Can't write, won't write?
He's fine in discussion, but he can't seem to get anything down on paper..." "She starts well, and then sort of trails off ..." It is not surprising the "long tail of underachievement" in writing is worse than in reading. To read, children must decode and make sense of a text, but they do not have to think it up from scratch themselves. To write, they must orchestrate a wide range of skills and knowledge (wielding a pen, matching sounds to symbols, dealing with spelling rules and irregularities...) and generate ideas at the same time (dreaming up content, seeking words to express it, organising them into sentences and paragraphs to make sense to the reader...). If they are at a loss in one or more of these areas, the whole enterprise can come crashing to a halt.
So where might some of the difficulties arise, and what can we do about them?
The key that opens the door to literacy learning is phonemic awareness - the insight that every spoken word is made up of a string of individual speech sounds (or phonemes). To write, children must be able to:
* hear and discriminate speech sounds;
* segment words into sounds;
* translate the sounds into the appropriate alphabetic symbols on the page.
If they struggle to function at this most basic level, there will be no room in their heads for all the other processes involved.
This is why the National Literacy Strategy lays such emphasis on phonics at key stage 1. But for some children phonemic awareness does not happen on time, and phonics teaching falls - to all intents and purposes - on deaf ears. The child then proceeds up the primary school with a very shaky understanding of sound-symbol relationships, and any subsequent teaching about spelling is built on sand. Tackle the problem on two fronts:
* intervention, to develop pupils' word level skills;
* support, to minimise the effects of spelling problems when the child is writing and you are not available for help.
Ideas for intervention
Additional Literacy Support - four books and a video produced by the National Literacy Strategy, available in school or via your local education authority literacy consultant - includes a fast-track phonics course aimed at Year 34 pupils, but many schools also find it useful with older pupils. It is designed for classroom assistants to use with small groups during the independent session of the literacy hour.
Reading Reflex by Carmen and Geoffrey McGuinness (Penguin). This is an individualised structured course, ideal for parents who want to help at home.
Computer-assisted learning - CD-Roms such as Wordshark from White Space, tel: 020 8748 5927 and the Catch-Up Project CD-Rom, tel:01865 485903 provide structured lessons at the child's level which can be used in literacy hour independent time or at home.
Ideas for support Spellcheckers provide easy access to correct spelling, allowing older pupils to concentrate on composition and giving them confidence to use a wide variety of words, rather than choosing the dull but easy ones. Battery-operated spellcheckers are available from stationers for around pound;20.
Wordmats, which pupils lean on to write, provide ready access to the most commonly misspelled words. Write key words in alphabetical lists on A4 card (choose appropriate words from the lists at the back of the National Literacy Strategy Framework of Objectives), and laminate. Leave some blank space, where you can jot words temporarily for specific writing tasks.
Information The history project is on Egypt, a name in itself difficult. A child may write: Eejipt. You might have the word for the child on a wordmat as a key word.
Fiction Start to develop a character, one with a tricky name to spell. The child may write "Hary Hampster". To get to the correct "Harry Hamster", the child could key it in to a hand-held spellchecker.
Writing is not just about getting words down on paper. They also have to be in the right order, with the right punctuation to guide your reader, and the right amount of detail to clarify your message. To do this you must be aware of the patterns of written language - as opposed to the spoken language patterns which children use every day. Children who read a lot usually pick up written language patterns easily, in much the same way they learned the language of speech. But many children need help.
Three ways of helping
Read to them The serialised "class novel" was common in primary schools until the national curriculum ate into classroom time. A short blast of "storytime" was a delightful way to round off the afternoon and also meant that for 15 minutes a day all the children, including non-readers, were immersed in written language patterns. If at all possible, try to revive this tradition.
Model how to write This means demonstrating the process by writing yourself in front of the children, giving a running commentary on:
* what you plan to say (oral rehearsal of sentences before writing);
* the choices you make and the ways you edit as you compose;
* the way you read through regularly to check it sounds right.
All pupils benefit from this sort of explicit talk about writing, but poor writers benefit most of all.
Teach explicitly about how written language works As well as explicit teaching of new language concepts to the class as a whole, make sure you revisit basic concepts that less able writers missed out on first time round.
The Additional Literacy Support materials provide lesson plans and photocopiable texts on many aspects that poorer writers find difficult, including:
* getting the "feel" of a sentence (and mastering sentence punctuation);
* knowing when and how to add detail and description, and when to use pronouns to avoid repetition;
* varying their sentence construction, especially sentence openings;
* using a variety of connectives (such as "when", "after", "several days later"), as opposed to "and" and "and then", the typical connectives of speech.
These plans could be used (or adapted) for guided writing sessions with a poorer group.
When deciding overall objectives for the class, choose another "sub-objective" for the poorer writing group, and keep it in mind throughout all your teaching. Feature it during shared work - perhaps the group could present a plenary session about it. Concentrate on it also in the guided and independent work you set them - and be very specific about the outcomes you expect, for instance: "I want you to write a paragraph of four sentences on this topic; I'll specially be looking for variety in the way you structure your sentences; and using'and then' is banned!" Children will perform better because they know what you want.
Information "There were three seasons in ancient Egypt. They were the seasons of inundation, emergence and drought," the child writes. Refer the child back to Additonal Literacy Support lessons on varying sentence structures and help with punctuation. The two sentences can be combined more elegantly, eliminating repetition, thus: "In ancient Egypt there were three seasons - inundation, emergence and drought."
Fiction Developing the story, a child drafts: "One day Harry was out for a walk. Harry saw his friend Ronnie Rat." How could this be improved? By talking about their Additional Literacy Support lessons on when and how to add description and "powerful verbs" and on joining sentences, we can get:
"One bright morning, Harry was strolling through the woods when he saw his friend, Ronnie Rat."
Poor writers often have difficulty organising their thoughts in order to write. Writing is essentially a linear process, requiring us to "think in a straight line", which for many children does not come naturally. Preliminary planning can help - but non-linear thinkers may feel just as threatened by the traditional "story plan" or "essay plan" which also has a linear format. They are often more comfortable with alternative ways of planning - and these can help you link literacy hour writing to other areas of the curriculum.
Planning through pictures
Children often enjoy representing information in pictorial or diagrammatic form - such as a flow chart, time line or grid. This lets them demonstrate their understanding without the effort of writing, and is an ideal way of summarising learning in history, geography or science. But it can also provide a starting point for thinking through the content in a linear way.
A child draws a pictorial representation of the yearly cycle of life in Ancient Egypt (see right). The teacher asks the child to explain each section of the cycle orally, to rehearse the ideas and vocabulary, and finally write a paragraph about each section. It goes: "The season of inundation lasted from October to February. This was when the Nile was flooded so the Egyptians could not grow crops. They lived on food from the last harvest. The slaves who would usually work in the fields had time to work on the Pharaoh's building projects, like the pyramids."
Planning through drama
- or puppetry - is another way of preparing and planning to write which works well for fiction writing. Role-play helps children grapple with characterisation and motivation, while improvising and acting out stories helps with the development of plot. A story developed in a drama lesson and represented pictorially - as a storyboard or flow-chart - can then be used as the basis for a writing lesson. Each picture in the storyboard (or box in the chart) becomes the basis for one paragraph in the story.
Using the puppets to develop dialogue, weaving ideas from a group of children together and plotting how to create effects, the children write: Harry and Ronnie crouched behind a tree and waited.
"Can you see anybody?" asked Harry.
"No," hissed Ronnie. "Be quiet or they'll hear us."
"But...," said Harry.
From somewhere deep in the woods came the sound of laughter.
Sue Palmer is a former primary head, and is now a writer, teacher and INSET trainer