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Beyond the F-word: what is writing ‘at greater depth’?

Published: 1 February 2019

 

“Flair!” I’ve yet to attend or lead a training session in which this isn’t a response to the question “What makes writing ‘greater depth’?” But what is flair? What does it look like? Where can we find it? Crucially, how can it be explained to a child?

I’ve happened on a number of comments, in blogs or tweeted discussion threads, from people of the opinion that greater depth is not something that can be taught. If that’s the case though, how can we then be expected to direct and support the development of those writers who already have secured the knowledge, skills and understanding deemed age-related? Nor can greater depth be as subjective a judgement as is sometimes imagined: if that were the case, seven and eleven-year-olds up and down the country would be consigned to a lottery of teachers’ and moderators’ personal tastes.

This week we launched our new course on Writing at Greater Depth, and these challenges were among those we, and a room full of Devon schools’ teachers, wrestled with. Our aim was not only to recognise what constitutes exceptional writing in Year 1 to Year 6 but to identify the teaching points crucial in extending our very high EXS writers’ development into GDS.

Characteristics of 'greater depth' writing

We began by considering ‘greater depth within the expected standard’ as determined by the statutory teacher assessment frameworks for key stages 1 and 2. Our understanding of greater depth writers was enriched through discussion about teachers’ own classes – individuals’ habits and motivations.

We then explored writing of the highest attaining children from each of the other year groups in turn, drawn from our work over time with several schools across Devon (and included in our No Nonsense Literacy: Assessment of Writing publication).

From this, a much clearer picture began to emerge of what could be reasonably expected of our greater depth writers. The work consistently demonstrated children’s confidence and ability with age-related expectations for their year group, but had also gone further or, rather, ‘deeper’. They…

  • wrote effectively for a range of purposes and audiences – for impact on the intended audience rather than including features as ‘teacher-pleasers’ or to fulfil narrow success criteria; when they edited, it was often to nuance text and improve impact.

  • wrote consistently coherently, exercising control over the whole text structure with good grammar and vocabulary choices: attention to pronoun and noun choice, including proper nouns so the focus was consistent yet varied enough to retain interest; correctly used prepositions helpful in determining relationships; adverbials clearly linking ideas about time and place or helping to clarify reasons, create a mood…

  • made personal, occasionally unusual, choices about viewpoint but were able to make the chosen perspective clear to the reader, and reasonable.

  • adopted a register, or were beginning to, other than their own voices – establishing and maintaining a persona. They were choosing language and syntax (and punctuation) that mimicked speech or writing and could vary the formality of each, as befitted their ages.

  • made conscious choices of vocabulary for specific effect and this demonstrated a more sophisticated understanding of nuance and meaning - these children weren’t ‘thesaurus-gobblers’! Often, it was language and phrasing mimicked from reading, but reading beyond what had been introduced in the most recent lesson.

  • were conversant in all elements of grammar they’d been taught, chose wisely and manipulated grammatical constructions and sentence structure for effect. Sentence length had often been considered too which had allowed the children to control the pace of a piece of writing.

  • used a range of punctuation accurately and increasingly, as they became older, to clarify and emphasise meaning. Punctuation was considered with authorial intent.

  • spelt age-appropriate words and more ambitious vocabulary with a high degree of accuracy.

  • had sound writing habits, editing for content/style and regularly proofreading to correct.

A sense of self as writer

Notable was how these children, regardless of age, were those who had a developed sense of themselves as writers. They exercised choice in terms of what they wrote and how. They appreciated the utility of the grammar they’d been taught and experienced personally in texts and knew it could be selected and manipulated to achieve an intended effect. The children whose work was explored recognised the purpose of writing is to communicate to and often entertain an audience; they acknowledged the importance of accuracy in enabling a reader’s comprehension and worked on this. They understood writing is a process – the generation of ideas, trialling and drafting, redrafting and improving, proofreading and checking – and had embedded or were working on acquiring good habits.

Implications for teaching

Each of these identified ‘themes’ has clear implications for teaching and the question we arrived at by the end of the training day was not ‘What can I set this group of pupils to do or tell them to include that’s more than or higher than my others’, but ‘How might I plan a sequence of teaching that enables GD writers to explore, try out, develop, secure and demonstrate ideas and understanding more deeply?’ There were many suggestions, and this is by no means an exhaustive list:

  • Expose children to a cornucopia of text types and experiences, beyond those they might already be familiar with, so they have a wealth of ideas and models on which to draw.?

  • When teaching reading, point out and allow pupils to ‘discover’ how great texts work.

  • Offer children choice in final writing outcomes – content, viewpoint, starting point (e.g. at the end of events, at a crucial moment), text type, intended audience…

  • Teach grammar (and vocabulary) for writing with impact and effect emphasised as the reasons for selecting particular features, patterns or structures rather than encouraging the ‘shoe-horning’ of features from a tick list. Consider how this emphasis on impact might be reflected in any success criteria and, if used, how such criteria might be best generated, e.g. by pupils themselves. (James Durran has some interesting suggestions on this.)

  • Make time to explicitly teach editing and proofreading strategies, celebrating the writing process as much if not more than the outcomes.

  • Allocate enough time to enable writers to complete writing to the highest standard they can. This could mean setting them off earlier, giving prior warning of a task so they can ‘grow’ an idea, etc.

  • Teach pupils how to talk about the choices and decisions they make as writers; equip them with the terminology they need to make clear and concise observations and describe these to others.

 

Our Writing at Greater Depth course will next be held at The White Hart Hotel in St. Austell, Cornwall on 4th March 2019; to book a place, sign up at CPD Online.

We can also run the course or tailor-made versions for individual schools or groups of schools. To enquire about training, contact us using the link to the right of this page.

 

See our training page for details of what else we are able to offer.

Babcock English Team

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