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 take place at the beginning of a writing session. 

Spelling and punctuation should be largely self-monitored as children write, marking their text for items to be checked and corrected at the 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 (Graham & Perin, 2007). 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 important that children also have mini-lessons in writing study. This is when strategies and craft knowledge for the different writing processes are taught, such as techniques for editing 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 work 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

  • Do you have high expectations for transcription, spelling, handwriting and teach them through regular mini-lessons?
  • Do you encourage children to concentrate on the composition of their piece (process) before placing their attention on grammar, linguistic features and conventions (the product)?
  • Do you explicitly teach techniques for revising and editing?
  • After drafting, do you allow children time to both edit and revise their pieces?
  • Do you encourage children to regularly re-read and share their work with their peers?
  • Do you teach grammar functionally; always with a view to aid children’s compositions?
  • Do you encourage children to use a variety of strategies for spelling including inventing spellings?
  • Do you provide children with resources and time in which to check invented and unsure spellings before publishing?
  • Do you teach handwriting and keyboard skills through the publishing of writing projects?

Supporting documents

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.


Supporting resources

  • Our BIG BOOK Of Writing Mini-Lessons: Lessons That Teach Powerful Craft Knowledge For 3-11 Year Olds [LINK]
  • Our Grammar Mini-Lessons For 5-11 Year Olds [LINK]
  • Our Writing Development Scales And Assessment Toolkit [LINK]

Suggest further reading

  • Young, R., Ferguson, F., (2021) The research on handwriting [LINK]
  • Young, R., Ferguson, F., (2021) The research on spelling [LINK]

  • Anderson, J., (2005) Mechanically Inclined, USA: Stenhouse Publishers
  • Anderson, J., (2007) Everyday editing, USA: Stenhouse Publishers
  • Andrews, R., Torgerson, C., Beverton, S., Locke, T., Low, G., Robinson, A. & Zhu, D. (2006) The effect of grammar teaching on writing development In British Educational Research Journal  32 (1), pp. 39–55
  • Applebee, A., (2003). Balancing the curriculum in the English language arts: exploring the components of effective teaching and learning. In J. Flood, D. Lapp, J. R. Squire, & J. M. Jensen (Eds.) Handbook of research on teaching the English language arts (2nd ed., pp. 501–511). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers.
  • Atwell, N., (2002) Lessons That Change Writers, USA: Heinemann
  • Bearne, E., Reedy, D., (2013) Teaching Grammar Effectively in Primary Schools, London: UKLA
  • Calkins, L. (1980) When children want to punctuate: basic skills belong in context. Language Arts 57, pp. 567-573.
  • Cunningham, P.M., & Cunningham, J.W. (2010). What really matters in writing: Research-based practices across the elementary curriculum. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon cited in Calkins, L., Ehrenworth, M., (2016) Growing extraordinary writers: leadership decisions to raise the level of writing across a school and a district In The Reading Teacher  Vol.70(1) 7-18
  • Fearn & Farman (1998) Writing Effectively: Helping Students Master the Conventions of Writing Pearson: USA
  • Graham, S., Berninger, V., Abbot, R., Abbott, S. & Whittaker, D. (1997) The role of mechanics in composing of elementary school students: a new methodological approach. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 1, pp. 170-182.
  • Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007) Writing Next: Effective Strategies To Improve Writing Of Adolescents In Middle School & High Schools Alliance For Excellent Education
  • Hall, N. (2001) Developing understanding of punctuation with young readers and writers. In J. Evans (ed.) The Writing Classroom: Aspects of writing and the primary child 3-11. London David Fulton.
  • Medwell, J. & Wray, D. (2007) Handwriting: what do we know and what do we need to know? Literacy 41, 1, pp. 10-16.
  • Smith, F. (1982) Writing and the Writer. London: Heinemann.
  • Tompkins, G. E. (2011). Teaching writing: Balancing process and product. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.
  • Weaver, C, Bush, J., Anderson, J., Bills, P., (2006) Grammar intertwined throughout the writing process: An inch wide and a mile deep In English Teaching: Practice & Critique, 5(1), 77-101
  • Wyse, D., Torgerson, C., (2017) Experimental trials and ‘what works?’ In education: The case of grammar for writing In British Educational Research Journal, 43,(6), pp. 1019–1047

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