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Teach all Pupils Greater Depth in Writing

If children aren’t lucky enough to have a deep well of great literature stored in their heads, you can still help them draw on the rich language they need

  • Teach all Pupils Greater Depth in Writing

Its claws scraped along the planks, moving menacingly towards the heady scent of the distracted goat. Only the crows noted its brutal form stalking across the beams of the bridge, sensing the quickening rhythm of its breath.

We wrote that. We were preparing for some collaborative composition work based on The Three Billy Goats Gruff, and we wanted to really ramp-up the suspense around the troll.

We aren’t writers of fiction, so we’re quite proud of the outcome. We did, however, have quite a lot of help with the shape of it: have a look at the eerie opening of Gillian Cross’s excellent Wolf and you’ll see just how much help we had.

His feet padded along the balcony, slinking silently past the closed doors of the other flats. No one glimpsed his shadow flickering across the curtain or noticed the uneven rhythm of his steps.

Thank you, Gillian Cross.

The troll came to the far side of the bridge. A wicked wind whipped around its brutal form. Not for months had the beast smelt a living creature like this one. It inhaled the strong scent that swirled deliciously around its snout.

That’s ours, too. This time, thank you Ted Hughes for writing one of the most memorable character entrances of all time in The Iron Man.

And it’s not just KS2 texts that help us.

Although Willy was the smallest billy goat in the herd, he had the biggest horns. The thing was, he didn’t use them. He never fought.

That’s strongly influenced by Susan Hellard’s wonderful Baby Elephant, often enjoyed in Y1. It’s a marvellous way to introduce a characteristic you know is going to drive the narrative arc. Thank you, Susan Hellard.

What fuels good writing?

The best writers are immersed in – and have a deep appreciation of – the craft of other writers.

Like so many teachers, we have tried to teach children to write effectively with tips, tricks and grammatical devices (“start with an adverb, start with an -ing, use these conjunctions, use a short sentence…”) but even when this goes well, not all outcomes are as good as those of the best writers – the ones we often erroneously refer to as ‘natural writers’.

They just seem to know how to do it more effectively, with better vocabulary choices and a naturalistic way of selecting sentence structures.

Language is acquired through imitation; the best writers are avid readers. You can even see this when you look at – or listen to – the composition of young pre-readers: you know pretty quickly which children have already got a head full of stories and, therefore, wonderful language models.

Of course, the idea of imitating then innovating from the language of a story isn’t new, and it’s the essence of Pie Corbett’s transformative Talk for Writing. But even where schools are flying with this, the ‘natural writers’ soar higher.

Why? Because they combine the whole-class model with the treasure trove they have crammed in their heads from all their lucky literary experiences.

The Teacher Assessment Frameworks recognise this in the descriptors for Greater Depth writing at KS1&2. The KS1 TAF refers to children “drawing on their reading to inform the vocabulary and grammar of their writing”; at KS2 it’s “drawing independently on what they have read as models for their own writing”.

Modelling structure and language

Our Billy Goats Gruff examples are taken from our English sequence in which the original story provides a solid model for text structure. Additionally, we introduce opportunities to relish, assimilate and synthesise wonderful models for language.

We would keep referring to the text structure of the Billy Goats story, but relish the first pages of Baby Elephant, luxuriate in the Wolf or The Iron Man openings to introduce the troll, and so on.

This is what the potential Greater Depth (GD) writers are doing. They aren’t limited to the whole-class model for their language; they are dipping – possibly unconsciously – into their internal libraries to find appropriate language and structures.

So many children lack that internal bank; let’s give them an external one, and guide them through the process, very gradually releasing them into their own independent selection of language models.

Our process goes like this:


Think about the section of the story to be written in a given lesson; what effect are you after?

Find brilliant writing that achieves that effect, and notice how it’s achieved.

Practise synthesising the content of the story-to-be-written with the language of the genius model. (This is for practice only; we don’t show this to the children.)


Display the brilliant modelfor- language on your IWB and lead a shared-write on a flipchart, demonstrating how to synthesise the model with the scene being written by the class. (E.g. “Ted Hughes has written, ‘The wind sang through his iron fingers.’ In our scene, the mood is more threatening, so how can we give the weather more menace? And ‘sang’ is too beautiful… Which part of the troll’s body could we have the gail buffeting?”)

Remove the shared-write from view.

Leave the rich language model on the board (on their desks, too, maybe).

Children make their own adaptations, independently or collaboratively, having been shown how through the shared writing process.

Building a language bank

Two huge advantages of this approach quickly become apparent: the children’s outcomes are enriched, and the shared writing process is significantly easier.

The challenge inherent in this approach is having a big enough bank of brilliant snippets. We can make recommendations, but 20 heads are better than two, so in the schools in which we work we always recommend building a shared bank of wonderful examples of writing that achieve specific effects.

What if everyone in your school, federation or alliance took responsibility for this and whenever they read something – alone or with children – that made them think, “that’s a great opening / ending / character introduction / chase scene / example of dialogue-that-moves-the-story-on…” they banked it under a heading? Then, when a colleague needed a great example of dramatic tension or simply some gorgeous description of setting, there it is.

And don’t forget…

1. Carry on reading

Never forget that the extracts used as language models are potential ‘trailers’ for wonderful books. Capitalise on this!

2. Try with non-fiction too

Even your avid readers are unlikely to have a head full of non-fiction models, and much of the information they do read may be in the modern, colloquial style that doesn’t help when we want them to write in a formal and impersonal style. So make sure that you use the same process for non-fiction writing, when appropriate.

3. Allow for freedom

Please don’t restrict your already GD writers to either the model for text structure or the models for language; let them know they may experiment with both, but they might also have all sorts of other things in that wonderful mental library they may want to try.

Christine Chen and Lindsay Pickton are primary education advisers (primaryeducationadvisers.co.uk) supporting English development nationally.

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