Implementing a structured writing program

Students at Southbank International School in London are encouraged to use a 'Magpie Book' when they are reading or listening so that when they hear a good word, or phrase, or simile, they can write it down.

According to Head of Upper Primary and Grade 4 teacher, Stefanie Waterman, a Magpie Book is essentially a spiral notebook that students carry around with them that is filled with words and phrases that they've heard out in the world around them.

Then, when it comes time for them to do their own writing, they can ‘borrow' the phrases from other writers to include in their own work. It's a strategy that they learned from Talk for Writing, a structured writing program that is delivered to students in the primary years.

Waterman says the program was originally introduced five years ago at the school, which offers the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, as a result of reviewing their International Schools' Assessment (ISA) narrative writing scores and noticing a dip. ‘We just noticed that the kids were scoring a lot higher on their opinion pieces and so we thought, let's just have a look at what we can do to refocus our writing so it's not just narrative or just non-fiction,' she says.

Waterman says the leadership team went back to the curriculum and they talked to classroom teachers about why this could be happening. ‘We talked to the teachers and it turned out that we have six writing units throughout the year, we call them units of inquiry, and of the six, four were focused around non-fiction and only two were around fiction,' Waterman shares.

‘There wasn't a balance and so we thought [that was interesting] – we're teaching them how to write newspapers and reports and biographies and opinion pieces but we're not teaching that story writing as consistently as we needed to.'

Examining the writing spine

From there, the leadership team examined the writing spine horizontally and vertically. A writing spine, according to Waterman, is ‘a gradual step up, like a spine, a vertical growth, an exponential growth, in what they were learning as far as their writing.'

‘At our school we have a reading and a writing spine. So, our Language Coordinator, our Curriculum Coordinator and the teachers get together to look at the different types of writing that we're teaching from when students are three-and-a-half years old, all the way up to the end of the primary years.

‘We look at how often we're teaching poetry or writing a story or writing a biography and we want to make sure that each year the children are getting a gradual step up,' she says.

Using narrative writing as the example to explain a writing spine, Waterman says in the lower years, students could be expected to write a three-part story, with a beginning, middle and end. Then we would add on some bits like dialogue and setting in Years 4 and 5, and then by the time they are in Year 6, we want them to be able to write a full narrative with beginning, middle and end, perhaps some flashbacks, using dialogue and setting and characterisation,' Waterman explains. ‘So that's what our writing spine does – it builds up from those little baby steps, all the way up to where we want them to be by the end of the primary years.'

Implementing a writing program

In order to improve narrative writing across the board, the Head Teachers of both primary campuses and the Primary Years Programme (PYP) Coordinator made the decision to implement a structured writing program with a two year tutorial to provide teachers with continued professional development (CPD), a common language and a structure to focus on. It was implemented from the lower years all the way up to Year 6.

‘It's called Talk for Writing, it's by Pie Corbett, he's a British writer, and it's a scheme that you can either implement fully, 100 per cent, or you choose to focus on particular areas,' Waterman says.

She says they built on what they already knew about setting, characterisation and familiar words using the framework provided. ‘It was a two year program where we had one mentor or advisor from Talk for Writing do PD sessions or CPD, we had whole-school workshops, we had whole-grade workshops and then we had individual workshops where she would come and teach our class using the idea of a model-to-text, or she would focus in on whatever we wanted from her, and so she sort of guided us in our baby steps over the two years,' Waterman explains.

Through this professional development, the school realised the value of having a full-time Language Coordinator on staff and decided to hire one from within the teaching staff. They hold a full time teaching position as well as being the Language Coordinator. ‘We had a Curriculum Coordinator but there's a lot to do if you're covering all subjects like languages, maths and science … so we delineated it out, so now we have a dedicated Language Coordinator and she looks at the reading and the writing to make sure that we're teaching enough narrative, that we're teaching enough non-fiction and so that there's a balance of education in language throughout all of the years – she has an overview of that.'

Waterman says that, from a teacher's point of view, it was great to have a shared terminology that could be used across all the classes. ‘We noticed that it was a lot more structured, we felt more comfortable to say, “right, this is what we're going to do and this is how we're going to teach it and this is what the children are going to do to engage with it”.'

Think about your own school context. When it comes to student writing, do all teachers have a shared terminology and structure to focus on? What impact does this have on student writing improvements over time?

How do you measure growth in student writing at your school? Once you identify any gaps, what are your next steps? What supports are in place to help you to manage this?