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Writing for pleasure - how to bring back the spark for pupils

October 31, 2022, 11:38 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • If we make putting pen to paper a less daunting task it can yield amazing results, says Kathy Ewers
Writing for pleasure - how to bring back the spark for pupils

Of the three core subjects in primary school learning, writing was the hardest hit by the pandemic.

A report from Juniper Education based on primary school attainment data between 2019 and 2021, found that in 2021, only 58% of children in Year 3 were working at the levels expected for their age in writing, compared with 79% in 2019. These are the children whose education was disrupted in Years 1 and 2, just as they would have been encouraged to start seeing themselves as writers.

My conversations with subject leaders in English certainly reflect these findings, and the consensus is that helping primary-age children build up their writing skills poses significant challenges.

When children were doing more of their learning at home during the pandemic, activities such as story time and playing number games came more naturally. In contrast, opportunities to develop their writing skills were not as obvious.

In my view, the way to get children writing again is to make it an enjoyable pursuit rather than a daunting task. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to make writing fun while helping to turn pupils into confident, skilled and happy writers.

Show pupils a wide range of writing

Enthusiastic readers make good writers, but some children don’t consider themselves readers unless they get through a lot of books. However, even the most reluctant story reader reads cooking recipes, comics or instructions for a game.

Similarly, children are doing more writing than they realise. Try asking pupils to make a list of all the writing they have done in the last 24 hours, and they may be surprised by the result. Many pupils will have sent messages, typed website addresses or entered terms into a search engine.

It’s important to show children examples of effective writing in various formats, from press articles to play scripts and song lyrics to blogs. Children need to experience a breadth of texts including those which are digital and visual.

Showing children some authentic, published writing across different platforms helps them understand how writers engage their audiences. It can also inspire pupils to develop their own creative ideas.

Give purpose to pupils’ writing

Children will be much more motivated to write if they have a good understanding of why they are writing and who they are writing for. They will also get to see how their style of writing needs to be tailored to different audiences.

Tasks with a genuine purpose and audience ignite pupils’ interest and encourage them to form coherent arguments to back up a point. For instance, many pupils wrote to their council, MP and even the prime minister during the COP-26 climate summit in Glasgow to express their views on climate issues.

When children are given a controversial writing task, they can express their feelings while writing for a range of audiences. For example, ask the children to imagine that the school playground is due to be sold off to a company which plans to build affordable housing. Encourage pupils to express their views in a formal letter to the local authority, a newspaper report and an email to a relative.

Activities with a purpose help children get used to writing content which is relevant and appropriate to their readers.

Use objects to generate themes

Using objects as the basis of a writing task is a tried and tested approach, and showing children a fir cone or a conker can yield some great descriptive writing.

However, there are many other ways of using objects for writing activities. Instead of describing the conker, ask the children to write about the tree it came from or the animals that live in the forest where it grows.

A broken piece of jewellery could inspire pupils to reflect on the history or origin of the object. Ask pupils to think about who may have owned it or made it and why and how it was broken. An old photograph or diary might provide a powerful start to a story or a theme for a poem.

Some children prefer to write non-fiction texts and they should have that option wherever possible. If you have brought in some shells and seaweed to show the children, suggest they write a section of a travel brochure or a persuasive leaflet about keeping our beaches clean and litter-free.

Introduce creative challenges

Setting writing challenges can be inspiring, motivating and help those creative juices to flow in children who might otherwise not be so turned on to writing as others. They can help to level the playing field too, between better and less able writers.

Here are a few ideas for how to initiate writing exercises which help to boost vocabulary, practise spelling and, for younger children, support the learning of the alphabet.

  • Write ten sentences starting with ‘I wish…..’
  • Write a short text without using any words containing the letter ‘a’.
  • Create an A to Z of animals or places.
  • Invent a word and give an imaginative explanation of its meaning.
  • Write down all the colours you have worn this week.

Give pupils a topic to debate

Debating is an important skill, and giving children subjects to debate can help them articulate their thoughts in writing. Topics which they have strong views on will work best.

You could try providing pupils with some opinions then seeing how many children agree or disagree. Good examples are ‘dogs are better than cats’, ‘football is a better game than cricket’ or ‘diving in the sea is more exciting than climbing a mountain.’

Alternatively, give your pupils a thought-provoking statement and ask them to write a persuasive newspaper article to argue the theme. Ideas which work well include ‘there should be no homework at school’, ‘global warming is the world’s biggest problem,’ or ‘the Queen is the most important person in the world.’

When children see writing as a creative and enjoyable activity and understand the importance of crafting a good message, presenting a persuasive argument or producing an exciting story, they are much more likely to find joy in writing.

Having been encouraged to explore their own authentic voice in their creative writing, children will be more engaged in other areas of the curriculum while building writing skills which will last a lifetime.

Inspiration: activities to make writing fun

  • Ask pupils to write a list. It could be a list of vegetables, spiky things, orange things, happy words or countries. This is a great starter activity to get children writing.
  • Challenge the children to write all they can about chocolate in one minute. Or try snow, giraffes, trains or weekends. A short boost of focused writing can channel creativity.
  • Provide pupils with a list of words – spicy, dismal, joy, parcel, cheese, heavy – and ask them to come up with the funniest sentences they can from them.
  • Give the pupils a slip of paper and ask them to write a topic on each one. Put all the slips of paper in a jar, take one out and ask the children to write all they know about that topic.
  • Create “story jars” – one each for location, character and the weather - and add word prompts to each. Ask children to pull a word out of the jars and write a story.  So, for example, a pupil might compile a tale about a dog-walker, in the park, during a thunderstorm.

Kathy Ewers is education advisor at Juniper Education.