In this blogpost, we are going to cover three things:
- Firstly, we are going to share with you what cognitive science has to say about children’s writing development. Spoiler – writing is really hard.
- Next, we are going to discuss how important it is that we attend to children’s affective writerly needs and their connection to academic performance.
- Finally, we are going to share what research evidence has long told us are the 14 principles of effective writing teaching.
Before we start, we’d like to give a little bit of background about ourselves. The Writing For Pleasure Centre was set up to disseminate what is presently known from research about the principles of world-class writing teaching. At The Writing For Pleasure Centre, we are continually interpreting these principles with our own school partners so we can better understand how these principles can be realised in our classrooms (Young & Ferguson 2023a). That’s what we spend the majority of my time doing. We are also invited to work generally with schools who may not wish to become ‘Writing For Pleasure’ schools but are still interested in how evidence-based practices could influence and contribute to their existing teaching.
We simply share these 14 principles as the profession’s current ‘best bet’ and as the closest thing we have at the moment to a ‘sure thing’ (Young & Ferguson 2023a).
It’s important that we recognise that you, as teachers, as dedicated and informed professionals, bring valuable experience and expertise to your own writing classrooms. There will be things that you know ‘work’. Therefore the job of this blogpost is to share the fourteen ‘ingredients’ of effective practice, and for you to think about how you might want to use them – to make your own ‘recipe’ – a recipe which works best for you and your school.
To give you some background, some years ago, my colleague Felicity Ferguson and I were teaching at our local primary school and we came to the conclusion that we were probably the worst teachers of writing in the whole entire world. We hated doing it, we hated teaching it, and our students got terrible results. Our students also hated writing and they hated us teaching it too!
We tried all the popular approaches in the UK at the time and none of them worked. We were frustrated. We wanted to do something about it. We decided that we would build a writing pedagogy from scratch and base it on what the science and research evidence said was the most effective and affecting practice (Young & Ferguson 2021a, 2022a, 2023a). We were no longer going to leave things to chance.
The first thing we need to acknowledge is that writing is really really hard. It’s probably the most cognitively demanding thing children have to do while they are at school. As this diagram, taken from our publication The Science Of Teaching Primary Writing, shows, children have to draw on at least thirteen different cognitive resources to write well. These include: knowledge of their writing environment; knowledge of their audience and their needs as readers; their content knowledge; goal knowledge; genre knowledge; their reading abilities; their knowledge of the writer’s process; grammar knowledge; sentence-level knowledge; oral language and listening comprehension; vocabulary knowledge; transcriptional knowledge, and knowledge of their own emotional and affective writerly needs.
So writing is cognitively challenging. But it also means it’s incredibly rewarding. Children are built to desire literacy. They love making and sharing meaning, through writing, with others. They can quickly become addicted to it as a pursuit. There is no doubt about that. However, if our teaching practices don’t attend to their affective needs, children can soon find themselves hating writing and underachieve as a result. For example, research by the National Literacy Trust has shown that children who enjoy writing are eight times more likely to write above the expected standard. Children who dislike writing are seven times more likely to write below the expected standard. At present, children’s writing enjoyment is at its lowest since records began. This means we have a significant number of pupils underachieving (unnecessarily) in writing due to a lack of enjoyment.
This diagram, taken from our publication Writing For Pleasure, shows children have certain affective (what we can call emotional and motivational needs) that must be attended to if they are going to produce their best writing. Research has shown that there is a clear link between children having these needs met and exemplary writing teaching and exceptional academic progress being achieved. These affective needs include:
- Self-efficacy – a sense of confidence.
- Agency – feeling like they have ownership over their writing and what they would like to write about.
- Self-regulation – a feeling of competence and an ability to write well independently – without constant adult intervention.
- Volition – a need, a deep desire, to write.
- Motivation – knowing why they are producing the writing they are making – knowing what has moved them to write what they are writing.
- Writer-identity – feeling a sense that they are a real writer who does the same things other adult writers do.
If we attend to these needs, children write for pleasure. This means they not only enjoy making writing but they also feel a deep satisfaction and pride from producing writing that is of the highest possible quality.
To date, The Writing For Pleasure Centre has conducted a total of forty-six research reviews spanning more than fifty years of scientific research. First, we started with the meta-analyses. For those who might not be familiar with the term, a meta-analysis is where a researcher will group many scientific studies on a particular subject in order to identify recurring patterns of effectiveness. We then read what case studies tell us about what the best performing writing teachers do in their classrooms which makes the difference.
We discovered that there are 14 things these teachers seem to do consistently. They are enduring principles which represent the most effective teaching practice. These principles all have a solid track record of raising standards and accelerating progress in writing. These principles are:
- Build a community of writers
- Treat every child as a writer
- Read, share, think and talk about writing
- Pursue purposeful and authentic class writing projects
- Teach the writing processes
- Set writing goals
- Be reassuringly consistent
- Pursue personal writing projects
- Balance composition & transcription
- Teach daily mini-lessons
- Be a writer-teacher
- Pupil-conference: meet children where they are
- Connect reading & writing
- Interconnect the principles
Once these principles were identified, we reviewed the research on each one to help us better understand what we could be doing in our classroom to make the difference. In the end, we decided to call our approach the Writing For Pleasure pedagogy. And now, Writing For Pleasure is just a nicer sounding synonym for the pursuit of world-class writing teaching and evidence-based practice. What we found out from all this work has since been published as a book called Writing For Pleasure: Theory, Research & Practice (Young & Ferguson 2021a).
So we’ve achieved the first aim for this blogpost – we’ve told you what the effective practices are. We now need to tell you why. It’s then up to you to decide how you might use these principles in your school. And of course, we’re hoping that many of these principles aren’t new to you. We suspect you will hear many things that you already currently do in your school. With that said, We’re hoping you hear about a few new things you might like to investigate further.
To help us, we’re going to share the ‘effect-sizes’ taken from the meta-analyses research with you. Now, anything above a +0.4 is generally considered by researchers to have a significant positive effect on children’s writing performance.
Build a community of writers – (+0.89)
Why? Because ‘classroom community is a more potent factor in students’ academic success than any particular instructional method’ and ‘little or no growth in student writing can take place in a superficial writing environment’ (Tompkins & Tway 2003; De Smedt & Van Keer 2014). This is about children coming into the writing classroom every day expecting to undertake important work. They expect to be taught and treated like writers and that they are going to be making writing for real people. Knowing that there is always a real readership for their manuscripts sets the highest possible expectations.
Treat every child as a writer – (these 14 principles support all learners)
Why? The most effective writing teachers do not confine their lower-achieving pupils to mundane writing exercises or worksheets. Instead, all children are supported to participate in class writing projects (Young & Ferguson 2022c, 2023b). The best performing teachers:
- Hold more pupil conferences.
- Encourage co-operative learning with more experienced friends.
- Give short additional mini-lessons through group teaching to their pupils with SEND or EAL.
- Write alongside their least-experienced writers.
Read, share, think and talk about writing – (+0.89)
Why? Children learn from each other’s developing compositions and from hearing how certain writing strategies, techniques, literary devices or what we call ‘craft moves’ are being applied by others (including their commercial authors, their peers and their writer-teacher) (Graham et al. 2012; Graham & Harris 2019; Young & Ferguson 2023c).
Pursue purposeful and authentic class writing projects – (+1.07)
Why? Because children’s writing outcomes are improved if they engage in challenging and extended class writing projects where they write for authentic purposes and real and varied audiences (Graham & Perin 2007; Dombey 2013; Grossman et al. 2013; Morizawa 2014).
Teach the writing processes – (+1.26)
Why? Because explicitly teaching children about the writing processes and how to use them in a self-regulating way is shown to be highly effective practice (Graham et al. 2012; Graham & Perin 2007; Morizawa 2014). The writing processes include: generating ideas, planning, drawing, talking, sharing, drafting, re-reading, revising, proof-reading and publishing (Young & Ferguson 2022d, 2022b, 2022e, 2023d).
Set writing goals – (+2.03)
Why? Goal setting is by far the most effective practice teachers can employ to improve children’s writing outcomes (Koster et al. 2015; Young & Hayden 2022). It involves setting:
- publishing goals (children knowing who they are giving their writing to at the end of a project). LINK
- product goals (what they need to do or include to write a great piece). LINK
- process goals (little deadlines which are set along the way to publishing). LINK
Be reassuringly consistent (+1.75)
Why? Having a reassuringly consistent and comprehensive approach to writing teaching across your whole-school improves the quality of children’s writing (LINK, LINK, LINK). From the EYFS onwards, children need some explicit instruction, a sustained and meaningful period in which to engage in writing, and some time to share and get feedback from their teacher/peers every single day (Hall and Harding 2003; Graham et al. 2012; Morizawa 2014; Graham & Perin 2007; Graham & Sandmel 2011).
Pursue personal writing projects (+0.94 and +1.75)
Why? Children become better writers by writing (Graham et al. 2012, 2015). Giving children additional daily time to work on self-chosen personal writing projects is shown to have a positive effect on their writing development (Gadd 2014; Dombey 2013; Young & Ferguson 2021b). Giving children access to a Writing Centre, modelling how to use it, and modelling how to take materials to other areas in the provision gives us the positive effective size of +0.94 in the EYFS context (Hall et al. 2015; Young & Ferguson 2022b).
Balance composition & transcription (+0.54, +0.58 and +0.36)
Why? Early on in a writing project, the best writing teachers teach lessons focused on composition to ensure quality. Towards the end of a project, they move their focus towards teaching about transcription to ensure accuracy. This means teachers give children specific instructional time to come up with ideas, draw and/or plan (+0.54)(+1.55 for children SEND) and specific time to revise (0.64) and then proof-read their pieces prior to publication (+0.58) (Dombey 2013; Graham et al. 2015b; Graham & Harris 2019; Young & Ferguson 2022d, 2022e, 2023d).
Additional and dedicated instruction in spelling and handwriting yields an effect size of (+0.36). However, for children with SEND who need it, it can have an effect size of +2.40 (Young & Ferguson 2023b).
Finally, teachers in the EYFS and KS1 should focus their attention on developing children’s ‘writing fluency’ (LINK).
Teach daily mini-lessons (+1.75, +0.46, and -0.4)
Why? Teaching ‘craft knowledge’ through ‘self-regulation strategy development instruction’ is the most validated teaching practice a teacher of writing can employ (LINK). The key here is teaching a single strategy before inviting children to apply that taught strategy to their writing that day (+1.75)(+2.09 for children with SEND). The same concept applies to grammar and sentence-level teaching (+0.46) (Graham and Perin 2007; Graham et al. 2012; Grossman et al. 2013; Koster et al. 2015; Young et al. 2021; Young & Ferguson 2022f; Young & Ferguson 2021c).
Be a writer-teacher (+0.54, +2.48 for children with SEND)
Why? Put simply, it’s difficult to employ the most effective teaching practices if you aren’t a writer-teacher (Hillocks 1986; Cremin & Oliver 2017; Parr & Limbrick 2011; Troia 2014; Hall et al. 2015). Not being a writer-teacher is like trying to teach a tuba lesson without ever having played the tuba (Graves 1983, LINK, LINK).
Pupil-conference: meet children where they are (+0.80)
Why? Excessive written feedback or extensive error correction has little to no positive impact on young writers’ academic progress. Indeed, negative comments and heavy marking repeatedly result in children feeling less enthusiasm for writing, writing less, and having a low opinion of themselves as writers. In turn, this results in children doing the minimum to get by (Young & Ferguson 2021a).
However, when children receive short, positive, and focused verbal feedback from their teachers while they are actually engaged in writing, they revise their compositions to a significantly higher standard. It’s the combination of personalised instruction and immediate verbal feedback that appears to be the reason why pupil-conferencing is such a highly effective practice (Hillocks 1986; Dombey 2013; Graham & Perin 2007; Graham et al. 2012; Grossman et al. 2013; Morizawa 2014; Ferguson & Young 2021).
Connect reading & writing (+0.50, +0.76, +0.94 for children with SEND)
Why? This is what we currently know about the reading/writing connection:
- Giving children ample time to read enhances the quality of their writing.
- The more children are given an opportunity to write in reading lessons, the more their reading comprehension improves. There is also a modest improvement in their writing (+0.50). However, we have to say using a reading scheme as your writing approach is nowhere near an adequate substitute for an explicit writing approach and explicit writing lessons.
- Explicit writing instruction supports children’s reading development.
We also know that when children study mentor texts – texts which match the kind of texts they are actually going to go on to write themselves, children perform better (+0.76)(+0.94 for children with SEND).
(Koster et al. 2015; Graham & Hebert 2011; Graham et al. 2018; Young & Ferguson 2023c)
Interconnect the principles
Why? The best performing writing teachers try to blend all these principles of practice (Graham & Perin 2007; De Smedt & Van Keer 2014; Grossman et al. 2013; Gadd 2014, Morizawa 2014; Young & Ferguson 2021a).
We hope that you found this blogpost really affirming. As dedicated professionals, we are sure you’ve heard much of your current practice described. We therefore hope that this blogpost was reassuring but hopefully it’s given you a few new things to go away and explore too. With this in mind, you’ll find lots of free-to-access articles and examples of practice on our website. However, if you’d like to access our paid resources and support the work we do, please may we invite you to consider becoming a member. This gives you access to our complete programme of study, planning, resources and eBooks.
We also provide INSET and residency training. Please get in touch if this is something you’re interested in.
- Cremin, T., Oliver, L. (2017). Teachers as writers: A systematic review. Research Papers in Education, 32(3), 269–295
- De Smedt, F., and Van Keer, H. (2014). A research synthesis on effective writing instruction in primary education. Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences, 112, 693–701
- Dombey, H. (2013). Teaching Writing:What the Evidence Says UKLA Argues for An Evidence-informed Approach to Teaching and Testing Young Children’s Writing. London: UKLA
- Ferguson, F., Young, R. (2021) A Guide To Pupil-conferencing With 3-11 Year Olds: Powerful Feedback & Responsive Teaching That Changes Writers Brighton: The Writing For Pleasure Centre
- Gadd, M. (2014). What is Critical in the Effective Teaching of Writing? Auckland:The University of Auckland.
- Graham, S., and Perin, D. (2007). Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle School & High Schools.Washington, DC:Alliance for Excellent Education
- Graham, S., and Sandmel, K. (2011). The process writing approach: A meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Research, 104, 396–407.
- Graham, S., McKeown, D., Kiuhara, S., and Harris, K. (2012). A meta-analysis of writing instruction for students in the elementary grades. In Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(4), 879–896.
- Graham, S., Harris, K., Santangelo, T. (2015). Research-based writing practices and the common core. Elementary School Journal, 115(4), 498–522
- Graham, S., Hebert, M., & Harris, K. R. (2015b). Formative assessment and writing: A meta-analysis. The Elementary School Journal, 115(4), 523–547
- Graham, S., Xinghua, L., Aitken, A., Ng, C., Bartlett, B., Harris, K., and Holzapfel, J. (2018). Effectiveness of literacy programs balancing reading and writing instruction: A metaanalysis. Reading Research Quarterly, 53(3), 279–304.
- Graham, S., and Harris, K. (2019). Evidence-based practices in writing. In Best Practices in Writing Instruction, Graham, S., MacArthur, C., and Hebert, M. (Eds.) (3rd Ed.) (pp. 3–31). New York:The Guilford Press.
- Graves, D. (1983) Writing: Children & Teachers At Work Portsmouth: Heinemann
- Grossman, P.L., Loeb, S., Cohen, J., and Wyckoff, J. (2013). Measure for measure:The relationship between measures of instructional practice in middle school English Language Arts and teachers’ value-added scores. American Journal of Education, 119(3), 445–470
- Hall, K., Harding, A. (2003). A Systematic Review of Effective Literacy Teaching in the 4 to14 Age Range of Mainstream Schooling. London: Institute of Education.
- Hall, A., Simpson, A., Guo, Y., Wang, S. (2015) Examining the Effects of Preschool Writing Instruction on Emergent Literacy Skills: A Systematic Review of the Literature, Literacy Research and Instruction, 54:2, 115-134
- Hillocks, G. (1986). Research on Written Composition: New Directions for Teaching. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
- Koster, M.,Tribushinina, E., De Jong, P.F., and Van de Bergh, B. (2015).Teaching children to write: A meta-analysis of writing intervention research. Journal of Writing Research, 7(2), 249–274
- Morizawa, G. (2014). Nesting the Neglected ‘R’ A Design Study:Writing Instruction within a Prescriptive Literacy Program (Doctoral dissertation). University of California, Berkeley.
- Parr, J.M., and Limbrick, L. (2010). Contextualising practice: Hallmarks of effective teachers of writing. Teaching and Teacher Education, 26(3), 583–590.
- Tompkins, G.E., and Tway, E. (2003).The elementary school classroom. In Handbook of Research on Teaching the English Language Arts, Flood, J., Lapp, D., Squire, J.R., and Jensen, J.M. (Eds.) (2nd Ed.) (pp. 501–511). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers
- Toria, G. (2014). Evidence-based practices for writing instruction. In CEEDAR. Lansing, MI: Michigan State University.
- Young, R., Ferguson, F. Hayden, T., Vasques, M. (2021) The Writing For Pleasure Centre’s Big Book Of Mini-Lessons: Lessons That Teach Powerful Craft Knowledge For 3-11 Year Olds Brighton: The Writing For Pleasure Centre
- Young, R., Ferguson, F. (2021a) Writing For Pleasure: Theory, Research & Practice London: Routledge
- Young, R., Ferguson, F. (2021b) A Guide To Personal Writing Projects & Writing Clubs For 3-11 Year Olds Brighton: The Writing For Pleasure Centre
- Young, R., Ferguson, F. (2021c) The Writing For Pleasure Centre’s Grammar Mini-Lessons For 5-11 Year Olds Brighton: The Writing For Pleasure Centre
- Young, R., Ferguson, F. (2022a) The Science Of Teaching Primary Writing Brighton: The Writing For Pleasure Centre
- Young, R., Ferguson, F. (2022b) Getting Children Up And Running As Book-Makers: Lessons For EYFS-KS1 Teachers Brighton: The Writing For Pleasure Centre
- Young, R., Ferguson, F. (2022c) A Teacher’s Guide To Writing With Multilingual Children Brighton: The Writing For Pleasure Centre
- Young, R., Ferguson, F. (2022d) No More: I Don’t Know What To Write… Lessons That Help Children Generate Great Writing Ideas For 3-11 Year Olds Brighton: The Writing For Pleasure Centre
- Young, R., Ferguson, F. (2022e) No More: ‘My Pupils Can’t Edit!’ A Whole-School Approach To Developing Proof-Readers Brighton: The Writing For Pleasure Centre
- Young, R., Ferguson, F. (2022f) The Writing For Pleasure Centre’s Sentence-Level Instruction: Lessons That Help Children Find Their Style And Voice Brighton: The Writing For Pleasure Centre
- Young, R., Ferguson, F. (2023a) Handbook Of Research On Teaching Young Writers Brighton: The Writing For Pleasure Centre
- Young, R., Ferguson, F. (2023b) Supporting children with SEND to be great writers A guide for teachers and SENCOS Brighton: The Writing For Pleasure Centre
- Young, R., Ferguson, F. (2023c) Reading in the writing classroom: A guide to finding, writing and using mentor texts with your class Brighton: The Writing For Pleasure Centre
- Young, R., Ferguson, F. (2023d) No More: I Don’t Know What To Write Next… Lessons That Help Children Plan Great Writing Brighton: The Writing For Pleasure Centre