Research School Network: Improving Writing Across EYFS: A Case Study Improving accuracy, fluency & independent writing through the Lens of​‘Early Literacy’ and​‘Communication and Language.’


Improving Writing Across EYFS: A Case Study

Improving accuracy, fluency & independent writing through the Lens of​‘Early Literacy’ and​‘Communication and Language.’

by Derby Research School
on the

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Katie Pattinson

Derby RS ELE, Deputy Director of Institute, Academy Transformation Trust

Read more aboutKatie Pattinson
Laura Niemczyk

Laura Niemczyk

Principal and Trust EYFS Lead, Academy Transformation Trust

Read more aboutLaura Niemczyk

Contextual Factors

Exploring the Early Years Toolkit and our Capacity

Improving accuracy, fluency and independent writing is a key focus for all Primary Academies across Academy Transformation Trust this academic year. In line with our focus, we made the explicit decision to review our teaching of Writing in Early Years as we recognise the crucial role this stage plays in laying the foundations for all pupils to have a successful writing (and reading) journey up to Key Stage 2 and beyond.

Exploring the Early Years Toolkit suggests that Communication and Language approaches” are very high impact for very low cost based on moderate evidence…” and that Early Literacy Approaches” have moderate impact for very low cost based on extensive evidence…” As both of these approaches have numerous components in common, we decided to explore improving writing across EYFS through the lens of Early Literacy’ and Communication and language,’ aiming to improve young children’s skills, knowledge or understanding related to reading or writing… including introductions to different kinds of writing.”

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Reflect & Evaluate

In order to reflect and evaluate our approaches to effective writing in the Early Years we first explored the Early Years Pedagogical continuum; considering about how we can support all pupils to move from Adult led activity’ to accessing child-led activities’ confidently, accurately and successfully. Utilising the Pedagogical continuum allowed us to successfully audit and reflect upon our current writing practices in the Early Years, dividing our existing successful activities into the categories from the continuum and reflecting upon any trends and patterns within our existing provision. This activity allowed us to plan our Early Years Writing Professional Development Curriculum for all Early Years colleagues to engage with, particularly ensuring that there was inbuilt time to allow for developing teacher techniques’ and embedding practice.’

Early Literacy

Our EYFS Community have used the EEF definition of Early Literacy, describes a range of complex skills. It includes the word-level skills of both word reading and spelling and the text-level skills or reading comprehension and writing composition… These literacy skills rely, to some extent, on the same underlying processes and are therefore linked.” We have constructed our writing curriculum design, direct teaching of writing sequence and wider-curriculum writing opportunities to encompass the underlying skills of learning as identified by the EEF: speech, language and communication skills; physical development, particularly fine motor skills; and executive function skills.”

Recognising that these skills need to continue to be activated and built upon to have maximum impact, our EYFS and Curriculum and Pedagogy community explored how explicit retrieval practice can be built into daily teaching to ensure learning is embedded over time rather than lost when taught as individual components linked to effective writing. This modelling and mapping activity has provided some real insights and successes for our Early Years Community.

Our focus for this academic year has been upon strategically aligning our approaches to: Interactive Writing, and teaching mark-making and letter formation, alongside Recommendation 3 from Preparing for Literacy: Improving communication, language and literacy in the early years.

As an EYFS Community and leadership team we utilised a range of tools from the EEF including the EYFS Professional Development Conversation Cycle tool to interrogate and explore our current Interactive writing’ and mark-making and letter formation’ practices, areas of strength and areas for development. This has been particularly useful for EYFS Leads as a starting point for discussions in their local settings.

We have focused on strands 5 and 6 from the Early Years Evidence Store: Teaching mark-marking and letter formation and Interactive Writing: The approach of teaching interactive narrative making or writing across our Academies. Our approach to the effective teaching of writing is underpinned by the knowledge that Writing is physically and intellectually demanding’ and that our Academies need to provide a wide range of opportunities to communicate through writing and develop children’s motivation to write.’

Our strategic decision to focus heavily on explicit and accurate letter formation was underpinned by the explanation in Preparing for Literacy Recommendation 3 which reminds us that Accurate letter formation is an essential early skill that forms the basis of a fluent handwriting style. In turn, this supports writing composition: if handwriting is slow or effortful then children are less able to think about the content of their writing.” In the Early Years writing curriculum we focus upon mark-making strategies prior to supporting pupils to accurately form letters using a wide range of tools.

The Early Years Writing Professional Development curriculum activities supported our Early Years colleagues to provide a wide range of mark-making and letter formation opportunities aimed at promoting pupil excitement, engagement and motivation: Some studies indicate that the use of attractive writing tools can motivate children to communicate through writing.” Through engaging with these mark-making activities we are providing additional opportunities for developing the fine and gross motor skills required for literacy development” as suggested by the Early Years Evidence Store. We utilise these Early Years Professional development activities to ensure that colleagues are able to demonstrate directionality in writing, different approaches to forming letters… by modelling these skills, adults support children in learning the fundamentals of writing and letter formation.”

Our focus upon letter formation in Early Years aligns closely with our Academy Transformation Trust approach to explicitly teaching and modelling handwriting in Literacy and across the Curriculum as pupils move into Key Stage 1 and through to Key Stage 2. Our curriculum design decisions are made with a view to reducing pupil cognitive load and allowing for accurate, fluent and confident writers at every stage, particularly when pupils are more novice and at the start of their journey. As we continue to monitor, iterate and evaluate our approach we will utilise the Early Years Evidence store to broaden our focus to other aspects of Early Literacy.

Case Study

Our approach to writing in EYFS: a case study from Academy Transformation Trust Schools

At Academy Transformation Trust, we began our writing improvement journey approximately 18 months ago; recognising the complexity of the writing process and cognitive demands that this places on our pupils. We reflected upon our current practice utilising the Early Years Pedagogical Continuum in addition to consulting the Early Years Toolkit. We shaped our thinking to ensure that our EYFS Writing practices were congruent with our thinking and principles of effective writing instruction from Year 1 to Year 6 (and beyond.) Across our Primary phase, our focus has been to improve fluency and automaticity of writing at every opportunity, whilst actively seeking to minimise the extraneous cognitive load that writing can place upon our pupils, (particularly those pupils who are more-novice.)

Within the Early Years Community, we set an additional end-goal to increase the motivation for writing by creating exciting and enriching opportunities for our pupils to explore, whilst also securing the foundational skills required of successful independent writers.

We have focused on Strand 6 of the Early Years Evidence Store: Teaching mark-marking and letter formation. Mark-making forms a significant part of our provision within EYFS in all areas of learning. The engagement of children to explore mark-making in different contexts allow for the application from phonics teaching, creative expression and a development of the understanding of writing composition e.g. labels, captions for a model within the construction area.

Is it essential that our children understand the purpose for writing as a way communication and expression. This provision takes place both inside and outside within our learning environment using a wide range of exciting resources for our children to explore effective mark-marking. Within the outdoor environment, this can include mark-making with paint brushes, squeezy bottles and chalks. Their mark making begins with lines and circles, moving onto familiar letters and numbers (such as those with personal significance) before the application of initial sounds from phonics teaching. The use of explicit instruction when teaching letter formation ensures that learning builds upon a child’s initial movements, with precise instruction given around direction, positioning and pressure required when using a writing implement.

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School playground equipment

The Writing Process

We acknowledge that mark-making is an essential part of the writing process with children learning to assign meaning to the marks that they make. Children begin by labelling their writing, with an opportunity to explain what this represents before they move to written letters and words that can be shared with others. Mark-making and writing development is not only essential within literacy but also forms aspects of wider curriculum areas; the Early Years Toolkit suggests that Early literacy interventions seem to have impacts that transfer to other areas of the curriculum such as mathematics, where the average impact is + two months progress.”

At Iceni Primary Academy this mark-making journey consists of a range of explicitly taught activities to support the development of fine and gross-motor skills. The Academy use timetabled activities including Funky Fingers, explicit handwriting instruction and utilise activities in PE to support this shared aim. Activities in continuous provision (CP) include using chalks, thin and thick writing and painting equipment, construction, junk modelling and malleable learning. The Principal, Emma Owner, explains that the aim is to ensure that children understand they can write in all areas of play; we have shopping list pads in our house, design sheets in our construction and writing caddies that can be moved anywhere the children would like to write.”

You can see the journey that some of our Academy Transformation pupils have been on this Academic Year as they move through a range of mark-making activities to accurate letter formation:

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Once pupils are becoming accurate and fluent in their mark-making, we then begin the explicit teaching of letter formation. Our Academy Transformation Trust approach to letter formation in Early Years has become a codified and systematic approach, ensuring that where possible, letter formation activities make links with wider reading and writing opportunities.

When teaching our letter formation, we have taken a staged approach using rhymes to support our direct teaching, modelling to the children before they trace within larger frames, applying skills reducing the size and models of letters to independent formation. Within the wider provision, there are ample structured opportunities for the children to practice this new letter as well as consolidating those already taught in line with what we know about long-term memory and Ebbinhaus’ Forgetting Curve. When teaching letter formation, we choose to group letters together within families that follow similar shapes to build upon prior knowledge and further support

connections in the brain to be developed (e.g. c, a, o, d, g, q are taught one after the other rather than the letters going in alphabetical order.) We know that, Accurate letter formation is an essential early skill that forms the basis of a fluent handwriting style… if handwriting is slow or effortful then children are less able to think about the content of their writing.”

When teaching phonics and introducing new sounds, letter formation is explicitly taught using the rhymes and structures to ensure consistency. This supports the overlearning and consistent approach required to support the automaticity needed for fluent writing. We recognise that learning is a complex process and within our handwriting sessions, our aim is to develop automaticity when children are forming letters.

Our letter formation approach moves from initial sounds to word formation before pupils then progress to any independent application. You can see some examples from pupils across Academy Transformation Trust here:

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Following our success in exploring and embedding mark-making and letter formation we have further considered our approaches to Strand 5 of the Early Years Evidence Store: Interactive Writing: The approach of teaching interactive narrative making or writing.

One Academy Transformation Trust Academy have begun utilising a creative-narrative approach to immerse pupils in texts and vocabulary through interactive narratives. Caldmore Primary Academy are utilising a Drawing Club” approach which involves using a blend of picture books, tales and animations as foundations to creating shared and independent writing (Greg Bottrill: Drawing Club)

Interactive narrative making sessions begin with children becoming familiar with a text, understanding the characters, setting, events and plot. Children can use pictures and props to recall the story using the relevant vocabulary before moving forward to add their own enhancements. Once confident, children then engage in a modelled example as part of a whole class session led by the class teacher. These ideas, along with their own, can be applied to their individual drawing club’ session building upon the EEF Preparing for Literacy Guidance Report recommendations that: There is some evidence that, for younger children, unstructured activities — such as drawing a picture of their choice — are most effective at improving writing.”

Caldmore Primary Academy EYFS Lead and Vice Principal, Emma Brereton explains that “’Drawing Club’ provides children with low-risk opportunities to explore writing and has ignited a true love for writing where all children are eager to share ideas and join in. The biggest impact has been on the engagement of boys within writing. Previously, some children have been reluctant to engage with

the writing process, especially when any form of writing with pen and paper was requested. Now, they are eager to share their ideas with friends and staff, excitedly committing these to paper.”

Through interactive narrative making, Early Years colleagues have found that (in addition to the engagement with the physical process of writing,) children’s articulation of different ideas and story parodies has meant that their language, understanding of story structure and creativity has also significantly improved, providing them with skills we then continue to build upon as they move into Year 1 and beyond. Recommendation 3 reminds us that, Children should have a broad range of opportunities to develop their expressive language. Activities might include storytelling, group reading, or role play…”

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As we continue to refine and iterate our Academy Transformation Trust approaches to mark-making, letter formation and interactive writing we are committed to ensuring that our approaches are explicitly linked; we remain mindful of the complexity that surrounds effective and accurate writing across the curriculum. Our EYFS Community continue to refine and underpin our approach(es) to developing confident and fluent Early Years writers through exposure to high level vocabulary and transferrable knowledge content.

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