Write Less, More Often, In Clusters

“When I was a young boy, I played futsal in the street and in a club. It was great fun and helped me to become the player I am today.”
Lionel Messi

In her influential book, The Seven Myths About Education, Daisy Christodoulou writes:

In football, you eventually want a football team to play an 11-a-side game and win that game. But the best way to achieve this is not to get children playing regular competitive 11-a-side games from a young age. Just as with projects, you should break down the complex problem of winning an 11-a-side game into smaller, simpler problems, and practice those. The fundamental basic team skill required in football is to be able to keep the ball. The fundamental basic individual skill follows from this – it is to be able to control the ball, which means having a good first touch, and being able to give and take a pass… If you cannot control a football you cannot play football.

p102

She goes on to draw comparison between the English and Spanish approaches to teaching under-11s to learn football. In England children often ‘play the same game that the adults do on the same size pitches’ whereas in Spain children focus much more on skills and drills and playing a smaller 5-a-side game, futsal, with small goals and no offside rule. ‘In Spain children do not play 11-a-side games on full-sized pitches until they reach the under-14 age group.’

At the time Daisy was writing this, Spain were the dominant force in world football, winning the World Cup in 2010 and both the 2008 and 2012 European Championships. The best England could manage in the same period was a quarter final place in the 2012 European Championship.

Primary writing (at least here in England) has largely been 11-a-side rather than futsal. There is an obsession with independence, largely brought about by the KS1 and KS2 assessment frameworks for writing. And this can lead to an expectation that children ought to produce lots of pieces of extended independent writing – an approach somewhat akin playing an 11-a-side game every couple of weeks.: cold writes at the start of a unit, hot writes at the end. Assessment pieces twice a term are not uncommon. Now it’s important to weigh pigs once in a while to see how well they are doing, but there is a danger that we spend so much time placing pigs on the scale that there’s not enough time left to fatten them. Writing copious extended independent pieces may allow you to make regular measurements about children’s writing ability (although I’d argue that little is learned if measurements are too frequent), but this inevitably cuts into valuable teaching time es, and at worst it’s simply providing more time for weaker writers to practice embedding errors without adequate guidance and feedback.

In a previous blog, No Soup For You (go read it now, before this one) I argued that for many children extended writing tasks can involve more bad practice than good, especially for our weaker writers. Children start out well enough with accurate punctuation, good sentence structure, well-chosen vocabulary – all good practice – but before too long it devolves into an unintentional stream of consciousness with nary a full stop in sight. Let’s not have our kids puffing their way around a full-sized football pitch, as likely to trip over the ball or hoof it over the school fence as they are to pass it successfully to a teammate. Instead, think Spanish football, think futsal. Let’s teach our children how to control the ball and have them practice in 5-a-side games, where they’ll get more touches of the ball and hone their skills. And in that blog (seriously, go read it now) I prosed a different model:

Write less, more often, in clusters.

It’s the Spanish football model. It’s futsal. And just as this system led to incredible results on the world football stage, the same approach applied to writing can produce remarkable results.

Overview

I’ve attempted to summarise this Writing Clusters approach in a simple infographic [fig.1] that when clicked opens up a PDF version which can then be downloaded.

[fig.1]

I’ve recently used the approach when working with year five at Chetwynd Primary Academy in Toton, Nottinghamshire, writing narrative versions of Macbeth, Act I, Scene 1. What follows is a practical example of this approach in action. Please use both the infographic and the example that follows as frameworks and not straitjackets. You will see I didn’t follow the infographic to the letter, and nor should you. I made mistakes. There are things I’d do differently next time. And each writing task is different. Fit the write less, more often, in clusters approach to the task and the needs of your children, and not the other way around.

The Macbeth unit of work took 20 lessons do deliver, each approximately an hour in length. I could achieve similar results in less time if I cut out some of the content that was least effective. A typical Writing Clusters Sequence will typically last two to four weeks, depending upon the number of writing tasks and the amount of input before each.

Text Orientation

The text orientation phase should get children into the text. It involves reading and discussing the text, unpicking its purpose, structure, tones, ideas, themes and tropes. Our source text was the original Shakespeare play script of Act I Scene 1, but also Beverley Birch’s narrative retelling of Macbeth, found in her collection, Shakespeare’s Stories, which was used as a read aloud so children could get a feel for the whole story and the place of the opening scene within it. Leon Garfield’s Shakespeare Stories would work equally well (the first volume not the second contains his retelling of Macbeth).

Reading the original Shakespearean text poses challenges with vocabulary: words such as hurly-burly, ere and exuent are not in the average 10 year-old’s vocabulary. And some of the content is likely to confuse: who or what are Graymalkin and Paddock? So we made sure that all children understood the text fully. We read, discussed and annotated the text [fig. 2]. (You can click on all images in this blog post for larger versions.)

[fig.2]

We also ensured they understood the context both in place and time. We explored the geography of Scotland – lochs, glens, Highlands, moors – and made sure they fully understood the lack of mobile phones, cars, Nike trainers or any other modern convenience. And we wanted to divest them of the Disney witch trope – no pointy hats, no broomsticks, no magic wands, and definitely no green skin. This involved looking at, and talking about, images and video clips of Macbeth performances and of the Scottish landscape. And we read passages of text too, particularly relating to the things Shakespeare’s contemporaries believed about witches.

The end goal was simple: to ensure sure the children had the world and world knowledge required to understand the text. You can only write about what you know, so we made sure they knew plenty.

Input, Write, Review

The core of the Writing Clusters approach is a repeated cycle of input, writing and review. There is nothing revolutionary about this cycle. Provide children with input on the content, vocabulary and grammar they will need to employ in their writing and have the children practice this. Then apply it into the writing with lots of teacher modelling, review the extent to which the writing has been successful, and make revisions. Most teachers will likely be doing something similar. And anyone who has been in primary teaching long enough will be familiar with diagrams like [fig.3], taken from the UKLA and Primary Literacy Strategy document, Raising Boys’ Achievement in Writing. I’d personally add a fourth circle in which we’d review, revise and edit, but it’s a sound model for teaching writing.

[fig.3]

But perhaps it’s one flaw is that all of the input comes before all of the writing. We build up over a three week (or so) period towards an extended writing task – an 11-a-side writing piece. Where Writing Clusters differs is that we repeat this cycle (typically twice) in shorter bursts: Input > Write > Review > Input > Write > Review. This is followed by a short independent writing task with limited or no input to determine if they can apply what they learned. It’s a futsal approac, and has advantages over the more traditional approach.

Because children complete three shorter writing tasks rather than a single longer one, there’s less chance for good practice to spiral down into bad. Writing is a complex task – perhaps the most complex that we ask children to do. And on top of this complexity we typically thrown in a whole host of additional things to remember. Don’t forget to punctuate your speech correctly. Remember to use similes. Make sure there are plenty of powerful verbs in your writing. In the typical model, where all of the input takes place before all of the writing, that’s a lot of information to hold onto. And it might have been a good few days between practising speech punctuation and writing the dialogue in your story. That’s enough time for a lot of forgetting to happen. With the Writing Clusters approach, there are smaller chunks of input between each writing task. Less to recall. Less time to forget. So Write Less at any one time.

And although children are writing less at any one time, they are doing so more frequently. Rather than a heap of input, they get down to writing quickly, and they are continually refining and adding to their writing. And in my experience, they typically end up writing more in the same time period than in a traditionally structured unit. So Write Less, More Often.

My biggest bugbear with the traditional model, is that when it’s done it’s done. You write your Macbeth piece and then move onto your persuasive climate change letter. All of that vocabulary, all of those ideas, all of that content cannot be transferred to the new unit. But with the Writing Clusters approach each writing task feeds directly into the next. The first writing task is reviewed both by the teacher and by the children. If the vocabulary and sentence structure has been applied well into the first piece of writing, we can push the learning on. If not, we can reteach and feed it into the second writing task. And then into the independent piece. It’s three 5-a-side futsal games rather than one 11-a-side game. So Write Less, More Often, In clusters.

The clustered writing tasks could be three separate pieces. When writing with Year 2 children at Chetwynd Primary Academy, we wrote short narratives set in Ancient Egypt based upon Shirley Climo’s The Egyptian Cinderella, and the Old Testament tale of Moses in the basket of reeds. Both were set on the Nile so we could use the same knowledge base – ibis, egrets, perch, papyrus, etc. – and vocabulary of the Nile – majestic, broad, meandered – and of deserts – arid, remote, blistering. We could feed our sentence level into each piece – work on prepositions and adverbial phrases in the first writing tasks and fed into to fronted adverbials in the latter one.

With Macbeth in Year 5, we took a different approach. We wrote one piece – Act I, Scene 1 but split it into three interlinked sections:

  • section 1: the introduction, which focused on describing the setting and weather;
  • section 2: the witches plan, which focused on the witches’ appearance (both their appearance on the scene and their physical appearance) and their plans regarding Macbeth;
  • section 3: the incantation, which focused on the familiars, the ‘foul is fair…’ incantation and the witches exit.

The rationale for focusing heavily on the content and vocabulary of place and weather in section one is that we wanted both to be a continuous feature of the narrative, so would continue to apply it in sections 2 and 3. Likewise the focus on the witches in section 2 would be applied again in section 3. It allowed children to practice over time, and to continue to refine and embed understanding.

The input for each writing task focuses on three key areas: content, vocabulary and sentences. The order matters. Make sure they know enough about what they will write. Next make sure they know enough high quality words to describe that content. And finally communicate these ideas using this vocabulary through varied and accurate sentence structure.

While exploring the content, vocabulary and sentence patterns, we created a toolkit what children could use in their writing. This was added to over the course of the writing unit.

There are many ways of creating a writing toolkit that is co-authored with the children. One approach I’d whole-heartedly recommend is James Durran’s Boxed Criteria. if you haven’t seen his blog post on it already, make it the next thing you read after this.

We decided to go a slightly different route this time. When writing their narrative version of the Macbeth scene, children would have to keep the existing dialogue and include the information that Shakespeare doesn’t provide in the script. As a class we decided we’d need to include content about:

  • setting – when and where does this take place?
  • weather – what is the weather like throughout the scene?
  • witches – what do the witches look like? what do they wear? what do they do? what do they sound like? how do they appear and disappear?
  • familiars – what does each look like? what are they doing through the scene?

During the input phases, to consider and capture this information, each child annotated the script on an A3 sheet (lots of space to record), filling the page with ideas for each of the above areas, and the vocabulary they might use. You can see Olivia’s completed version (stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster as I don’t own an A3 scanner) in [fig.4]

[fig.4]

While it is choc-full of ideas and vocabulary, it’s a little to chaotic for my liking. It makes finding the information you need while writing a little difficult. Were I to do this again, I’d provide a template a little like [fig.5], with designated areas in which children could jot down ideas about content, vocabulary and technique. They would then line this up with the text in the playscript. So if they wanted the witches to coalesce from the mist, they’d jot this in the content section in line with ‘Enter Three Witches’ from the playscript column. They’d then jot down their vocabulary and technique ideas in line with this in the corresponding columns.

[fig.5]

One of the most important aspects of writing is vocabulary. The quality of a piece of writing can never exceed the quality of the words it contains, so each input phase contained explicit vocabulary instruction, and children’s exploration and writing were scaffolded with word banks – [fig.6], [fig.7] and [fig.8] – containing adventurous word choices, focusing on setting and weather for the introductory writing, and the witches and familiars for the following two sections.

[fig.6]
[fig.7]
[fig.8]

Set the bar high for vocabulary. The words contained within these banks are extremely adventurous, but read some of the writing at the end of this post and you’ll see just how vocabulary-rich the writing is. It not only meets the expectation laid out in these word banks, but clears it by quite some margin.

And the application of vocabulary was a focus of every single lesson, constantly revisiting and revising children’s understanding of these words and building upon it with ever more adventurous word choices. We explored vocabulary through images, discussed it and applied it immediately into writing. An example of this is in (the poorly scanned) [fig.9]

[fig.9]

Here you can see the children applying the witch and familiar vocabulary into noun phrases, deciding upon using expansion before or after the noun (or perhaps both). The example shown relies too heavily on as… as.. similes, and was typical of the class, so this was addressed before we applied into sentences. Having said that, the heartless cat as cold as winter is a wonderful piece of description.

So, make vocabulary development a focus of every English lesson. Apply into writing immediately and often.

Following vocabulary instruction were lessons on technique. Chetwynd Primary Academy use my Rainbow Grammar approach to improve sentence structure (you can find out about Rainbow Grammar here, and reading other of my blogs headed Grammar 101 should give you further insight) and the year five children have used it since year one. They are well versed in it, and as a result their understanding of sentence structure is remarkable. They can look at [fig.10], a representation of a fairly complicated sentence pattern, and use it compose sentences: sentences four and five in the case of [fig.11].

[fig.10]
[fig.11]

The aim in section 1 was to some small extent mimic the rhythmic metre of the Shakespearean verse, so we focused upon complex coordination to achieve this. Rainbow Grammar provides a scaffold for complex sentence building. In [fig.9] you can see how we experimented with this (the underlining is using Rainbow Grammar to build the rhythm’ in sentences)

The ear-splitting thunder let out a deafening growl and spat out a flicker of lightning, rolled around the ashen sky and reverberated through the barren wasteland.

The thunder did [a] and [b], [c] and [d], creates a rise and the rhythm is heightened by the similar number of syllables in each element. Note not only the sentence structure but also the application of great vocabulary: ear-splitting, spat, rolled, ashen, reverberated, barren, wasteland. (And, yes, either not both of ear-splitting and deafening would have been better.)

We went further and investigated how we could coordinate two or three non-finite clauses to add even more sentence variation. [fig.12]

[fig.12]

Children now had a bank of varied multi-clause sentences that were choc-full of fabulous vocabulary that could drop directly or rework into their narrative.

In the lead up to the second writing section, because we had determined the work on coordination was secure and could be further practiced with little additional input, we shifted our attention to integrating the Shakespearean dialogue into the narrative. We wanted to avoid a repetitive pattern of “speech” + subject + verb, instead wanting to intersperse action and description amongst the dialogue. Again Rainbow Grammar was a key tool. And again, it’s likely largely incomprehensible to someone not familiar with the approach. The children were taught the patterns (they already knew each component, making this a breeze) in [fig.13], using them to compose sentences in [fig.14].

[fig.13]
[fig.14]

Once the input for each section was complete – the children having a firm understanding of, and plenty of practice with, the content, vocabulary and techniques they’d imply in their writing – we moved onto the writing phase.

Again, there need be nothing revolutionary at work here. Lots of modelling, lots of writing, lots of revision. I’ve written previously about modelling writing here and here so won’t repeat it here. Simply put, pitch the modelled writing high, weaving together the content, vocabulary and techniques you’ve practiced over the previous few days. Leave it up as they write. Let them – no, encourage them to – steal.

For our Macbeth pieces we did take a slightly different approach in sections 1, where we were setting the scene with lots of description about place and weather. We used David Didau’s Slow Writing technique. In short, provide criteria for each sentence which children must include. It works perfectly with Rainbow Grammar and the criteria we used can be seen in [fig.15].

[fig.15]

Again, the sentence criteria rely heavily upon my Rainbow Grammar approach, which might look baffling to the uninitiated. But the important thing is that every child in year five at Chetwynd Primary Academy can look at it and know exactly how to write sentences that match each criteria. It should be noted that there are a few additions to David’s Slow Writing technique.

One. The children could use the criteria in any order that they wished, and would jot this down on their copy of the sheet, so should their first sentence include two non-finite clauses, they would write ‘1’ in the appropriate box. This simply allowed them to keep track of the criteria they’d used. The reason for making this addition is that allowed children to match form to function. I want to write about the wind. Which of these sentence criteria would work for that? This is what great writers, consciously or unconsciously, do.

Two. There are ‘essential’ and ‘bonus’ criteria. What is important here is that the ‘essential’ criteria aren’t pitched down, the ‘bonus’ criteria are pitched up. If the children used only the ‘essential criteria, but did so well, I’d have considered the writing successful. Children decided themselves whether to use ‘essential’ or ‘bonus’ criteria and could pick and choose between them as they saw fit. This allowed children to really stretch themselves. And there’s a psychological game going on here too. They see the ‘bonus’ criteria and desperately want to use it.

Three. There are more criteria then they could possibly use. So again, they would choose which were most appropriate for their writing. The only restriction was that everyone had to use at least two of the criteria labelled see-saws and bridges as these contained the coordination we’d practiced.

It is, of course vital, that children understand the criteria on the sheet, and I’ve written about how to do that here.

[fig.16]
[fig.17]

[Fig.16] & [fig.17] are an example of a first draft, using the criteria. (The red pen is child has made their own revisions.) Numbering each sentence in the writing allowed children to keep track of which sentences matched which criteria, and leaving gaps between each sentence left room for revising.

One of the challenges of using Slow Writing with primary children is that they are so focused on each sentence criteria that they struggle to view the text as a whole. Sentences are often individually great but lack flow and cohesion. And this was the case here. So, we cut up our sentences, resequenced, revised once more, added new sentences if required as in [fig.18]. (And in this case, once stuck into the new order, reordered once more, hence the red arrows.)

[fig.18]

Slow Writing wouldn’t have worked for section 2 as we had the additional challenge of integrating the existing dialogue so we took a simpler approach: model, write, revise.

It’s worth noting that revising writing was a major focus of the unit. Section 1 was written four times in total – an initial draft, two revisions and a final piece, and section 2 three times. As Truman Capote said, I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil. Spend more time revising than writing. (Perhaps the details of how to revise work with children is a topic for a future blog post.)

If you looked over the infographic towards the top of the blog post, it says review and magpie. These are my prerequisites for revision. You can’t make improvements to the quality of your writing if you haven’t reviewed it writing and noted where improvements ought to be made. And do share great examples from the class, and encourage children to steal ideas, words and phrases. They can then feed these into their revisions.

In Writing Clusters the last piece of writing is independent You will decide upon the degree of independence that would best suit your needs. the day before writing the final section of the narrative, we had a brief class discussion about content, and children jotted down ideas and vocabulary onto their A3 sheet. They then had this sheet available when writing the following day. But there was no modelling and no guidance while children were writing. They were on their own.

And finally, we wrote the whole thing up. They are not perfect. There are spelling errors (something I’d invest more time into if I were doing this again) and mistakes with grammar. And there are missteps with content and sequencing. But they are largely self-edited and self-revised. Teachers did not go through any of the writing with a fine tooth comb, making corrections. So, they genuinely reflect ability.

Here are some examples, a magnificent seven. Download and enjoy. Please credit Chetwynd Primary Academy (Toton, Nottinghamshire) if you use and share them.


To subscribe to this blog please fill out the form below.

About the Author

Leave a Reply