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The right preparation for writing

What is the point of planning a piece of writing? When do writers plan and when do they just get on and write?

The new assessment focuses for writing from the Qualification and Curriculum Authority provide a map of the complex aspects of composing which all writers use when putting a piece of writing together. Much of the thinking about what to write goes on inside an author's head, but sometimes writers jot down ideas, notes or possible lines of argument.

Some of us rehearse our ideas in our heads and then try to get straight on with writing rather than be held up by a making a plan. Using ICT may alter the need to plan, as text can be manipulated so easily and backtracking is a normal process.

But even then a writer may find it difficult to keep an idea of the overall shape of a piece and where it might end up. This is a very frequent problem for younger writers whose endings can be formulaic or ineffective.

The English team at QCA began to ask questions like these when thinking about the writing tasks in the new tests. The tests have a very specific context for writing, since the writers have to work fast to a tight brief.

But for many adults this is a familiar challenge too. We have provided planning pages in key stage 2 tests for some time, but wondered if the planning would be different at KS3. We wanted to know what would help pupils most - a plan which would help them to summon up content, or one which helped them to structure what they wanted to say.

These questions led to a small-scale investigation into what both pupils and teachers in Year 6 and Year 9 think about the purposes of planning. We asked the pupils to construct a plan and we asked about the teaching of planning. When we looked at the plans we found:

* at both key stages, planning largely focused on accumulating content, often using lists, bullet points or spider plans;

* Year 6 pupils used a greater range of forms of planning than pupils in Year 9;

* that structure was the guiding principle in 16 per cent of plans in Year 6 and 11 per cent in Year 9.

It seems that these Year 6 pupils were more aware of the potential of planning and had a bigger repertoire of forms. Perhaps the Year 9 pupils were now more independent in what they felt to be useful preparation for writing.

We know that teachers use detailed plans for teaching writing, and help pupils with aspects such as openings, characterisation, settings and organising ideas or arguments. It would also help to encourage pupils to think productively about the overall shape of their writing and to make decisions about its form, readers and structure.

Pupils need a repertoire of ways to plan, from which they choose for any specific task. Over time we hope pupils will use this repertoire in planning for writing in the tests.

Planning for Writing, which contains examples of planning by pupils in Years 6 and 9 can be found on the QCA website at This work links with the key stage 3 strategy English work on Improving Writing.

The English team at QCA would welcome ideas from teachers about planning for content and structure, and how to build planning into the curriculum for writing.Email:

Sue Horner is subject officer for English at the QCA

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