New to teaching writing? Don't fall into the trap!

Updated: Oct 11, 2018

Beginning to teach is like learning to drive...

You moved away from home, you needed to get somewhere, your folks stopped agreeing to chauffeur...

You Googled, "Most friendly and understanding driving instructors near me".

The first lesson approached... At 3:00am, waking in a cold sweat, you realised you might kill yourself, or someone else, or everyone else once you got behind the wheel.

Now in the driver's seat, you panicked, you forgot which way was left and which way was right. You indicated by engaging your window wipers and braked by pushing the accelerator. You could never remember what gear you were in and when your instructor asked if you were coasting, you denied it...

Ten minutes in a lesson seemed like a day and you prayed for the end without crashing and burning... "Go right, third exit, at the next roundabout..."

Oh God...

You missed the exit, everyone was angry with you, your instructor presumed you did it on purpose to annoy him, the car began to stutter and stall as the traffic built up behind you and you wondered if driving was really the right option for you after all...

You got home, finally, but no matter what you did or how much ice cream you ate... Preparing for the next lesson lingered on your mind.

Training teachers? NQTs? RQTs? Does this sound familiar?

In my teaching career, I've taken a few wrong turns when it came to teaching. As a bit of a self-confessed control-freak, I vividly recall thinking to myself, on many occasions, "But that's not how the children were meant to respond!" Now, as a recently 'ex' headteacher, and instructor of teachers myself, I see a bit of a worrying trend out there, that seems to be embedded by the time trainee teachers walk into their first classrooms.

"Where's the script?" "What writing scheme do you use?"

Please don't think I'm criticising the intentions or quality of teachers new to the profession, I place a hand on my heart when I say I'm not. What I'm questioning is the delivery of our curriculum — and the many surrounding messages — to these teachers during training, both from colleges and, more importantly, from some placement schools. I know that the culture of evidence-creation and quantifiable, lesson-by-lesson progress can be one heck of a pothole to avoid, but it has led to the belief by some that there is a 'right way' and a 'wrong way' to teach writing, for example.


Of course there are "no-no's", I mean no one would dream of making a child sit in silent isolation and force them to write under pressure about something they may have no experience of or empathy with... That would just be dumb... (See KS2 'Writing SATs', circa 2003 - 2012).

But still, aside from that, we're preaching to the little masses that the best writing is overflowing with imagery, contains at least three adjectives, full of fronted adverbials, has highlighted punctuation (which has hand actions to accompany it) and is about a side of A4 long...

It isn't... Not when you've read 30 carbon copies of the same story.

A few years back I was doing some moderation of writing and felt the full force of this approach. Placing several pieces of writing side by side, the same formulas were coming in to each of them again and again... "The shiny snake slithered silently into the deep, dark, gloomy forest that was as big as space."

Can't deny these children have mastered the formula beautifully, their writing contains all the elements on the assessment grid and it looks beautiful, but there's something missing.

I have a few mantras I shared with all my classes, be they Year 2 or Year 6:

You're not writing for you, you're writing for your reader.

You can't tell your reader to feel something or react in a certain way, your words need to move them to feel it.

From the first word to the last, know why you chose them. Be aware of the little nuances that each one brings. Don't tell me, show me in my mind's eye.

Freeze time in your storytelling. Linger on the description of the tiniest of actions, to invite your reader more deeply into the story world...

Talk your writing, share your writing, create it as a storyboard in your mind, see the intention of your writing before you write and decide on the journey you'll take to get the reader to that point.

Now, I won't claim to have worked any miracles. For some pupils, this isn't enough and other ways 'in' need to be found. But for those it does spark a light in, it empowers them to see that writing is really no different to art. There is no right way, just more effective ones. I firmly uphold the notion that becoming a technically accurate writer is a sensible ambition for primary-aged pupils, but NOT at the cost of a joy of writing and a deeper understanding that writing is primarily a form of communication. It has a purpose. It has an audience. Just as vital to the success of a piece of writing as technical accuracy is the 'feeling' it evokes. Both are important and neither are singly preferable.

It's when teachers begin to learn that what's going on inside the car really isn't important that breakthroughs occur. When you stop looking down to see what pedals your feet are on, reaching to the gear stick to see what gear you're in, checking your mirrors to see who's coming up behind you that you realise the challenge of driving, and of teaching, is to see what's going on on the road in front of you. To be aware of where the other little cars are, where they might go next, that some might cut you up and slam their brakes on in front of you, but that whatever happens, your eyes are firmly fixed on them and the directions they're going in.

We need to share the message that writing should be unique, personal, surprising, ground-breaking and move away from mimicry and formula, right from the start.

Trust yourself. Interweave technical accuracy with awe and wonderment in writing lessons. Read writing to the children. Spend time writing in their presence, getting excited about a particular turn of phrase or the way in which punctuation or layout affect the reader. Try it; might feel good.

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