Writing assessment KS2 – Ignore the criteria to truly help pupils

Illustration of confused teacher looking at writing, representing writing assessment KS2

How to help your class genuinely improve their writing skills by ignoring the criteria

Chris Youles
by Chris Youles
Talk for Writing adapting a unit planner
DOWNLOAD A FREE RESOURCE! Talk for Writing – Adapting a Unit planner for KS1/2 English

If a child in your Year 6 class struggles with fractions, you must unpick years of maths teaching to find where their misconceptions lie. It’s hard, but there are teachers across the world doing this daily. Writing assessment in KS2 is a little more… vague.

We’re often asked to assess other subjects based on little (and sometimes not very useful) information. It’s not that surprising to be presented with a five-point assessment scale to determine, based on a two-week slipper-making unit we taught last October, whether our pupils have mastery or greater depth in design and technology. 

However, writing should be the easiest thing we assess in school. When a pupil produces a piece of writing, all their learning and knowledge is laid before us. Over the years, though, we’ve managed to muddy the waters and design systems that overcomplicate our assessment frameworks to the point that they lead our teaching. 

Assessment no-nos

In my years of working with schools to improve their writing, I’ve seen countless examples of lessons planned so that teachers can assess against an assessment strand rather than designed to improve pupils’ writing. They have had to carry out these lessons even though the feature is irrelevant or makes the writing poorer. 

I’ve observed poetry lessons where every line had to start with a fronted adverbial, and a story-writing unit that focused on subordinate clauses.

My personal favourite was a Great Fire of London model text that had Samuel Pepys spotting the fire outside his house and reaching for his ‘woolliest’ and ‘warmest’ jumper.

The teacher had to highlight the ‘-est’ suffixes for Year 2 moderation to reach the expected writing standard, you see. 

I have nothing against fronted adverbials, subordinate clauses and suffixes, but these should be taught in context and purposefully.  

These problems with assessment aren’t the teacher’s fault. I’ve been presented with assessment strands in schools that run over several pages.

In one case, I counted 52 writing strands I was supposed to assess each piece of writing against. This is impossible, and I fear we have fallen through the looking glass for writing assessment KS2 and even KS1. 

So let’s strip it all back and return to what writing is for: communication. 

How to improve writing skills

Every school will continue to have their own assessment systems. But, you’ll find that if you teach writing well in a contextualised and well-sequenced manner, you will cover the strands needed. 

Let’s take the Year 6 writing assessment framework (STA, 2018, p. 5) as an example. Here are the strands pupils are assessed against to reach the expected standard. (I’ve removed the spelling and handwriting strands as they should be ongoing throughout a pupil’s time in the settings.) 

The pupil can: 

  • write effectively for a range of purposes and audiences, selecting language that shows good awareness of the reader. E.g. the use of the first person in a diary; direct address in instructions, and persuasive writing
  • in narratives, describe settings, characters and atmosphere 
  • integrate dialogue in narratives to convey character and advance the action 
  • select vocabulary and grammatical structures that reflect what the writing requires, doing this mostly appropriately. E.g. using contracted forms in dialogues in narrative; using passive verbs to affect how information is presented; using modal verbs to suggest degrees of possibility
  • use a range of devices to build cohesion. E.g. conjunctions, adverbials of time and place, pronouns, synonyms) within and across paragraphs 
  • use verb tenses consistently and correctly throughout their writing 
  • use the range of punctuation taught at Key Stage 2 mostly correctly. E.g. inverted commas and otherpunctuation to indicate direct speech

Looking at that list, we can pick out keywords and ignore the technical details: write effectively, awareness of the reader, appropriate vocabulary choices, cohesion, consistent verb tenses and punctuation

Note that cohesion in particular is vital in writing. When a piece loses its cohesion through fragmented sentences, incomplete thoughts, imprecise word choices and punctuation, it loses its ability to communicate. 

Writing assessment KS2 examples

As a moderator (and I’m sure you, as a teacher) reading an independent piece of writing, I know when it is hitting the expected standard. I then have the easy job of checking through my lists to evidence this. However, bizarre assessment choices are made when we are too tied to our assessment criteria. 

Countless times, I’ve seen evidence highlighted for subordinate clauses in a pupil’s writing where the sentence was a fragment and grammatically incorrect. I’ve seen numerous semi-colons ticked off, but only a few used correctly. 

On the flip side, I’ve seen teachers not highlight modal verbs and put a child at a ‘working towards the expected standard’, when a quick read through the pupil’s writing showed me that it contained many modal verbs. 

One exasperated Year 6 teacher once informed me at a moderation meeting that her whole class would be assessed as the ‘working towards the expected standard’ as they hadn’t a clue about complicated grammatical structures such as coordinating conjunctions. She was relieved when I told her a few ‘and’ sentences would do the job. 

As teachers, we must read children’s writing and consider what we love about it, what didn’t work, and how the pupil can improve what they have written.  

Writing assessment KS2 checklist

First check: Handwriting 

Can I read it? If it is illegible, this pupil has failed to communicate with me, the reader. 

Solution: We need to work on the child’s handwriting. Alternatively, if this is due to a physical or medical issue, they can type their story (with the spelling and grammar checking turned off). 

Second check: Sentence construction 

Does it make sense? Is the writing one endless run-on sentence with no punctuation? Are the sentences fragments? Is there a lack of cohesion? If so, I will struggle to comprehend it, and it has failed to communicate with me, the reader. 

Solution: We must teach the pupil how to form grammatically correct sentences. 

Third check: Interest 

Does it capture my attention? Is this story enjoyable to read? Is the story interesting? If so, I am unlikely to want to keep reading, and it has failed to communicate with me, the reader. 

Solution: We must teach the pupils how to learn and ‘borrow’ as much as possible from the books they are reading and our model texts. I need to help with various sentence structures, varying their syntax, using figurative language, precise vocabulary choices, etc. 

Chris Youles is the author of the bestselling books Sentence Models for Creative Writing and Teaching Story Writing in Primary. A classroom teacher with 19 years of experience, he has been an assistant head, English lead, writing moderator and a specialist leader in education. 

You might also be interested in...