5 Ways to Improve Pupils’ Writing

I presented this topic at our recent training day with the aim of sharing a few simple ways to improve writing that can be easily integrated into lessons. I took the idea from a Geoff Barton  resource (“5 Techniques to help pupils write better”) that’s around 15 years old now and still one of my favourties – you can find it here along with a bunch of other excellent resources. 

In my version, the methods have been chosen to fit in with our school literacy initiatives and they are as follows:

  1. Talk about it
  2. Model it
  3. Plan and scaffold
  4. Discuss writing when reading
  5. Make the criteria clear

None of these are new or original ideas, but I think that they form the basis for improving writing in any subject.

1. Talk about it

The first two points link closely to our literacy policy under the heading “Talk, Model Write”. Without a doubt, the best way to build confidence in writing is through talking. We learn a new language by talking at first and then through reading and writing. We should treat the technical language of our subjects in the same way.

These ideas were initially based around the techniques of Talk4Writing , which we’ve adapted to fit our school. Here is an overview: improving-writing-guide

Any activity which gets pupils talking using the ‘target language’ is a good thing. In Talk4Writing this is known as ‘warming up the words’. Commonly, activities involve the use of dominoes or key word cards. In my session, I introduced my favourite of these where pupils are presented with sentence stems of varying certainty. First they sort these into groups and give the groups headings. Then I ask pupils to rank order them by level of certainty. You can find the resource here: certainty-vs-uncertainty. The reason I like this activity is because I think it really important that we ask pupils to think about how they can express ideas tentatively as part of a debate or definitively within an argument.

These activities also work where words are put into dominoes and pupils have to connect them. The rule is that they have to use a sentence that contains (and links) both of the words. There are endless variations on this theme and the terms could be all the keywords in a unit or they may have a specific order which needs to be found (e.g. they could be keywords in the nitrogen cycle). Here are some key words from Physics to illustrate:dominoes-physics

2. Model it

Once you’ve got pupils talking in the target language, we can start getting some ideas onto paper. But, when we learn a language, we don’t just move from talking it to writing it ourselves: we need to start by looking at and mimicking examples.

In the Talk4Writing method they advocate the colour coding of texts. In the session we looked at a text from Food Technology and how this would be coded:

Organic means that a product is from a natural source formed with natural substances, for example water and sunlight. Furthermore, they are grown without the aid of human intervention. Many people see organic farming as more environmentally friendly as well as feeling that a purer product is formed with an enhanced flavour

We have used red for connectives, blue for subject vocabulary and green for other useful words and phrases. We can then ‘magpie’ these words and use them to create toolkits which we refer back to later when modelling our own texts.

Coded texts like this are a really useful addition to schemes of work and classroom resources, but it is even more helpful when teachers model texts for pupils during the lesson. In the session we had a go at this. Here are some key considerations directly from the slide in my PowerPoint:

Modelling Texts

  • Talk though the process (I think that the best word to use here is… because…)
  • Show that it’s deliberate (I want to show the examiner that… so…)
  • Use toolkits (I need a linking word so let’s go back to our linking toolkit)
  • Begin to ask questions (Is there a better word I could use here?)

Pie Corbett, who developed Talk4Writing, has an incredibly useful bank of phrases for teachers to use throughout the Talk4Writing process and you can find it on the website here.

I particularly like to use mini-whiteboards when doing shared writing as I think it helps to negate pupils’ anxiety about making mistakes and it also helps to encourage collaboration, which is at the heart of the Talk4Writing technique. It also encourages editing, which is something we need to do if we want high-quality writing.

My favourite way to use Talk4Writing is to use the lesson structure below. The aim is to try and provide pupils with as much feedback as possible whilst minimising teacher marking. When I first started teaching, a common frustration was having a whole set of essays to mark when I could tell from the first page that they were going to miss the mark entirely. I ended up in this situation because I planned my teaching/task and then thought about how to mark it, when I should have considered assessment as an integral part of the learning process and planned for it. This method is about correcting misunderstandings early and making sure that your marking is at the point of greatest impact:

  • Establish some shared criteria or a mark scheme
  • Introduce an exam question
  • Plan an answer to the question together (let’s imagine that it has three parts)
  • Write a model answer to the first part/paragraph
  • Pupils annotate your model with the success criteria
  • Pupils write the second paragraph independently
  • Peer assessment against shared criteria
  • Pupils write the final paragraph in response to the peer assessment
  • Teacher marks the last paragraph using questions, thinking points
  • Pupil responds in DIRT
  • (Pupil attempts a similar but different task?)

3. Plan and scaffold

The importance of planning is usually unclear to pupils. The training day featured an excellent session from Mrs Franklin and Mr Naish which was all about finding the line of argument in an essay, and this is one reason why planning is so crucial.

In my session I presented a number of ideas which I have taken from David Didau’s book “The Secret of Literacy: Making the implicit explicit“. They are simple methods for planning, but I think they illustrate that we need to choose a planning method which fits with the structure of the knowledge we are delivering. Perhaps this is the most important thing which planning asks pupils to consider. (Images from a range of online sources)Comparison Alley.jpgthinking-squareshexagonal-learning

One thing I’ve been working on recently is how we can get sixth form students to write with a greater sense or direction and argument. I think that this slide illustrates the basic concept, but there is probably a whole other blog to write on this:direction

We also discussed the use of writing placemats and I shared a few resources which might be able to be adapted. Here are a few examples of writing placemats, one which I wrote for Geography (explain-using-case-study-geography) and another for a Year 7 English unit on newspapers (breaking-newsplacemat) .

4. Discuss writing when reading

I have often talked about the importance of using quality non-fiction in place of ‘pre-digested’ information, and I think that this is as important to the development of writing as it is to reading. In his book ‘On Writing’, Steven King claims that he reads 6 hours a day. This has always stuck in my mind as an illustration of the important role that reading plays in becoming a writer.

In my session I used this extract from Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’.

“NO MATTER HOW hard you try you will never be able to grasp just how tiny, how spatially unassuming, is a proton. It is just way too small.

A proton is an infinitesimal part of an atom, which is itself of course an insubstantial thing. Protons are so small that a little dib of ink like the dot on this I can hold something in the region of 500,000,000,000 of them, rather more than the number of seconds contained in half a million years. So protons are exceedingly microscopic, to say the very least.

Now imagine if you can (and of course you can’t) shrinking one of those protons down to a billionth of its normal size into a space so small that it would make a proton look enormous. Now pack into that tiny, tiny space about an ounce of matter. Excellent. You are ready to start a universe.”

What an awe-inspiring way to describe this concept. It is good when you walk into a classroom and pupils are able to explain their learning, but how often are they able to tell you why it amazes them? Or why it should amaze you?

Using texts like this is an opportunity to talk to pupils about quality writing in your subject. Who cares if not every word or line is finely tuned to the exam requirements?

When reading something like this I think it is important to ask questions like:

What is the effect of this text?

What do you think the writer was trying to achieve here?

Where has this text been taken from? How do you think that might have affected the way it’s written?

How is the information structured in this text?

These are questions for all teachers, not just teachers of English as they will enhance the way that pupils engage with the literature of your subject.

5. Make the criteria clear

A common thing I notice when observing lessons is a lack of clarity over exactly what is expected in a task. It seems like common sense, but when we’re not getting quite what we want from a situation, we should ask ourselves, ‘have we tried making it clear what exactly it is that we want?’. Even the most diligent pupils will  miss an expectation which hasn’t been spoken aloud!

In the literacy group, we have created a document which details the writing expectations in each subject. You can access the document here: good-writing-guide-2

The idea is that these criteria are broad and applicable to any year group/task. You would obviously need to develop specific marking criteria alongside this. Each department should also be developing an even smaller box to summarise the criteria, with the intention that this can be displayed in the corner of slides as an aide-memoire. Here is an example from the RS dept:

PRE Good Writing.png


Hopefully this blog and the resources I have shared are helpful. I would love to hear in the comment section about how you have used any of these ideas in your teaching and any successes you’ve had with improving pupils’ writing.


All online resources accessed in December 2016*

Barton, G (2001) 5 Techniques to help pupils write better online: http://www.geoffbarton.co.uk/teacher-resources.php *

Bryson, B (2005) A Short History of Nearly Everything (UK: Black Swan)

Corbett, P (2013) Shared Writing Phrases online: http://www.talk4writing.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Shared-Writing-Phrases.doc

Didau, D (2012) Hexagonal Learning online: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/english-gcse/hexagonal-learning*

Didau, D (2014) The Secret of Literacy (UK: Independent Thinking Press)

Strong, J (2013) Talk for writing in Secondary Schools (UK: Open University Press)

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