Developing children's writing skills

Apr 2012
If you've ever struggled with writing an essay, composing the perfect letter or brushing up on your CV, you can imagine how much more difficult the writing process would be if you were a 5-year-old whose total writing experience is mastering your first name and whose vocabulary is limited to the phrases 'once upon a time' and 'the end'.

Writing, like any other skill, is something that has to be honed over time with plenty of opportunities for practice. But even before you can expect your children to put pencil to paper, there are certain essential building blocks that need to be in place in order to help them write with ease and fluency.

The majority of schools teach phonics from reception through to year 2. Regular 15 minute synthetic phonics lessons enable children to write independently by helping them identify the individual sounds in words and distinguish between the 'ph' in phone and the 'f' in fox as an example. When children feel confident that they can sound out a whole host of words, they can finally put their ideas down without fear of making spelling mistakes or being overly reliant on their teachers.

With phonetic knowledge in place, children then need to get a really good sense of story and other writing structures so they can begin to make use of the creative ideas they have gleaned from their favourite movies or books. A technique that is growing in popularity with teachers and schools is the 'Talk for Writing' approach advocated by writer, poet and educational consultant Pie Corbett.

A former teacher, Head teacher and Ofsted Inspector, Corbett has written and edited over 250 books and runs training and development projects for the national strategy, education authorities and schools focusing on the area of children's literacy.

'Talk for Writing' focuses on the three 'I's' listed below:

  1. Imitation � experiencing and learning a text orally.

  2. Innovation � adapting the text to create something new.

  3. Invention � drawing on the internal bank of texts to make up something totally new.


A year 2 teacher might use the following process with a picture book like Little Beauty by Anthony Browne:

  1. Read the story repeatedly to children and they acted out parts of the story in pairs, drew story maps and made puppets of characters before writing the story out.

  2. Children make new story maps changing one element of the story such as the setting or characters and write this new version.

  3. Using their knowledge of story structure children create an entirely new story.


While the support of teachers and parents can have an immeasurable impact on children's writing, there are things that children themselves can do to aid their progress.

Blogging, texting and social network interaction pave the way for motivated and confident writers, according to a survey by the National Literacy Trust.

A survey of 3,001 children aged nine to 16 found that 24% had their own blog and 82% sent text messages at least once a month.

47% of children surveyed who didn't have exposure to blogs or social networking sites rated their writing as "good" or "very good", a much lower figure than those who blogged at 61% and social network users at 56%.

"Our research suggests a strong correlation between kids using technology and wider patterns of reading and writing," Jonathan Douglas, Director of the National Literacy Trust, told BBC News.

"Engagement with online technology drives their enthusiasm for writing short stories, letters, song lyrics or diaries."

And what of those children who already have good writing skills but still find themselves to be reluctant writers? There are a number of different ways that under-confident writers can be creatively engaged into the writing process. Reward children with book vouchers or special pens, for example, when they have completed a good piece of writing.

Additionally, take into consideration that boys and girls have different writing preferences. The former may be more interested in writing about science fiction or historical characters, while the latter may find inspiration writing traditional fairytales. The Lancashire Grid For Learning has developed four Boys' Writing Projects since 2004. Topics vary widely and, although these examples may be gender stereotypical, it's important to find the one particular topic or angle that will fire a child's enthusiasm for writing, an idea that Corbett agrees with:

"We know that there needs to be that initial moment of inspiration � an event, observation, or experience � that acts as a catalyst. After that, the writer's craft hones and shapes the story, allowing the characters, setting and plot to speak to the reader."