Why Can't Our Children Write Anymore?
Estimated Reading Time - 12 mins
Before Covid-19 had ever been heard of, our Primary school pupils could do lots of things really well. They still can. Despite everything the pandemic did to their ‘normal’, and in spite of the huge disruption to their learning, most children still love to see their friends and teachers each day, and maintain a huge curiosity to learn about their world. They read books. They pick up pencils. They love to learn. But the picture is becoming clearer that, in several ways, their education has taken a huge hit. Across the country, phonics results are down – maths too. But it is in writing that we see the most distinct downturn, and teachers are worried. Let’s look at a few facts.
What Does the Data Tell Us?
We’ll compare this year’s data with that of 2019 – the last year SATs tests took place before Covid-19 hit. Writing results at Key Stage 2 dropped nationally from 78% to just 69%, yet in Reading, there was a 1% rise. That was quite surprising, considering the significant drop in phonics performance for both Year 1 and Year 2 pupils. Kent’s own results for writing at Key Stage 2 outstripped the national pass rate at the expected standard (EXS+) by 4%, but may have been unreliable. That’s not surprising, with a gap of more than two years during which collaborative moderation did not take place. How were people new to teaching, or inexperienced in a particular year group, supposed to be confident about their assessments, when they were unable to meet up or discuss pupils’ writing with any real support? Luckily, this is now being addressed, and schools are working hard to make sure that effective moderation – both inter and intra-school – can regularly form part of teacher training. But data only goes so far; a good SATs result for writing doesn’t change what teachers say, and what they’re concerned about.
If it Hadn't Been for COVID-19, How Would We Equip and Inspire Any Child to Write?
It might be worth taking a moment to consider what we would do anyway, under any teaching circumstances and any point in the 21st century, to get our children writing. Let’s try to boil it down to some simple ideas:
- Have something to say; say it out loud first.
- Model: show them how to form letters; show them how to write down words and sentences; show them how to structure and sequence a text.
- Provide writing utensils; give them variety and sometimes colour; give older pupils different kinds of ink pens; overlap handwriting sometimes with art.
- Give children words by reading to them; expand their vocabulary bank; explore.
- Observe the morphology of our spelling system – the way words are structured and what the different parts mean – so that children can work out new spellings for themselves.
- Give them experiences to talk about; dramatise and improvise events lifted from the class story or non-fiction history text, for example.
- Find a writer, especially a male one, who can engage in conversation about what they do, and how they go about it.
- Set up scenarios, weird ones, scary ones, funny ones, to instigate writing.
- Set up something to disagree about; have an argument.
- Make something crazy or unusual together, and write down the process.
- Take them to somewhere in the school building you would never normally be allowed to go; use the senses to describe it; make some predictions about it.
- Bring something from nature (your forest school?) into the classroom; draw it and describe it.
- Open up a special box or bag, together; link the items into a narrative.
What Do Teachers Tell Us?
Even as far back as 2020, when children first returned to school after long periods of closure, Kent teachers were reporting that children had completely lost their stamina for writing. They couldn’t think what to write. They couldn’t write longer pieces any more. They seemed ‘switched off’ from writing, but not from reading. National social media reported similar observations.
In addition to this, book-looks have shown a deterioration in transcription skills, particularly the presentation of handwriting, and skills in letter formation. Spelling accuracy is lacking, when compared with pre-Covid work.
Many teachers have fed back to us that their best guess – which we at The Education People support and understand – is that parents who were engaged in helping their children to work at home, were far less confident to support them in writing than in reading. Teachers say that parents understandably don’t really know what to look for, and tend to focus on how their child’s writing looks, rather than what they have to say or how they put it together. This is almost certainly true. Many parents also lacked confidence to support their children in maths, but were happy to make sure their children spent time reading every day.
When it came to writing, parents felt less useful or clued-up about how to do it. Children found it easier, without the boundaries of their classroom environment and their teacher’s presence, to turn to a tablet or laptop, a phone or book, than make the huge effort to produce a piece of written work. Writing is, by its very nature, a more active process than reading – although of course, true reading for engagement involves a definite contribution from the reader, who must process the message of what they are reading, and form some opinion about it. But when we ask a child to pick up a pen and write, to form letters and words, and then sentences, to create great passages which hold together and express something their reader might want to hear – that’s a whole new ball game. A teacher knows what to do. An untrained parent will struggle.
What is The Education Peoples' Advice?
Teachers understand why children are where they are. So do we. They know the story of their pupils’ lives through COVID-19, and their journey through school as children and teachers together navigate the process of restoring their education. Now is the time to take some active steps in getting your pupils’ writing up and going again, to help children reach their potential as successful, effective writers.
- stop doing too much for the children. Make them do the thinking, the planning, the writing and the editing
- set up a ‘workshop’ environment, especially if you teach in Key Stage 2. Make it a safe place to give each other constructive criticism and make suggestions
- be specific when you set writing targets or make comments about their work. General feedback such as ‘use better vocabulary’ or ‘improve your spelling’ doesn’t give the child a sufficiently good steer; provide the detail; give an example; talk to the child
- ensure daily discrete handwriting sessions at whatever age they are needed, where handwriting is an end in itself. Remember, model; teach; guide; supervise; remodel; encourage. Be super fussy! Patrol your classroom to make your expectations clear
- inject short-burst writing tasks often, across the curriculum. Make them low-stakes, enjoyable moments. Get children expressing themselves through their writing. What do they know? What do they think? What interests them? Write about these in 6-minute bursts
- above all, show them what good writing looks like. Don’t just give a written target or success criteria without showing children what that would look like, if it were achieved
- ensure discrete spelling lessons at least 3 times a week from Year 2 onwards. Make spelling the focus. Make these lessons as multi-sensory and engaging as your phonics lessons. Senior or middle leaders should monitor the quality, and support teachers to do this well. Show good teaching skills from one teacher to another
- celebrate great children’s writing every way you can think of, in and around your school. Publish it. Award it with ‘prizes’. Read it out to others. Provide it in reading areas, for others to read. Make a big deal of it!
- don’t expect very young children, for example in the Reception class, to join their letters before they are ready. *See the link below, for more guidance
- and last of all, be a school which promotes children as ‘writers’. It’s a matter of self-perception. Why not find out what they think of writing, and how they perceive themselves? Are they authors and poets? If not, why not?
*For the latest thinking on when to print and when to introduce cursive writing, refer to The Reading Framework (The reading framework: teaching the foundations of literacy - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)). Published in July 2021, this document pulls together some of the key research around effective early reading practices, as well as offering advice, guidance and resources to support schools and the wider community to teach all pupils to read. It also mentions handwriting several times, and gives the national picture on current thinking.
How Can We Get Children to be Interested in Writing?
I remember once, in my teaching career, struggling to inspire a particular Year 6 boy to like writing, despite my best efforts. He was a French child with very good spoken English, but had received a different kind of education before moving to the UK. We’ll call him Laurence. Laurence couldn’t see the point of writing, and could never think of any ideas. His classmates had no problem, after the usual opening of drama, or hot-seating, or discussion which captured our thoughts. But Laurence would stare at his blank page and would produce very little, if anything at all. Those are the kind of moments that make a teacher feel rather a failure!
The main problem for Laurence, of course, was that he was not writing in his first language, and although he could speak English very competently, the same was not true of his written English. Because he was a bright child with high scores in maths, he wasn’t used to producing anything sub-standard, and didn’t like what he saw when he put his writing to paper. Providing extra intervention for his spelling, and plenty of oral opportunities to improve his syntax and sentence constructions in the new language, were more important at that stage than producing large volumes of written narrative. We had little time left to make a huge difference. I hope that he went on to develop and improve his writing at secondary school.
But many of our pupils have English as their first language, and still are reluctant to write very much. The way I see it, they have two key problems:
- few experiences to draw on
- no writing role model at home.
Teachers across the country will recognise these issues, particularly if they work with children from areas of economic deprivation. If a child has never been taken to the beach, or the woods, or the theatre or fairground, how can they possibly write about it?
Another key barrier to writing success one cannot help but mention, was probably created by changes to Primary English education over recent decades, away from a heavy weighting of transcription for infant-aged pupils – during the late 20th century – to that of composition. What the child had to say became perceivably more important than giving them the tools to say it. Time was arguably wasted, for example, on thinking up great captions for picture, when children hadn’t yet learned to form letters or compose sentences properly. Fortunately, the National curriculum in England: English programmes of study - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) of 2014 redresses that balance, giving transcription and composition equal weighting in Years 1 and 2. It’s up to all of us, as educators, to make sure this plays out in our Primary School writing curriculum.
Writing from Experience in the 1960s and 1970s
We could probably learn something by looking back at children’s writing from the mid-20th century – an age all too often upheld as some ‘holy grail’, when children were all perceived as good and standards were high. I found an old Primary school exercise book of my own, from the equivalent of Year 6, which disproved this at once. I couldn’t even spell ‘interested’! My handwriting as an infant pupil was always printed, never joined. And yet I went on to achieve all the usual qualifications at Secondary school, and even to write books of my own. The emphasis, in a 60s classroom, was to get children walking before they could run, not the other way round. A very old text by Joan Dean published in 1968 – Reading, Writing and Talking – includes various snippets of children’s writing, which shows how very often children would write from experience. They wrote about tiny moments in their day: describing the contents of a tadpole tank; a trip to the school boiler room, seen through their senses; ten minutes at the school gate, describing the town rushing by. It is possible, isn’t it, that in our over-planned school days of the 21st century, we miss out on those great opportunities for writing?
Perhaps that’s the very best thing we could do for our Covid-hit youngsters. Slow down time. Find those chances. Let them walk before they can run.
Further Help and Support
If you would like further support for children’s writing, you might like to attend any of the teacher training courses below, or contact [email protected] and ask to be put in touch with our English Improvement Advisers who offer both virtual and physical appointments.
For primary school teachers: Improving Writing Through Effective Planning. Taking place on 30/11/22 via Zoom.
For English subject leaders: Building Progression in the Writing Curriculum. Taking place on 1/12/22 via Zoom.
For primary school teachers: Embedding Grammar Within Writing. Taking place on 7/02/23 at Singleton Environment Centre.
For KS1 teachers and leaders: Developing Good Practice in Teaching Vocabulary. Taking place on 21/03/23 via Zoom.
For KS2 teachers and leaders: Developing Good Practice in Teaching Vocabulary. Taking place on 23/03/23 via Zoom.
About the Author
Penny is part of The Education People's Primary School Improvement Service, she is a specialist subject advisor for English. Penny was an advanced skills teacher for literacy, and has been an English adviser and specialist for over 11 years and has an MA Distinction in Creative Writing
Penny is passionate about English and enjoys working with schools to support them, and their pupils, to achieve their highest potential.
She is also the author of 7 published novels (books for adults).