When writing success criteria goes wrong

Children read stories, poems and letters differently when they see these texts as things they themselves could produce – Frank Smith

Establishing product goals (also known as success criteria or writing checklists) with your class for a writing project is one the most effective things a teacher of writing can do. Research shows that setting writing goals can yield an effect size of +2.03. For context, anything over +0.4 is considered to have a significant positive effect on children’s writing development.

Setting product goals is related to another evidence-based writing practice too: the studying of mentor texts. In Writing For Pleasure schools, product goals are established by the teacher and children together and only after studying and discussing a variety of mentor texts. This should typically be a whole collection of texts which match the kind of writing the children are going to be writing as part of the class writing project. Studying mentor texts prior to writing their own can yield an effect size of +0.76 (for children with SEND, this can be anything up to +0.94).

Product goals, at their best, are decided upon jointly between you and your class. They will include the things you all think you will need to do or include for your compositions to be engaging, successful and meaningful. Product goals are absolutely not limited to grammatical features or text conventions. When you ask your class your first most challenging and exciting question: What will we have to do to make these the best short stories that were ever written?, we won’t be expecting the main response to be ‘capital letters’ (important as this is), or ‘grammar’. We will want firstly to hear children identifying things which connect with the essence of the project. The following authentic set of product goals shows what we mean:

Here you’ll notice writer-teacher Tobias Hayden writes ‘see class poster’ next to some of the goals. This is to tell the children that they’ve already received a lesson on this ‘craft move’ (Young et al. 2021) this year and that there is a poster on display in the classroom which explains how to do it.

In contrast, here is a real example of an ineffective list of product goals I saw recently on Twitter. Let me explain the problem with this particular checklist:

Firstly, you can’t hear the pupils’ voices and goals in this list. You don’t get a sense of what it is this community of writers want to achieve in their pieces. You can tell that these goals haven’t been arrived at collaboratively with the teacher and only after studying a variety of mentor texts together – mentor texts which match the kind of writing the class is looking to produce for themselves.

Almost all of the goals are too vague to be useful. They are not linked to the use of specific craft moves and we know from research that this is important for future instruction (see LINK). For example: ‘language devices’ or ‘grammar aren’t nearly good enough. These need unpacking and made explicit by naming specific craft moves. What craft moves have you and the children decide you want to try and apply? 

Finally, we can see that compositional goals and goals for proof-reading are being thrown in all together. This is such a shame. As we know, revision and proof-reading are completely different cognitive processes and each deserves its own instructional time, checklist, and attention to be done at its best (Young & Ferguson 2022).

In conclusion, you don’t want to produce product goals which look like this example.

  1. You don’t want to produce a list of product goals on the children’s behalf during your planning and preparation time. This is just a terrible writing teaching crime!
  2. You don’t want to give them a list that is out of context – without first letting the children participate in the study of mentor texts (LINK). 
  3. You don’t want your list to be depressing – failing to share with the children why any of these craft moves will be so useful for the project.
  4. Though incredibly important, you don’t want a list which is exclusively about grammar craft moves (LINK).
  5. You don’t want to include things to do with proof-reading – these can have their own checklist and be discussed later into a project (LINK).


How you read mentor texts with your class and record product goals is important, and it’s not an easy thing to do. It takes expertise and practice. For more information, see our eBooks entitled Getting Success Criteria Right for Writing: Helping 3-11 Year Olds Write Their Best Texts (Young & Hayden 2022) and Reading In The Writing Classroom: A guide to finding, writing and using mentor texts and with your class (Young & Ferguson 2023).

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