How do we develop writing fluency?

Writing is language on paper. More than 85% of people in the world can write, and writing is intimately connected to every aspect of our lives (Roser & Ortiz-Ospina 2016). Children who fail to write well miss out on many aspects of being a fully-fledged member of our society and find themselves at a severe disadvantage. Poor writing skills can limit children’s academic, occupational, cultural, civic and personal ambitions (Young & Ferguson 2023).

At present, too many children are leaving school feeling the effects of inadequate writing skills. Ofsted and the DfE have repeatedly acknowledged that progress and attainment in writing has been consistently poor in England (Ofsted 2009, 2012; DfE 2012, 2017, 2019, 2021). 

  • Writing enjoyment amongst children is at its lowest since records began (Clark 2021).
  • In 2019, a quarter of children failed to achieve the early learning goal for writing at the end of the early years foundation stage (EYFS).
  • In 2019, around 3 in 10 children failed to achieve the basic ‘met’ standard at KS1. Only 16% of children at KS1 were able to demonstrate that they could write above the basic ‘met’ standard. 
  • Again, in 2019, only one in five KS2 children in England were able to write above the basic standard. Approximately, one in four children leave primary school failing to meet the standard for writing. 
  • For children identified with a SEND, the picture is even bleaker. According to the DfE (2022a), nearly 90% of children with a SEND didn’t reach the expected standard for reading, writing and maths at KS2. 
  • In 2021, over 80% of pupils with a SEND left secondary school without a ‘pass’ grade in English and mathematics. Only 8% of pupils with an Education, Health and Care plan progressed to higher education, compared to nearly 50% of pupils with no identified SEND.
  • Only 5% of adults with learning disabilities aged 18-64 and who are receiving support from social services are in paid employment. Currently, around 1.5 million pupils in England have a special educational need or disability (DfE 2022b). 

We appreciate that these statistics make grim reading. They are particularly concerning when you consider the DfE’s ambition for 90% of all pupils to meet the expected standard for writing by 2030 (DfE 2022c).

In a bid to turn the tide on writing underachievement, educators have rightly been interested in developing children’s ‘writing fluency’. This typically means developing children’s oral language, sentence-level, and transcriptional skills so that they can write freely and happily. This is sensible because we know that children who don’t internalise these ‘basic’ skills of writing early into their educational journey can go on to underperform and even experience school failure (Berninger et al. 2002; Abbott et al. 2010; Kent & Wanzek 2016; Wen & Coker 2020; Torrance et al. 2021; Young & Ferguson 2021). In contrast, when these skills are well established, children have the cognitive space to focus on other aspects of writing and being a writer (Young & Ferguson 2022a).

This has led some to erroneously suggest that these skills should be taught first and only. It’s only after these skills have been somehow ‘mastered’ that children ‘earn the right to write’. However, research suggests that this is an instructional mistake and is inefficient at achieving its own aims (Young & Ferguson 2021, 2022a, 2023a; Rohloff et al. 2022; Dahl & Freppon 1995; Ferreiro 1982; Avineri et al. 2015; Dunsmuir & Blatchford 2004; Quinn & Bingham 2018; Johnston 2019; Lancaster 2007; Puranik & Lonigan 2014; Rowe & Wilson 2015; Harmey & Wilkinson 2019; VanNess et al. 2013; Graham 2019; Graham et al. 2011, 2012, 2018a, 2018b, 2020; Daniels 2014; Roser et al. 2014; Thomas 2005; Bruyère & Pendergrass 2020; Hall et al. 2015; Håland et al. 2019; Bradford & Wyse 2020; Tolchinsky 2017; Snell & Andrews 2017; McCutchen 2011; Harris 2021; Harris et al. 2022a, 2022b, 2023).

Indeed, despite its increasing theoretical popularity, we don’t know of a single research study that provides evidence for taking up such a perspective (Young & Ferguson 2023b).

Cognitive science has repeatedly shown that expertise in composition and transcription influence each other and support each other’s acquisition in profound ways (Young & Ferguson 2022a; Berninger & Winn, 2006; Fitzgerald & Shanahan 2000; Graham 2018, 2020a, 2020b; Mayer 2007; Wen & Coker 2020; Kim 2020, Kim et al. 2014, 20172021, 2022; Truckenmiller & Chandler 2023; Ferguson & Young 2023).

Research points towards teachers using daily direct instruction to model oral language, sentence-level, and transcriptional skills and inviting children to use and apply what they’ve just learnt in the context of authentic and purposeful writing (Snyders 2014; Rowe 2018, 2021; Hall et al. 2015, 2022; Gerde et al. 2012; Graham et al. 2012; Ouellette & Sénéchal 2017; Morin & Pulido 2022; Byington & Kim 2017; Gerade et al. 2012; Barratt-Pugh et al. 2021; Copp et al. 2019; Santangelo & Graham 2016; López-Escribano et al. 2022; Puranik & AlOtaiba 2012; Malpique et al. 2017, 2020; Harris et al. 2023; Zhang & Bingham 2019; Quinn et al. 2021; Arrimada et al. 2019; Roitisch et al. 2021; Young & Ferguson 2023a).

This way, we develop children’s skill and the will to be writers; transcriptional fluency progresses right alongside compositional fluency.

In Writing For Pleasure schools, this is achieved by first accepting children’s emergent writing practices as a temporary scaffold when they first arrive at school. Children are weaned off such practices through daily phonics instruction, handwriting instruction, and by teaching children key encoding strategies (Young & Ferguson 2022b).

Book-making time is when we get to ‘play’ writing! – Reception child

I love this quote from one of the children at our Writing For Pleasure schools. This child was undertaking one of the most cognitively demanding things you can do while you’re at school (Young & Ferguson 2022a). However, as far as he was concerned, it was child’s play.

Throughout their time in the EYFS and KS1, children are invited to use and apply these strategies every day during dedicated ‘book-making time’. It’s through this daily book-making that children also learn to apply fundamental sentence-level skills (Young & Ferguson 2022c, 2023c). As a brief example, children learn very early on in their writerly apprenticeship that a book should have a picture and a sentence on every page. Once this rule is well understood, it can be broken!

In Writing For Pleasure schools, this kind of systematic, rigorous and daily routine ensures each child between Nursery and Year Two composes thousands of sentences and makes hundreds of books. In the process, they internalise all the key skills that allow them to write fluently, happily and accurately.

In summary, to develop children’s writing fluency, it would be useful for nurseries and schools to focus on the following:

Don’t delay teaching about writing. Start on the very first day (Young & Ferguson 2022b).

Encourage children to use their emergent writing practices, especially ‘kid writing,’ while they transition themselves towards ‘adult writing’ (Young & Ferguson 2022b).

Interconnect your phonics, encoding and letter formation instruction and provide this kind of instruction daily. Encourage children to use the encoding strategies they learn when writing (Young & Ferguson 2022b).

Once encoding and letter formation are internalised, deliver regular, short and explicit handwriting and spelling instruction (Young & Ferguson 2023b).

Regularly model sentence-level craft moves before inviting children to use and apply these craft moves in their own writing that day (Young & Ferguson 2022c, 2023c). 

Teach a daily lesson about an aspect of writing and being a writer. This instruction can typically last anywhere between 1-15 minutes (Young et al. 2021; Young & Ferguson 2022b, 2023c; Ferguson & Young 2023).

Teach young writers the ‘book-making process’, study mentor texts, and undertake specific book-making/writing projects (The Writing For Pleasure Centre 2023; Young & Ferguson 2022b, 2023c, 2023d).

Invite children to discuss and draw what they are planning to write about before they write it (Young & Ferguson 2022a, 2023a, 2023d).

Set aside anywhere between 30-90 minutes every day for children to book-make/write. Invite children to use and apply what you’ve taught them that day in their own writing (Young & Ferguson 2022b).

Teachers and assistant teachers should make their own writing/books alongside small groups of children during daily writing time (Young & Ferguson 2023a). During this time, they can provide intensive live verbal feedback and additional responsive instruction through pupil conferencing (Ferguson & Young 2021a).

Ensure children can access book-making and other writing opportunities throughout the day. For example, through a well-maintained Writing Centre or by pursuing their own personal writing/book-making projects (Ferguson & Young 2021b).

For more information on working with us to develop children’s writing fluency in your school, get in touch.


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