Tag Archives: English

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.

A mastery model for Writing: moving away from the text type treadmill


Are we deceiving ourselves about cohesion?
(Cartoon from xkcd.com/724)

I wrote back in the autumn of 2013 about how I found the endless march through text types to be ineffective in really securing children’s skills in Writing. I have spoken at several events since about how our perception of a joined-up curriculum in primary schools may not be conveyed as well as we like to the children we teach. We often build our writing tasks around a common topic or text and describe this as building a coherent curriculum, but too often the cohesion is in the topic, and not in the skill of writing. I have likened this in the past to trying to build a wall with bricks simply by dropping lots of randomly-shaped bricks and hoping they’ll fall into place.

This year, I have tried to improve on this model by bringing greater coherence to the curriculum for Writing. That doesn’t necessarily mean moving away from thematic teaching, nor necessarily moving away from using the text types. However, my intention has been to adopt some of the principles of the mastery model that I discussed in my original blog: focussing on fewer aspects of writing for a greater length of time.

Initially, this was based on identifying common strands through the units we were intending to teach (see details in first blog). Later, however, I began to adapt the text types we were using to ensure that we spent longer focussing on common strands. The idea here was to group the text types together slightly to ensure that we spend longer focussing on common features rather than racing through the various types hoping that some of the content we threw at the children would stick!

Our initial model ended up looking something like this:

Writing Mastery model

Click to download PDF version

Over the course of the year we continued our usual units of study, with writing tasks adapted to focus on some common themes. Generally I would say that this has been a successful approach. I’m not convinced that it made any substantial difference to our progress in Writing this year, but I do think that the children have been – and will be – able to retain more of their knowledge of each of the genres, and so will be able to draw upon that knowledge more effectively in the future. One of my concerns of the race through the text types has been the lack of retention of the main features, meaning that almost every unit of work becomes a revision unit rather than developing further skill, at first at least.

As I approach the new year, however, I think there is more that could be done to develop this cohesion within and across year groups. Traditionally many schools have repeated the structure of the old Literacy framework by trying to get through many text types in each year, re-visiting regularly. My preference is to group the text types such that over the period of 6 weeks there are opportunities to learn and employ some of the key features. This has led me to a model based very loosely on the GCSE writing triplets:

Mastery Writing model

Click to download PDF

I realise that this clear division into fiction and non-fiction blocks will fill some teachers with dread. Many teachers have a preference for one strand or the other, and so find the through of a whole half-term without their favoured type quite daunting. I can understand this, but our focus has to be on providing the most effective curriculum design to help our students to retain the key elements of learning.

The advantages of this approach are hopefully evident at least in part. By focussing on some common areas over a half-term, there are opportunities for students to experience, employ and adapt the various features and techniques being taught. Significantly, it will be possible to share with parents more detail of what is being covered in Writing, since the focus will be narrower. This also allows us to use target-setting more effectively, as students are able to learn from early pieces in the half-term and apply the target in the next piece. This replaces a system where too often children (particularly in upper KS2) have writing targets which are not particularly relevant to the text types/genres being taught.

Obviously this is just a broad example which doesn’t link directly to any topics or themes that are being taught. As with all models, it wouldn’t be possibly to transfer it wholesale from school to school because it would work best when properly aligned with the wider curriculum. However, hopefully it may provide an interesting discussion point for schools thinking about tackling the content of the new curriculum?

Comments welcomed!

What should the primary curriculum really look like?

Or: What is the point of teaching them all this stuff anyway?

I’m firmly of the belief that a majority (perhaps the large majority) of primary teachers share the same view: that we force-feed the kids in our classes a diet of breadth over depth because the curriculum, or the tests, or Ofsted, or SLT’s demand it. I think most primary teachers – particularly in infants and lower juniors – find themselves teaching things that they think are being delivered ‘too soon’ for the children in their care.

This is not an argument for the molly-coddling of children, or the lowering of standards. Rather it is an argument for a rationalisation of what we try to teach.

Coming from a middle school background, I have long wished that the 9-13 Middle Schools of the 70s had really taken off. I wish that the National Curriculum from its first inception had been built around the three main phases of first, middle and upper schools. Then, we might perhaps have had a different approach. Perhaps not in 1988, but maybe by now we might have recognised that very little really matters in the curriculum for children under 9 unless they are already confident with number and language.

I raise this point because of a brief discussion I had with Heather () on Twitter this evening. She quite rightly pointed out that starting to teaching persuasive writing in Year 1 didn’t seem to be contributing to a significant growth in the transferability of such skill at GCSE level. And if the skills aren’t transferable after 10 or 11 years’ teaching, then what’s the point? My response was both complete agreement and disagreement.

I disagreed because I think the point of teaching persuasive writing at KS1 is not to enhance the persuasive writing skills of 16-year-olds. In fact, I think the only purpose for any form of writing at KS1 is the practice of the basic skills of writing itself: the building of sentences; the use of capital letters; the simple formation of the symbols. However, I agree that expecting the teaching of varied genres at KS1 to have much impact on the ability of children to write for different purposes is frankly erroneous.

So, what then, is the point of any such work?

Looking back at the three-tier model, I’d be quite happy to see a curriculum substantially different to the one we have in place at the moment. This links in with Michael Fordham’s (@mfordhamhistorypost on an altered Secondary curriculum (which is well worth a read). In it, Fordham argues that English as a separate subject (as distinct from Literature) ought to be removed from the curriculum and its various aspects be properly addressed in domain-specific subject lessons. A genuine approach to Literacy across the curriculum. I’d be happy with that model, and what’s more, I think that it should be balanced by the inverse approach at first school age.

Given the choice, I’d happily see a three-tier curriculum (as in first, middle and upper stages) that broadly followed this pattern:

First School (age 5-9): Only English, Maths and Modern Languages would be statutorily prescribed programmes of study. All other subjects currently in the National Curriculum would become part of required areas of study (Arts, Humanities, Sciences, etc.) which were intended to provide breadth of experience and support the core subjects. Physical Education would also remain statutory, with no programme of study.

English and Maths programmes of study would be re-shaped to focus on Literacy and Numeracy. That is, all children would be expected to focus on developing oracy, and reading and writing basics (comprehension, building sentences, vocabulary, paragraphs, etc.), without concern for genres or required areas of study.That’s not to say that children wouldn’t meet other genres, or contexts, but that these would merely be to support the core teaching aims, rather than becoming additional goals in their own right.

Similarly, in Maths the requirements would focus largely on number work with relatively brief forays into shape as appropriate. To be fair, the new Maths curriculum has moved a good way towards this. I have often heard many secondary maths teachers say they’d be happy to teach Y7s who came to secondary secure with number bonds and tables and relatively little else. I’d agree, but think we could move to that sooner. Let’s have all 9-year-olds ready for the next level.

By removing the requirements to study particular programmes of study in all areas, it ought to be possible to move towards a system where the current Level 4 expectations could be met by the majority of 9-year-olds, rather than 11-year-olds. As Mark McCourt (@EmathsUK) said this weekend at the maths conference: Maths is like Jenga – pupils don’t fail because of weaknesses in the blocks at the top!

Middle School (age 9-13): The current subjects of the National Curriculum would remain, although English and Maths would be radically re-shaped to reflect the changes in the first school range. English could now begin to focus more on literature, although as Michael Fordham suggests, ought not to need as much curriculum time as at present (often 7.5+ hours a week in primary schools) as literacy should be mastered by age 9. There would still be study of language and some genre-linked ideas, but the shift towards domain-specific writing should be reflected in a shift in timetabled hours. I would argue that Middle Schools used to do this, until the KS2 SATs demanded that they narrow their timetables to focus on meeting the odd demands of the tests.

This model should leave more time in this phase for the study of subject knowledge. It would be far more sensible, for example, to begin a study of chronological history at age 9 and maintain it until at least age 16, rather than the current 7-14, and would be far more successful if students had already mastered the required literacy skill. Of course, this also would be combined with the middle school approach to specialism. We should expect all teachers of first school-age children to be expert in the teaching of early reading, writing and mathematics. We simply cannot expect that to apply right up to the age of 11 any more. It isn’t working.

Upper School (13+): The model that Michael Fordham suggests seems to make a good deal of sense to me here. By this stage children should have a broad experience of all the subjects, underpinned by their ability to access and use texts and a secure knowledge of number work. Ideally I’d argue for greater breadth until the age of 18 as well


Of course, none of this is rocket science. Indeed, most of it fits with what many primary teachers already think: if we spent less time ploughing through genres, or tackling history concepts with 8-year-olds, we could focus more on the things that really matter, and give those kids the freedom to access all matter of higher level material as they got older. Surely that’s got to be better than the current system which tries to build all curriculum areas from age 5… and too often leaves interventions at 16 to try to plug the gaps the system leaves?

Addendum: I ought to note that it wouldn’t necessarily be a requirement to change the whole system to a three-tier model. But I would argue quite strongly that expecting any primary teacher to be an expert in all areas of the curriculum up to Y6 level is never going to provide us with the best system; middle schools present a good solution to this; specialisation in small primaries is much harder.


Primary Progression Documents for English & Maths

Example progression documentThe nature of the new curriculum documentation is such that the primary section alone lasts for some 200 pages. It makes sense that it is organised in year group order for the core subjects, but it also makes it harder to visualise the progression of concepts and skills. That’s particularly problematic if you’re trying to identify key thresholds for assessment or planning.

Therefore, I have created these simple documents to support schools. They are not revolutionary, but simply present the objectives from the National Curriculum in a sequence of progression strands from Year 1 to Year 6 across Reading, Writing and Mathematics. Hopefully they might help schools in organising their curricula, and also in identifying progression across these very large subjects.

As with all my materials, they are also available at www.primarycurriculum.me.uk/support, and I recommend looking at the other resources available there to support schools’ journeys in implementing the new curriculum.

The documents are all shared here for ease, including easily printable versions:

English progression document (editable Excel file)

Reading progression document (printable A3 PDF)

Writing progression document (printable A3 PDF – 2 pages)

Maths progression document (editable Excel file)

Maths progression document (printable A3 PDF  – 3 pages)


Cohesion in the teaching of Writing

I posted a blog back in October about my view that perhaps there is something more we could take from the ‘mastery’ model of learning that would apply to English. Since then I have worked with the idea and am increasingly feeling that the way in which the average primary school teaches Writing objectives could be better organised to provide a cohesive programme of learning for students.

Two key threads have run through my thinking in the past few months: ‘de-contextualisation’ and ‘transferability’.

Firstly, many primary school teachers are happy with the concept that learning objectives ought to be ‘de-contextualised’, as widely promoted by Shirley Clarke and others. Now, it happens that I don’t always and entirely agree with this. In fact, I very rarely agree with any systems that stipulate unbreakable rules for teaching. Nevertheless, there is much to value in the idea that learning objectives should focus clearly on the intended learning of knowledge or skills, rather than simply learning ‘about’ a theme. Examples often stated include ideas like replacing “To write instructions for making a sandwich” with “To write instructions”.

I happen to think that such a change is generally positive. It focuses the child (and teacher) on the particular teaching and learning that is intended. After all, the sandwich-making really is just a context in which to develop knowledge and understanding of the instruction genre itself.

However, one of the arguments in support of such a change is that it develops transferable learning. Others more knowledgeable than me (Daisy Christodoulou, Daniel Willingham, Harry Webb, etc.) have discussed and demonstrated frequently the challenges of transferring learning, and it seems that the cognitive evidence is clear that transfer is considerably more difficult than it might appear. So if the learning cannot be transferred, is ‘de-contextualising’ objectives worth it?

In fact, I think we need to go a step further – at least as children get older. I think we can take the advantages of ‘de-contextualising’ learning and combine it with some of what we know about mastery to try to build up more secure knowledge in our students about how to write well.

Currently, it seems that the vast majority of primary schools organise the curriculum around ‘topics’ or ‘themes’. For example, I will be teaching “Victorians” after half term. Teachers go to some lengths to select writing opportunities and genres which fit well with the theme, presumably in an effort to provide some sense of cohesion.

However, this leads to that same problem of valuing context over content. Inspectors and Senior Leaders are now well used to asking children “what are you learning?”, and while in an individual lesson a student may be able to point to specific objective, over the half-term or term, it is very much the context which dominates. In Writing this can often mean students tackling 4 or 5 different genres across a half-term which leap from one technique to another, while providing only the cohesion of a humanities theme.

What I propose, and indeed have started to do in my own class, is that we need to adjust the balance. Not throw out topics – far from it – but think a little more carefully about how we provide a clearer picture of learning for our students. After all, if a child writes a persuasive advert for a schoolbag in the autumn term, what hope have they of applying those common skills in a persuasive argument about Victorian child labour, if we haven’t made clear to them that persuasion has some common features whatever the context?

I have tried to focus all of my over-arching Writing themes on writing for a purpose, in the sense of affecting the reader in some ways. I think this is useful because it can link so clearly to their own reading, but also because I feel that purpose is at the heart of understanding how to write effectively.

So, back to my Victorians theme. Rather than selecting writing genres which provide nice topic-links, I have selected topic-links which provide effective learning links. I have selected as my over-arching theme “Influencing the reader”. We will teach four main writing texts, all of which focus on affecting the viewpoint of the reader, with some common strands regardless of the specific outcome. Of course, this may change as we progress through the unit, but the intention is that it will include:

Persuasive Article – extolling the virtues of a “new” Victorian invention (perhaps in a competition for best invention of the 19th Century?)
Descriptive Writing – based on aspects of Oliver Twist, using vocabulary particularly to create a sense of place (such as on entering Fagin’s Den)
Formal Persuasive Letter – applying for a servant’s position (based on our visit to a local Victorian Manor house)
Informal personal letter – writing home about the hard labour of being in service

Each of these texts would often be found in a “Victorians” topic, so the change is not radical. What is different is the selection of the texts around a common theme. Over the course of the half-term, we will be able to clearly draw out the common threads of writing to influence the reader. It means that by Easter I expect children to both know and apply their knowledge of how to affect the reader’s point of view. They should recognise that they can do this through well-selected vocabulary to accentuate positives/negatives accordingly; that they can use connective phrases to add further evidence, or contrasting detail to support their point; that selection of the appropriate tone is important in achieving your intended effect.

Hopefully this knowledge will be related more closely to the purpose of the writing than the specific genres, so that a persuasive newspaper article, or leaflet, or debate argument in the future becomes linked to those “influence the reader” techniques, more than to previous newspapers, leaflets or arguments.

Significantly, by organising writing into ‘themes’ such as this, target-setting and monitoring can become much more effective. I have long been disappointed by the willingness to set targets for students which they either cannot understand, or will not have sufficient opportunity to apply. This structure will allow me to set targets which specifically link to the focus of our work over the half term. For some of my low level 3 writers that might be using adjectives to expand on descriptions in a positive or negative way, while some of those working towards level 5 might begin to use nominalization for effect (This tragedy…) or make use of well-selected purposeful vocabulary. They will all have opportunities to use and apply those skills over the course of the unit enough times to secure their understanding of what is being asked of them.

What’s more, where intervention is needed for those students who are not picking up the learning, there will be scope for quick identification, intervention and perhaps most importantly, further opportunities to apply and embed that learning before racing on to something completely new.

Of course, this isn’t going to transform writing overnight. But hopefully it might go some way to tackling the challenges of transferral of learning, as well as securing much clearer understanding of what has been learned and how and when it can be used again in the future.

As schools prepare for changing their units of work to meet the requirements of the new curriculum, perhaps considering how the focus on Writing can move from topic links to genre links might help to support students in mastering the skills of good writing across a range of genres.

Why is Mastery just for Maths?

The trouble with failing to lay proper foundations.

The trouble with failing to lay proper foundations.

With the new National Curriculum, and a whole host of new players in the field of education, it is certainly a time of innovation of sorts in our schools. I have been interested in the work being done by Ark and others looking at mastery in mathematics. It seems that their approach – based in some part on that used in Singapore and like places – is built on the premise of covering fewer topics in greater depth each year, with the intention that over the course of a child’s education they receive a thorough education in each stage of the process.[1]

This strikes me as sensible. Too often I have taught children at KS3 who have raced through the curriculum, picking up bits of skills, but for whom the basics of number knowledge and calculation are still insecure. The comparison to the end-moments of the game, Jenga, is too often fitting: students who lack the secure base on which to build their higher knowledge soon come crashing down.

It has meant that this year I am approaching my teaching of maths with something of a mastery model.

But I’ve got to thinking. Why does it need only to apply to maths?

I’ve also, this week, seen students in my class complete an unaided writing task in which it seems they ignored everything they have been taught this half term and just jotted down notes at random. After some initial frustration (as is common), I soon realised that the fault here was mine (as is also common).

I have taught them a good deal over the past few weeks in terms of writing skills. But I’m not convinced I’ve given them enough time to really securely practise and secure their use of those skills. And so, just like the kids who can’t do their tables in Y10, I’ve got students who haven’t applied even half of what they’ve learned.

I suspect that my model of teaching is not unlike that of many other primary teachers. We’ve looked at a particular genre, linked to a theme we’re studying, over a couple of weeks, and I’ve used that vehicle to teach some appropriate structures and techniques. However, I fear that the downfall of the process has been the movement on to another genre and another set of techniques for the next fortnight. Indeed, I know many schools where each block lasts a week before moving on.

What I’ve begun to consider is not yet a fully-formed idea, so excuse my thinking ‘out loud’, but I’m wondering now if maybe I need to re-think how I tackle these things. What if next half term I identified just a handful of core skills that I wanted to really allow the children to explore and embed. My initial thoughts are to select just three issues from text, sentence and word level (à la Literacy Hour 1998)

So, for example, I might decide that next half term I’m going to focus on:

  • Developing fuller/more detailed paragraphs
  • Variety in sentence length
  • Use of verbs

Those key ideas can be woven through the themes and genres we’re looking at in a variety of ways, but importantly, in ways which complement one another, and which allow the children to become more proficient at each of them, rather than flitting from one idea to the next. They’re sufficiently broad to allow for a sensible amount of development and differentiation, while still providing a sense of connected learning and practice for all.

My units planned so far for next half are likely to be ghost story-writing, creating a narrative from a comic strip, and then some form of descriptive writing about the locality. Each of those would easily lend itself to all three of those skills – with some particularly strong in different areas – and so perhaps by the time we reached Christmas I might have some students who were really secure in some of the elements of that, rather than having had a taster of lots of techniques, few of which have stuck.

Like I said, it’s not a fully-formed idea yet, so I’d be exceptionally glad of any thoughts and experiences from others who have tried similar things – or think it best avoided. All comments welcome!

[1] If you aren’t already familiar with the Ark Mastery Project, it’s worth taking a look at their website for a brief insight: http://www.mathematicsmastery.org/