Writing non-fiction with heart and voice

In this article we show how children’s use of their personal, authentic ‘voice’ can transform the quality of their writing of non-fiction texts, and how it can benefit and bring pleasure to both writer and reader. This is what we mean by ‘voice’:

  • It’s the sense of your personal presence.
  • It’s how you express your identity in your writing.
  • It connects reader and writer.
  • It’s what invites readers to listen to you and get to know you. 
  • It’s writing in personal response to what you’re learning.

Factual writing doesn’t always have to be written in an objective and impersonal way. There are different types of nonfiction texts (see here for more details). The high-quality texts in your class library will prove the truth of this. 

Research about children’s relationship to the genre of non-fiction suggests that, in general, they prefer reading the kinds of text which are written in rich language and with a strong voice (LINK). It is therefore reasonable to assume that they would like to write their own non-fiction texts in this way too. So how could we, as teachers, give them the freedom to do this?

It’s our view that we need to go deeper than simply providing children with powerful craft instruction and the best models in the form of mentor texts. Of course, both of these are of paramount importance, but if children are to write non-fiction using an authentic personal voice, we also need to create other, vital conditions which will enable them to undertake their writing with feelings of self- efficacy, pleasure and a sense of empowerment.

Children will, we hope, feel confident about how to write conventionally in all the genres of non-fiction because they will have learned the typical features from their teachers during their class writing projects. We do not diminish the importance of this. However, the following conditions must also be created if children’s authentic voices are to enter the writing. They should:

  • have agency over the topic they want to write about, within the parameter of the genre set by the teacher [LINK]
  • have their own reasons to write, asking themselves ‘What is my reason for wanting to write this piece?  What do I want this writing to do? Who are my readers going to be? What do I want them to feel when they read my writing?’ [LINK]
  • know that they can have more than one reason to write [LINK]
  • understand that they can write in personal response to a topic, particularly when writing in the wider curriculum [LINK].


Agency is one of the strongest affective needs a young writer has.  

Research tells us that all children experience significant motivational and cognitive benefits attached to being able to write about what they know and are interested in (Young & Ferguson 2021, LINK). It comes as no surprise to learn that being personally and emotionally invested in the topic, combined with writing from the strong position of having previous knowledge about it, means that children produce more successful texts. It also invites them to bring their own voice into the piece. And of course, in keeping with current requirements, we would point out that children are better able to write these texts independently.

Every single child has something they can write about, but sometimes they need help to find their idea. We have provided strategies for showing children how to mine their own funds of knowledge for a writing topic, and you can read about them here [LINK]. We cannot stress strongly enough that it is of the utmost importance for children to know that their teacher will value and validate the topics they choose. If they cannot be confident of this, they will not want to risk letting their own voice enter the writing.

Reasons to write

Children need to know why they want to write their piece, or as we like to say, why they are moved to write [LINK]. They must have a clear idea of their own authentic purpose, who their specific intended readers are beyond their teacher, and what experience they want these readers to have. Do they want to teach, entertain, persuade, make a record of something that shouldn’t be forgotten, be reflective, or simply paint with words?

Teachers can help children develop this kind of awareness when they together discuss a whole variety of mentor texts, looking not just at the surface linguistic features which carry voice, but also underneath, at the possible motivations of the different authors. Children need to know, too, that they can be moved to write for more than one reason, as the text at the beginning of this article clearly shows. This writer was out to: teach by showcasing his own expert knowledge of his topic, including being intertextual by drawing on the styles of other texts; entertain his readers by performing and punning; draw his readers in through direct address; venture an opinion, and offer a personal reflection about what he saw as the declining appeal of fairytales. The result of combining these purposes was a rich and enjoyable hybrid text written in his own authentic voice – and at greater depth. 

Personal Response  

The impact of writing in personal response to a factual topic and in your own voice and form is particularly well illustrated by considering what could, in the best case scenario, happen when children are writing in the wider curriculum.

(The different ways young writers can share knowledge through writing. Taken from Young & Ferguson 2021)

If learning in the wider curriculum is to be meaningful, children need first to absorb the information they have been given. When (as often happens) they are asked simply to write out this information, much as it has been given, and for no reason beyond showing their teacher that they have ‘learned’ something, this corresponds to the ‘knowledge-telling’ part of the above diagram. Although the text they produce may show that they have ‘comprehended’ the information at a surface level, it will have little value as a piece of writing. This isn’t to say that knowledge-telling isn’t valuable. It is. We do it all the time. But in the context of this particular article, it is the least useful. 

If the process does not stop here, but children are given time and the scope to meditate on the information, relate it to their own lives, think what it reminds them of, work out their thoughts and feelings about it, speculate, ask themselves questions about it and make their own meanings, they will be engaging in the knowledge-transforming part of the process – transforming it in their minds into something new. 

They can then express and share their new knowledge, their personal response, by crafting it into writing for others to read, which is the final stage of the process. It’s interesting to note that research shows that, if this happens, not only do children write better quality texts but they retain the original information more securely (Young & Ferguson 2021).

If children are invited to go beyond knowledge-telling, to knowledge-transform and then knowledge-craft in their own voice and in their own chosen form they will in effect be writing to learn rather than simply writing to repeat information. Because each writer will be offering an individual perspective on the topic, the texts, read collectively, will express a variety of different voices and understandings which everyone can share and consider, and in the process deepen their own comprehension of the subject. We can say this is producing ‘community knowledge’.

More than this, their texts can be a social resource. You will learn so much more about your children from hearing their writing voices, and they will learn more about each other too. 

Planning a class writing project with the greater-depth standard as the standard

A class writing project is an opportunity for the whole class to learn more about a type of writing. It’s also where teachers can explicitly teach children about the writer’s process. It’s important to point out that not every single class writing project needs to go through all of the processes shared above. Teachers should use their own professional judgement to plan their own class writing projects. For example, a teacher could feel it appropriate to remove a particular process based on their class’ needs and the amount of time they want to spend on a particular project. However, with that said, to routinely omit certain processes would certainly result in children receiving an incomplete writerly apprenticeship and would inevitably lead to writing underachievement.

The link between class writing projects and the KS2 STA writing framework statements

Below, we will show how the journey of a class writing project can naturally attend to all aspects of the greater-depth standard.

On the first day of a new class writing project, you will want to establish the purpose and potential audience for the writing. You want to establish a publishing goal with your class [LINK]. This doesn’t take long and so for the rest of the session, children can work on their personal writing project [LINK].

For a few lessons, you will want to read as writers [LINK]. It’s important to remember that if your project is to write some spooky stories, then it’s a good idea to read lots of great spooky stories to see how it can be done! While undertaking this kind of reading, you’ll want to establish the product goals (success criteria) for the project with the class (see this LINK for more details). We recommend spending about 20-30 minutes on this each day. That way, the rest of the lesson can be devoted to children working on their personal writing projects. This ensures children are getting a sustained period in which to write every day.

When you and your class have read lots of great mentor texts, and you’ve established your product goals for the project, you’re in a position to generate your writing ideas. One of the best ways to do this is through an Ideas Party [LINK]. By having an ideas party, you can ensure that every child in your class produces an independent piece of writing by the project’s end.

Modelling a planning technique to your class before inviting them to use that technique for their own writing idea is one device which can help children build cohesion [LINK]. We can certainly recommend keeping these plans and letting moderators know that this is one cohesive device your pupils have used. I can also recommend asking your class to do their planning on a separate piece of paper and not in their English book. That way, they can easily consult their plans as they are drafting.

At the drafting stage, we recommend teaching through the principles of SRSD instruction [LINK]. This way, children can see how grammatical structures and other literary features (what we like to call craft moves) have been used by their teacher before being invited to use and apply that craft move to their own writing that day.

We find that once children have drafted their compositions, they are in a position to reconsider and otherwise re-envision their writing through – revision. This is an opportunity to model more sophisticated craft moves to children before inviting them to give the move a go on their ‘trying things out page’. If they like what they’ve produced, they can add it to their manuscript – but they don’t have to! Moderators love seeing this because the child has provided evidence for certain craft moves but have made the authorial decision not to include it in their final manuscript. The behaviour of a greater-depth writer.

In addition to delivering specific revision craft move sessions, we recommend that teachers meet with their class, in groups, over a few days. This gives them an opportunity to reflect on whether their composition has met the product goals that were established for the project. This gives them time to work on their manuscript a little more – or at the very least use their ‘trying things out page’ to show how they could have applied certain product goals to their writing. While you meet with these groups, the rest of your class can be working on their personal writing projects [LINK].

The National Curriculum and the STA assessment statements are heavily weighted towards accuracy and adherence to conventions. It makes sense then that this is where a teacher will have to devote the majority of their instruction time. To help children try and obtain as close to 100% accuracy as they are capable, we recommend breaking proof-reading down into small and manageable chunks. You can read more about this here. The idea is that once children have completed the aspect of proof-reading that’s been modelled to them by their teacher that day, they can work on their personal writing project. This frees the teacher up to work with children who may be struggling the most.

Publishing is a great opportunity to focus on children’s handwriting in context. How often do we have pupils produce beautiful handwriting for us when they complete their handwriting worksheets, but it goes out the window once they are undertaking composition? Publishing is a great opportunity to give children live verbal feedback and additional instruction in the aspects of handwriting they need to work on most.

Please read this section carefully as there are important things to consider

  • Class writing projects are the perfect place for introducing and teaching children about the writer’s process. However, it’s crucial to remember that, over time, writers develop their own idiosyncratic ways of writing (Young & Ferguson 2020, 2021a, 2022, 2023). Therefore, we must provide opportunities for children to play around with these processes. We believe this is best done by ensuring children have opportunities to pursue their own personal writing projects once they have finished what they’ve been asked to do that day for the class project (see LINK for more details). This way, they can learn about the recursive nature of the writer’s process and how they can move between these different processes. It’s also a place for them to learn about other processes such as: abandoning, reimagining, returning and updating. We have to say that through their personal writing, children can produce some of their most creative and innovative work. It’s a great place to look for elements of the greater-depth standard.

On the PDF version of this article, we provide two examples of what a project plan can look like. However, it’s important to remember the following:

  • Teachers should use their own professional judgement to plan their own class writing projects. For example, they should either add or remove sessions based on their own class’ needs and the amount of time they want to spend on a project. You can read more about this here.
  • The more time spent on a project, the better the final outcomes will be. If you rush a project, you get rushed outcomes.
  • It’s important to remember that once a child has completed the goal for that writing session, they should know that they can work on their personal writing project for the rest of the lesson [LINK]. 
  • Remember, this is not the only writing children should produce. Children should also have their personal writing project writing, their writing in the wider curriculum subjects, and the writing they produce in their reading lessons.

Evidence-based writing instruction for 11-18 year olds

We need to acknowledge that writing is really really hard. It’s probably the most cognitively demanding thing students have to do while they are at school. As this diagram, taken from our publication The Science Of Teaching Primary Writing, shows, pupils 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.

Due to this complexity, it’s important that secondary school teachers utilise evidence-based writing instruction. This article looks to share such practices. To help me, I’m going to discuss the ‘effect-sizes’ taken from the meta-analyses research with you (Hillocks 1986; Graham & Perin 2007; Koster et al. 2015; Graham et al. 2023). 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. Now, anything above a +0.4 is generally considered by researchers to have a significant positive effect on children’s writing performance.

Explicitly teach students the writing processes (+0.47)

Explicitly teaching pupils about the writing processes and how to use them in a self-regulating way is shown to be highly effective practice. The writing processes include: generating ideas, planning, drafting, re-reading, revising, proof-reading and publishing.

Articles and resources to support:

  • The components of an effective writing unit [LINK]

Pursue purposeful and authentic class writing projects (+0.92)

Pupils’ writing outcomes are improved if they engage in challenging inquiry and extended class writing projects where they write for authentic purposes and real and varied audiences.

Articles and resources to support:

  • Establishing publishing goals for class writing projects [LINK]

Deliver idea generation and planning instruction (+0.49)

Early on in a writing project, the best writing teachers teach lessons focused on composition to ensure quality. This means teachers give pupils specific instructional time to generate writing ideas and plan their writing.

Articles and resources to support:

  • No more: I don’t know what to write… Lessons that help children generate great writing ideas [LINK]
  • No more: I don’t know what to write next… Lessons that help children plan great writing [LINK]

Deliver writing strategy instruction (+0.76)

Teaching ‘craft knowledge’ through ‘self-regulation strategy development instruction’ is probably the most validated teaching practice a teacher of writing can employ. The key here is teaching a single strategy before inviting students to apply that taught strategy to their writing that day. The same concept applies to grammar teaching (+0.77) and teaching at the sentence-level (+0.73).

Articles and resources to support:

  • Getting writing instruction right [LINK]
  • The components of effective grammar instruction [LINK]
  • The components of effective sentence-level instruction [LINK]

Balance composition and transcription instruction (+0.71)

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 includes, for pupils who need it, receiving spelling, handwriting and/or typing instruction.

Articles and resources to support:

  • No more: ‘My pupils can’t edit!’ A whole-school approach to developing proof-readers [LINK]
  • The research on handwriting [LINK]
  • The research on spelling [LINK]
  • If in doubt, circle it out! how to create a class of independent spellers [LINK]

Read as writers (+0.46)

When students read and discuss mentor texts in the writing classroom – texts which match the kind of texts they are actually going to go on to write themselves, they perform better.

Articles and resources to support:

  • Reading in the writing classroom: A guide to finding, writing and using mentor texts with your class [LINK]

Give feedback (+0.46)

Excessive written feedback or extensive error correction often has little to no positive impact on young writers’ academic progress. Indeed, negative comments and heavy marking repeatedly result in pupils feeling less enthusiasm for writing, writing less, and having a low opinion of themselves as writers. In turn, this results in students doing the minimum to get by.

However, when pupils 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.

Articles and resources to support:

  • A guide to pupil-conferencing with 3-11 year olds: Powerful feedback & responsive teaching that changes writers [LINK]
  • A quick guide to class sharing and Author’s Chair [LINK]

Set writing goals (+0.44)

Goal setting involves setting:

  1. Publishing goals (children knowing who they are giving their writing to at the end of a project)
  2. Product goals (what they need to do or include to write a great piece)
  3. Process goals (little deadlines which are set along the way to publishing)

Articles and resources to support:

  • Establishing publishing goals for class writing projects [LINK]
  • Getting success criteria right for writing: Helping 3-11 year olds write their best texts [LINK]
  • Trust the process: setting process goals [LINK]

Be a writer-teacher (+0.41)

When students can observe their teacher writing, it assists them in successfully producing their own compositions. Students can also act as writer-teachers. This includes observing and learning from how their peers write successfully too.

Articles and resources to support:

  • What does effective ‘shared writing’ look like? [LINK]
  • A quick guide to class sharing and Author’s Chair [LINK]

The task of teaching writing to adolescents is undeniably challenging, as it demands the orchestration of numerous cognitive resources. However, the evidence-based practices we’ve explored in this article provide a roadmap which can guide students towards becoming happy and successful writers. By explicitly teaching the writing processes, fostering purposeful and authentic writing projects, teaching writing strategies, and maintaining a balance between composition and transcription, teachers can empower their students to excel. Reading as writers, providing constructive feedback, setting meaningful writing goals for lessons, and embracing the role of being a  writer-teacher can further enhance this journey.


  • Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). A meta-analysis of writing instruction for adolescent students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(3), 445–476. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.99.3.445
  • Graham, S., Kim, Y.-S., Cao, Y., Lee, W., Tate, T., Collins, P., Cho, M., Moon, Y., Chung, H. Q., & Olson, C. B. (2023). A meta-analysis of writing treatments for students in grades 6–12. Journal of Educational Psychology, 115(7), 1004–1027. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000819
  • Hillocks, G. J. (1986). Research on written composition: New directions for teaching. National Council of Teachers of English
  • Koster, M., Tribushinina, E., de Jong, P. F., & van den Bergh, H. (2015). Teaching children to write: A meta-analysis of writing intervention research. Journal of Writing Research, 7(2), 249–274. https://doi.org/10.17239/jowr-2015.07.02.2

Which writing model would best guide us to raise writing standards in our school?

Teacher question:

We want to find a writing model to guide our efforts to improve writing achievement across our school. Which model would you recommend (e.g. The Cognitive Process Theory of Writing, The Simple View, The Writing Rope?)


All the models you mention have value, but we also think they suffer from various issues. We’ll take a quick look at each of them, and then suggest another model you might want to consider.

Firstly, The Cognitive Process Theory of Writing. This theory was first developed by John Hayes and Linda Flower in 1981. It created interest in that it gave importance to the writing process. The theory defined what it believed to be the three main cognitive processes involved in writing: ‘plan’, ‘translate’ and ‘review’. However, it wasn’t written for teachers nor was it about children. It was a theory about how adults might write.

Next up is The Simple View of Writing. This model was based on the research of Berninger and colleagues (2002), which tried to reduce the act of writing down to two processes: ideation (getting or having an idea) and transcription (transcribing that idea onto paper or screen). The following year, executive function (defined as planning, managing and reviewing) was added to complete their model, which they then renamed The Not So Simple View of Writing.

Thirdly, a model entitled The Writing Rope was developed by Joan Sedita in 2019, with a nod to Hollis Scarborough’s The Reading Rope. Her model asserts that the ‘components of skilled writing’ are multiple and multi-dimensional. To illustrate the model, she helpfully uses the analogy of different strands (components of writing) weaving together to form a complete rope (fluent, skilled writing). These strands are categorised under the labels of: Critical Thinking, Syntax, Text Structure, Writing Craft and Transcription.

Each of these models can be useful. The major value of The Simple View of Writing lies of course in its very simplicity. Its perspective on how writing might be crafted is easily understood, and lets teachers know that compositional and transcriptional instruction is important when teaching children to write (in case you didn’t know!). The Writing Rope attempts a more complicated description of what skilled writing actually entails; below each category of skill is a set of sub-skills which could certainly guide instruction. The Cognitive Process Theory of Writing, as the name suggests, could help teachers consider how writers go through a number of processes when crafting writing and that knowing about these processes could inform their instructional decision making.

Just as we can point up the benefits of these models, so we can highlight their deficiencies. For example, the Simple View presents a too reductive interpretation of the craft of writing, in which there are many essential omissions; the Rope is also an incomplete model with some confusion and omissions; the Cognitive Process Theory is a computational model of what experienced adult writers might do, and so doesn’t attend to what young developing writers do (and need to do) as they write.

Another problem with these three models is that they fail to fully account for the fact that writing teaching happens in a classroom amongst others. The result in each case is an incomplete description of the nature and processes of writing while at school. In addition, the models don’t say much about instruction, how a class teacher can raise writing achievement in their school. That wasn’t why they were created. The danger is that the lack of a clear vision is likely to have an adverse effect on the quality of instruction.

We think you might like to look at The Writing For Pleasure Centre’s Writerly Knowledge Model to help your school with its writing improvement. It combines rigorous instruction in the processes and craft of writing with principles that contribute significantly to children’s social enjoyment and personal satisfaction. It’s based on The Science Of Writing and, as a result, creates successful young writers. 

Here are some things we can attend to in our teaching which will make a difference:

  • The amount of explicit writing instruction we provide, and the time we give children to apply what’s been taught to their writing. In our model, children routinely receive a dedicated writing lesson every day, lasting at least 60 minutes. The structure of the lesson typically follows: a mini-lesson, a sustained period of writing, opportunity to read and discuss what’s been written [LINK].
  • The content of the instruction. In our model, teachers usually model and teach one thing during a mini lesson. This item is chosen by the teacher in response to the needs of the genre being written but also to the writing needs of the class [LINK]. 
  • The quality of how the instruction is delivered. In our model, instruction is direct and highly focused, with clearly stated purposes and good explanations, and allowing children time to use and apply what’s just been taught.
  • The sequence of how the instruction is delivered. In our model, children are regularly directed and supported through the processes involved in taking a germ of an idea and seeing it through to successful publication [LINK]. 

These considerations are an essential part of the Writing For Pleasure approach, which you can read about in our eBook The Science of Teaching Primary Writing. One of the great strengths of the Writerly Knowledge Model is that it matches evidence-based writing instruction recommendations.

As you’ll see, the model above explains what ‘writerly knowledge’ entails. It shows a collection of the kinds of knowledge which children will acquire over time, through high-quality instruction and repeated meaningful practice. Again, you can read about what each kind of knowledge encompasses in our eBook The Science Of Teaching Primary Writing.

To give you a typical example: in the section on Sentence Knowledge we share that, when children are taught at the sentence-level through the principles of SRSD instruction, their writing performance improves and they produce higher quality texts (Young & Ferguson 2023).

In The Science Of Teaching Primary Writing, you’ll see how we suggest practical instructional practices and provide resources to match each kind of writerly knowledge that needs to be developed. This, alongside developing the social aspects of learning to be a writer, sets our approach apart from the other models you mention.

Finally, to help you evaluate your school’s existing practice and to consider how you develop the different writerly knowledges in your school, we have attached a free audit tool.

If In Doubt, Circle It Out! How To Create A Class Of Independent Spellers

The Standards & Testing Agency have in some ways made the marking of spellings more problematic than it’s ever been. They state quite clearly that individual spellings should no longer be pointed out to children  if you wish to mark it as an independent piece. This, coupled with Ofsted’s move away from heavy amounts of marking needing to be seen in books, could make the marking of spelling seem tricky.

What the The Standards & Testing Agency do say is that you can tell a child, through marking or conferencing, that there are spelling errors in certain paragraphs that they’ve written. This is quite sensible if we wish to develop children as independent spellers [LINK].

We have tried to create a culture of independent spellers in our classroom by splitting up the writing process for children – and you can read more about that here

We’ve taught our pupils, at the very beginning of the year, that when they are writing, and they get to a word they want to use but can’t spell, they are to:

‘Sound Spell’ It -> Circle It -> Continue.

A good body of research has shown how sound spellings play an important role in helping children learn how to write (LINK, LINK, Young & Ferguson 2023). When children use sound spellings, they are in fact exercising their growing knowledge of phonemes and their confidence in the alphabetic principle. It also indicates that the child is thinking on their own about the relationship between letters, sounds and words. This also aids their reading.

Once at the proof-reading stage, they attend to these spellings by looking them up on the computer or by using a dictionary. If it’s a common word, they sometimes look in their reading book at how another author spelt it. Alternatively, they use their electronic speller checkers or one of the smart speakers in the classroom. This has proved very successful in identifying maybe 80% of spelling errors within a piece.

If In Doubt, Circle It Out

At the end of a writing session, you can also give pupils around 5 minutes to ‘If In Doubt, Circle It Out’. This is where children, alongside their talk-partners, circle any ‘unsure spellings’ – spellings they think they might need to attend to at the proof-reading stage. This might take care of a further 15% of spellings. Finally, as their writer-teachers, will can look to identify where the last 5% spellings might be hiding through our pupil-conferences!

What we don’t do during writing time is regularly spell words for our pupils. Doing so would transform us from ‘writer-teachers’ to human dictionaries. When we make a habit of spelling words for children, our students are simply taking up dictation. This is not how spelling is learned. Just the opposite in fact. Students learn to spell by approximation and then seeing the conventional form (Jacobson, 2010, p.41). They also require explicit spelling instruction.

We should add that the children in our class take the proof-reading of their manuscripts very seriously because they know it’s being published to a genuine readership. We talk about the importance of publishing – here

To find out more about helping children proof-read their manuscripts to a high level of accuracy, please see our publication: No More: ‘My Pupils Can’t Edit!’ A Whole-School Approach To Developing Proof-Readers

From The Victorian To Gove To Keegan: How Far Has The English Curriculum Really Come?

By Felicity Ferguson

“We must not delay! Upon the speedy provision of elementary education depends our industrial prosperity. It is of no use trying to give technical teaching to our artizans without elementary education….If we leave our workfolk any longer unskilled, notwithstanding their strong sinews and determined energy, they will become over-matched in the competition of the world. If we are to hold our position among men of our own race or among the nations of the world we must make up the smallness of our numbers by increasing the intellectual force of the individual.”

In 1870, an Education Act was passed which paved the way for the achievement by the end of the century of compulsory free state education for children between the ages of five and thirteen. The driving force behind the Act was clearly articulated above by W.E. Forster in his speech to the House in February of that year. The education of the masses came also to be seen as a possible and desirable solution to problems of social unrest and rising crime, and to carry the important function of socialization, to be achieved through the inculcation of such moral values as piety, honesty, industry and, significantly, obedience. These principles are surely held good in schools today, though promoted in a different vocabulary.

What has changed, and what remains the same? It’s hardly necessary to point to the similarity between the annual testing carried out by the Victorian inspectorate to enable children to progress through a series of narrowly defined Standards in literacy and numeracy, and today’s high-stakes SATS testing, in both cases linked to payment by results and indicative of political control. This blog post will focus on the state of literacy teaching in the newly established Board Schools of the 1870s, and what primary schools are directed to do in this field a century and a half later.

There is no doubt that the literacy curriculum at the beginning of the 1870s was essentially utilitarian and limited, as defined by the Revised Code of 1861. The Code had set up benchmarks in reading which are depressingly reductionist in nature.

  • Standard 2: Read a short paragraph from an elementary reading book.
  • Standard 4: Read a few lines of poetry or prose (chosen by the Inspector)
  • Standard 5: Read a short paragraph in a newspaper or other modern narrative.
  • Standard 6: Read with fluency and expression.

However, as the decade progressed, the Inspectorate began to complain about the mechanical nature of children’s reading (the legacy of payment by results), and so the Standards were modified to include the phrase ‘read with intelligence’. What I found surprising is that, in a popular series of reading textbooks called the’ Royal Readers’, written for a highly specific audience, mention is made of reading for pleasure:

The lessons are designed so to interest young people as to induce them to read, not as task-work merely, but for the pleasure of the thing. The pieces are calculated to allure the children to read, and to make them delight in the power of reading.

The use of the word ‘allure’ is significant here, and demonstrates a degree of awareness absent from the updated National Curriculum of 2014, which refers (for the first time in its history) to reading for pleasure, but states that it should be taught. How do you teach children to enjoy reading? Creating the conditions for children to realise the ‘allure’ and ‘delight’ of reading is far more to the point. And that is best achieved through the kind of reciprocal relationships which can be established between pupils as readers and teachers as readers themselves, described in ‘Building Communities of Engaged Readers’ (Cremin et al, 2014).

Incidentally, the requirement in the National Curriculum that children should read ‘fluently and with confidence’ by the end of KS2 ‘in preparation for reading in secondary school subjects’  is very close linguistically to the reductionist Standard 6 quoted above. One might also draw attention to the fact that the Reading Programme of Study for 2014 identifies only two ‘dimensions’ of reading –  comprehension and word-reading.

It is worth mentioning here an article in the Guardian by Michael Rosen, in which he expresses concern that reading “has come to mean something narrow and functional, no more than evidence that a child can read”.  He points to the SATS as “producing a way of reading that is dominated by the ‘facts’ of a piece of writing and knowing the ‘right ’order of events in a story”. Some classroom materials which purport to ‘teach’ and ‘test’ reading comprehension surely contribute to this effect. They use as their tools short extracts or excerpts, albeit from well-known stories, which may well not give encouragement to the reading of whole books. The reading anthologies of the 1870s used widely in Board schools are comprised precisely of such extracts, and are sometimes similarly followed by questions to ascertain the extent of comprehension.   

The Standards for writing in 1870 are equally pared-down and are directed towards what might be strictly useful to the young working-class male, such as, perhaps, composing a letter of application for employment:

  • Standard 1: Copy in manuscript character a line of print; write a few dictated words.
  • Standard 2 : A sentence from an elementary reading book, slowly read once and then dictated in single words.
  • Standard 5: A short paragraph from a newspaper…slowly dictated once, a few words at a time.
  • Standard 6: A short theme or letter, or an easy paraphrase.

The criteria for assessment included correct spelling and punctuation, exemplary handwriting and a demonstration of some knowledge of grammatical terms. My own grandmother, a later beneficiary of the 1870 Act, recalled ‘parsing ‘ in her lessons – the ‘taking apart’ of a sentence and the naming of the constituent parts. The emphasis of the literacy lessons was on transcription, grammatical terminology and a simplistic description of grammatical functions. Despite there being no research to support the view that this kind of formal, terminology-driven teaching of grammar has a positive impact on the quality of children’s writing, and with some research claiming it has a negative impact (Graham & Perin, 2007), the English curriculum of today demonstrates a marked similarity to nineteenth century thinking. In connection with the focus on transcription in the modern curriculum, in 1967 John Dixon made the point, so resonant of today’s practice, that ‘a sense of the social system of writing has so inhibited and overawed many teachers that they have never given a pupil the feeling that what he writes is his own’. Original composition did not feature at all in the Board School conception of writing. It doesn’t feature in today’s  National Curriculum either. Generating an original idea gets no mention at all. In the Programmes of Study for Key Stage 2, transcription takes precedence over composition, and the teacher’s main job is to “consolidate writing skills, vocabulary, grasp of sentence structure and knowledge of linguistic terminology” and to insist on joined cursive handwriting.

Within the context of Empire in the late 19th century, roles needed to be defined for all levels of society. Cecil Reddie, headmaster of Abbotsholme (public) School, linked them to the objectives of  a class-based three-level education system. There should be, he asserted,

  1. The school for the Briton who will be one of the muscle-workers…
  2. The school for the Briton whose work requires knowledge of the modern world…
  3. The school for the Briton who… is to be a leader…’.

We can discern strong elements of this structure alive today, in both our cultural and political life. The authoritarian class-based stance typical of the Victorian educators is still very much in evidence in our own time, as the observations in the next paragraph will show.

In the area of school literacy in 1870, the prevailing belief was that working-class children were not able to comprehend ‘literature’, hence the absence from school textbooks of the work of established writers of fiction. Dickens, one of the most popular writers of the time, is not included in the’ Royal Readers’, even in extract form. Perhaps he was considered subversive by the editors of the series because of his championing of the poor? Thus, these school-children were effectively denied a place at the literature table. In our blog ‘They won’t have anything to write about’, which we recommend you to read here, we reveal similar assumptions about class in our own day and age. We believe that those children deemed to be at a social and cultural disadvantage are more likely than others to be deprived of the chance to choose their own writing topics and have them validated as legitimate subjects for writing in school. By denying the validity of the cultural reference points of these twenty-first century children and assigning to them teacher-chosen subjects for writing, we as teachers effectively withhold from them, now and in the future, the possibility of having the agency and empowerment to express their own concerns, passions and preoccupations, and of making changes for themselves and others through the writing of their own texts. We as teachers are also under-valuing the importance of children’s own lives and experiences. This is morally and socially dangerous. Current pedagogy is producing writers as consumers (or at best imitators) of other people’s ideas, when we as teachers should really be producing a generation of writers of original content who come to realise early on that they have a  writing voice and a script of their own and how to use it. That we are not doing this is part of an ideology of the teacher as the controller and regulator of production. It is the main indicator that we have not, in one hundred and fifty years, come anything like as far in our thinking about the function of writing and reading in school (and after) as we would like to believe.


  • Cremin,T., Mottram, M., Collins, F.M., Powell, S., Safford, K., (2014) Building Communities of Engaged Readers, London: Routledge.
  • Dixon, J.(1969) Growth through English, NATE,Oxford.
  • Ferguson, F. (2005) Learning to Know their Place, M.A. dissertation, pub.in Children’s Literature in Education, Sept. 2006, Vol.37, No.3.
  • Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007) Writing Next: Effective Strategies To Improve Writing Of Adolescents In Middle School & High Schools Alliance For Excellent Education
  • Loane, G., (2010, revised 2017) Developing Young Writers in the Classroom, Routledge.
  • Rosen, M., (2008)  Death of the Bookworm, guardian.co.uk, 16th September 2008.

Sentence-level instruction: Our viewpoint

“We are all of us, of school age and older, in the sentences game. Sentences are our writing commons, the shared ground where every writer walks. A poet works with them, but so does the unsung author who came up with Items trapped in doors cause delays or Store in a cool, dry place. Every kind of writer writes in sentences.” – Joe Moran, First You Write A Sentence.

In school, writing sentences has become a hot topic, and rightly so. We make many demands on children in their writing lessons (Young & Ferguson 2022a). They must write in different genres and for a variety of purposes and audiences. They must have content for their writing, and know what they want to say. They must be able to write fluently, expressing what they mean clearly and simply, understanding how grammar and syntax make this possible. We would like them to be able to see how words join up and why some sentences work better than others. We would also like them to develop a personal writing style and a writing identity. None of these aims can be met without children having knowledge about sentences and how to write them. Therefore, we at the Writing for Pleasure Centre treat sentence-level instruction with the utmost seriousness.

This viewpoint summarises what we have written about sentence-level instruction in our eBook for teachers (Young & Ferguson 2022b) and in our other blogposts which are listed at the end of this article.

General principles informing our viewpoint

  • Central to our position is that, to be effective and meaningful, instruction should take place in the context of what the children are engaged in writing that day (LINK). The production of sentences must be grounded in real writing. Many other approaches do not make this point.
  • Sentences are first conceived at text-level. A sentence is produced in response to a writer’s awareness of audience, purpose, content and genre. We need to ensure that this base is established by generating publishing goals and reading as writers (Young & Ferguson 2023a). Children should also create a plan for their composition (Young & Ferguson 2023b) before we begin teaching at the sentence-level. Many approaches do not take account of this.
  • In the context of writing lessons, children will benefit from writing about a topic of their own choice within the parameters of a class writing project (see LINK and Young & Ferguson 2022c). Using one’s own content knowledge is cognitively beneficial; familiar content is stored in long term memory, freeing up children’s limited working memory to concentrate on the task of writing a sentence. Few approaches support children’s agency to choose their own writing topic, thereby missing the opportunity to make writing easier for children. Children also miss out on writing with voice and developing a personal style.
  • We recognise that a sentence is produced in the context of the other sentences which have preceded and will follow it. This is a further reason why it’s a mistake to focus instruction on sentences removed from a real compositional context (LINK).
  • There must be in-built opportunities throughout the writing process for children to play with, revisit, change and adapt their sentences, put them alongside other sentences, and learn to love the feel of different possibilities (Young & Ferguson 2022b).
  • We need to fully acknowledge the importance of the reading/writing connection. Children and teachers together should read a wide variety of mentor texts and look for the particular sentence craft moves an author has made. They discuss the function of these moves in the piece, and quickly learn that they can use them too in their own writing (LINK). We also encourage teachers and children to record in a personal notebook the great sentences they encounter in their wider reading and would like to use themselves (Young & Ferguson 2020).

Sentence-level instruction

Our instructional advice about writing sentences is always directed towards helping children say what they mean, write with clarity and simplicity, achieve their purpose, develop a personal writing style and identity, and know that they can choose from an array of sentence possibilities. Our model of instruction is grounded in research, and allows teachers to be responsive to the needs of their class at any time (Young & Ferguson 2022b).

Writing sentences in the EYFS & KS1: Bookmaking projects

  • Instruction should begin on their first day of school (Young & Ferguson 2023c).
  • Instruction helps children gradually develop writing fluency (LINK).
  • Instruction is given through book-making projects, and puts the focus on function and making and sharing meaning. Many other instructional approaches to early sentence-writing insist on the decontextualised learning of skills as a precursor to the composing and transcription of sentences. Research would suggest that this is an instructional mistake (Young & Ferguson 2023d; Cabell et al. 2023).

Book-making projects offer the best possible early apprenticeship in the understanding and writing of sentences. They naturally support it. When making a book, children learn that there must be a drawing and some ‘writing’ on every page. Each drawing elicits a spoken sentence which they can write down, using their own form of writing. Children begin to understand that each sentence represents a complete thought with a beginning and an end, and will come to see that beginnings and endings can be marked by capitalisation and end punctuation. In time they will write both simple and compound sentences, and will progress to writing longer ’chapter books’ containing multiple and varied sentences (see Young & Ferguson 2023c and Young & Ferguson 2022b for more details).

Writing sentences in KS1 and KS2

Our viewpoint on sentence-level instruction at Key Stage One and Key Stage Two can be summarised as: teach, then invite. Children receive and discuss one item of direct sentence-level instruction, delivered in the form of a mini-lesson. They are then asked to try out this technique in their own writing that very day. This procedure is in keeping with the principles of SRSD instruction (self regulation strategy development instruction), which research has shown to be one of the most effective teaching strategies a teacher of writing can use.

An individual lesson will include:

  • Reference to the success criteria (product goals) agreed on by teacher and children after reading a variety of mentor texts (Young & Ferguson 2023a).
  • Naming and discussing one particular sentence-level craft move related to the success criteria, explaining its function.
  • Showing how and why the writer has used it in one of the mentor texts studied. 
  • Inviting the class to try out this move in their writing that day.
  • Evaluating use of the move during pupil-conferencing (Ferguson & Young 2021).
  • Ending the session by sharing how children have used it for themselves (LINK).

Making and displaying a poster based on the mini-lesson is an invaluable strategy which supports sentence-level instruction (Young & Ferguson 2022b). A poster reminds children that they have added a craft move to their writerly knowledge which they can use at any time.

Finally, re-reading is a powerful strategy which must not be underestimated. Children need to read and audit their own sentences. They can re-read them aloud or have a peer read them at any time during the writing process (LINK). 

More articles 

  • Imaginative writing: Our viewpoint [LINK]
  • Teaching grammar: our viewpoint [LINK]
  • Guidance on teaching at the sentence-level [LINK]
  • Where’s the research on teaching at the sentence-level? [LINK]
  • The components of effective sentence-level instruction [LINK]
  • Guidance on what NOT to do when teaching at the sentence-level [LINK]
  • How do we develop writing fluency? [LINK]

Using focus groups to teach writing

“Hi Ross, can you point me in the direction of any research on the effectiveness of focus groups when teaching writing?”


Research, particularly case studies observing the best performing writing teachers, suggests that small group writing instruction can be a powerful way to teach writing. Group instruction is great because it allows teachers to provide more explicit and direct instruction and they can observe and provide more live verbal feedback and responsive teaching to students who need it most.

✅ Increased engagement. Small groups naturally fosters more active participation and engagement among students compared to whole-class instruction.

✅ Peer collaboration. Small groups can naturally encourage peer collaboration, revision and proof-reading. Small group instruction also supports the social and emotional development of students by fostering positive interactions, empathy, and oral language and listening comprehension development (Young & Ferguson 2022). Students in small groups often take more ownership of their writing and are motivated by the collaborative process of crafting and sharing their writing.

✅ Improved writing quality. Research suggests that students can produce higher-quality writing when they receive targeted direct instruction and regular live verbal feedback (Ferguson & Young 2021).

✅ Enhanced revision and proof-reading skills. Small group discussions can focus on the use of revision strategies and help students develop the ability to critically review and improve their writing (Young et al. 2021 and Young & Ferguson 2023b).

However, the effectiveness of small group instruction can vary depending on factors such as the teacher’s subject and pedagogical knowledge, the classroom environment, and the class’ ability to self and co-regulate. It’s essential that teachers consider these factors before implementing small group instruction in their classrooms.

Recommended strategies:

Here are some tips on how to deliver writing instruction to small groups:

  • Bring children together based on their writing needs (Young & Ferguson 2023).
  • Focus on teaching one or two specific craft move strategies at a time. Just like whole-class instruction, follow the principles of SRSD instruction when delivering group instruction. For more information, see our article here.
  • Provide students with opportunities to give and receive peer feedback on how they’ve applied the taught strategy. For more information, see our article here.
  • Provide live verbal feedback to individuals and make sure you’re moving their writing forward (Ferguson & Young 2021).
  • As their writer-teacher, withdraw and work on your own writing when the group is working productively. Be there to provide additional support but only when you’re needed. Use the writing you’re crafting to help you with that support (Young & Ferguson 2023). 

✅ Create a community of writers. For group instruction to work, you need to create a positive and supportive learning environment. You need to create a classroom culture where students feel comfortable sharing their writing and asking each other for help. They need to be able to co-regulate.

✅ Personal writing projects. Personal writing projects are essential if you want group instruction to work in your classroom. For example, it’s important to set up a routine where children know to work on their own personal writing project once they have finished the process goal for that particular writing lesson. This stops students from interrupting you while you are working with your group.

You may want to meet and work with all the pupils in small groups over a number of days. For example, during the revision stage of a class writing project where you are assessing the children’s manuscripts against the class’ agreed product goals (success criteria). The rest of the class should know to work on their personal writing projects during this time.

It’s also possible to find yourself in a position where you want to meet with a small group who, for whatever reason, struggled with the previous day’s lesson. For example, at the planning stage of a class writing project, you may find that a handful of children could really benefit from some additional planning time, feedback and instruction. The rest of your class’ plans are good to go. In this situation, you want the rest of your class to work on their personal writing projects while you work with your specific group that day.

Recommended research

📝 Dix, S., Cawkwell, G. (2011) The influence of peer group response: Building a teacher and student expertise in the writing classroom, English Teaching: Practice and Critique, 10(4), 41–57 [LINK]

This paper discusses the influence of peer group response – a case study teacher’s workshop experiences that transformed her professional identity, building her confidence and deepening her understanding of self as writer and ultimately transforming this expertise into her writing classroom practice.

📝 Hall, K., Harding, A. (2003) A Systematic Review of Effective Literacy Teaching in the 4 to 14 Age Range of Mainstream Schooling London: Institute of Education [LINK]

Although there has been an interest in ‘effective schools’ and ‘effective teaching’ for decades now, it is only recently that there has been a specific focus on literacy and especially on those characteristics and practices of teachers who appear to be successful in their teaching of literacy. We know a great deal about how children acquire literacy and develop as readers and writers, but we are only just beginning to understand more fully the ways and means through which successful teachers promote healthy literacy growth amongst their students. Many curriculum approaches and packages have been found both to work and to fail; what seems critical is the skills of the teacher. We need to know more about how to recognise ‘effective’ teachers of literacy and to understand more fully the kinds of professional knowledge, beliefs and classroom actions that are associated with the successful teaching of literacy

The synthesis of the 12 studies in the in-depth review showed that effective teachers of literacy have a wide and varied repertoire of teaching practices and approaches (e.g. scaffolding, where support in learning is initially provided by the teacher and then gradually withdrawn as the pupil gains in confidence) integrating reading with writing, differentiated instruction, excellent classroom management skills) and they can intelligently and skilfully blend them together in different combinations according to the needs of individual pupils. 

Effective literacy teachers are especially alert to children’s progress and can step in and utilise the appropriate method or practice to meet the child’s instructional needs. The ‘effective’ teacher of literacy uses an unashamedly eclectic collection of methods which represents a balance between the direct teaching of skills and more holistic approaches. This means that they balance direct skills teaching with more authentic, contextually-grounded literacy activities. They avoid the partisan adherence to any one sure-fire approach or method. The synthesis of the three studies (in which teacher effectiveness was empirically demonstrated) that underwent the second and more rigorous stage of in-depth reviewing suggests the actions that teachers can take to promote literacy development in the early years of school. These are as follows: 

  • Balance (direct skills instruction and more contextually-grounded literacy activities)
  • Integration (integrating literacy modes, and linking with other curricular areas)
  • Pupil Engagement (on-task behaviour and pupil self-regulation)
  • Teaching Style (involving differentiated instruction – incorporating extensive use of scaffolding and coaching and careful and frequent monitoring of pupil progress)
  • Links With Parents And Local Community 

There simply is no one single critical variable that defines outstanding literacy instruction. According to the research evidence, however, there is a cluster of beliefs and practices like scaffolding, the encouragement of self-regulation, high teacher expectations, and expert classroom management.

📝 Parr, J.M., Limbrick, L. (2010) Contextualising practice: Hallmarks of effective teachers of writing, Teaching and Teacher Education, 26(3), 583–590 [LINK]

This study identifies practices of effective teachers of writing. Three schools with significantly higher achievement in an area that underperforms nationally were identified and within them teachers whose students exhibited superior progress were selected. Common was: 

  • A commitment to formative assessment practices.
  • Classroom environments supportive of student literacy learning. 

Hallmarks of exceptional teachers included: 

  • Students having a greater awareness of their learning
  • A focus on a sense of purpose and meaningfulness in their writing projects. 
  • A coherence or connectedness to class writing projects 
  • A consistent and systematic routine to their writing lessons and projects.

This paper argues that student achievement in writing is likely to be higher when teachers exhibit strengths in these hallmarks.

📝 Langer, J.A. (2001) Beating the odds: Teaching middle and high school students to read and write well, American Educational Research Journal, 38(4), 837–880 [LINK]

This study investigated the characteristics of instruction that accompany student achievement in reading, writing, and English. Analyses specified six features that permeated the environments and provided marked distinctions between higher and more typically performing schools. In higher performing schools: 

  • Instruction in the knowledge and conventions of English and high literacy take place as separated and simulated as well as integrated experiences.
  • Test preparation is interpreted as encompassing the underlying skills and knowledge needed to do well in coursework as well as on tests and integrated into the ongoing class time, as part of the ongoing English language arts curriculum.
  • Overt connections are constantly made among knowledge, skills, and ideas across lessons, classes, and grades as well as across in-school and out-of-school applications.
  • Students are overtly taught strategies for thinking about ideas as well as completing activities.
  • Even after achievement goals are met, teachers move beyond those immediate goals toward students’ deeper understandings and generativity of ideas.
  • The content and skills of English are taught as social activity, with depth and complexity of understanding and proficiency with conventions growing from collaborative discourse.

📝 Medwell, J., Wray, D., Poulson, L., Fox, R. (1998) Effective Teachers of Literacy A Report Commissioned by the UK Teacher Training Agency London [LINK]

A study was commissioned to help the Teacher Training Agency and teachers in England to understand more clearly how effective teachers help children to become literate. Findings suggest that effective teachers of literacy: 

  • Believe it is important to make it explicit that the purpose of teaching literacy is enabling their pupils to create meaning using text.
  • Centred their teaching around “shared texts”.
  • Teach aspects of reading/writing such as decoding and spelling in a systematic, structured way.
  • Emphasise to their pupils the functions of what they were learning in literacy.
  • Have developed strong and coherent personal philosophies about the teaching of literacy.
  • Have well-developed systems for monitoring children’s progress and needs in literacy.
  • Have had considerable experience of in-service activities in literacy.

📝 Young, R. (2019) What is it ‘Writing For Pleasure’ teachers do that makes the difference? The Goldsmiths’ Company: The University Of Sussex [LINK]

What Is It “Writing For Pleasure” Teachers Do That Makes The Difference? was a one year research project which investigated how Writing For Pleasure teachers achieve writing teaching which is highly effective (greater than average progress) and also affective (pertaining to positive dispositions and feelings).

Findings showed that teachers who teach the principles of Writing For Pleasure at a high level of proficiency have classes who feel the greatest enjoyment and satisfaction in writing and in being a writer. Writing For Pleasure teachers attend to self-efficacy, agency and self-regulation in a rich combination. Some principles of Writing For Pleasure were not observed at a high level of proficiency by the teachers as a whole data set and so need to be further investigated. The affective domains of motivation and writer-identity were not realised adequately by the pupils as a whole data set and so need to be further investigated. Finally, a Writing For Pleasure pedagogy is a highly effective pedagogy.

📝 Gadd, M. (2014) What is Critical in the Effective Teaching of Writing? Auckland: The University of Auckland [LINK]

In this paper, Gadd (2014) defines eight dimensions of effective practice and instructional strategies. They are as follows:

  • Learning Tasks – Select or construct writing topics that students can identify as purposeful. Involve students in selecting and/or constructing their own writing topics. Devise open-ended learning tasks that can be undertaken over an extended time period. Promote the purposefulness of the writing topic at the beginning of lessons.
  • Lesson Learning Goals – Involve students in the development of future lesson learning goals. Set a clear learning goal for the lesson that is generally related to a stage of the writing process.
  • Expectations – Have a clear vision of what most students can reasonably be expected to achieve within the lesson. Communicate expectations clearly through displays and resources.
  • Direct Instruction – Demonstrate clearly what students are expected to do. Either through ‘active demonstrating’ (constructing an exemplar or part of an example live) or ‘receptive demonstration’ (provided a pre-written exemplar). Active demonstration is said to be far more effective however. Build on what the students have practised already. Look out for and take advantage of ‘teachable moments’ during the lesson to provide instruction that is clearly linked to the learning goal.
  • Responding to Learners – Ask high-level, meta-cognitive and text-related questions of the children whilst they write. Indicate ‘next steps’ to students when commenting (verbally or written-feedback) on their writing. Get children to address any verbal feedback there and then. Use a range of ways to respond to students’ efforts.
  • Engagement and Challenge – Attend to learning needs through individualised or small group instruction. Ensure students understand how their current lesson links to the future lesson(s).
  • Organisation and Management – Break writing into easily identifiable stages. Set manageable time allocations during lessons. Provide sufficient opportunities for students to practise writing during lessons (on average 2.5 hours a week). Make contact with as many children as possible during the lesson. Ensure that the classroom operates to regularly repeated routines and clear behavioural expectations.
  • Self-regulation – Encourage students to use resources to plan, write, revise, edit and present texts independently. Give time and opportunities for students to write on self-selected topics. Encourage students to write outside writing time (through a home/school writing notebook). Provide opportunities for students to look at their writing collaboratively. Students to set personal learning goals after each piece they complete.

Gadd (2014) suggests that effective teachers of writing employ all dimensions in strategic combination with each other. The effectiveness of each dimension is contingent on its inter-connectedness to other dimensions within the same pedagogical context. The research makes clear that instructional writing actions and activities are effective if regarded as purposeful by learners and if they include meaningful opportunities for learner involvedness. Through his research, Gadd makes it evident that what is suggested here as effective pedagogy for all learners is a particularly effective pedagogy for less experienced writers. What is good for some is in fact good for all.

Recommended literature

  • Reutzel, D.R. (2007) Organising effective literacy instruction: Differentiating instruction to meet the needs of all children, Best Practices in Literacy Instruction, Gambrell, L.B., Morrow, L.M., and Pressley, M. (Eds.) (pp. 313–434). New York: The Guilford Press
  • Graham, S., & Harris, K. (2005) Writing better: Effective strategies for teaching students with learning difficulties Brookes Publishing Company
  • Serravallo, J. (2021) Teaching Writing In Small Groups Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

Guidance on what NOT to do when teaching at the sentence-level

Teaching students to construct coherent and meaningful sentences is essential if we want them to convey their ideas happily and successfully (Young & Ferguson 2022). Sadly, teaching at the sentence-level is too often overlooked or neglected.

In our previous blog post, we shared guidance on how to teach at the sentence-level efficiently and effectively. In this article, we will share what you probably shouldn’t do when thinking about teaching at the sentence-level.

⚠️ Avoid overloading

Don’t overwhelm with too much information about sentence structure all at once. Keep instruction & explanation elegant and explicit. We recommend following the principles of SRSD instruction. You can find our more here.

⚠️ Don’t rush children’s development

Remember, young writers are still developing their oral language, encoding and fine motor skills, so be patient & develop ALL aspects of writing fluency slowly but concurrently. You can find out more about developing fluency in writing here.

⚠️ Avoid DRILLING for terminology

Refrain from drilling complex grammar terminology. Instead, focus on practical and functional aspects of sentence structure, such as capitalisation & punctuation. You can read more about this here and here.

⚠️ Don’t stifle children’s initiative

Avoid stifling creativity and experimentation by insisting on rigid sentence structures. Encourage creative expression – even if it means sentences are INITIALLY less conventional.

⚠️ Avoid overcorrecting

While correctness is important, don’t make it the sole focus. Encourage students to express themselves happily. Correctness comes gradually as we mature as writers. Children have fragile & developing writer-identities and egos. Don’t overcorrect every error in early sentence writing. Prioritise positive reinforcement over constant correction to maintain a positive attitude towards writing. Remember, a good writing lesson is one where the writer wants to write again tomorrow.

⚠️ Don’t skip idea generation & planning activities

Don’t skip pre-writing activities in your eagerness to have students write sentences. Children should learn the complete writer’s process. For more information and resources for teaching idea generation and planning, follow these two links [LINK] and [LINK].

⚠️ Avoid developmentally inappropriate expectations

Recognise that young learners are just beginning to understand the concept of sentences, and their writing will reflect this stage of development. Again, see our advice on developing writing fluency.

Remember that teaching writing to children is about fostering a positive attitude towards being a writer and building fluency. It’s a developmental process, and the goal is to gradually guide them toward more advanced writing skills as they grow.

Where’s the research on teaching at the sentence-level?

“Dear Ross and Felicity. Our school is looking to focus on teaching children about sentences. However, I would like to read some of the research around this before we start making any instructional changes. Can you point me in the direction of some?”


Firstly, it’s great to hear that your school is deciding to focus its attention on sentence-level instruction. We’ve already written a number of articles about how sentences are the building blocks of writing:

  • Guidance on teaching at the sentence-level [LINK
  • How do we develop writing fluency? [LINK
  • The components of effective sentence-level instruction [LINK]

Teaching students to construct coherent and meaningful sentences is essential if we want them to convey their thoughts and ideas happily and successfully (Young & Ferguson 2022). But what does the research say?

The aim of this article is to share a list of research papers (and associated literature) which investigates what it means to teach children at the sentence-level.

📝 Limpo, T., & Alves, R. (2013) Teaching planning or sentence-combining strategies: Effective SRSD interventions at different levels of written composition, Contemporary Educational Psychology, 38,328–341 [LINK]

This study tested the effectiveness of two strategy-focused interventions aimed at promoting fifth and sixth graders’ opinion essay writing. Over 12 weekly 90-min lessons, two groups of 48 and 39 students received, respectively, planning and sentence-combining instruction, which followed the Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) model. These intervention groups were compared with a practice control group of 39 students receiving standard writing instruction. The following main findings were noteworthy: 

  • Planning and sentence-combining instruction enhanced planning and sentence-construction skills
  • The treatment increased opinion essay quality and text length
  • Planning instruction enhanced not only discourse-level writing but also some sentence- and word-level aspects of composition
  • Sentence-combining instruction enhanced not only sentence- and word-level writing but also some discourse-level aspects of composition
  • After instruction, there was a correlation between self-efficacy and writing quality

📝 Weaver, C., Bush, J., Anderson, J., and Bills, P. (2006) Grammar intertwined throughout the writing process: An inch wide and a mile deep, English Teaching: Practice & Critique, 5(1), 77–101 [LINK]

Drawing on theory and practice, the authors of this paper argue that, rather than trying to “cover” all grammatical skills, something traditionally done in many classrooms, and with limited results, teachers can teach grammar with better results by focusing on key grammatical options and skills in the context of actual writing, throughout the writing process and over time.

The article includes specific examples of teachers integrating grammar within writing instruction, as supported by theoretically and pedagogically sound practices. The article also presents a planning framework for teachers seeking to integrate grammar more effectively in their classrooms. Particularly emphasised is the value of using literature as a source for grammatical examples and skills. Sections also address specific adaptations for elementary writing workshops and the teaching of editing.

📝 Walter, K., Dockrell, J., Connelly, V. (2021) A sentence-combining intervention for struggling writers: response to intervention, Reading & Writing, 34 pp.1825-1850 [LINK]

Children who struggle with writing are a heterogeneous group and may experience difficulties in a range of domains, including spelling, reading, and oral language. These difficulties are reflected in their writing and may influence their responsiveness to writing interventions. 

Children receiving a sentence-combining intervention showed significant improvements. Findings indicate that when devising interventions for struggling writers, specific profiles of skills should be considered. Specifically, sentence combining may be more appropriate for students whose primary area of difficulty is reading, rather than poor spelling or oral language.

📝 Saddler, B., Ellis-Robinson, T., Asaro-Saddler, K. (2018) Using Sentence Combining Instruction to Enhance the Writing Skills of Children With Learning Disabilities, Learning Disabilities, 16(2) pp.191-202 [LINK]

One area of writing that may be particularly problematic, causing both academic and behavioural challenges for writers with learning disabilities, is constructing sentences. Sentences are the building blocks of coherent and effective writing and constructing syntactically correct and complex sentences is a critical skill characterising expert writing. Unfortunately, many students with learning disabilities struggle with this critical skill. These students may produce sentences with fewer words, less syntactic complexity, and more errors of spelling and grammar than their regularly achieving peers. 

For researchers and teachers of children with learning disabilities, improving sentence construction ability with empirically based interventions is imperative. In this review of literature a method to teach sentence construction, called sentence combining, is presented and current research providing support for the use of sentence combining as a method to improve sentence construction ability, overall writing quality, and quantity of revisions is summarised.

📝 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 [LINK]

This report offers a number of specific teaching techniques that research suggests will help 9-17 year old writers. The report focuses on all students, not just those who display writing difficulties, although this latter group is deservedly the focus of much attention. The premise of this report is that all students need to become proficient and flexible writers. In this report, the term “low-achieving writers” is used to refer to students whose writing skills are not adequate to meet classroom demands. Some of these low-achieving writers have been identified as having learning disabilities; others are the “silent majority” who lack writing proficiency but do not receive additional help. As will be seen in this report, some studies investigate the effects of writing instruction on groups of students across the full range of ability, from more effective to less effective writers, while others focus specifically on individuals with low writing proficiency. 

Eleven elements of current writing instruction found to be effective for helping adolescent students learn to write well and to use writing as a tool for learning are identified. It is important to note that all of the elements are supported by rigorous research, but that even when used together, they do not constitute a full writing curriculum. These elements are: 

  • Writing Strategies, which involves teaching students strategies for planning, revising, and editing their compositions
  • Summarization, which involves explicitly and systematically teaching students how to summarise texts
  • Collaborative Writing, which uses instructional arrangements in which adolescents work together to plan, draft, revise, and edit their compositions
  • Specific Product Goals, which assigns students specific, reachable goals for the writing they are to complete
  • Word Processing, which uses computers and word processors as instructional supports for writing assignments
  • Sentence Combining, which involves teaching students to construct more complex, sophisticated sentences
  • Prewriting, which engages students in activities designed to help them generate or organise ideas for their composition
  • Inquiry Activities, which engages students in analysing immediate, concrete data to help them develop ideas and content for a particular writing task
  • Process Writing Approach, which interweaves a number of writing instructional activities in a workshop environment that stresses extended writing opportunities, writing for authentic audiences, personalised instruction, and cycles of writing
  • Study of Models, which provides students with opportunities to read, analyse, and emulate models of good writing
  • Writing for Content Learning, which uses writing as a tool for learning content material

📝 Andrews, R., Torgerson, C., Beverton, S., Locke, T., Low, G., Robinson, A., and Zhu, D. (2006) The effect of grammar teaching on writing development, British Educational Research Journal, 32(1), 39–55 [LINK]

This article reports on the results of two international systematic research reviews which focus on different aspects of teaching grammar to improve the quality and accuracy of 5-16-year-olds’ writing in English. The results show that there is little evidence to indicate that the teaching of formal grammar is effective; and that teaching sentence-combining has a more positive effect. In both cases, however, despite over a hundred years of research and debate on the topic, there is insufficient quality of research to prove the case with either approach. More research is needed, as well as a review of policy and practice in England with regard to the teaching of sentence structure in writing.

📝 Keen, J. (2004) Sentence-combining and redrafting processes in the writing of secondary school students in the UK, Linguistics & Education, 15(1-2) pp.81-97 [£ – LINK}

This article builds on the established research on sentence combining with respect to students’ writing development. The findings are discussed in relation to the use of coordinating conjunctions, the subordinating conjunctions ‘as’ and ‘because’ and subordination other than explanatory ‘as’ and ‘because’. They suggest that aspects of grammatical development in students’ writing are integrally related to propositional meaning, cohesion and rhetorical effects, and in particular that redrafting can enable students to explore forms of expression in their own writing, that coordination and use of explanatory ‘as’ and ‘because’ can enable students to explore relationships between clauses in writing, and that a complex process of rank shift of clause types, including subordinate clauses, can enable students to enhance their clause planning and their ability to elaborate.

📝 Kolln, M. (1996) Rhetorical grammar: A modification lesson, English Journal, 85(7), 25–31 [LINK]

This article explores what “grammar” means and suggests that grammar has a place in the writing classroom. Kolln suggests that by modifying “grammar” with adjectives such as “functional” and “rhetorical” teachers can contribute to positive, meaningful changes in the language arts curriculum.

📝 Myhill, D. (2018) Grammar as a meaning-making resource for improving writing, L1-Educational Studies Language and Literature, 18, 1–21 [LINK]

This article reviews recent research which demonstrates that explicit grammar teaching can support learner outcomes in reading and writing. Drawing on a framework for grammar, which emphasises grammar as a resource for meaning-making, the article will offer a rationale for the inclusion of grammar in the curriculum. This argument will be evidenced with data from a series of related studies and will discuss:

  • Linking grammar and the learning of writing in a meaningful way
  • The role of talk in supporting the development of students’ metalinguistic knowledge students’ understanding of grammatical terms
  • The place of teachers’ grammatical subject knowledge in supporting a meaning-rich approach to the teaching of grammar

📝 Berninger, V., Nagy, W., Beers, S. (2011) Child writers’ construction and reconstruction of single sentences and construction of multi-sentence texts: Contributions of syntax and transcription to translation, Reading and Writing, 24, 151–182 [LINK]

For this study, children in grades one to four were asked to complete two sentence construction tasks: (1) Write one complete sentence about a topic prompt (2) Integrate two sentences into one complete sentence without changing meaning.

Most, but not all, children in first through fourth grade could write just one sentence. Many beginning writers have syntactic knowledge of what constitutes a complete sentence, but not until fourth grade do both syntax and transcription contribute uniquely to flexible translation of ideas into the syntax of a written sentence. For multi-sentence texts, more single, independent clauses were produced by pen than keyboard in grades 3 to 7. The most frequent category of complex clauses in multi-sentence texts varied with genre (relative for essays and subordinate for narratives). This means that in addition to sentence construction and word-level transcription, number of sentences, writing by pen or keyboard, and genre influence children’s translation of ideas into written language.

📝 Myhill, D. (2008) Towards a linguistic model of sentence development in writing, Language & Education, 22(5), 271–288 [LINK]

Drawing on the findings of a research study which included a detailed linguistic analysis of a large corpus of writing from secondary English classrooms, this article describes patterns of linguistic deployment at the level of the sentence. 

Given the limited number of applied linguistic studies which consider writing development in older writers, as opposed to primary aged writers, the paper aims to investigate developmental differences in mastery of the sentence in this older age group. It describes similarities and differences in linguistic characteristics of writing at sentence level according to age and writing ability, and makes connections between the linguistic patterns and effectiveness in writing. 

The paper illustrates that clear developmental trajectories in writing can be determined which have implications for appropriate pedagogical or instructional designs. Finally, the paper offers a linguistic model of sentence development in writing, and signals the potential significance of linguistic models within a multi-disciplinary approach to writing pedagogy.

I can also recommend our eBook:

Young, R., Ferguson, F. (2023) Sentence-Level Instruction: Lessons That Help Children Find Their Style & Voice For 3-11 Year Olds Brighton: The Writing For Pleasure Centre [LINK]

I can also recommend the following literature:

  • Saddler, B. (2019) Sentence combining, In Best Practices in Writing Instruction, Graham, S., MacArthur, C., and Hebert, M. (3rd Ed.) (pp. 240–261). New York: Guildford Press
  • Hudson, R. (2017) Grammar instruction, In Handbook of Writing Research, MacArthur, C., Graham, S., Fitzgerald, J. (Eds.) (pp. 288–300) (2nd Ed.). New York: Guildford Press

Good luck and happy writing!