The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly worsened overall outcomes as well as widening equalities.
Alex Quigley in his book “Closing the writing gap” likens the act of writing as ‘tantamount to a game of chess’. That for most classrooms, pupils will be thinking about the many ‘moves’.
The conscious craft of writing, becomes more technical as pupil move through primary school. When a pupil in Year 3 is writing a diary entry, they will need to juggle an array of important knowledge – handwriting and spelling; knowledge of sentence structures; the purpose and audience as well as the coherence of the text.
Writing is a complex process that takes up a considerable amount of the working memory!
Good writers pause to think and plan, whereas less effective writers’ often become overwhelmed by the number of ‘chess moves’ that they need to orchestrate in order to achieve the writing outcome.
EEF’s planning guide for 2022-2023, recommends that in order for writing to improve, schools need to: “develop pupils’ handwriting, spelling and sentence construction through extensive practice.”
To enable all pupils to write well, pupils need to be fluent in transcription skills. Success in writing depends on strong and fluent foundations in spelling and handwriting.
Research has revealed that the act of composition needs to be supported by effortless handwriting and secure spelling.
If pupils have not mastered these skills early on, future success becomes problematic.
The process of composing writing is often obstructed by the amount of effort needed to transcribe.
If pupils find the physical act of scribing taxing, they will be unlikely to develop into confident, effective writers.
The ability to produce legible handwriting at speed has been shown to make a significant contribution to achievement.
Take the time to tackle spelling
We know from research that when pupils are provided with a range of strategies for unknown words, they can better fend off the limits of the working memory.
Diane McGuinness (Early Reading Instruction) reminds us that once the spelling code has been set up in pupils’ brains, numerous patterns come to light. She goes onto say that the only active memorisation required is to learn the 40+ phonemes and their spellings. Spelling alternatives for each phoneme can be mastered through controlled exposure and varied repetition.
A phoneme-based approach to the teaching of spelling in both Key Stage 1 and 2, is clearly the best approach. Pupils’ learning in KS1 should be built upon in KS2.
Maintaining a phoneme-based approach in Key Stage 2 will ensure that spelling alternatives for each phoneme can be mastered through controlled exposure and varied repetition.
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“Writing floats on a sea of talk” – James Britton
In order to improve writing, we need to ensure that pupils are immersed in listening to sentences; that they are well-practised in organising their thoughts into spoken sentences and that they receive opportunities in their reading and English lessons to notice how authors structure their writing into sentences.
Sentence readiness begins in EYFS in a language-rich environment in which adults model talk throughout the day. The more that pupils take part in back-and-forth conversations, the more that they will understand once they can read, and the more vocabulary and ideas they will have to draw upon when they begin to write.
In EYFS, it is imperative that adults model how to: deliberately connect current and past events; provide models of effective grammar; support pupils in how to connect one idea to the next and that pupils are helped to articulate their ideas into well-formed sentences.
Fixing full stops and capital letters
As teachers, we often lament that our pupils do not punctuate their writing accurately; whereas in fact, pupils in my experience, have a very superficial understanding of what a sentence is.
To fix the full stops and capital letters issue, we need to tackle sentence construction.
EEF’s 2021 recommendations for improving writing in KS2, recommends that: Teachers equip pupils with a range of tried and tested strategies for teaching pupils how to combine and extend their sentences.
Knowing what a single clause is, is a writing staple. Without this knowledge, pupils will struggle to achieve the expectations of the KS2 writing curriculum, where the focus moves to the crafting of multi-clause sentences. Alex Quigley suggests that the goal for year 6 pupils is to be able to write three clause sentences; however, in order to achieve this end-point, pupils need to be able to know what a sentence is.
When pupils are secure with single clauses, it is important that we provide them with the knowledge, skills, and essential practice to combine and extend their sentences
Edit and improve sentences
Editing is about saying: is there a better way to write this? Is there a better way to communicate my message to my intended audience?
Be persistent. Make it routine for pupils to read back their sentences that they have written. Ask pupils: Does it say what you want it to say? Building these habits across the primary years is crucial.
Provide pupils with regular opportunities for pupils to rewrite sentences.
Ask yourself this question: How do we build habits around editing in my school? Is it something that we are conscious of in years 2 and 6, but it is not a routine for pupils in other year groups?
Implement routines in every year group, where pupils are asked to identify one sentence. Ask them to re-write it by reorganising the words in a different sequence.
Ask them: which sentence sounds better? Which sentence gets the closest to the spirit of what you intended to convey to the reader?
We need to make sure that pupils understand that sentences are to be played with.
Emma Adcock – Principal Teaching and Learning Consultant