Doing Less, But Better: KS2 Writing

Rob Smith (@redgierob) of Literacy Shed fame today posted a simple enough question on Twitter:

As is so often the way with such simple questions, a can of worms was soon sprung open. This is not the first time that Rob and I have had to agree to disagree, and the pattern is fairly similar. I’m generally of the view that less is more. Less movement, less change, less jumping about, and much more time spent on a single focus.

For that reason, when talking about the teaching of Writing, I am a fan of looking at longer blocks on a common theme. I’ve written before about a mastery approach, and here I want to expand on how that might look for a single unit.

The norm for the past few years in primary schools has been to teach a new text type each week. Rob even suggests getting 3 ‘longer’ pieces of writing a week from Y4+ children. (To be fair, he defines these as being an A4 side, not necessarily a full ‘extended’ write). Now, I’ve no particular aversion to extended writing, but I do worry that we can begin to value quantity over quality, and our need for quantity can lead to a race through the text types again.

I’ve taken a typical weekly plan from a TES download (no names, to protect the innocent!) and it follows broadly the following structure:

  1. Identify features/layout of a newspaper
  2. Review and write headlines
  3. Difference between fact and opinion
  4. Brief intro on connectives before starting draft
  5. Complete writing (focus on openers?)

Now, none of these are particularly problematic features of the sequence, but look at what’s missing: were is the discussion of punctuating speech? Where is the examination of how to write an effective closing (surely one of the most challenging parts of article writing?) How much do children understand about how to embed quotations in a text?

I would much rather complete a unit like this over a couple of weeks, focussing on various elements in the build-up before completing a single extended piece at the end of the unit. It would seem reasonable to start with the unpicking of the various elements of a news article first (Alan Peat has some good resources on this). Then we might examine in close detail how the 5Ws are included in the lead of the article, and practise this skill with some familiar contexts. Developing the main body is often a challenge for students, since they feel they’ve covered everything in the lead, so focussing on what content makes it interesting, and how it might be included comes next. This would seem a sensible time to practise using a variety of subordinate clauses, including embedded clauses, to ‘cram’ as much detail as possible into the article, since this is a journalistic norm. By now we’d already be approaching the end of the first week, and I’d be tempted to try another shorter piece of writing – perhaps a couple of paragraphs – to practise these skills.

The following week might begin with some sort of activity that provides the content for newspaper writing. In one example I’ve taught, we had a hot-seating type affair where the students interviewed an ‘astronaut’ recently returned from space. Thus, a lesson was spent on looking at open and closed questioning, and note-taking to capture responses, and a later lesson on the task of the press conference itself. Now we felt ready to begin to prepare the articles. We had our content ready, quotations on hand, and a good background of the structure and features of newspapers. A lesson mid-week spent on drafting the articles gives an opportunity for self-, peer- and/or teacher assessment, before building on feedback to make improvements. Often this is the stage at which children realise that their newspapers articles simply ‘end’, and so it’s a good opportunity to focus on how we can build cohesion across the text by linking the beginning and end, or by reflecting/considering the future. Or it might become clear that the cohesion throughout the text is lacking in many children’s work, because of a lack of understanding of, or use of, cohesive ties/discursive markers, thus providing an opportunity to re-teach this and for it to be used instantly in a context.

Of course, the exact content you’d need throughout the unit would vary by the group and its previous experience. You might need a focus on the use of consistent/relevant tense (a tricky one in newspapers, actually), or on selecting appropriate vocabulary, or specific punctuation elements, or organising paragraphs, or all manner of other skills that are required to produce an even half-decent attempt at a complex piece of writing. None of those can be taught simply through practising the main writing. They require active teaching, and meaningful practice before they can reliably be used. The reality is that no piece of writing is easy to produce at any standard of quality without a close examination and practice of its constituent parts.

Thus, my approach might – on a very generic level – look something more like:

  1. Unpick features of the text
  2. Teach an aspect of structure then draft an opening
  3. Teach an aspect of grammar and practise out of context
  4. Use the grammar aspect in a context not related to the final piece
  5. Practise a brief version of the text type, to use as a feedback opportunity
  6. Use a reading/S&L activity to prepare for writing (e.g. Talk for Writing)
  7. Gather the necessary information for the content of the text
  8. Draft the text
  9. Teach an aspect picked up from the first drafts
  10. Use the first draft to mark and then edit/improve

It’s obviously not fixed like that, and would vary depending on the type of writing you’re doing and the context, but it allows a good deal more consolidation of the key skills that build into writing the main text, without requiring many long pieces of writing. It breaks down the skills into more manageable chunks so that they can begin to be mastered before being applied. Of course, mastery may well be a long way off, but by spending a little more time on core aspects, hopefully the chance that they might be retained is increased!

I fear that all the time we focus on quantity and production of writing, we run the risk of repeating the problems we already face in maths, where children march through content and somehow reach secondary school without securing the basics of things like number bonds.

As usual, I find myself repeating my mantra: Do less, but better.

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8 thoughts on “Doing Less, But Better: KS2 Writing

  1. Mrs N, Swordfish Class 21 September 2014 at 8:11 pm Reply

    This is exactly what I would do in Year 6 Michael. Then, when the children have developed the art of journalistic writing, I would get them to apply it independently in a cross curricular context (probably linked to History). Great blog.

  2. Bryn Goodman 21 September 2014 at 10:01 pm Reply

    I would follow a similar sequence to yours, Michael. However, I would always aim to teach grammar in context so that children can see how it is used within that text type. They would then be asked to practise that aspect, again by completing short section of writing within the text type being taught.

  3. Michael Tidd 21 September 2014 at 10:03 pm Reply

    I appreciate the need for grammar in context, but if we’re to heed the cognitive science about reducing the load on working memory, then I think extracting the grammar first will help children to understand the concepts before applying it to the relevant context.

  4. Bryn Goodman 21 September 2014 at 10:49 pm Reply

    Would seeing it in context not help the children to understand the concept, making it less abstract? I have no research to support this, just thinking out loud.

    • Michael Tidd 21 September 2014 at 10:55 pm Reply

      That depends on what you’re teaching. If, for example, you’re looking at subordinate clauses then it’s probably easiest to look at it in very straightforward examples rather than trying to unpick examples from a relevant text. Unfortunately, many sentences in real life are complex, but it’s not always easy to spot how or why. Equally, very long sentences like the one I am currently writing, can actually – and confusingly – be simple in the strictly grammatical sense. That makes it hard for children to pick out the key features. Much better to start with clear examples, and then build up to complex reality🙂

      • Bryn Goodman 21 September 2014 at 11:11 pm Reply

        I agree. You could write your own short section of text as a model which contained the particular grammar concept you wish to teach. Then move onto ‘real’ texts for ch to unpick when they are more confident with the concept.

  5. Hare 1 October 2014 at 10:50 pm Reply

    I totally agree. I have a huge problem with our system which demands that children ‘perform’ extended writing three times a week! This leaves precious little time to teach any aspects of grammar and structure. Why do people believe that ‘more’ is the answer?

  6. Jo Scott 29 October 2016 at 9:32 am Reply

    I have had so many discussions about this where teachers talk of a ‘big write’ every Friday and, I believe, feeling the need to do this comes from expectations (usually the fear of Ofsted) to have a lot of work in books. However I agree – it is far better and more valuable to the children to have a quality piece having explored the genre and practised the skills every couple of weeks rather than a rushed piece that shows no depth or advanced understanding every week. If we are to teach our children how to enjoy writing and BE writers, then we should be teaching them to enjoy experimenting using new skills and trying out different ideas – impossible in one week.
    Your blog is brilliant by the way; really useful and I always find myself agreeing with your points. Thank you!

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