There are so many reasons why a child might not be meeting age-related expectations in writing by the time they reach Year 4. Sometimes because of the overwhelming nature of these reasons, we may complicate the possible solutions. The structure of the grammar programme of study in the national curriculum can be really quite helpful. The knowledge and skills the children build can support the development of both technically accurate writing and offer the potential to develop a shared language with which to discuss creative possibilities. But how we interact with that curriculum, how we make use of the meta-language that we are required to teach, can help or hinder depending on what we emphasise, and the degree and order by which we do it. All too often we can overwhelm budding writers with lists of requirements that might, if we are not careful, squeeze out intention, direction, and most critically of all, enjoyment and motivation.
With this in mind, and based on extensive observation of writing in a wide range of classrooms, we have developed Raising Writing Standards in Year 4 and 5. It is a programme of writing sequences for children working in key stage 2 that have yet to experience the satisfaction of producing writing that flows - writing that moves here and there, or forwards, backwards and sideways in time. Drawing upon the work of Donald Graves, Barrs and Cork’s The Reader in the Writer (also discussed here and here), and aspects of narratology, we have stripped back some of the demands that can overcomplicate the act of composition, allowing some of our more hesitant writers to experience what it feels like to guide their reader(s) through their mental landscapes. In doing so, across the programme we look to foster an awareness and use of writerly behaviours that support individual idea generation, as well as more surefooted intention and direction in shaping and crafting content. We have found in trials that while this programme benefits less confident writers, it has helped to develop writing across the class regardless of current motivation and attainment. This year we have run the programme in three counties and feedback indicates enhanced motivation, particularly for reluctant writers; accelerated progress; a greater awareness of authorial technique in both reading and writing; and increased likelihood to recognise and respond to the reader’s needs, and to enjoy exercising this kind of control.
As part of the process, we undertook deep analysis of a range of Year 5 children’s writing to see what common themes emerged in terms of aspects of composition that we might be able to address through short and carefully structured instructional approaches. This analysis led to the following observations:
- no real concept of where the writing is going
- list of events with no real cohesion
- limited use of cohesive devices – overreliance on series of discrete statements, sometimes unduly repetitive
- writing that did not display a sense of rhythm
- lack of awareness of a reader
- very little detail or perhaps too much detail where it wasn’t really required
- a shaky grasp of sentence structure (unconventional use of conjunctions; sentence fragments; omission of words)
Planning for a writing journey
It was important to us that we should not overload the children when attempting to develop the skills they needed. Rather we wanted them to have key skills they could use in a range of writing and practice going forward. We wanted to recharge writing, to fire up the desire to write whether that be writing to a brief across the curriculum, or writing for its own rewards. The learning needed to be seen by the children as a long-term development project but with short-term success that could continually be reviewed, refined and developed. A journey analogy grew. This analogy can be traced across the whole programme, as well as within each of the three fully mapped and resourced sequences that makes up the programme. In terms of their own writing, the children needed to:
Plan the journey - where to add the detail, where not; sequence of events/ detail; needs of the reader; cohesive devices.
Fuel up - with ideas for writing, useful vocabulary; verb forms; links from reading and opportunities to practise and reinforce sentence structure and demarcation.
Speeding up/slowing down - making conscious decisions about the rhythms of writing - when to move on at pace in fourth gear; when to slow down and take in the surroundings.
Pit stops - a range of approaches for self and peer assessment at different times in the writing process.
Road trip review - reviewing the writing and the writing process for future writing.
The icons that represent each of these aspects proved to be supportive in developing a heightened awareness of these elements that make up a writing process and in supporting writerly discussions that centred on intention, and that led to more intentional writing. Around this, other writerly behaviours were modelled, nurtured, and eventually adopted more consistently on an independent basis, such as the use of writers’ journals, and the deployment of techniques similar to those used in our reading fluency to support peer and self-evaluation. Where, for reading, we might ask "does it sound good to listen to?", here we take a step back into the writer’s shoes and ask "Does your writing sound good to listen to when read aloud?" Essentially, by drawing attention to an aspect of this loop between reading and writing, we wanted to help our focus children move on from seeing writing as a piecemeal series of required ‘tasks’ towards a more holistic awareness of the writing process and the reader’s place within it.
To further support the journey analogy, and in response to the time-limited nature of this attempt to recharge writing, we chose to focus, repeatedly, on imagined journeys. Once again, we drew on thinking that has informed earlier work relating to the shapeshifting demands of the Y6 ‘greater depth’ standard, and decided to focus on recounts. Recounts, in their most common guises, do not always get a good press. ‘At the weekend’ and ‘during the holidays…’ recounts can be vulnerable to structural imbalances, or meandering. Drawing upon Grave’s messages relating to early writing development, we knew that we wanted to provide plenty of scope to develop chronology and cohesion. Without these in play, it is very hard to refine the writing in the editing process. How were we to develop these skills, without overloading the children, but at the same time providing sufficient material to write coherently, making dynamic choices in terms of phrases and sentences?
It’s perhaps not the most radical leap to turn to high quality picturebooks. Choosing the three titles that powered up our sequences was not too tricky, given the array of rich titles to draw from. We had three essential requirements: they need to power rich dialogic sessions; they needed to offer space for authorial choices; they needed to offer scope to move through events but also provide opportunities to linger, and allow the writer scope to render these worlds in words, with the intention of bringing them to life in the reader’s mind.
In initial trials, we provided a pre- and post-programme writing task for comparative purposes. We also analysed samples along the journey through the three sequences. Gains were seen particularly in terms of confidence, clarity, greater control of varied structures and overall direction, as well as an enhanced sense of reader. Pupil voice and teacher surveys indicated confidence gains and a heightened awareness of the crafting involved in the writing process. In essence, the programme allowed children to have a greater awareness of what it means to be a ‘writer’, and in the process allowed us to know more of the writers in our classrooms. More recently, across three counties, feedback in response to the refined programme indicates a range of additional observed benefits:
are keen to use writing journals; able to support one another when considering sentence structure; independently transferring vocabulary into other writing; see their English books as ‘real’ working documents; have developed their self-editing skills; transferred a sense of pace and cadence in sentence structure from the writing into their reading; thoroughly enjoyed their learning.
And teachers who:
transfer aspects of the pedagogy to other writing in other subjects; have given working walls a new lease of life; thoroughly enjoyed the teaching and learning.
It seems only right to end with a sample from the programme that speaks volumes about the journey(s) that the participants went on. Consider here how the writer recognises the limitations of their second sentence. Then consider how they rethink and decide to withhold such critical information from their reader to delay and then gratify. They’re manipulating you! And to all intents and purposes, and for all audiences, that is pretty much what we set out to achieve.
New for 2021
Raising Writing Standards in Years 4 and 5: Winning at Writing KS2, starting on Thursday 9th December 2021
This innovative and sharply focused 12-week programme is designed to support teachers of writers in Years 4 and 5 to meet age-related expectations in the following aspects of their writing: word and phrase choice, sentence structure and overall composition. Drawing upon our highly successful work in reading fluency, the approaches and resources are designed to develop writing fluidity, stamina, and confidence. Find out more: