10 steps to boost independent writing in primary schools

Primary schools need to create independent writers but too often no one agrees what exactly that means, says this headteacher. He here offers his tips...

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What is independent writing? The requirement for independence in pupils' writing sits firmly in the assessment framework, yet, in truth, I don’t think anybody has a true picture of what it means.

Getting writing right is a massive challenge.

I do, however, see a drive towards overly structured writing. I see structure strips, models of what teachers want pupils to produce that essentially just tell pupils "this is what we want you to write", I see "slow writing".

All are really valid and important scaffolds in the development of writing. What I see less and less of, however, is the teacher and the children creating a toolkit for writing. I see less of the children writing independently.

Structure strips are not independent. Excessive modelling is not independent. Slow writing is not independent. They are all great, nay vital, in explicitly teaching writing, but they are not independent.

Stepping children beyond the scaffold is one of the hardest things to do.

Tips for independent writing

So how do we create independent writers?

  1. Give them something to write about. I have seen numerous children asked to write with nothing to say. I have read more atrocious "news" reports than I care to mention.
  2. Give them the knowledge to write about it effectively. If it’s a story, the time spent planning is key. If it’s a time-slip into the First World War, the time you spend learning about the conditions in the trenches is the bit that makes the writing sing.
  3. Create purpose. Give children a reason to write. Audiences for work are immensely powerful.
  4. Underpin with lots of talking first, whatever the age range or ability, so that children have practised the vocabulary, ideas and structures so they can fully understand the requirements.  
  5. Read really good books to them. Talk about really good books with them. Guided reading does not just benefit reading. Models are vital; using great models allows children to understand the flow of writing.
  6. Teach grammar as a tool to improve writing, not a bolt-on. Use examples when appropriate, but don’t shoehorn it in. Teacher' knowledge and precision of writing forms tied into a well-mapped grammar curriculum mean grammar becomes part of writing and not an add-on.
  7. Sometimes let them just go for it. A first draft is just that…let them splurge their ideas and get it down on paper.
  8. Don’t ban words. Sometimes "sad" is the right word, not "melancholy", not "lachrymose", not "distraught", just "sad"…("Sad" is often the right word, in my opinion. If what the characters say is right, you don’t need to explain how it’s said.)
  9. Practise. Rinse and repeat, give opportunities to revisit forms of writing they’ve done before. (Preferably with less structuring.)
  10. Give them the chance to choose. If you’ve taught it, give children a choice in how they will respond. One piece of truly independent writing after you’ve taught it will tell you more about them as writers and your teaching than 20 scaffolded pieces.


So the real question is, “Where does your writing teaching lead?”

Does it really lead to children being writers?

Only you can answer that.

Simon Smith is headteacher at East Whitby Academy in North Yorkshire. He tweets @smithsmm. This article originally appeared on Simon's blog Being Brave!

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