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From skills to thrills

There have been major strides in the teaching of writing over the past few years. Now it's time to bring back the fun, says Sue Palmer

We've come a long way in teaching writing during the past five years. Indeed, most teachers would probably agree that, until the National Literacy Strategy, we scarcely taught writing at all. Before the NLS, teachers worked tremendously hard at motivating and stimulating children to write: providing exciting contexts for writing through art, drama, music and other activities. Then they worked equally hard at responding to what children produced - helping them redraft and edit towards a final piece. But in terms of what happened in the middle - the actual act of composition - there was a massive teaching gap.

The NLS has filled that gap admirably, providing in its Framework for Teaching a structured course in "how to write", with clear objectives at word, sentence and text level. It has also provided an excellent teaching model - shared writing, where the teacher leads pupils explicitly through the process of writing in a particular genre: demonstrating how to do it; scribing the children's contributions; and setting carefully-focused "supported writing" tasks, before finally asking them to try for themselves. All this has revolutionised classroom practice and, as time goes on and expertise increases, the famous gap in attainment between reading and writing should grow steadily narrower.

But there are still some problems. Writing is a highly complex skill, involving the orchestration of a prodigious number of subskills. One major difficulty for teachers is how to keep one's mind - and those of 30 small proteges - focused on all the relevant aspects of word level (phonics, spelling, handwriting, vocabulary), sentence level (sentence construction, punctuation) and text level (content and organisation) involved in a single piece of writing, all at the same time. It's so easy to get bogged down in one aspect of composition and lose track of the grand plan... or, indeed, why you're bothering to do it all in the first place.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's new mark scheme (see opposite) should be a boon in this respect. The QCA English team has managed to categorise and systematise the elements involved in the composition of a good piece of writing, and to present them in a clear, easily-accessible format. This is no easy task - five years ago it would have been impossible to imagine an analysis of writing that didn't reduce it to a trivialised checklist. Yet here at last is a simple summary of everything NLS covers in the Framework. Although aimed at English test markers, it should also be invaluable to teachers: an aide-memoire of the key elements of written composition, to be borne in mind as we show children how to plan, compose and edit any piece of writing.

We have indeed come a long, long way in the last half decade. So perhaps now is a good time look back and check we didn't lose anything important along the way. As teachers absorbed all those writing objectives, took on responsibility for all those subskills, rose to the pedagogical challenges of shared writing, it would not be surprising if something had to give. My impression, from talking to hundreds of primary teachers over the last year, is that something did indeed go missing. All too often, the thing that disappeared from the teaching of writing was fun.

Fun - motivation, stimulation, the stuff that leads children to learn, rather than just slog - is something government documents can't provide. Yet it is an essential ingredient of primary teaching, especially in subjects - like writing - which involve a lot of hard work. Really successful literacy teaching requires the individual expertise and enthusiasm of the teacher, ensuring that children want to write and giving them something meaningful to write about. That's the magic of teaching.

It's been a long hard journey, but most teachers have now absorbed the NLS's training. The QCA's new mark scheme has provided a magnificent summary of what is involved in "the act of composition". So the time is ripe to retrieve some of the joy of writing: setting up classroom corners and role-play areas, making cross-curricular links, exciting children to write through art, drama, music and movement. The strategists and curriculum authorities have given teachers the tools: now it's time to get on with the job.

More details on 2003 texts and marking can be found at www.qca.org. ukcatestsks22003sample 2003sample_ks2_en_leaflet.asp

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