Rob Smith (@redgierob) – to whom I am forever grateful as his Literacy Shed has provided me with countless stimuli in English lessons – posed an interesting question on twitter this morning: how often do KS2 children write more than a paragraph?
I teach year 6, and for me the answer is probably only two or three times a week.
Some on twitter were advocating at least three extended writes per week. I have concerns about this, which I’ll explore below. But first it’s worth laying out how English lessons work in a week for me. It’s usually four lessons a week (sometimes 5) and this formula results in pretty successful writing from all children in the class.
Here’s what a unit of work (one week) looks like in English for me:
Lesson One: Introduce stimulus and genre.
(Stimulus may be a story or a video; genre may be diary entry or narrative). This lesson will be mostly direct instruction, smattered with partner talk. I’ll draw out key events and make explicit the features necessary to write the genre usually by displaying a model exemplar of the given text. Together we’ll draw out a ‘toolkit’ (essential features) which will later become the ‘success criteria’ for the extended write. The toolkit gets written on flip-chart paper and goes on the literacy wall all week.
Lesson Two: Talk for Writing.
The children will have an opportunity to explore the stimulus and genre through talking activities/games/drama. More open ended questions will be provided to allow them to engage with the stimulus at greater depth than in Lesson One.
Lesson Three: Planning
I use the ‘boxing it up’ framework and this lesson will also usually refer to a literacy skill (e.g. using embedded clauses/subheadings/inverted commas). I’ll explain that the extended write tomorrow will be an opportunity to apply this skill. The boxing it up sheet is their plan for the write tomorrow, and they can jot down their notes more or less as they please.
Lesson Four: Extended Write (sometimes called big writing).
Revisit toolkit and plans. Perhaps share a model exemplar. Then children write, independently for 45 mins – 1 hour. I’ll support one group of children to focus on their targets.
The extended writes will then be marked against the success criteria which are essential (e.g diary entry writing in first person; exploring thoughts and feelings; recounting the day’s events chronologically). Children will receive a green LO if they have met these criteria, which is achievable for ALL children. Personal challenge will be built in based on whether they have incorporated personal next step targets (e.g. embedded clauses/using brackets). During marking a further ‘next step’ will be added as a wish for the next time they write this genre.
This means one extended piece of writing a week, which I will usually take home and mark over the weekend. Children would also write more than a paragraph in a topic lesson (though not every topic lesson) and during one guided reading carousel session per week.
This may seem like very little opportunity for the children to write longer pieces. I have two concerns with children writing for more than a paragraph regularly though:
Concern 1 – Quantity over Quality
I can tell my children that I expect sustained, quality, independent writing during the extended writing session because I know that I have given them three lessons of preparation. They have done all of the ‘thinking’ required and so can get on and write drawing from the different material available to them. They don’t have to spend time thinking ‘Should I use subheadings in this non-chron report?’ We’ve already had that conversation.
If you ask for long pieces without that build-up, I tend to find that I get very poor, unfocussed work. This is hardly surprising, they haven’t had a chance to organise what they are going to write. Professional authors (with a few very notable exceptions like Kerouac) don’t simply take out a blank sheet of paper and start writing, why should we expect 10 year olds to?
Concern 2 – Marking Workload
It takes me about 5 minutes to read and mark a year 6 extended write. And that’s if I’m in coffee-fuelled machine mode. One extended write a week equals about 2 and a half hours (without breaks). So that’s 2 and a half hours of marking, on top of their maths, literacy skills, guided reading, topic, and anything else that you did. If you do three or four extended writes a week, that is at 7.5 hours of marking, on top of marking for all other subjects. This is not sustainable if you want a healthy state of mind or any kind of a life outside of work. This precludes you from doing anything in the evening; spending time with your family, going for a drink with an old friend, catching up on TV, reading your book, whatever. These are things that you should be allowed/able to do in your evenings. People in other jobs are allowed to do these things in the evening.
I empathise with Rob’s arguments, and believe that he is truly doing what is best for his children. They are very lucky to have someone so dedicated. But the problem is if we continue, as teachers, to work for hours and hours outside of the 8-6 working day, this becomes the expected norm.
We have to find a way to get the job done without working 60-70 hours per week.