"What should be specifically taught to those children in my class who are on level 3 to help them achieve level 4?" "What is the best focus for work with grade D students in trying to raise their GCSE grade?" These are perhaps two of the most commonly asked questions in schools at this time of year.
QCA has worked for some time on gathering evidence from pupils' work and finding useful ways forward. This has been a particular issue in writing, where teachers were able to praise the imagination and confidence of the writers they taught but were unsure about how to develop them.
With Janet White and Alastair West, in QCA's English team, I set out to find ways of analysing what pupils wrote in ways which would give comparable information across national curriculum levels and across key stages. We wanted to see if the features of writing at different levels were similar at different ages, and what exactly made the difference between levels. We could not find the type of analyses that we needed anywhere in the world, so we began the work ourselves.
Many people told us it wouldn't work because writing was distinctively age related and that our plan to collect quantitative data would not get at the heart of writing.
The results of our analyses are now influencing what is happening in classrooms all over England. They are published in QCA's Standards Reports every year. The findings are vital for establishing the key messages of the National Literacy Strategy. The analyses of GCSE writing have been published by QCA, and secondary teachers tell us that the material is of great practical use when planning what to teach.
Knowing that, at level 3, children struggle with using commas in lists or organising their writing in other ways than by chronology, is something a busy teacher can use in planning the emphasis of work in the literacy hour.
Teachers who recognise, as a patern which they have seen in their own pupils' writing, the finding that Grade A candidates use more abstract nouns and fewer finite verbs, now have a focus for discussion on how to improve work.
Teachers have access to this work through a variety of routes: the Implications for Teaching and Learning pages of QCA's "Standards Reports", the National Literacy Strategy key messages, or information from local education authority advisers through in-service training sessions. All are based on evidence from annual analysis of pupils' work.
The publications from QCA, "Improving Writing at Key Stages 3 and 4" and "Not Whether but How" also report the findings but go on to tease out the classroom implications of the analyses.
We have used the analytical framework to compare writing from different countries as well as year-on-year comparisons of pupils' work. All these analyses focus on the features and patterns of language which pupils use in their writing. A similar approach is the basis for the publication "Teaching Speaking and Listening in Key stages 1 and 2". We have identified the features of language which children should be taught to become more effective communicators. This publication offers a systematic approach and some examples of classroom activities that complement the National Literacy Strategy Framework. Its practical and realistic approach can make a difference to standards. What more could we ask analysis and evidence to do for us?
Sue Horner is principal subject officer, English, for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, 29 Bolton Street,London W1Y 7PD. Tel: 020 7509 5555.www.qca.org.uk"Improving Writing at Key Stages 3 and 4" (QCA99392)"Not Whether but How - Teaching Grammar in English at Key Stages 3 and 4" (QCA99418)"Teaching Speaking and Listening in Key stages 1 and 2" (QCA99391) are available from QCA Publications. Tel: 01787 884444