The truth is that writing is hard. What’s more, teaching it is even harder! Every teacher knows that supporting a child to master what we might call basic sentence construction takes years. Too often, we encounter children in years 5 and 6 who, despite years of practice of this particular skill, still haven’t quite grasped it. Yet basic sentence construction is just the beginning. Beyond that, there appears to be so much more to learn in order to allow our pupils to articulate their thoughts in coherent and well-considered prose. The list of terminology held within the National Curriculum VGP appendix pays testament to this and often seems overwhelming: adverb, preposition, conjunction, pronoun, parenthesis, active, passive…the list goes on. It is not surprising therefore, given the lengthy list of terms that pupils are expected to learn, and the feats of syntactic artistry that children are expected to perform by the end of KS2, that teachers feel a sense of urgency to get on with the job of covering all this stuff, often at a rate of knots. Unfortunately, it is this ‘need for speed’ that so often forces teachers down a path of rapid-fire teaching and light coverage that results in false gains and subsequent gaps in key knowledge and skills. Although this need to push on is understandable, speedy coverage combined with lack of planned time for repeated practice, is most definitely your enemy when it comes to improving basic writing skills.
Although the curriculum remains packed at KS2, at KS1 the expectations regarding writing, and specifically sentence construction and demarcation, have been stripped back somewhat in recent years. It is important to remind ourselves that some of the aspects of writing that were expected to be taught pre-NC 2014, have been shunted into the KS2 Programme of Study (PoS). For example, according to the NC, ‘inverted commas to punctuate speech’ does not need to be introduced until Y3. Adverbs of time and place used to sit squarely in the Year 2 PoS, but again, this has been shifted to Year 3. Of course, the NC clearly stipulates that it remains the school’s decision whether or not they choose to introduce key stage content during an earlier key stage. My experience, however, is that teachers are often teaching this knowledge in KS1, not because they have engaged in deep consideration about whether or not it is relevant to their pupils’ needs, but because they still think that they have to. Even though the NC can no longer be called ‘new’, I find that some schools have yet to engage fully with the PoS laid out within it, and to have those crucial conversations about what should be taught within which year group, and most crucially WHY. I imagine that the conversations that are surfacing about curriculum design and sequencing may well provide a good platform from which these conversations can now take place – hence the timing of this particular blog.
In regards to the WHY question, my response is simple. Any stripping back of the content of the KS1 writing curriculum is a good thing due to the fact that what is left within the PoS is hard! Essentially, we are left with what some might unwittingly call ‘the basics’. That is, the skill of recognising and writing simple and multi-clause sentences, using the correct end punctuation and correct capitalisation. Year 2 takes this a little further by encouraging sentence embellishment: specifically, the addition of detail for the reading through the inclusion of adjectives and noun phrases. Fundamentally, when looked at coldly, there is now scope within the KS1 PoS to focus on the big stuff. Quite right too. As I stated in my opening line, writing is hard, and nothing is harder than supporting young writers to master the concept to transforming their thoughts into well-shaped sentences.
The key word in the last sentence is ‘master’. By this, I mean that they can write a sentence that has a capital letter at the start; that has the appropriate end punctuation; and that may, or may not, be extended by the use of a limited range of subordinating or coordinating conjunctions about any topic (within reason) in any context, be it an English lesson or history lesson or geography lesson and so on. Sounds simple, but the reality is that every teacher knows how hard this is to achieve.
No doubt, the key to success in this pursuit is practice, and lots of it. The danger is that, as I see it in the many classrooms that I visit, time for practice is regularly eroded away by teachers’ beliefs that they constantly need to be pushing on, harder and faster. As soon as the children appear to have grasped a concept (a very different ability to ‘mastering’, I’d like to point out), the teachers feel the urgency to move on: ‘Well done for starting some of your sentences with a capital letter. Now try to vary your sentence starters.’ Thus dashing on before the basic skills are embedding and running the risk of destabilising the yet-to-be-secured foundations. This is a common ‘next step’ that I hear teachers share with children in Year 1/ 2 – I also often seen it modelled in writing. I understand the drive: writing does have a much better rhythm when the sentences start in ways other than beginning with the noun, but there is a time for this next step, and while the children are still in the process of grasping basic sentence security, the time is not right to move on. Instead, what the children need is practice to be able to do this anytime, in any place and in any context.
Put simply, practice is the act of doing something that you can already do, thus allowing that skill to become automatic or second-nature. And, herein may lie the problem. As a profession, we have become nervous about asking children to do something that they can already appear to be able to do. ‘Where are the errors? Where is the challenge? Where is the ambition?’ we might be asked by a well-intentioned observer.
The fact is that we need to develop a bravery about stating what we know best about our subjects. And, one thing teachers know is that getting children to the point of mastering basic sentence construction and punctuation is a challenge. Hence the need for lots of opportunities for practice. This practice need not seem repetitive to the children. It may not occur to them that when they are writing about Lowry’s interpretation of life in Northern England, or the life cycle of a butterfly, that they are actually practising the skill of writing sentences. We do not in fact need to make this explicit to them, after all, it is the factual information of the task at hand that is key. It just so happens, however, that due to our recognition of the importance of time to practise the developing skill of sentence construction, we have engineered a task to share and embed this new knowledge that requires the recording of information in complete sentences. Therefore, when we design tasks across the curriculum that allow time for children to practise the skill of writing sentences in line with the English PoS, we are recognising that the time required to truly master this learning requires more than is available in the specified English lesson teaching time.
Time to practise this vital skill should not just be left to tasks undertaken within the wider curriculum – core practice time should also take place within the English lessons. Time to practise within the time allocated to English lessons falls within what was once called ‘phase 1 teaching’. Although this stage may now fall under different titles in different schools, it refers to the time within the English unit when you explicitly teach reading: both decoding and comprehension in KS1 moving to the dominance of comprehension tuition in KS2. When we teach reading, we often require children to express their understanding of what they have read in order to appreciate if they really have grasped what the text is telling them. We might, for example, following a read of a text featuring a dastardly villain, invite the children to discuss the appearance of the character and then write a WANTED poster recalling the distinguishable features of the accused. To give another example, following a read of a text featuring a character in distress, we might encourage the children to explore their thoughts and then record them in the form of a diary entry. The purpose of these writing tasks is to convey the children’s understanding of what they have read. In that sense, we are not teaching them how to write; instead we are allowing them time to practise the writing skills that we have already taught (perhaps in a previous unit) for the purpose of shedding a light on their reading development. As a teacher, when looking at these written outcomes, not only can we gain an insight into how their reading for meaning is developing, but we can assess their understanding of the key skill of sentence construction and demarcation. The beauty of this way of working is that we are able to see how well the children are able to construct sentences and demarcate them when sentence structure and demarcation is not the focus. If they can maintain those skills when they are focused on another matter e.g. conveying their understanding of character or reflecting on a character’s motives, then you can be assured that they are well on the way to mastery. If on the other hand, the burgeoning sentence demarcation skills that you celebrated in their last piece of focused writing (perhaps at the end of a previous unit when sentence demarcation was stated loud and proud as the success criteria for the piece) are now sadly absent, then the subsequent writing focus needs to be…yes, you’ve guessed it…basic sentence construction and demarcation.
The simple truth is that moving on too soon from this focus is futile. Until the children have really mastered sentence construction and demarcation at a basic level, it will just keep on coming back to bite. Look ahead by all means, but think carefully about moving on until the KS1 PoS is well and truly secure.
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