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Success criteria – strategies for developing writing skills in the classroom

Criteria for descriptive writing can be restrictive for pupils – but they can be easily expanded, says James Durran...

  • Success criteria – strategies for developing writing skills in the classroom

When approaching a piece of writing, pupils are often given ‘success criteria’ in the form of a list of features which the writing ‘requires’ in order to be successful.

However, colleagues and I have been working with primary schools to develop an alternative to listed success criteria for writing, which we call ‘boxed’ or ‘expanded success criteria’.

It is very easy to adopt, and teachers have been finding that it can transform how writing is discussed and approached in the classroom, with an immediate impact on the quality of what pupils are producing.

Current criteria are tied explicitly to particular curriculum and teaching ‘objectives’, and often include technicalities such as full stops and commas; may include features such as metaphors, adjectives for description, varied sentence openers and so on; and they tend to include grammatical or cohesive devices, such as time adverbials, subordinate clauses or relative pronouns.

These ingredients can be useful, such as reminding pupils of things they might do to make the writing effective, reinforcing learning, providing a ready checklist for self and peer assessment, and so on. But teachers are increasingly aware of their potential drawbacks:

  • They can promote a ‘writing-by-numbers’ approach, in which writing becomes a performance of features rather than a coherent whole.
  • They can encourage teaching and task-setting by narrow text type, limiting the scope of what pupils might achieve.
  • They are not really success criteria. The success of a piece of actual writing can only be measured by how well it communicates or achieves its purpose for its intended reader, not by whether it contains specified ingredients.
  • Feedback – at the end or while drafting and editing – can therefore tend to focus just on whether specific elements are included, rather than on how effective the writing is as a complete piece.

Together, these interrelated factors can work against pupils’ development as real writers, writing for specific, authentic purpose and audiences.

Read the room

If pupils are writing a recipe, it is simple and easy to give them a list of components including, for example, ingredients and equipment; numbered steps; time and sequence adverbials; imperative or command verbs.

And these components are a useful starting point. But if you then ask children to compare the following two fragments, which each give the same instruction:

Add Worcester sauce for extra flavour.
Slosh in some Worcester sauce to make it even yummier.

Suddenly there is much more to consider. Now, questions such as ‘Who is the recipe for?’, ‘What do they want and need?’, ‘How can we engage them?’ and ‘What sort of verbs, nouns and adjectives might we therefore use?’ come up. 

Although this might sound like more work, it is much more interesting for pupils, and is certainly more fun to teach! 

It is important to teach about genre and the features of different kinds of writing. But as teachers we know that when pupils move on from thinking just in terms of text type, their writing opens up, with much more potential for richness, variety and authenticity.

For example, an account of a trip – perhaps in the form of an article – is not just a ‘recount’. It can be engagingly descriptive, will have elements of entertaining narrative, is likely to involve explanation, and even elements of persuasion and argument.

Similarly, a brochure about a town should be much more than a ‘non-chronological report’. Depending on the intended audience, it will modulate between and blend elements of description, narrative, explanation, instruction and persuasion.

When considering how to help a pupil develop a story opening, it is easy to start listing technical or stylistic devices. For example:

Billy went into the house. He looked into the kitchen. He saw a big dog. The dog ran to him.

But the first question to ask this child is not ‘Could you use some…?’ or ‘Can you add in…?’ It is, simply, ‘What sort of story is this, and how do you want the reader to feel?’. Then things move forward.

Boxed criteria in practice

Traditional ‘success criteria’ are really the wrong way round. They define ‘success’ in terms of the presence of ingredients, not in terms of the actual point of the writing.

Boxed criteria keep the ingredients, but link them explicitly to purpose and to the reader. It’s really that simple.

In the middle, pupils put what type of writing they’re doing and its intended audience; outwards from this are the intended ‘effects’ on that audience, or what the writing is meant to provide for its readers; outwards again are the ingredients – the features which might help to achieve these things.

For example, a guide for children to looking after a chosen pet animal might be planned like this:
Boxed criteria diagram

The boxed success criteria for the story above, about Billy entering the house, might look like this:
Boxed criteria diagram 2

Note that in this example the ingredients are themselves described in terms of their impact: ‘scary nouns’, ‘frightening adjectives’ and ‘spooky similes’. Grammatical forms should be used for a reason, not for their own sake.

You might create these boxes yourself and give them to the children. It is more likely, however, that the class will construct them together through discussion, and reading and picking apart examples.

Ultimately, there is nothing radical or intrinsically innovative about this method. It is just a visual device for focusing the thinking of teachers and pupils on what writing is actually about: communication and effect, not just the performance of skills.

Grid ideas

Pupils might have their own grid in their books, which can be easily replicated through a simple template. (You can create this in a Word document and keep it handy for the children to stick into their books).

Or, you might decide to have a big class one on the wall. This can be drawn onto the whiteboard, or constructed as part of a classroom display.

A fun way to mix up the boxes is to print out examples of sentences in texts you like and stick them up on the board with an image. 

Either way, it can be a dynamic, evolving thing, added to and adjusted as ideas are developed and shared through the planning, drafting and editing stages of writing.

This is a tool which can live with the piece of writing through its stages: from reading and exploring examples, to planning and assembling ideas, drafting and editing, proof-reading, all the way through to publication and reflection.

And of course, at every stage, the starting point for teacher, peer or self-assessment and feedback is not a list of ingredients, but whether the writing is achieving what it is meant to achieve.

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