Nine essential tips for a successful primary writing unit

A deputy headteacher shares his pointers for planning a whole unit of work to teach writing at primary level

DM Crosby

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Planning a unit of work from scratch in primary can be a daunting prospect, particularly for a core skill like writing. There are so many decisions to make and just getting started is often a two-cuppa problem, minimum.

But after many years of trial and error, I have now reached a point where I can identify the key steps needed to create a successful unit of work.

I’ve set out my top tips for planning a writing unit. Ensuring that these essentials are covered should save you hours of planning and help to make your writing unit a success.

1. Hook them in

It goes without saying that children will be more successful if they’re engaged with the unit as a whole. There are plenty of easy hooks into learning: drama activities, listening to a piece of music or watching a film clip all work well. You could also try teacher-in-role or (my all-time favourite) reading a really well-written piece of writing.

2. Writing begins with reading

Before children are asked to do any writing in a given genre, they need to read extensively in that genre. This is essential to help them tune into the tone, structural and linguistic features and overall feel of the genre. Share published exemplars, or write your own to ensure they include the language features appropriate for your class.

3. Reading and text analysis should inform success criteria

As they study exemplar texts, children should make a "key ingredients" list for the genre. Their writing will be more effective if you get them to create this list, rather than just giving it to them. During the reading phase, get them to bank key words or phrases in their jotters or on the working wall. 

4. Model to children how to write

Before children are asked to do writing of any length the teacher should model how to do so, making explicit reference to the key ingredients list generated as a class. This sounds obvious, but I’ve seen many writing lessons suffer as a result of missing this vital step.

5. Allow planning time before drafting

This could take many forms and the amount of time you need to dedicate to this stage can vary. It can be in the form of a story map (sequencing the story in pictures), a boxed-up plan (listing the key details to be included in each paragraph), an exploded plan for more advanced writers (sequencing the piece, then expanding on the most important sections in more detail) or using a story mountain or other graphical organiser.

6. Encourage use of word banks

Children who do little independent reading tend to lack the strong vocabulary and writer’s voice that come from extensive reading. Teachers should provide word or phrase banks for those children who lack their own mental word bank, and all pupils should be encouraged to use the shared banks generated in the reading part of the unit.

7. Allow children to redraft in response to feedback

Given the sheer amount of work we are expected to get through, it can be tempting to take children’s first drafts and then move on to the next thing. But giving children plenty of time to redraft their work in light of feedback is essential, and arguably the most important part of a writing unit. This process needs modelling extensively for younger children, but this stage can have huge benefits for children’s writing.

8. Build in challenge and support

I don’t believe in differentiation through giving children entirely different tasks. However, some children will inevitably need more support and others may benefit from a few extra challenges. These can often be simple tweaks and shouldn’t require onerous planning. Challenging writers to include things such as dramatic irony or an extended metaphor can force children to think more about the overall structure of their piece. For writers who need support, sentence stems or some useful sentence openers can often work wonders.

9. Publish children’s writing for a wider audience

Class blogs, class anthologies, school websites, displays and turning writing into a film are just a few ways we can give children an audience and purpose for their writing. This stage of the process reinforces the idea that their writing is not just for their class teacher and is a powerful motivational tool to get children ready for the next unit. 

DM Crosby is a deputy headteacher at a primary school in the East Midlands and tweets as @DM_Crosby

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