Teaching for timelords: verb forms in UKS2 writing

    Published: 12 June 2016

    Martin Galway is an English Teaching and Learning Adviser for Herts for Learning

    Following my last blog on the matter of verbs in KS1, you may be forgiven for asking why, in the face of all that is demanded by the primary curriculum for English, I am choosing to serve up more of the same: verbs – hardly as pulse-racingly contentious as the subset of verbs  that is the subjunctive, or KS1’s  “exclamation” sentences.

     I’m sticking with verbs because they’re important of course.  But then, I think I established that in the last blog. More particularly, it’s because they are the subject of one of the very few markers of writing at greater depth at KS2 in this year’s Interim Teacher Assessment Framework (ITAF):

    The pupil can write for a range of purposes and audiences

    • Selecting verb forms for meaning and effect.

    – Interim Teacher Assessment Frameworks at the end of Key Stage 2

    [Standards and Testing Agency, September 2015]

    I want to make a few comments around the ITAF itself. I think it is safe for me to say that it has proven to be quite controversial.  That’s as far as I want to go here, but you might want to read this very interesting blog on the matter of assessing writing using the ITAF’s  “secure fit” approach  in relation to the sorts of “open tasks” that the assessment of writing is based on.   Daisy Christodolou outlines some concerns around this uneasy relationship that I am certain many will recognise.  She also provides links to further, thought-provoking writing on the same topic. Have an explore and a think.  They are well worth mulling over.

    This blog is not about the ITAFs as such, but I do want to make one further observation.  The fewer statements there are – and there are very few for greater depth at either key stage – the greater the weight they take on in establishing a judgement.  There are relatively few statements for writing overall, certainly in comparison to maths and science, and so each one should really earn its place in a document as important as this.  I won’t get (too) side-tracked from the focus of the blog, but I might just say at this point that from a very personal point of view, I wonder to what degree hyphens really deserve a place in the ITAF statements.  Hyphens are governed by word-choice.  Going back to Daisy’s blog, in forming a judgement based on open-tasks  – and open tasks should  be essentially open in terms of word choice –  a testable element like the hyphen is perhaps better left to a test.  As soon as you are tempted to ask, ‘how do I ensure there is a hyphen in my evidence bank?’, you start to hit some of the issues that Daisy touches upon.   Verb forms, though?  I think they have a central role to play in identifying the best of our young writers at the end of key stage 2, so if we are to have a secure fit system with very few greater depth indicators, I am glad they are one of them.

    Confidently controlled verbs have always struck me as a telegram from the assured young writer.  It’s in the ebb and flow of a good piece of writing.  It’s in the shift away from the sometimes overly-telegraphed movement between ideas that rely a little to heavily on what we once called connectives (our adverbials and conjunctions).  The reading feels easy, like you are in the hands of someone who knows where they are going and how to steer us there.   It’s all well and good me saying that, but are we able to identify the tipping point where a child’s deployment of verbs meets this higher grade? Like most short prose descriptors, the requirement to ‘select verb forms for meaning and effect’ might still beg some questions:  To what degree?  To what standard?  With what kinds of verbs?  For what kinds of effect?  For what kinds of meaning?   We have the exemplification materials to guide us to a degree, so let’s consider some of the examples shared in the singular success story of Frankie, our ‘Working at greater depth within the expected standard’ pioneer. (Frankie’s writing and the other exemplification files are available here)


    It’s clear from this stretch of writing that some of the forms taught across the primary curriculum are evident and are being used to order and account for events in the context of the chosen form.   We also have this:


    Here, more explicitly, we see direct reference to some of the forms that our students are required to learn under the primary curriculum. The simple present and past  that begins in the early years; the present progressive of Year 2; the present perfect of Year 3 and the modals of Year 5 and onwards.  Elsewhere in the exemplar, there are other, more limited references  to other forms (passive constructions for example).

    The exemplifications are not definitive and rightly so: you are not even required to read them if you are “confident in [your] judgements” [Clarification document,  STA 2016]- but they provide some clues around what, more exactly, we might be looking for.  In reading these clues, they also sound a note of caution. Let’s consider the clues first.


    • We are looking for a range of verb forms largely drawn or recognisable from the Statutory requirements of the curriculum’s programme or the associated requirements set out in Appendix 2 (vocabulary, grammar and punctuation)
    • They make sense and fit with the tone/style or genre of the piece
    • They are used appropriately
    • They help the writing move and settle in time; they help us process when things are happening and how events and moments interrelate.


    Let’s just take that last bullet and unpick it further. How might we support our children in developing increasingly precise or deliberate skills in managing tense and aspect?  When I deliver any training on the perfect form of verbs  ( the present perfect in our Year 3/4 training or the whole kit and caboodle of  past perfect, present perfect and their progressive relations in year 5/6), I try to couch the explanations in terms of enabling children to be more precise around the time signatures of their writing.   I share how I would encourage my own pupils to be time lords – the pen as TARDIS:

    “Did you know that if we use the past perfect, we can take a past event and put an even earlier one before it? This can be really handy and can also help us to achieve some shifts in our writing. We’re going to look at how.”  Prior  to doing so, it is important that your students have already been exposed to the language feature that we are about to explore – naming the unfamiliar is going to be more difficult to process.

    I like to  use a visual tool to illustrate the linguistic point I am making. Here, I might use  a timeline in which the different forms are highlighted in context and represented in graphic form.  It often seems to help the more mathematically-inclined:


    For some discrete practice of  the past perfect, I’ll turn to an engaging text that reinforces the learning point and provides an interesting focus.  For the past perfect (or more specifically, the past perfect progressive) I tend to use some backwards storytelling inspired by Allan Ahlberg’s cracking picture book Previously  (see an example of the “reverse narratives” here) .  We use the past perfect here to help us to move further and further back through a known story or perhaps a personal recount.  First I model planning a short sequence of events in chronological order; then we use this as a short-piece writing plan but work through it in reverse:


    I may do the above but I would most definitely share some excellent, real-text examples of the chosen form. For example this from Ray Bradbury’s classic short story All Summer in a Day:

    Margot stood alone. She was a very frail girl who looked as if she had been lost in the rain for years and the rain had washed out the blue from her eyes and the red from her mouth and the yellow from her hair. She was an old photograph dusted from an album, whitened away, and if she spoke at all her voice would be a ghost. Now she stood, separate, staring at the rain and the loud wet world beyond the huge glass.

    Let’s just pause and consider all of the other interesting stuff that is happening here with the verbs.  Why, for example, does Bradbury shift from the simple past ‘stood’ to the present participle of ‘staring’. What does the past perfect form help Bradbury to achieve in the second sentence?  Of course, the degree to which we might explore in this way with our class will depend on the children.  Some children that are not so naturally inclined to analyse texts at a figurative level, come alive when asked to solve ‘problems’ like this in the writing.  In some senses, good primary grammar teaching is about opening up another line of enquiry and providing an even-wider field of access to great writing for our students. Invariably though, this rests on the use of high quality texts. It has to be beneficial to expose our students to such a good, enriching (and troubling, and scary, and beautiful) piece of writing as Bradbury’s. It allows us to find an  example of this thing that our higher attainers are being asked to achieve in a real text that offers so much more than crude linguistic dissection.   In any case, I might choose a section that has greater immediate utility in the classroom:

    All day yesterday they had read in class about the sun. About how like a lemon it was…

    …But that was yesterday. Now the rain was slackening, and the children were crushed in the great thick windows.

    What have we here then? A flashback.   Dearly beloved device of the aspirational upper key stage 2 writer – here handled elegantly and simply.  The past perfect guiding us back in time as simply as that.  This is its key quality – and one of its valuable lessons – its simplicity: a likely marker of a more confident, developed writer.  To begin to wrap up, these are just some of the possible ways in which we might explore a particular aspect of this increasingly advanced learning around verbs.  They might well support our students in making more deliberate, informed use of a wider range of verb s and verb phrases, in keeping with the clues set out above.

    Now, what of the ‘note of caution’?

    Don’t be tempted to create sub-lists of requirements stemming from the ITAF statements

    Given the rightly contentious nature of tick list approaches, the last thing we want is more tick lists.  Especially erroneous tick lists.  Exemplars for assessment need to be handled with caution. Although handy in demonstrating what a range of verb forms “worthy” of the greater depth standard might look like, they are just one range.  Your pupils’ work will look different.  It should look different.  They may not have all the forms listed in the exemplification.  They may have others.   For example, nowhere does the curriculum demand that your children demonstrate the use of the subjunctive. I have heard, here and there, that a subjunctive or two is a requirement for greater depth writing.  It’s not – simple as that.  We just have to teach it somewhere, at some point.  The children may answer a question on it in the GPS test. End of  carefully-controlled story.

    Providing lists of verb forms for the children to cram/wheedle/shoehorn/engineer into their writing would likely be counter-productive. (I want to say will be counter-productive – but a degree of uncertainty is probably safer for my choice of verb forms here).  What we really want to see is a varied use of fluid verb forms -sparingly here; in droves there, if it is justified.  This, to my mind and many others’, will most likely develop from routine exposure to good and great writing. Not from the laboured reading that occurs if we spend an undue length of time on feature spotting, parsing and the like  – just carefully chosen examples that do the job you need it to.

    Achieving this focus skill in writing –  a secure and more sophisticated,  often deceptively simple,  control of verbs –   would serve as an excellent launch point for KS3 to pick up the controls, give us a jaunty salute and say “we’ll take it from here chaps” as we wave from the primary airfield.

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