In my last blog post – Igniting Dylan’s Writing – I presented the stages of my WRITER sequence, which embeds the skills of spelling, vocabulary development, reading, drafting and editing into a teaching sequence for writing. In summary, it’s a metacognitive approach to learning, which challenges pupils at each stage to think about their skills and how best to use these at different stages of crafting a piece of writing.
This time round, I’d like to share some pupils’ writing to illustrate the benefits of the approach. I picked up the idea for the task at one of my teacher network meetings: Year 6 pupils, inspired by Tolkien’s wonderful Letters from Father Christmas, would write in role as Santa to Year 1 pupils, and the following sequence was delivered over 8 lessons:
(The pictures referred to can be found here.)
Work on Words
Often, where writing is weak, the root cause is that pupils didn’t have the vocabulary, the understanding of the context or the life experiences to write the piece well. So, the sequence always starts with words.
We spoke about Christmas and what it means to us. We thought about cultural sensitivities and that not everyone may celebrate Christmas. We watched some clips from Christmas films and started building our “word palette”.
This pupil decided to make her word palette as the roots of a Christmas tree. (Picture 1)
Read as a Writer
In my training, I always emphasize that the stages are flexible and ongoing. It would be pointless to stop working on words, for example. In the same way, I introduced reading next, but continued to read every lesson through the sequence. The pupils loved Tolkien’s letters and noticed his writing choices, how he developed characters over many years, how there was always a crisis of some sort every Christmas. The reading tasks presented an opportunity for complementary writing pieces. There are 2 examples on the slides (Pictures 2 and 3): the pupils created a setting for their letter and also wrote a news story about a crisis of their own. (As a news story, it’s weak, but this doesn’t matter because it’s a one-off task which fed nicely into the main task.)
I also arranged for the year 6 pupils to read with their year 1 recipient. This was fantastic on every level, with each year 6 pupil being a fantastic reading role model, but also allowing them to get to know their audience.
Investigate Choices Together
Another limiting factor, come writing assessment time, is a lack of independence, with far too much of the teacher in the final piece. The sequence addresses this by providing an early opportunity to deliver as much teaching and scaffolding as is required, prior to pupils applying their skills independently later in the sequence.
Some of this year 6 group were still not secure in basic sentence structure, often comma splicing or writing in sentence fragments. So, I showed them how to build their sentences, layer by layer. Trying to avoid too much copying, I modelled through an unrelated topic. I showed the pupils how to do it and then they had a go by re-writing and building another layer (Pictures 4 – 7). Importantly, I stressed that they should only change a sentence by improving it, not for the sake of it.
The pupil’s work shown (Picture 8) is not valid as a piece of independent writing evidence, which doesn’t matter because it planted some useful seeds just before we moved onto the independent stage of the sequence.
Try Out Individual Choices
As an affiliate of Thinking Matters, I have witnessed the power of thinking maps, and always use these at this stage of the sequence. The time thinking and planning is well spent, resulting in a better-structured, more coherent piece. How many times do your read a piece where a pupil’s writing is strongest in the first paragraph but tails off because they don’t have a sense of the whole piece, or lose focus and motivation?
The plans on the slides (Pictures 9 and 10) are examples of pupils getting their thoughts organised. The first is a creative way to think about the key content of each paragraph. The second is a cause and effect map of “the crisis” that Tolkien always includes. The problem is in the middle, and the pupil has mapped out the causes of their crisis on the left and how it was resolved on the right.
Probably the key ingredient in the sequence is that pupils learn how to draft and that a full draft is completed. We used the drafting dice here, which worked nicely. (Pictures 11 and 12) This stage helps teachers to manage that frustrating feeling when pupils can’t wait to be finished. Here, nobody can be finished as we have been working on a draft. One tip that works well is that, as you model drafting, explain to the pupils that you are aiming for the emoticon: 😐
It isn’t possible to be completely happy with it yet, and your modelling should include changing your mind, adding things, replacing things, crossing out some choices.
The example of pupil work is suitably scruffy and full of great evidence that she is thinking like a writer, and this will allow her to make the meaningful edits in the next stage.
Edit, Perform and Publish
Because this task had a real sense of audience and purpose (the letters were actually posted), pupils were motivated to make their letter as good as could be. I hope you will agree that they took real pride in the final versions (Pictures 13-15). Importantly, this wasn’t just a “copy-up” in best; this was the presentation of a better-written, better-organised, edited piece of writing.
I hope, too, you will see how the different stages of the sequence, including the spin-off writing pieces, contributed to the quality of this final piece, helping pupils move from 😐 to 🙂 .
Review Key Learning
After Christmas, we took time to reflect on the key learning. Most pupils identified the skills they used in the drafting stage as being key to the success of the final letter. Encouragingly, they are now drafting more independently and better, often paragraph by paragraph. (See Picture 16. This pupil, who is aiming for GDS, admitted that this is a skill she feels uncomfortable with because she has generally ever only written things once, but is starting to see the benefit of better drafting. For her, it is the pathway to Greater Depth.)
There is always the danger that the pressure of curriculum content means that this refection time can be skipped, but it is so important to find it, in order to reinforce the metacognitive thinking which deepens learning and builds independence.
With a view to mapping out your school improvement priorities, if you feel that the writing in your school could be improved by empowering colleagues to work in this way, I’d love to work with you or the schools in your partnership.
In order to achieve meaningful change which will drive standards up, this would involve building confidence in subject knowledge, bespoke CPD, planning together and working alongside colleagues in their classroom.
If you are interested in working together, contact Mark on 07800 753769 or by email at email@example.com.