Balance composition & transcription

When a child writes, they are often two distinct people. A composer and a secretary. Both need your teaching. Both need nurturing.

Description of the principle

Schools often have their own policies for the teaching of spelling and handwriting. However, studies emphasise that these skills are best learned in the context of a child’s purposeful and reader-focused writing. Mini-lessons on aspects of transcription should take place regularly and at the beginning of a writing session so children always have an opportunity to use and apply what they’ve just learnt. 

Spelling and punctuation should be largely self-monitored by children write, marking their text for items to be checked and corrected at their editing stage. Invented spellings should be seen as acceptable in the drafting stage, and handwriting skills are best practised when publishing a completed piece with an obvious purpose in mind. Research shows that there is no evidence to link the formal teaching of grammar with improvements in children’s writing (Young & Ferguson 2020). Successful writing teachers know that if grammar is to be understood in a meaningful way, it must be taught functionally and applied and examined in the context of real purposeful writing. Grammar teaching should therefore take place within mini-lessons and should, as far as possible, be useful and relevant to the children’s writing that day. It’s also important that children have mini-lessons devoted to sentence-level instruction (Young & Ferguson 2021) and craft moves (Young et al. 2021). This is when strategies and craft knowledge for the different writing processes are taught, such as techniques for proof-reading your manuscript, ‘dabbling’ around a writing idea or how to develop a character.

What Writing For Pleasure teachers do

  • Teachers focus on giving direct instruction in the ‘generalities’ of good writing. They teach writing lessons which will help that day but will also serve children in future writing projects too.
  • They ensure that they teach the right lessons at the right time, with the emphasis on composition at the beginning of a writing project and more focus on teaching good transcriptional techniques and strategies later.
  • Teachers have high expectations for transcriptional accuracy, spelling and handwriting and want children to take pride in their final written products. They encourage children to concentrate on composing their piece (or part of their piece) before giving full attention to making it transcriptionally accurate.
  • They allocate specific time for children to focus on revising their pieces prior to editing them. Thus, revision and editing have separate and specific status.
  • They also ask children to regularly stop, re-read and share their composition with their peers. By re-reading, the children have an opportunity to revise and edit their developing pieces as they are progressing.
  • There is a good balance between discussing what the content of the children’s writing projects might be, how the writing can be organised and successful, and the explicit teaching of different writing processes.
  • Teachers are very aware that, if grammar was to be understood in a meaningful way, it must be taught functionally and applied and examined in the context of real composition.

Reviewing your practice: questions to consider

  • How do you have high expectations for transcription, spelling, handwriting and teach them through regular mini-lessons?
  • How do you encourage children to concentrate on the composition of their piece before placing their attention on adherence to conventions?
  • How do you explicitly teach techniques for revising and editing?
  • After drafting, how do you ensure children have time to both revise and proof-read their pieces?
  • How do you encourage children to regularly re-read and share their developing compositions with their peers?
  • How do you teach grammar functionally; always with a view that your instruction will aid children’s writing that day?
  • How do you encourage children to use a variety of strategies for spelling including inventing spellings?
  • How do you provide children with resources and time in which to check invented and unsure spellings before publishing?
  • How do you teach handwriting and keyboard skills through the publishing of writing projects?

Supporting resources

  • eBook: No more: ‘My pupils can’t edit!’ A whole-school approach to developing proof-readers [LINK]
  • eBook: Grammar Mini-Lessons For 5-11 Year Olds [LINK]
  • eBook: Sentence-level instruction: Lessons that help children find their style & voice for 3-11 year olds [LINK]
  • eBook: The BIG BOOK of writing mini-lessons: lessons that teach powerful craft knowledge for 3-11 year olds [LINK]
  • Our Writing development scales and assessment toolkit [LINK]

Suggest further reading

  • Young, R. (2023) Guidance on teaching at the sentence-level [LINK]
  • Young, R. (2023) How do we develop writing fluency? [LINK]
  • Young, R. (2023) The components of an effective writing unit [LINK]
  • Young, R., Ferguson F. (2022) The components of effective sentence-level instruction [LINK]
  • Young, R., Ferguson, F., (2021) The research on handwriting [LINK]
  • Young, R., Ferguson, F., (2021) The research on spelling [LINK]
  • Young, R., Ferguson, F., (2022) Eight tips for developing great proof-readers [LINK]
  • Young, R., Ferguson, F., (2022) Top tips when talking to children about editing [LINK]
  • Young, R., Ferguson, F., (2022) More top tips when talking to children about editing [LINK]
  • Young, R., Ferguson, F., (2022) The secret to children doing great proof-reading [LINK]
Be reassuringly consistent

This chapter begins with a discussion of the importance of teaching the essential writing skills children require if they are to produce successful texts. This includes reflecting on the simple view of writing and what cognitive writing research has contributed to this area. The authors consider the cognitive load, metacognition, and demands on working memory involved when pupils compose and transcribe texts. They then explore what research and case studies into effective practice have been able to offer teachers in terms of successful and powerful writing instruction. The discussion includes developing children’s handwriting, typing, spelling, and editing (proof-reading) abilities. The chapter concludes with examples of effective practice from the classrooms of high-performing Writing For Pleasure teachers.


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