By 2016, the universal ‘sigh’ of pupil disapproval had become the herald for English lessons at our school, which evolved into the clarion call for a ground-up review of how we planned and taught the subject.
Our single form entry primary school English curriculum had long been tethered to a restrictive overview which placed whole genres into silos. Teachers were faced with the challenge of trying to teach an entire genre in one unit of work, knowing that the children would not experience this again on their literary journey through the school. The staff were now sharing the exasperated ‘sigh’ of the learners and the time had come for change. The panacea for our literary lament came in the form of Pie Corbett’s Talk for Writing; a pedagogical approach, not a restrictive scheme, which prioritises playful oracy, promotes forensic reading and produces high-quality writing. Talk for Writing has revealed itself as a unicorn of the educational world; a whole-school initiative that motivates, inspires and supports staff and pupils alike.
Securing the support and enthusiasm of all the staff was always going to be the make-or-break moment for the development of our English curriculum. The staff were suffering from a severe case of ‘initiative fatigue’ after repeated, ineffective attempts to tweak and adapt the existing planning, teaching and learning structure for the subject. With this in mind, we first introduced the opportunities that Talk for Writing offers in relation to flexibility, creativity, cross curricular learning and, ultimately, greater teacher agency.
The freedom to choose their own focus text for units of work, facilitating purposeful links to other areas of the curriculum, was the most potent hook for the staff. It was like a collective break in the clouds, where we could see beyond the established class texts that were once loved but now reviled after years of overuse.
Immersion in texts
From this inspirational foundation, we then worked collectively to support each other in understanding the Talk for Writing approach. Mention the pedagogy to many colleagues and they immediately associate it with ‘story maps’ and ‘waving your arms around’ to tell a story. In actual fact, there is a much deeper process at the heart of Talk for Writing, which is endlessly adaptable and universally appropriate for all aspects of the subject.
In short, you start a unit by immersing the children in the text. Grab their attention with a hook (a mysterious letter, a surprise visitor, an unusual image) to get their creativity primed for what is to come. When the text is introduced, the children are already invested in the adventure ahead, as you explore a new literary world together. The children orally rehearse the original story structure, broadening their vocabulary and allowing them to hear the ‘music’ of the text. With a head full of language structures, the class then begin to innovate around the original text - playfully developing character descriptions, experimenting with various punctuation, or popping speech bubbles to develop an awareness of direct speech. Finally, over a period of three or four weeks, the children are ready to invent, and are fully equipped to apply the many authorial tools they have developed to compose a piece of their own, of the same genre or structure.
Processes and principles
Supporting the staff to develop their own understanding of this teaching and learning sequence was achieved collaboratively and in small steps. We utilised many staff meetings, INSET days and individual coaching opportunities to ensure that all our colleagues felt confident in leading their classes through the learning journey, grounded in a firm understanding of why these stages were important. This is the power of Talk for Writing. It guides staff to repeatedly return to the process and principles of learning, evaluating at each stage, rather than slavishly following the next part of a scheme.
Soon after our Talk for Writing revolution, some staff raised concerns about progression. How were we going to avoid cohorts inadvertently experiencing the same focus text as they moved through the school - if we can choose whatever text we want, whenever we want? This was a good question and one that reinforced the shift in thinking amongst the staff. They were now seeing their English teaching as part of a larger, cohesive whole. The solution? A simple, shared spreadsheet. We introduced a text tracker, which the staff simply update with the title and author of the texts used, on a termly basis, which we can all check in with prior to planning for that cohort. Again, we avoided the urge to straight-jacket our curriculum planning.
The most compelling learning experience of all was allowing the staff to rediscover their inner author. We held a full INSET training session which was solely focused on exploring different ways to playfully explore writing. There was no talk of ‘checklists’ or ‘success criteria’, we simply spent the day practically experimenting with poetry, character description, story starters and building more complex sentence structures. One of the main vehicles for this was Padlet - a collaborative digital workspace. We worked together to write for no other reason than the joy of it. We tried to scare each other, build magically vivid descriptions and support each other to develop our own skills. Staff commented that it had been their most enjoyable and memorable training experience, whereas others immediately applied the same techniques with their classes. Within the structure of this day, we had littered techniques, tools and tasks which could be adapted and applied repeatedly in different contexts. The staff left that INSET training with a toolkit of learning tools that they felt inspired to apply.
The development of Talk for Writing continues. Our most recent adventure has been to explore how the pedagogy can be applied to non-fiction texts. Again, there was some trepidation. How could we teach these texts without a list of success criteria? However, the staff quickly grasped how the fundamental processes of building an oral vocabulary, immersing the children in many model texts and innovating around these texts works just as effectively with factual writing.
What we learnt
- Talk for Writing is fundamentally inclusive. It is now common for us to start a sequence of learning with strong imagery and, increasingly, staff are using age-appropriate picture books as their focus texts. This immediately removes language barriers for children with additional learning needs or those who hold EAL status.
- A collegiate approach is essential to the success of our Talk for Writing implementation. Our support staff have been just as instrumental as their teacher colleagues, displaying enthusiasm, encouragement and innovation. Without their determination and desire to experiment with the new approaches, some teachers might have been less confident to do so too.
- Regular, progressive and varied forms of training are necessary to ensure all staff are part of the journey. The impact of Talk for Writing would not have been so powerful had we relied upon one launch event, which was the followed up by emailed reminders, circulated documents and ‘monitoring’ processes. Face-to-face, practical, experiential learning is just as important for education staff, as it is for the learners in their care.
- Increase in pupil engagement and enthusiasm when working on written tasks, resulting from the supportive process of moving from spoken language, through reading skills and then into writing.
- All staff feeling inspired to seek out new, authentic and cross curricular contexts for their sequences of learning; breaking out of the previously entrenched silos of English learning. Marc Bowen is a deputy head and primary teacher in South Wales, and welcomes any responses to this article or further questions through his email firstname.lastname@example.org