Warning over English results

21st July 2000 at 01:00
Children's writing must improve, says OFSTED. Carolyn O'Grady looks at the issues

Good marks for reading, but could do much better in writing. This is the verdict of an Office for Standards in Education discussion paper on the teaching of writing within the National Literacy Strategy.

The Teaching of Writing in Primary Schools warns that the Government's targets for achievement in English will not be met unless children's writing significantly improves over the next two years. It says that "quite clearly in too many literacy hours the teaching of writing is weak". In the 1999 key stage 2 English tests only 54 per cent of pupils reached level 4 or above in writing, compared with 78 per cent in reading. Moreover, there is a significant gender gap: 47 per cent of boys achieved level 4 in writing compared with 62 per cent of girls. This gap was even more worrying as many heads appeared to be unaware of the situation, says the report.

The problem appears to be that too much emphasis is placed on practising writing, rather than teaching children how to improve it. In the literacy hours observed, inspectors found:

* an over-reliance on duplicated worksheets "requiring little or no sustained independent writing of any quality";

* too many teachers thought providing good, imaginative starting points for stories was sufficient without guiding and instructing pupils in the writing process;

* weaknesses at sentence-level work: "pupils were rarely required to produce grammatically complex sentences".

They suggest that:"A good technical knowledge of literacy underpins the best planning. For example, how phonemic awareness helps pupils to spell accurately or how grammar helps to promote accurate and interesting writing."

More could also be done to use literacy lessons t teach the types of writing commonly used in other subjects; for example, reports of investigations in science.

The report identifies four key features of the best teaching, including:

* a good technical knowledge of literacy;

* the incorporation of word and sentence work into the teaching of writing;

* intervention at the point of composition to teach writing skills;

* the reinforcement and development of writing skills throughout the curriculum.

"There was a sense of pride in a Year 4 class of a Wirral primary school when the pupils began to use what they had learned in their sentence work... In their writing they were making imaginative use of adjectives, adverbs and similes and some were using an adverbial phrase to open a sentence before the main clause."

In one Tameside school, a Year 6 teacher presented his class, "as a matter of routine", with examples of complex sentences, and discussed why they were effective. These sentences provided a model for the pupils' work.

Elsewhere pupils had to tackle "a demanding and challenging piece" by changing a description of science experiments into a more impersonal, non-fictional style of writing. The skills required were discussed and the teacher went through the text with the group. They got rid of unnecessary words and identified sections that needed rewording. The teacher reminded pupils to use the present tense and the passive voice, and explained why. "This gave the pupils confidence to tackle subsequent sections of the text, with the class teacher aiding and supporting individuals," says the report.

The Teaching of Writing in Primary Schools: Could Do Better - A Discussion Paper by HMI is available at: www.ofsted.gov.uk.

OFSTEDwill publish a more comprehensive report in the autumn.

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