Back in October 2018 (in the time before COVID-19), I wrote the often visited blog, ‘Write away!’ and other lessons derived from the 2018 KS2 Writing Moderations’, drawing together the reflections and lessons learned from the Hertfordshire team of moderators post moderation. Much of the advice is still of use. However, given that KS2 Writing Moderation is not to take place this year, I thought it an opportunity to re-evaluate, to ensure that our pupils are able to consolidate writing gains made earlier in the year, and arrive at secondary school with the writing skills that they will require. I therefore wanted to revisit the lessons outlined in my earlier blog, elicit what is still relevant for this year, and consider where we might best focus our efforts and energies in the remaining weeks.
Lesson number 1: ‘Write away!’ Carry on writing…
Keeping pupils writing would seem, to me, as important as ever. It is often from Spring half-term onwards that a child is able to more independently apply the teaching from the Autumn and first part of the Spring term. While dependent on individual circumstances and factors outside the control of the teacher, if pupils are not able to practise what they have learned, in a sustained way, this will affect how well they are able to secure that earlier fragile learning. It is worth auditing the amount that pupils have been able continue to write: to what extent have we been able to keep pupils writing so that they have been able to both practise their skills, and perhaps even reflect and fill in any gaps? Could more be done remotely, right now, to mitigate the damaging effect of the lockdown? While working from home, are pupils still encouraged to magpie phrases and words from their reading and experiences, and draft and make improvements to their work? Potentially, it seems likely that Y6 pupils will be back in school before the end of term. How can we build up this writing ‘muscle’ again?
In previous years, many moderators have commented on the passion for writing and books shown by staff in the best-performing schools. Moderators often see many staff really encourage writing through a love of reading widely, modelling the process of being a writer, plenty of role play and talk for writing. How much of this has been affected by the current situation? It certainly is difficult to get completely free access to great fiction and non-fiction – but some kindle books are free or 99p and some schools have set up an outside lending library at a set time in the week. So let’s do what we can to encourage pupils to read for pleasure. Also, rather than resort to printed grammar exercise sheets, can we encourage Y6 pupils to FaceTime a friend or relative and read them some of their own writing or an extract from a book they love? A further resource to consider is Pie Corbett’s daily radio blogging broadcast (https://radioblogging.net/) in order to provide access to the enthusiasm and talents of real authors and some of that interactivity that previously would have been achieved in the classroom.
What is more, with relaxation over teaching to the grammar test and the checklist approach to evidencing teacher assessments of writing, this is a great opportunity to develop pupils’ understanding of purpose as well as audience. More than ever, now is the time to explore writing for different purposes such as journaling, journalism and blogging. Moreover, what better time to escape into your own creative world, or write as an aid to your own thinking and understanding? As far as possible, remotely or in school, focus on writing for pleasure: creating a writer’s workshop culture amongst your class. Within this culture Y6 can take risks with their writing and share their work without fear. In this way they can magpie and learn from each other and from great literature, re-drafting and improving their writing.
Lesson number 2: Who are we writing for?
Consider the range of writing opportunities offered to ensure that they cover a range of purposes and audiences – both formal and informal.
Given the requirement at secondary school for formal academic writing, it is still worth keeping in mind the following four ‘pupil can’ criteria (as they work together) when planning the writing at this point in the year:
Basically, pupils need to know the purpose and audience for their writing and select appropriate language and sentence structures to fit this.
So what types of tasks and genres should have been covered in Y6 in a usual year? To answer this question, it’s worth looking at the exemplifications and considering the range of tasks and purpose and audience for each.
For example, the tasks in Morgan’s collection include two short stories, a recount, a letter, a balanced argument and a science investigation. These give plenty of opportunity to write for different purposes and audiences.
You don’t need to complete the same tasks and indeed, you are likely to be struggling for time. However, you do need to allow opportunities for pupils to write both formally and informally and, for your more skilled writer, a subtle but deliberate blend of both. Consider, for every writing task, what the purpose is for the task, and who the audience is. Then consider what features – types of language and vocabulary – the writing might contain for these different audiences and purposes.
In the main, pupils tend to write ‘down the middle’: neither formally nor informally. However, it is the formal that most will struggle to sustain in a predominantly formal piece. Unsurprisingly, given that many primary pupils have limited exposure to formal speech or modes of writing, this inability to sustain the formal register throughout is an issue that secondary colleagues are also facing. Therefore, we need to model and provide opportunities for formal writing, and then show where else this could be used – for example, a character in a story that is trying to assert their authority over others may speak more formally.
The trick is not necessarily to tell pupils to include a long list of features, but to consider purpose and audience and find some good model text.
Above all, the writer needs to be able to write with the reader in mind – does it make sense? Can the reader follow it? Could I phrase or structure any parts differently to make it more effective or easier to follow? A useful question for the writer is to ask: ‘What do I want my reader to think and feel (informed, entertained, scared, persuaded etc.) and how could I achieve this to even greater effect? Do read James Durran’s blog on boxed success criteria for more on this. To bridge the gap to secondary, you may also wish to introduce a consideration of ‘tone’.
Lesson number 3: Use this opportunity to further develop pupils’ peer and self-assessment to help pupils to become more self-reflective and independent
Our usual advice is that there need to be an adequate number of independent pieces of writing. We also gave the advice to ease up on the feedback – something that has probably happened out of necessity anyway.
This is still good advice. The caveat is that while pupils are working remotely, it is obviously near impossible for the teacher to vouch for independence: to know how much support has been given by a parent, how much may have been copied from the internet, how long a child has taken to complete the activity, or how long the child took to edit and improve – if at all. In short, we are unable to observe our pupils as we would in the classroom.
Hence I would like to propose a change of emphasis for the times when a child is working from home. It is less about proving independence, and more about helping the child to develop independence through metacognitive strategies around the process and craft of writing.
One simple way forward is to give the instruction that pupils need to read their work aloud and use a checklist like our 'Y5/6 editing check-list' (see end of blog) to edit and improve any writing, whatever the subject. Encourage drafting. Show them author’s first drafts (such as those found here and here) and unpick the types of edit and improvements that are made: additions, subtractions and corrections. Can your pupils make these three types of improvements? Encourage dialogue around this and an exploration of the writing process.
A second way is to encourage peer collaboration, using video, chat, emails, discussion boards or shared workplaces like Google Docs. Build ground rules and allocate twos and threes to share a draft of their writing. Pupils may make kind, specific and helpful suggestions – although the final decision about a change should always rest with the writer.
It is worth concentrating on both these aspects, not only to maximise writing skills, but because there is strong evidence that supporting pupils to become independent, and enabling collaborative work, are key factors that improve pupil motivation and learning outcomes. Please do read the EEF’s report ‘Best evidence on supporting students to learn remotely’. Of course, this is an emphasis that will pay dividends once back in the classroom too.
REVISED Lesson number 4: Take time to understand the criteria for Greater Depth and what this looks like in the writing – Teach to the top
A continuing theme to emerge from previous years concerns difficulties around assessing and securing ‘greater depth’. For this year, at least, perhaps our focus should be around teaching to the top. This document, from Literacy for pleasure, is of help when considering how to develop your strongest writers.
Previous experience shows that pupils struggle to fulfil the pupil can statement to demonstrate an ‘assured and conscious control over levels of formality’. During STA training for Lead Moderators, the STA have stated that:
Pupils working at ‘greater depth’ must demonstrate the ability to manipulate grammar and vocabulary according to the context of the writing. The emphasis on ‘assured and conscious control’ refers to the fact that choices made in their writing are deliberate and considered.
Obviously, writing such as ‘Frankie’s’ clearly meets this statement – but how ‘assured and conscious’ do our Y6 writers need to be? Here it is worth turning to the ‘Leigh’ exemplification file as a benchmark as Leigh only narrowly misses the greater depth standard. There is one piece – piece B – where Leigh is able to meet the ‘assured and conscious control’ statement. The annotations on the remaining pieces show where Leigh has been less consistent and hence why the award remains at expected standard.
Reflect too, as you read the collection, on the purpose and audience for each piece in the collection. Are there enough opportunities for Leigh to write formally? Could more opportunities for formal writing have helped? Does the recount provide any evidence for Greater depth? (No!) Additionally, has Leigh been given adequate time to re-draft some sections of his/her work to consider precision of language, or tidy up punctuation? The implications are that greater depth writers may need longer to craft their writing, as well as more exposure to a range of reading material and a range of tasks that have a clearly defined purpose and audience.
REVISED Lesson number 5: Conference, celebrate and where possible, take a portfolio of writing to secondary school
In my original article, lesson 5 was titled ‘spellings matter’. It’s not that spellings don’t matter, it is just that this expectation can be subsumed into a pupil’s own skills at correcting their work – based on their growing knowledge of their own weakness and areas of improvement. Your weak spellers will know that they are weak spellers. If time allows, perhaps if the majority of pupils are able to return to school, take time to conference pupils. Highlight their own writer’s ’Achilles heel’, whether that be about spelling or any other writing skill and trouble-shooting a way to improve. The Teacher Assessment Framework may be set to one side, but formative assessment, as always, is paramount. The more that we can activate pupils as owners of their own learning, the better prepared they will be.
Should there be an opportunity for all Y6 pupils to return to school (even if on selected days), why not let them edit and improve writing from earlier in the year, and put together a collection of their favourite writing? This collection could showcase their writing skills for their secondary school English teacher. It can include drafts, as well as the finished article to help to show the writing process and how the child has developed as a writer. Perhaps their favourite piece could be stuck into the front of their new school exercise books as a ‘benchmark of excellence’ demonstrating their ‘typical best’ standard. The onus would then be on the pupil to ensure that their subsequent work was of the same standard.
To finish, in order to help with the conferencing above, let’s step back and think about each end of KS2 standard. A key question must be:-
What commonly stops pupils being the standard above?
Where pupils fail to meet the ‘working towards’ statements, they often have difficulty with sentence punctuation and spelling.
Where pupils fail to meet the ‘expected standard’, they often have difficulty with cohesion and writing for a range of purposes (mainly falling down on formal/ variation of sentence structure.) Spellings (frequently still Y3/4) are often an issue. Watch out too for the comma splice.
Where pupils fail to meet the ‘greater depth’ standard, they may not have demonstrated the accurate (and considered) use of the range of punctuation, correct register or the conscious control over levels of formality required.
Given these difficulties, it can be useful to read pupil drafts and consider the writing evidence that you do have, placing the writing into three piles:
- writing that would most benefit from feedback around sentence construction/ punctuation
- writing that would most benefit from input around cohesion, and
- writing that would most benefit from feedback around word choice (particularly for more formal/academic writing. Consider too the importance of verb form).
Offer conference feedback to a group at a time. Meanwhile pupils not working with you or working at home could be given various writing or editing tasks – including reviewing spellings. (Ask pupils to read their work word by word backwards from the end in order to notice any spelling errors.)
So let’s flex that writing muscle, utilise the time at home or at school to free pupils to enjoy the craft of writing, and take with them to secondary school a reflective and independent approach to writing that will serve them well in the coming years.
If you would like to know more about developing metacognition and self-regulation to improve writing outcomes, then do sign up for Every time we write – developing metacognition and self-regulation to improve writing outcomes on 30th June 2020.