Year 6 writing – in search of GDS: verb forms – the key to control

    Published: 15 June 2017

    Martin Galway completes his series of blogs on the Greater Depth writing standard for year 6 writing and makes good on his earlier promise to return to the subject of “Selecting verb forms for meaning and effect”.

    Introductory Note

    Over the past couple of months, I have written a short series of blogs on ‘managing shifts between levels of formality through selecting vocabulary precisely and by manipulating grammatical structures’ aka the first bullet point of three that seek to define the ‘Working at greater depth within the expected standard’, er, standard.  Quite a mouthful there, in both cases: bullet point and standard.  So let’s swiftly establish a shorthand:

    GDS : Working at greater depth within the expected standard

    formality shifts : managing shifts between levels of formality through selecting vocabulary precisely and by manipulating grammatical structures

    verb forms: selecting verb forms for meaning and effect

    the other bullet point: the third bullet point relating to the full range of punctuation including colons and semi-colons to mark the boundary between independent clauses, mostly correctly.

    Okay, first up, I feel I should apologise. I’ve promised a second blog on Year 6 and verb forms a couple of  times in my other pieces on the greater depth writing standard.  Well here it is, but some of you will have been moderated already, and others well on their way to sealing their teacher assessments in a metaphorical golden envelope.  It is an incredibly busy time and I have necessarily prioritised “formality shifts” because the STA have prioritised “formality shifts” in their training materials/briefings to lead moderators.  I’ve also prioritised that aspect because this statement seemed to be causing more confusion and concern; it is the most abstract of the three bullet points, I think.

    So a brief(ish) return to verbs, our critical friends.  They power those lovely clauses forward (or backwards, or nowhere in particular) and in the hands of a good writer, they do so with spare elegance  (the Steven King/Kate DiCamillo school of writing) or reckless abandon if the genre or underlying emotion warrants it.

    Managing verbs well is essential to good writing.  I know that the cliff-edge nature of the ITAF can lead to engineered writing – perhaps often does – but this particular aspect should be the one that is most reflective of our most avid reader-writers.  Their work might be characterised as  “writing that takes you somewhere and feels like the writer is in complete control of the journey,”  or “writing that shows the writer has read A LOT.”  I think that appreciating the shapes and rhythms of verbs comes chiefly from reading (and lots of good quality talk).   We’ve always spoken of precision in word choice, and authorial voice as markers of good writing. I think that is what we want to aim for. But it can be difficult. And the statements can lead to stilted, contorted prose.  But I am choosing here to focus on what these higher-level descriptors suggest:  controlled and well managed content. Writer as puppet-master; reader as puppet.

    If you are unsure as to whether a child  has met the greater depth standard I would urge you to do the following:

    • First check for the shifts in formality statement within your child’s writing.  This is the element that most relies on writing task and the skilled application of voice and register.  Use the materials shared on this blog and elsewhere to help you decide whether the shifts are suitably well-managed.  It is fair to say that the exemplars used for this year’s moderation training seem more attainable than we may have first thought.

    Verb forms

    • Next, select some pieces and read through, highlighting each verb, verb phrase or string carefully.  Are they varied?  More importantly, are they used correctly?  Does the flow or sense  – the overall coherence – of the piece falter? Do you hit a snag in the writing and tense your shoulders, or pull a “sucked on a lemon” face or, worse still, utter the tired teachers’ late-night-marking lament: “Ah, why did you have to go and do that?  You were doing so well.”  Jarring moments at this point in their writing journey are not so helpful unless they are deliberately jarring.

    Now, I must ask you to note – the following list of verb forms are not prerequisites.  They are potential indicators of GDS if a range (not an exhaustive range; just some well-deployed choices) have been used effectively and accurately:

    • Above all else look out for consistency of tense according to where the writer has positioned us  in time – this is a year 2 requirement under the KS1 ITAF.
    • Do verbs agree where they are required to, for the sake of upholding our dearly beloved Standard English?  If your aspirant writer is after some gritty, social realism, have they dropped the Standard English to achieve a convincing dialect?
    • You might look out for modals and other auxiliary verbs – are they indicating the appropriate degree of certainty?  Perhaps they are being used to indicate degrees of politeness?  (Can I borrow your pen?  Might I make use of the washroom?)
    • You may look out for passive constructions here and there – they may be seen as  higher level hoity-toity, year 6 constructions but they  slip out all too often into everyday speech and can be easily missed.  (‘Miss, my work’s been spoiled!’) Otherwise, are they masking a redundant agent, or keeping the mysterious properly mysterious (‘the papers had been moved …the door was left open)?
    • Watch out for contractions and what they might obscure:  She’s running  = she is running and therefore counts as evidence of the present progressive introduced in year 2.  She’s broken her leg = she has broken her leg, and therefore counts as a present perfect form, introduced in year 3.  Is the writer indicating that an event in the recent past continues to affect the present state of affairs?
    • Look out for the past perfect (it had been a terrible day – setting up the state of being prior to a more recent state of affairs – it had been a terrible day, till the letter arrived… – past perfect then simple past bringing us closer to the present;  it had been a terrible day and it was slowly getting worse, and  Mika knew that there was only one thing he could do… –  past perfect followed up with a progressive verb phrase, followed by an irregular verb, then another, and winding up with a modal to set us up for the next reveal.  Steady on young writer!  But it doesn’t feel forced, does it?  Funnily enough, the children themselves would most likely penalise that construction for using more than one “and”.  Kids, eh?). Further guidance on the perfect form of verbs was offered in abundance in the earlier Teaching for Timelords blog.
    • Look out for economical management of a series of actions/events.  Too often I have seen efficient verb strings almost pass unacknowledged.  Remember the ‘simple is often best’ rule.   If your exciting young writer has got us from A to B via a series of swift, unobtrusive verb choices, this deserves extra credit if you ask me, not a careless glossing-over of the achievement.
    • Are infinitives used where appropriate?  Don’t get too hung up on whether they have been split or not.  It ain’t what you do; it’s the way that you do it!
    • Check out whether they have used a combination of simple past and progressives to place us in a time gone by and then recount to us what is occurring  around us:

    Her shoes were white.  And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white.  Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table.

    – Great Expectations

    Charles Dickens

    • Are irregular verbs used  correctly?
    • Are there more complex, modified verb phrases? Here are some more examples from a classic text:

    “had just been laid”; ” could be driven quickly without risk of danger”; ” the hood was broken and split down to the quick, and the inside was terribly cut by the sharpness of the stones.”

    -Black Beauty

    Anna Sewell

    [Please note: these quotes are taken from extracts used in Bob Cox’s excellent Opening Doors to Famous Poetry and Prose – if you do not have this exceptional resource, it is a very worthwhile purchase to help you in achieving excellence in writing next year]

    • Finally, as we round off our search for GDS indicators, don’t forget “the other one” – the bullet point relating to punctuation.  This is the most concrete of all the statements and will be most directly attributable to explicit instruction. It should be more easily managed – particularly if we have taught the benefits of restraint and provided plenty of opportunity for editing and redrafting.  If you would like to see an especially good model of all of the punctuation expected at this level, Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother is highly recommended.

    I want to stress once more that the above examples of verb forms are by no means a set of required elements. There is no expectation that all of the above should take a special guest starring role in your writing evidence bank.  Add this list to a set of “success criteria” at your peril.  Instead, it is a guide to some of the aspects, taught across the primary curriculum, that you might spot as you read and enjoy your children’s work.

    So that’s that.  The long day (almost) closes , to quote the title of a wonderful film.  The deadline for writing assessments draws ever closer.  Your hard work – and your children’s  – is almost done.   I hope these blogs have been useful.  If you have any individual queries, do feel free to get in touch via our twitter feed @HertsEnglish or feel free to contact me @galwaymr.

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