Formal and impersonal language

For students to construct more sophisticated pieces of writing, they need to develop the ability to write from an impersonal perspective. This can be achieved by avoiding opinions and pronouns.


Explicit teaching

To formalise writing, the text needs to be objective and in third person. To achieve this the following needs to be avoided:

  1. using personal pronouns such as ‘I’, ‘we’, ‘you’, ‘our’, ‘us’ to refer to the author or reader.
  2. using judgemental words that indicate your feelings about a subject.
  3. using generalisations.

Impersonal writing focuses more on a ‘thing’ to be the subject rather than a person. For example instead of ‘I undertook the training…’ it could be written ‘The training was undertaken…’

General strategies

Students need to be immersed in new vocabulary. Further to recognising what the word(s) looks like and how to say it, they need to gain an understanding of how to use it in various contexts as well as its purpose. Stimulate students’ senses when discussing new vocabulary by: hearing the teacher say it, reading it written, saying it themselves, looking at pictures/diagrams, seeing in-context examples and sometimes non-examples.

Using sample texts relevant to your current topic familiarise students with the contrasting language used in texts for different purposes. Provide opportunities for students to investigate the personal/impersonal language examples and which type of texts they are commonly used for. Understanding the purpose and impact on the audience will allow students a greater understanding on how to effectively use impersonal language to formalise their writing.

Build up students vocabulary through ‘synonym-storms’ and word banks from sample texts. Using this new vocabulary, discuss the impact and intensity of these words. Students to consider what additional information needs to be included to ensure the statements are precise. For example it is stronger to say that ‘It is argued/known…’ or to use professionals ‘Scientists have claimed…’ instead of ‘It is thought…’. However, these need to be supported with more information or evidence.

For the kinaesthetic learners, writing for varied purposes or reconstructing previous texts will highlight the contrast between personal and impersonal language. Depending on the current focus in your KLA, students can produce a variety of texts on the same topic. This could include those for a different purpose (type of text- persuasive/narrative/informative) or a different audience (informative for younger children/peers/adults).

Activities to support the strategy

Activity 1: actions speak louder than words

For students to get a clear understanding of the differences between personal and impersonal language they are to consciously work through the steps of transferring between each stage. This can be completed individually or in pairs.

Step 1: dictate what you did

Students are to dictate and record the steps they have taken to complete something. It could be answering a difficult question in Mathematics, creating a product in TAS/Visual Arts or even writing a paragraph. Using a dictation app or a voice recorder and then typing, students are to transcribe their spoken words into written, exactly as they are.

Step 2: spoken to written

Taking the important aspects from the transcription, students are to turn their work into more appropriate written language. For example, they remove excessive use of 'and' which creates run-on sentences; they use other conjunctions to connect clauses in complex sentences; and they remove slang terms and the interjections such as ‘um’.

Step 3: impersonalise to formalise the writing

Remove pronouns such as ‘I’, ‘you’ and focus on the thing (the step) to formalise the writing.

Teachers are to verify the process at each stage and provide ongoing prompting to assist where needed. Questions such as “Is it clear who the author is?” or “Does it show how the author feels?”, will assist to progress students through the formalising process.

Variation: The final piece can be used as a resource for their peers or younger students as a ‘How to…’.

Activity 2: compare and contrast

Select two different types of text related to your topic that highlight impersonal and personal voice.

In pairs students are to use a Venn diagram to highlight vocabulary that is similar/different in each text. Pairs then join with another group and discuss what they found and add anything new. In the group of four, students discuss possible reasons why the author has used certain vocabulary.

Students then attempt to reconstruct a passage from the text using the opposite style of voice.

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