Is teaching writing the ‘Neglected R’?

If you can write well, you can succeed in school. But the impact of being unable to write with confidence can be crippling, in the classroom, as well as far beyond the school gates.

The recent White Paper on ‘levelling up’ education by the government, predictably attempts to address writing and the age-old ‘3Rs’. By 2030, the government wants the number of primary school children achieving the “expected standard in reading, writing and maths” to reach 90%.

Despite widespread recognition of the importance of writing though, it is routinely the ‘Neglected R’ when compared to reading and a(r)ithmetic (maths).

Many teachers don’t feel confident teaching writing, it doesn’t feature so highly in school inspections, nor does it feature so ubiquitously as a priority in school improvement planning. This relative ‘neglect‘ means it doesn’t have the cottage industry of supporting products, apps, and intervention programmes that accompany the likes of reading.

Has writing got worse as a result of the pandemic?

This week, in Key Stage Two writing outcomes from primary schools, only 69% of pupils met the expected standard in writing, down from 78% in 2019.

[Graphic from James Pembroke of SigPlus]

Do these plummeting results reflect the unique impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and partial school closures on writing development? What can we realistically infer from this teacher assessment (usually more generous than standardised testing)? Is it an anomaly, or it is representative of a wider issue with pupils’ writing development in schools?

We can speculate that the conditions of the pandemic made it hard to support and sustain pupils’ writing development. Reading at home during partial school closures, along with a legion of maths apps, may have been easy to deliver than the complex act of improving writing.

There is a peculiar magic when it comes to developing writing in the classroom that was missed. Pupils get ample feedback on drafting and crafting writing. Complex writing tasks are broken into small steps and modelled. Pupils of all ages hear the examples of peers, often writing collaboratively or collectively, and have a live audience to ensure that editing (correcting errors) and revising their writing is completed with due care and attention.

Additionally, many parents may have lacked the confidence to support their children with writing. With my son, I quickly recognised his handwriting had been affected by reduced practice, never mind spelling, grammar, planning extended writing, and more.

What do we need to do about writing?

We should not have any knee-jerk reactions to SATs outcomes, but we should be conscious that developing writing has always been tricky and too many pupils have failed to develop their writing skills.

If we live in a country where functional illiteracy affects millions of families – before the corrosive impact of the pandemic – then we need to pay equal attention to all of the 3Rs. Indeed, writing may even matter more right now.

So, what do we need to do about it?  

Across the world of education, there have been calls for a ‘writing revolution’ and an awareness that new teachers (and old) can struggle with the teaching of writing. Research indicates it may lack the requisite curriculum time and training for schoolteachers.

For 90% of pupils to master such a complex skill requires sustained support and expert teaching. It requires policy support and thorough planning. If teachers struggle with teaching writing, then training and sustained focus on professional development will be key. From early writing – to disciplinary writing in secondary school subjects, as pupils develop to ‘write to learn’ – there needs to be a roadmap for teacher knowledge and practice.

There is likely a need to revisit national assessments for writing. Does the GPS (Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling) test in year 6 translate to better writing? Is writing assessed and developed well into secondary school?  

Beyond testing and assessment, do we need to focus school improvement attention on writing progression in the curriculum? Does handwriting need a higher profile? Can we support spelling beyond weekly testing? Can we explicitly teach the writing process more consistently and successfully?

Do we need to revisit our curriculum intent when it comes to improving ‘writing like a historian‘ or a scientist, and more (the stuff of ‘disciplinary literacy’, twinned with subject expertise)? As an ex-secondary school teacher, I may even offer the provocation that writing is routinely neglected – based largely on a lack of awareness and intent to address the issue.

Aiming for 90% of pupils leaving primary school as strong writers may be a laudable aim, but it will we not get anywhere near if writing continues to be the ‘Neglected R‘.

6 thoughts on “Is teaching writing the ‘Neglected R’?”

  1. Peter Harris Ellison

    You have described the issue very clearly, however, I fear that the answer is more complex than you suggest. More than any aspect of learning (with the possible exception of art), effective writing depends on the knowledge and skills already possessed by the pupil. In other words, we become good writers through reading widely and practising what we have observed. A good writer is first and formost a good reader – and talker. For this reason, writing cannot be taught in the usual definition of that word, it can only be shaped or guided by the teacher. Teaching writing to a pupil who doesn’t already possess knowledge and skills usually results in formulaic ’empty’ writing. A teacher can help a pupil to express their ideas more effectively but only if the pupil already understands why their ‘improved’ version is better. Only a good and experienced reader can gain an understanding of what makes writing effective. That will not change no matter how much time and effort teachers devote to teaching writing. In fact, it may be that more teacher time and effort might make writing worse because less time will be spent on reading and talking as a consequence. As an experience KS2 writing moderator, I have seen many examples of writing that has been damaged by too much ‘improvement’ and too little content.

    1. Alex Quigley

      Thanks for engaging with the blog, Peter. It is fair to say that in a short blog I haven’t wholly characterised the complexities. I would say being a good reader is a necessary precondition to being a good writer, but, crucially, it is necessary but insufficient. There is ample evidence that devoting time to the teaching of writing does indeed improve writing. I think your notion about less time and more on reading is perhaps a ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ scenario. Pupils must, must, must read – widely and well – but explicit instruction of writing moves is vital to ensure reading transfers to pupils’ writing. If we do not teach writing explicitly and in depth, then a proportion of very literate pupils will continue to thrive, but a sizeable proportion of writers will not thrive and their reading knowledge will not transfer to excellent writing.

      In truth, I don’t know what you mean by your last sentence, so I cannot comment.

      1. Peter Harris Ellison

        Thanks for your thoughtful reply Alex. In my last sentence, I was trying to encapsulate my experience of reading many pieces of pupils’ writing which have been worked on, re-drafted and ‘up levelled’ but have not been improved. In most cases, the writing would probably have been improved if the pupil had spent more time reading, thinking and talking about the content. In my experience, it’s rare for reading (and talking) knowledge not to transfer to excellent writing. I look forward to reading further blog posts on the complex issue of teaching writing.

  2. Many thanks for a most valuable info from your government wanting the number of primary school children to achieve the “expected standard in reading, writing and maths” to reach 90% by 2030.
    I would very much like to find out what my swedish government are planning for the number of primary school children in the next eight years.
    Too many swedish children are today leaving school without being able to understand what they are reading. Wonder how many swedish teachers never having the opportunity to learn how to teach the complex skill of reading – and writing too.

    “Just as students understand more of what they read when they approach text strategically, students are better able to express their thoughts in writing when they approach writing strategically” (p.221).
    Learnt from Sheri Berkeley and Sharon Ray (2020), “Reading Fundamentals For Students With Learning Difficulties”.

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