Dylan doesn’t like writing. His teacher makes him write and then he has to go back and correct mistakes. So, he tries to write as little as possible. He can’t wait to be “finished”. And she makes him “do spellings”. This is difficult for Dylan because he doesn’t talk or read much at home, so he doesn’t encounter as many words as his peers. He doesn’t know what half the words mean, anyway. His latest piece of writing is about 18th Century smugglers, whatever that means. There’s a smuggler museum in his home town of Hastings but Dylan has never been. In fact, he’s never been to the beach, even though it’s only 3 miles away. So, his writing about smugglers lacks context and understanding. Dylan is like many pupils, who associate writing with failure, doing corrections and feeling pretty miserable about themselves.
Dylan is burdened with all sorts of labels at his school, but perhaps the best label would be that he is an able pupil who, at this stage, hasn’t had the same opportunities as his label-free friends. In my experience as a teacher, consultant, headteacher and writing moderator, there are plenty of Dylans out there. If we’re not careful, their experience of writing in the formative years will restrict their progress and overall prospects. Which is inexcusable – because the Dylans of the world have the same potential as anyone in their class.
What does Dylan need? He needs his teacher to look at things a different way. Rather than getting Dylan to launch headlong into writing and then take a soul-destroying look back at things he’s done wrong, the teacher needs to deliver teaching sequences which support Dylan to build up a piece of writing, layer upon layer, with the skills of writing, reading, spelling, talking and listening embedded within. Dylan, like any pupil, needs to make mistakes (or how will he learn anything new?) but he needs to make them as part of a journey through word-level activities, into reading tasks, through drafting “messy” writing by exploring different writing choices, into edited and polished writing – which he can review proudly.
I’ve been working with Dylans for many years and have used my experience to create a sequence containing all the key ingredients for brilliant writing – the WRITER sequence. My new book – Igniting Children’s Writing contains 50 tried-and-tested activities, organised into the sequence, to get pupils thinking brilliantly about their writing.
Take Dylan’s Smugglers piece. Imagine if, over a couple of weeks, he experienced the following sequence:
Work on Words: Dylan gets to read paintings of smugglers, explore maps and talk about the history of smuggling in Hastings. He doesn’t realise it, but by talking about what smugglers wore, their dastardly deeds and where they did them, Dylan is practising all sorts of grammar and encountering new vocabulary. He might even get to go to the Smuggler Museum – and see the sea! The words he’s encountering are displayed on the wall, so he’s already learning to spell them correctly.
Read as a Writer: The class starts to read Moonfleet. Key passages are studied closely and Dylan gets to use different reading skills, such as skimming and scanning for key information and terminology, or thinking about what he learns from the characters based on the things they say and how they speak. He loves the quizzes that the teacher sets after they listen to a scene from the audiobook.
Investigate Writing Choices Together: Dylan hates grammar worksheets (These still have their place, of course – the bin) but now he’s working with pairs and groups to think about the grammar choices a good writer makes. He joins in with some shared writing to practise some of the grammar, which he helps to present to the class.
Try-Out individual Choices: The teacher catches Dylan reading the next chapter of Moonfleet before school. He’s had a good few days and feels ready to draft out his only piece of writing: he’s decided to write a “drop in” scene, featuring an encounter with the ghost of Colonel John “Blackbeard” Mohune. Dylan is hooked by the story of the King’s diamond, which, legend has it, was stolen by Blackbeard. Dylan uses a thinking map to plan his scene and includes key words and phrases. He’s thought of topic sentences of each of his paragraphs. He writes a draft – a first attempt. He’s given the ghost “a burnished, gold locket, which contains the hurriedly-scrawled location of the diamond”. He likes that.
Edit, Perform and Publish: Dylan can’t be finished yet, because everyone in the class has only produced a draft. His partner and the teacher give Dylan some feedback and he’s ready to edit and improve. He tries writing some of his sentences differently. He changes some words. He takes other words out completely because they’re not needed. Because the class is putting together a Smuggler Writing Collection, he makes some final changes and “writes up” in his best handwriting, within the Smuggler border he’s drawn in Art – with maps and lockets and the ghost of Blackbeard.
Review Key Learning: Although he won’t admit it, Dylan is pleased with his writing and he’s asked to review what helped him to write well. He decides that using the Spellzone display, and planning the paragraphs, were the most helpful.
Dylan still says he doesn’t like writing, but secretly, he’s starting to feel the buzz of success and creative pride. He hopes that Mum will see his writing on Parents’ Evening. And he can’t wait to see where that Ghost has hidden the diamond.
Mark McCaughan is an experienced senior leader and local authority consultant. He has taken on whole-school, subject and pastoral leadership throughout three ‘Outstanding’ Ofsted inspections and is currently supporting schools where performance was low in the Reading SATs and using the activities provided in Igniting Children’s Writing to great effect.
Mark loves supporting schools to get pupils thinking brilliantly and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.