Delaying extended writing? A worrying trend for KS3
I’m picking up from several different places something which I find worrying. There seems to be a growing belief that children of secondary school age can’t write effectively, and therefore need to start Year 7 at the start of a writing curriculum in order to get them writing decent responses aged 16. I’ve heard it said that extended writing should be seen as the product of the curriculum and therefore should be worked towards slowly and carefully, building to essays/extended pieces at the end of KS4 and that KS3 should focus on accuracy of sentence forms, variation of clause structures and vocabulary building. This, to me, is an enormous lowering of expectations, an erroneous view of the purpose of writing and ultimately damaging to young people’s sense of voice.
Perhaps this view of writing is based on a distorted view of ‘mastery’, whereby explicit instruction and careful checking of understanding is required before asking any more of pupils. Whilst teaching for mastery is absolutely vital for some forms of knowledge (for example the learning of foundational concepts), it cannot helpfully be applied to complex tasks like writing. Writing is not just an end product of learning; it is a method of learning. Through writing we slow down, synthesise, think. Writing is above all else a method of communicating ideas. If we ignore this ultimate purpose, we teach children that what they think doesn’t matter. If we focus solely on the building blocks of accurate writing, we showcase that writing is an empty and perhaps an elite symbol for intelligence. We scupper communication.
The argument has been posited that extended writing is like a football match: you don’t get better at playing football by just playing endless ninety minute games. That’s absolutely right — Daisy Christodoulou explains this well in The Seven Myths About Education. But you don’t get better at playing football by ONLY drilling passes either. In fact, you would shake the entire pleasure out of the game altogether and you’d probably not have anyone returning long term to football practice. A healthy balance needs to be maintained between honing the components and putting them together in the joy of something meaningful.
Those who advocate a ‘building block’ view of writing seem to be heavily influenced by a deficit model of children’s communication: they focus on what children aren’t yet able to do, rather than focus on what they can do and build from there. I would strongly recommend secondary English teachers visit feeder primaries to see the writing work done there, and I would urge school leaders to allow teachers time for these visits. I saw the incredible work of school leaders at Charles Darwin Primary and Great Yarmouth Primary Academy in July and was blown away by the high expectations of writing quality and quantity. We have so much to learn from these primary colleagues and should be building on what children are able to do at Year 6. The only way to make KS3 truly meaningful is to gauge clearly where children are and ensure we push them upwards.
Now I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t be teaching effective components of writing. I absolutely believe that we should frequently slow down and explicitly instruct pupils in sentence forms and vocabulary. I have written about that in detail here and spoken about it here. But I don’t believe this should come at the expense of extended writing for the communication of ideas. It shouldn’t be sentences before extended pieces: the two should go together, bouncing backwards and forwards. And whilst I absolutely love Hoffman’s The Writing Revolution, careful consideration should be paid to the age expectations outlined at the back of the book. ‘Because, but, so’ is outlined at 4th Grade level: our UK Year 5. It’s absurd to think we should be slamming only this at Y8 until children ‘get it’.
Perhaps whole-class feedback models (which I love) have contributed to the pendulum swinging away from extended writing. Teaching sentence structures is likely to produce largely homogenous independent practice, making generalised whole-class feedback easy. When you give pupils more freedom of writing, in which they are actually communicating thoughts and interpretations, you’re likely to get a far wider range of next steps for a class. This is OK! This needn’t be taken as evidence against WCF. It simply requires more teacher expertise in diagnosing what teaching points need to be taken next. It is another reason to equip English teachers with the time, space and autonomy to reflect carefully on what their class needs.
It’s always helpful to picture what kind of writing we’d ideally like to see for each year group/unit/class. If I picture a Year 8 group, I want to see them excited to share their ideas both verbally and written down. I want to see them empowered to believe that their thoughts matter, and not limited by accuracy anxiety, or pigeon-holing appositives into topic sentences. I want to see them writing well-structured, multi-paragraph pieces of work which reflect their increasing ability to structure multi-faceted ideas with clarity, taking the reader on a journey. If a binary exists between sentence writing and extended writing (and I don’t think there does), I would far rather children dropping full stops in their excitement to expand their ideas. Missing full stops usually doesn’t mean they don’t know where to put them; it just means that they temporarily fall by the wayside whilst other more complex tasks are taking up working memory. Often missing components of writing can be self-corrected by a simple proof-reading policy. It absolutely doesn’t mean the curriculum needs to be thrown out to ‘go back to basics’.
The KS3 English curriculum should give children the opportunity to think, talk and write lots. Only then will students find confidence and joy in writing, discover their own writing voices and achieve their potential at KS4.
In a nutshell:
- Extended writing is not the end-goal of the secondary English curriculum. It is a means by which we communicate and think.
- Children do not need to ‘master’ sentences before they move onto longer pieces. The two need to be taught in parallel, intertwining.
- Sentence forms and vocabulary must be explicitly taught, but this shouldn’t be in place of longer pieces.
- The best English departments have a clear idea of what kinds of writing children produce at KS2 and build on this. They focus on what children can do, not on deficit models which lower the bar and lead to huge amounts of wasted time at KS3.
Elisabeth Bowling can be found on Twitter at elucymay.