: How can we help all children to write better in secondary schools? How can we help all children to write better in secondary schools?

How can we help all children to write better in secondary schools?

How can we help all children to write better in secondary schools?

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Helen Myers

Helen Myers is the Tudor Grange Academy Trust’s Leadership Advisor for Academic Communication, and also the Assistant Director of Tudor Grange Research School. She has been passionate about teaching English better for the last 23 years.

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“Given that our writing ability will either unleash or circumscribe the talents of our pupils, we need to give writing the attention it deserves, in every classroom, at every stage of schooling”

Quigley, 2022

Have you, like us, encountered any of the following in your secondary classrooms:

  • Children who are very knowledgeable, but who struggle to present and organise their knowledge in their writing?
  • Children who are reluctant writers, lacking the resilience to write independently, and who often give up after a couple of lines?
  • Children who are mechanical writers, able to follow a scaffolded structure but who struggle to write creatively outside of this?

If so, you may also have found, like us, that there were more of these children in our classrooms following the disruption of the pandemic: disruption that, according to one report, left year 7 students’ writing 22 months behind its expected level (Christodoulou, 2020).

The EEF’s Improving Literacy in Secondary School’s guidance report has been crucial to our attempts to support children in improving their writing, particularly recommendation 4: break down complex writing tasks’.

Improving Literacy in secondary schools

But, as the guidance report itself notes, Writing is challenging, for teachers and students alike” (p.18). The cognitive complexity of writing is not always evident, particularly to expert-writers (i.e. teachers). As a result, too easily we forget the thousands of hours of deliberate practice it takes to learn to write, from the mark making of young children with crayons or similar, to pupils gripped by the pressure of writing essays in vast exam halls” (Quigley, 2022). A lack of deliberate practice might manifest as teachers providing instruction on knowledge, and then asking pupils to write it up, with relatively little time spent on the bridging the gap between those two tasks. It may look like pupils writing lots of essays or paragraphs, with relatively little word-level or sentence-level instruction.

This blog describes our approach to implementing recommendation 4 at a Trust-wide level.

An approach to teaching writing

The central themes of our approach will be familiar to anybody who has read the guidance report. What we have sought to do is provide clarity about what this advice looks like in practice in our Trust. For example, the report advises us to use: pre-writing activities that ensure students have secure background knowledge related to the topic they are writing about”. In our Trust, this means departments planning a curriculum that includes at least four sources of inspiration leading up to any writing task: two to build knowledge about the subject; two draw out the writing conventions of the style we needed them to adopt.

Four sources of inspiration
Before pupils attempt a piece of descriptive writing about a rainforest they can expect to encounter the first two sources of inspiration to build their knowledge of rainforests, in as engaging and helpful a way as possible. One of the sources of inspiration might be a labelled diagram of a rainforest habitat to build tier 3 vocabulary and knowledge of how the ecosystems work; its pair might be part of a video documentary by David Attenborough on life in the rainforests, where his rich tier 2 vocabulary and representations of how life works and grows is demonstrated (cf. Beck et al, 2013). The second pair of texts could be a good and better piece of descriptive writing, probably about deserts instead of rainforests, to be able to demonstrate the conventions of descriptive writing. They would then combine and apply the knowledge they had learned from all four sources.

The guidance report stresses the importance of, Providing word-level, sentence-level and whole-text level instruction,” and, Explicitly teaching students planning strategies”. Therefore, we have adopted a clear Trust-wide approach to live-modelling. This involves, firstly, teachers gathering knowledge and vocabulary (tier 2 and 3) from their classes and capturing this on their boards. Then secondly, teachers live modelling how to organise these ideas into written English, modelling sentence-by-sentence, and narrating their metacognitive processes. In this way, we are attempted to bridge the gap between having a pile of jigsaw pieces (vocabulary and ideas), and a finished picture on the box (our pre-existing pre-written models), showing pupils how to assemble those pieces one-by-one with clarity and confidence.

We don’t want to suggest that the approach we’ve adopted is the only way to realise the guidance of the report. But providing precise guidance for our teams meant that we did not have dozens and dozens of teachers working on inventing the same wheel, as they sought to translate the guidance into their classrooms. It also means that our children’s experience of writing is consistent across subjects and key stages: they have told us that they find this simpler and they feel more confident as a result.

What helped?

Teachers across our Trust tell us that writing is consequently better than it has ever been before. It is hard to imagine that this would be the case had the Trust not invested in four Trust-wide inset days across a 12-month period. These enabled us to:

  1. Build a shared understanding of the complexity of writing and the need for a shared approach.
  2. Have ample time to live-model the approach and for teachers to practise it in training sessions.
  3. Work collaboratively as people planned to use this approach. In particular, the work of the Writers’ Room in rendering this generic approach specific to the needs of different disciplines was invaluable.
  4. Share examples of the approach being used successfully, thanks to colleagues who were generous enough to share recordings of their teaching.

What next?
We introduced the scaffolded approach to writing first as a quick-win’, something every teacher could start to do better from the very next lesson, and to build confidence and awareness. We then introduced the four sources of inspiration to develop pupil knowledge. We know we now need to encourage greater independence in pupil writing in response to the scaffolds they have been supported with, and our next training day will focus on how we foster this independence.


Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G. and Kucan, L., 2013. Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. Guilford Press.

Christodoulou, D. 2020Writing Attainment in 2020 – 21′, The No More Marking Blog, 14 December 2020 [Blog]. Available at Writing attainment in 2020 – 21. In the last two academic years, we have… | by Daisy Christodoulou | The No More Marking Blog (Accessed 10 April 2024).

Quigley, A., 2022. Closing the Writing Gap. Routledge.

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