it is a legit strategy, but I find that this is a much easier step to start with and pays off during the writing process.

Laying the groundwork can start with the easy admin task of copying over templates or setting up Word documents with student names. It also involves locating assessment data and ensuring that this is easily accessible for your future self.

The biggest task at this stage is creating a word bank for yourself. Feel free to copy and paste at this stage as this is all about having those phrases and examples at the ready for the range of students in your class. Find or write some opening sentences that would describe a diligent student and a student with ‘unfulfilled potential’ a.k.a. the one who mucks around in every lesson. Find or write some examples of what ‘high’ ‘middle’ and ‘low’ achievement looks like in each subject. Make use of curriculum and long term planning documents at this stage and remember that the wording can be derived straight from these documents. Use your lesson aims and student targets as the basis for these comments because that’s exactly what you’ve been teaching (and hopefully what your students have displayed some evidence of learning).

I sometimes find it challenging to think of sentence starters so I also use this prep day to generate a list of sentence starters e.g. Student name…, He/She…, His/Her…, When working…, Sometimes…, At times…, Throughout…, During the XYZ unit…, This term… In XYZ lessons…,

Don’t worry about not writing any full reports today because you’ll thank yourself tomorrow.

Tip #4: Start with your General Comments 💁

Generally *pause for forced laughter*, the General Comments come first in the report so this might be the go-to starting point anyway. This is a helpful section to write first as it sets the tone and is a chance to discover the common thread that might run through the different subjects in that student’s report. Maybe that student really needs to develop their time-management skills or build their confidence in sharing their ideas. Whatever it may be, you should build a decent picture of what this student is like as a learner through this section and the rest of your report should be aligned with this picture you’ve painted.

As well as setting you up for writing about each individual student, doing this section first is also beneficial because you are still relatively ‘fresh’ at this stage! It’s hard to come up with these individualised comments when your mind is bogged down and worded-out at the end of the report writing process so make use of your remaining brain cells NOW! Another perk could even be that your ‘unfulfilled potential’ student hasn’t caused you to rip out all of your hair yet so you’re more likely to write something positive. Well isn’t that just lovely.

I tend to start by writing about the loud, outgoing students as there is plenty to say about them and I can immediately make some progress. It’s often the lovely, quiet students who are the hardest to write about beyond the first two sentences.

NB: Some people like to work through a whole student’s report at a time. If this works, stick at it! I find it easier to work through by subject, hence the nature of these tips.

NB #2: After writing your first General Comment, check that your text actually fits into the report template! Many reports have strict character counts and line limits that you cannot exceed. Cutting down comments can sometimes be just as frustrating as writing them in the first place so save yourself the hassle and copy and paste your text into the template early on to check your length is on par.

Tip #5: Order matters 🔢

No, this is not referring to permutations over combinations. This is more like your standard box and whisker graph that you learnt about in Year 5.

Now that you’re into writing about subjects, there will most likely be a fair bit more crossover between students. There’s no point in writing each Maths report from scratch if all you are trying to say is that the student can add two-digit numbers together. Choose an ability group to start with and use the same base comments as the building blocks for each report. Of course, you may need to adjust some phrasing slightly but overall this is a much more efficient use of your time. One way of doing this is to start with your ‘middle’ students or those working ‘At Expectation’ as you can comment on them achieving your whole class lesson aims/success criteria, the wording for which comes straight off your planning. From this base, you can then adjust to write about the students who are still working towards that expectation or have been extended in that area.

Rather than this chunking method, along the same lines, you can also try working through your students using a rough ranking order. This might not sound like the most PC thing to do, but it has been one of the most efficient methods that I have used because each report works off the back bones of the prior one. Apart from the first one, you don’t have to start from scratch and every report ends up different as you indicate increasing levels of achievement or understanding with each report.

You can easily differentiate the same base comment by adding ‘with support’ ‘when guided’ ‘is beginning to’ ‘is developing’ ‘is learning to’ ‘independently’ ‘consistently demonstrates’ and so on;

“Timmy is beginning to use capital letters and full stops in his independent writing” can easily be replaced with “Jonny consistently uses capital letters and full stops in his independent writing.”

Easy! Brain power conserved!

Tip #6: Use a visual tracker & set yourself rewards 🍫

Did someone say rewards? If I get enough stars, can I choose a lucky dip item from the box?! Did you think that all that Behaviourism theory on Skinner’s Operant Conditioning was just for the kids? No – it’s worth using on yourself too! If you give yourself rewards for completing sets of reports, you’ll be more motivated to continue writing them.

Here are a couple of ways I’ve tracked my progress visually: First, the simple tick box grid on a piece of paper. Simply list the students in your class down the page and write the subjects across the top. This is an easy way to see your progress at a glance.

If you find the empty tick box chart too disheartening, see if the opposite works for you. Draw dashes, dots or little stick figures (if you want to procrastinate) on a whiteboard and rub off one for each section of a report that you complete. This visual tracking method is great because you can see the work remaining disappearing from sight and it is motivating when you see that there are only a few left to do so you’re likely to whizz through them.

Rewards could be anything from:

  • Making a cup of tea or coffee
  • 10 minutes of dancing to your favourite jams
  • Watching a twenty minute episode of your favourite tv series
  • Indulging in a piece of chocolate (although let’s be real, ‘one piece’ is never just one piece).

You know how suddenly tidying your wardrobe or doing the ironing becomes priority number one when you are procrastinating writing reports? Well, save these ‘fun’ tasks for your reward time and use them as productive brain breaks from writing.

Tip #7: Chunk your time 

Having a vague plan of ‘just doing a day of reports’ is immediately setting yourself up for failure. If there’s no realistic, achievable goal for the day (ok this is starting to sound like we’re setting up to write ourselves some SMART goals), then you’re much more likely to faff around and get to the end of the day feeling disappointed that you didn’t make much of a dent in your report progress.

Start early in the day and set yourself an achievable goal such as “Write all of the Reading comments for my Green level readers by 8.30am.” If you finish before the time is up, awesome! You’ve earned yourself some bonus reward time! Allow yourself at least a 15 minute break before starting your next chunk. Have a goal in mind for what you want to achieve before lunch time and make it happen!

Your chunking should be reflected in your visual tracker; draw a line, scribble a finish time, write the number of sections you’ll complete before your next break…whatever allows you to see your current goal at a glance.

You won’t always be perfect in your estimates, so cut yourself some slack if you overestimated how much you could achieve in an allocated time frame. Without a doubt though, your estimation skills will quickly improve and you’ll be acing your own deadlines before you know it!

Tip #8: Proofreading and editing ✏️

This is an underrated step in the report writing process. It is crucial that you set aside a chunk of time for this. To save yourself getting bogged down on achieving perfection in the writing process, prioritise getting your ideas down on paper in full sentences and use this proofreading and editing time to smooth out the creases.

Proofreading in the morning when you’re fresh is bound to be a lot more productive than if you’re staring cross-eyed at a computer screen at 11.31pm at night. You might suddenly find that a sentence you agonised over for 15 minutes, suddenly comes to you al dente, served piping hot on a platter, and topped with fresh parsley. Basically what I’m saying, is that it’s way easier for coherent thoughts to come to you when you’re well-rested.

Take this proof-reading step seriously. You don’t want to hand any reports with ‘he/she’ used the wrong way around, or yet, even worse, have the wrong students’ name in the report. It’s also just good practice to hand in writing which reads well, is correctly punctuated and free from spelling and grammatical errors. Be professional and imagine that the report was going straight to the students’ parents.

If reading masses of reports makes your eyes go funky, opt to print off some sets and even use a ruler to keep track of where you are up to. Also try reading your reports aloud as this can make it easier to pick up on mistakes that your eyes could easily skim over.

NB: If you are using the subject-by-subject approach then you are more prone to the he/she or wrong name errors than if you went for the student-by-student approach!

Tip #9: Phone a friend 📞

Don’t forget that your colleagues are there to help you. Regardless of how busy they are, teachers on the whole are the best kind of people to go to as they love helping others (or at least procrastinating doing work between 3.15 and 4pm) so don’t hesitate to ask away. They might be able to phrase a tricky sentence for you or steer you down a different trail of thought. Bear in mind that other teachers in your school will also know your students from class or extracurricular activities and might have taught them for a year, so can be helpful people to bounce ideas off.

If you’re struggling to stay on top of your daily planning and teaching, talk to your team and figure out ways to cut down the workload. Share lesson plans and resources and halve, third or quarter the workload for each of you. As one of my students from last year repeatedly preached “Teamwork makes the dream work”.

Remember:

Look after your crew. You’re all in this boat together. Work together to stay afloat. Ask for help when setting the compass direction, not when your mast is snapping and you’re in over your head bailing water.

Bonus Tip #9 ¾ 💡

If you’re struggling to figure out whether to spell practice/practise with a ‘c’ or ‘s’, here’s an easy way to remember (full credit to VB 2016):

Try substituting the words ‘preparation’ and ‘prepare’ into your sentence and see which one ‘reads’ well and which one sounds ridiculous.

preparation = noun
prepare = verb
practice = noun (think of the noun ‘ice’)
practise = verb

‘Practice’ is a noun while ‘practise’ is a verb. You’ll be surprised at how easy it is to spot which usage makes grammatical sense in the examples below:

 

Which option here makes sense?

a). Timmy needs to preparation his times tables.
b). Timmy needs to prepare his times tables.

Obviously a). sounds ridiculous whereas b). makes grammatical sense because this is where the verb belongs in the sentence. Spelling ‘practise’ with an ‘s’ is therefore the correct option:

Timmy needs to practise his times tables.

Try this one:

a). Timmy needs to do his times tables preparation.
b). Timmy needs to do his times tables prepare.

This time a). makes sense because ‘practice’ is being used as a noun. Spelling ‘practice’ with a ‘c’ is therefore the correct option:

Timmy needs to do his times tables practice.

 

This post was republished with permission from Katherine over at At The Minute – go and check out their other incredible teaching advice, and a look into the life of some Kiwis living and working in London!

 

Emily

Emily is a secondary science and math teacher in Australia. She enjoys sharing the real and human teacher life, facilitating the ‘light bulb’ moment in her students, and drinking tea and wine.

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