There are so many reasons why a child might not be meeting age-related expectations in writing by the time they are in year 5. If we were to list all the reasons we could think of, we are sure you could add more. Sometimes because of the overwhelming nature of some of these reasons, we may complicate the possible solutions.
We have said it before - the structure of the grammar programme of study in the national curriculum is really quite helpful. The knowledge and skills the children build from EYFS supports the development of not only technically accurate writing but allows for a shared language with which to discuss creative possibilities. Or, at least, it can. 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 our budding writers with lists of requirements that might, if we are not careful, squeeze out intention, direction, and muddy the associated outcomes.
It is with this in mind, and based on extensive observation of writing in classes and in books, that we have been working on a writing intervention, a programme of writing sequences for children working in upper key stage 2 that have yet to experience the satisfaction of producing writing that flows - writing that moves here and there, or forward and back and sideways in time. Drawing upon the work of Donald Graves on the writing process, Barrs and Cook, and their wonderful The Reader in the Writer (also discussed here and here and aspects of narratology, we have looked to strip back some of the demands that can circle, and complicate, the act of composition, to allow some of our more hesitant writers to experience what it feels like to guide their reader(s) through their mental landscapes.
Back to our struggling year 5 child. They are in the closing years of their primary journey and we want them to leave us being able to craft their writing in ways that recognise and respond to the reader’s needs, and to enjoy doing so or at least feel in control.
We have taken some time to analyse a range of children’s writing to see what the commonalities were. It seems that there were some recurring themes and I’m sure you could name them before reading on:
- no real concept of where the writing is going
- not really ending
- list of events with no real cohesion
- lack of awareness of a reader
- very little detail or perhaps too much detail where it wasn’t really required e.g. breaking out of a mystery story into an unrequited love story
- a shaky grasp of sentence structure
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 over the next two years. 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. 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 useful vocabulary; verb forms; links from reading and perhaps most critically 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 in fourth gear; when to slow down and take in the surroundings
Pit stops - a range of approaches to 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 proved to be supportive in developing an awareness of many of the key elements that make up a writing process and to support 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 work to check back for voice and register. ‘Do you sound good to listen to?' to quote an earlier blog. Well, to dig behind that question and take a step back into the writer’s shoes: does your writing lead the reader to sound good to listen to?
To further support the journey analogy, 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. Now recounts, in their most common guises, do not always get a good press. We are sure that many of us have read more than our fair share of ‘school trip’ recounts. No doubt we found ourselves fully aware of the coach-loading procedures, or the protracted wrangling that enables 60 children to make safe and proper use of the toilet facilities, but then not even necessarily get to find out where the class was actually headed.
‘At the weekend’ and ‘during the holidays…’ recounts can be vulnerable to similar structural imbalances, or meandering. We knew, drawing upon Grave’s messages around early writing development, that we wanted to provide plenty of scope to develop chronology and cohesion. Without these in play, it is very hard to further craft 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. Given our reference to Graves, it might seem counterintuitive not to draw upon each writer’s own experience, but this would have added a degree of considerable complexity to what is essentially an intervention that needs to be applied with teacher confidence and a good degree of fidelity.
So far, we have trialled the sequences in a relatively small number of schools. We provided a pre- and post-programme writing task for comparative purposes. We also analysed samples along the journey through the three sequences. Given the inclusion of repetitive aspects (the icons; the writing of recounts; the tools used to support composition), it is heartening to see the burgeoning confidence as each writer moves from one context (a river journey) to another (a mission through a sinister woodland) to another (an epic journey...from one side of a room to another, taking care to avoid a prowling cat). Pupil voice and teacher surveys indicated confidence gains and a heightened awareness of the crafting involved in the writing process. Not all writers gained confidence globally, for example, if a child began the process with a low self-image relating to handwriting that tended to persist. This information is useful as such concerns can be huge blockers to wary writers, and so working to address this would be a necessary next step in the writing classroom. 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.
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.
Further insights into this exciting mix of extended CPD, fully planned sequences, and supportive resources, can be found on our booking page.