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What Counts as Greater Depth Writing?

It can be difficult to put your finger on it, but there are a few critical indicators, says Tim Roach…

  • What Counts as Greater Depth Writing?

During moderation, the contentious boundary was that between a pupil writing at the ‘expected standard’ and one at the higher ‘greater depth’ level.

With the DfE’s school performance website headlined by progress measures (the conversion of KS1 teacher assessment to KS2 results), it’s all too easy to comprehend the potential impact of high stakes tests on the careers of Y6 teachers and school leaders.

Complicating this dilemma, it’s also quite difficult to put one’s finger on exactly what ‘greater depth’ writing is. Even three years after the introduction of the (admittedly evolving) teacher assessment framework, there are still misconceptions abound, particularly at the upper range of pupils’ writing.

Conversely, it is perhaps easier to say what greater depth is not. It doesn’t inevitably apply to any child who was level 3 (or greater depth) at KS1. And just because a child can write pages of flawlessly punctuated prose in copperplate cursive, it doesn’t mean that they’re automatically ‘greater depth’ either.

So what is ‘greater depth’? Quite often, you just know when you read it aloud (which is what my fellow moderators and I spend most of our moderation visits doing). But aside from the teacher assessment framework, there are a few critical indicators of a ‘greater depth’ writer.

  • Concision is key. The old adage ‘less is more’ can be applied to greater depth writers. We’ve all taught pupils who – as wonderful as their writing might be – could never seem to reach the end of their story. This can reveal their neglect of forward planning. Excellent writers will instinctually vary the length of their sentences when the writing calls for it. They’ll have the confidence in their short sentences to leave them be; they don’t just write the next thing that comes into their heads. The ability to self-edit their writing and remove extraneous content or exposition should not be underestimated.
  • Punctuation should be precise and controlled, but also used for effect rather than a conspicuous opportunity to shoehorn some semicolons into proceedings. Commas and parentheses allow the writer to inject carefully considered clauses or deft asides. Dialogue gives pupils scope to demonstrate their mastery of a great range of the punctuation prescribed by the national curriculum and beyond, such as the dash and ellipsis.
  • Thirdly (and arguably the most influential factor), the evidence that they draw from reading quality literature – literally spelled out in the framework as ‘drawing independently on what they have read’ – discloses the writer to be a prolific reader. A pupil’s wider vocabulary and its appropriate use; the use of fitting metaphors; other imagery; their intuition for dialect or realistic speech patterns; the way their writing ‘flows’: these elements illustrate a young writer’s appetite for absorbing books and emulating the original authors’ styles.

Individually, these factors are difficult to distil down to fit into a manageable tick list. Apart from using a tool like comparative judgement, one of the easiest ways that you can achieve a greater reliability in your identification of ‘greater depth’ is to cross-moderate between schools in your locality, diocese or MAT. As well as being an indispensable CPD activity for teachers, this collective forum enables you to more effectively gauge your pupils’ writing against a wider sample.

What truly constitutes independent writing?

Without a writing test, independent writing – being any writing that pupils have produced on their own, without direct help from a teacher – is supposed to be the ultimate affirmation of a pupil’s writing ability. In order to conform to the STA’s definition of independent writing, care must be taken not to lead by the nose and moderators are duty-bound to ask teachers how they have ensured that pupils’ writing is independent.

The use of success criteria is still good advice, but it should not direct pupils towards fulfilling certain standards of the teacher assessment framework. This is good practice during a series of lessons on a particular grammar element or punctuation mark, and should make clear all intrinsic components of, say, the use of relative clauses. However, for pieces of writing that will be used as evidence for assessment, it’s probably best to leave them behind.

While the use of visual literacy stimuli such as animations or video clips might be engaging, an over-reliance on them can actually work against some pupils. If used merely as a plot scaffold for pupils to structure their writing around, they can inhibit children’s own creativity and imagination, causing their writing to be too attached to the source.

Tim Roach is a Y6 teacher at Greenacres Primary, Oldham. Follow him on Twitter at @mrtroach.

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