‘How we transformed Sats writing results at our school’

Basing the English curriculum around challenging ‘literary’ texts has helped this head to improve Sats writing scores

How introducing more challenging literary texts helped one primary school to improve its Sats writing scores

For many years our school data set had an all-too predictable look about it: each July, reading and maths would be steaming along nicely, while our writing scores were struggling behind.

Try as we might to halt sliding spelling scores and navigate our pupils through the looming grammatical icebergs of parenthesis and subjunctive form, we were still ending up with writers who were "close to" rather than "are".

Each year, we realigned the school improvement plan to relentlessly focus on raising writing standards, with the whole staff working tirelessly to deliver the goods… only for the seemingly inevitable to repeat itself.

This was until a couple of years ago, when our literacy captain changed our English curriculum to place high-quality literature at the core. The result has been that our writing has developed to the point where it is now keeping pace with reading and maths.

The approach is based on using high-quality "literary" texts with all age groups. Year 2 tackle Harold Monro’s classic poem Overheard on a Saltmarsh, while Year 5 study John Gillespie Magee’s poem High Flight and Year 6 explore Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

More 'resilient' writers

We now have an agreed vision for challenging texts to be the norm in our classrooms and, as a result, we are witnessing children at all attainment levels becoming more confident, resilient learners who are not afraid to access "difficult" texts.

Instead, they are equipped with the skills and intrinsic motivation to approach literary classics through evaluative questioning. Developing these skills means that the children are enjoying the texts, and this leads to them being motivated to apply similar forms and structures in their own writing.  

But for children to become really successful writers, we know they need to be exposed to a series of high-quality linked texts. We have learned that one model is never enough to equip and inspire children fully.

For instance, alongside High Flight, Year 5 studied Wilfred Owen’s The Unreturning and Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Eagle, to inform the planning stages for their own poetry based on "the freedom of flight". Children who had previously struggled to come up with ideas for their writing now thrived, as they had been immersed in high-quality literature throughout the unit  – reading it aloud, engaging in dialogic talk around each poem and evaluating texts.

However, for this approach to work, we knew the whole staff would have to value the approach. To encourage this, we ran a whole-staff Inset session with Bob Cox, a Hampshire-based author.

Bob’s Opening Doors series of books on English teaching are now staples of our classrooms, and these provide staff with invaluable support by improving subject knowledge and assisting in the invention of new questions and new ways to inspire and motivate pupils.

An added benefit is that, with this new approach, our differentiation is being implemented in a more positive way: all children access the same high-quality text, but questions and prompts are used to offer support to lower attainers.   

Ultimately, by focusing on high-quality literary texts, we are equipping pupils with the skills, knowledge and resources to take their English learning into secondary school, and beyond.

Gavin Bater is deputy headteacher at Red Barn Community Primary School in Portchester, Hampshire

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