(TFW Part 1): An Introduction to Talk for Writing by Sam Heal
As English teachers we are duty bound to agree that Literacy is fundamental for success in school in all subjects and, in turn, the real world beyond school. Good literacy is, of course, key to academic success across the curriculum: a recent EEF evidence review found that the strongest factor affecting pupils’ science attainment is how well they understand written texts. Young people who leave school without good literacy skills are held back at every stage of their lives. Children with reading difficulties are at greater risk of developing mental health problems later in life, including depression, anxiety, behavioural problems, anger, and aggression. Globally, it is estimated that 1 out of 5 people are completely illiterate with a further three billion people struggling to read and write at a basic level. Low level reading and writing skills cost the global economy around £800 billion each year. In 2018, illiteracy is estimated to cost the UK economy approximately £80 billion (The Economic & Social Cost of Illiteracy World literacy foundation, 2018).
T4W – history and background
T4W evolved over several years (Corbett and Strong 2011) and formed the central core of teaching and learning approaches in the Primary Writing Project which aimed to raise standards of writing by motivating children and teachers, deepening their understanding of writing, and refining their skills. The origins of T4W were in a ‘Story making’ teacher research project into the link between storytelling and writing, supported by a central government Innovations Unit (DCSF, 2008a) and the Centre for British Teachers. Key influences included Kendall Haven’s book Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story (Libraries Unlimited, 2007) and Taeschner’s research into the use of narrative as a strategy for learning another language.
T4W was developed jointly by Pie Corbett and Julia Strong. Pie is an English educational trainer, writer, author, and poet who has written over two hundred books. He is also known for promoting approaches in the classroom and has experience as a teacher, head teacher and Ofsted inspector. Julia Strong is their secondary expert and specialises in literacy across the curriculum (disciplinary literacy) in secondary schools.
Why was a fresh approach to writing needed in the UK?
Background issues in pupil writing attainment
For a long time, the teaching of writing had been the focus of substantial national debate. It reflected a growing recognition that low levels of literacy in a significant proportion of the population would have far-reaching economic consequences. Reading and writing are justifiably referred to as central parts of ‘the basics’, the tools of further learning (Barber, 1997). Poor literacy that continues into adolescence and adulthood has many serious implications for society beyond the years of schooling. Attention was also drawn to the relationship between low levels of literacy and social exclusion and especially how it may persist through generations (Wanzek, Vaughn, Kim, & Cavanaugh, 2006).
Writing was the aspect of literacy education that had been least responsive to government reforms in England. Despite the introduction of the National Literacy Strategy in 1998, pupil attainment in writing had increased at a much slower rate than pupil attainment in reading. In 2000, only 55 % of pupils attained the expected level, compared with 83% in reading (DfES, 2002a). There was also a long-standing gender gap, with girls’ attainment still higher than that of boys. Teaching approaches in writing had also been slower to change in response to government reforms than those in reading. According to earlier inspection evidence (HMI, 2000, 2002), part of the original problem was the legacy of an over-reliance in schools on ‘stimuli’ and work-sheet material and an under-use of teaching to help pupils improve their writing, particularly at the point of composition. The National Literacy strategy unit encouraged the use of shared and guided teaching approaches that were not common in England at that time (Beard, 1999).
T4W drew upon an earlier professional association publication (UKLA, 2004) that presented a curriculum planning model in which opportunities for independent writing were preceded by familiarisation with the genre/text type (including capturing ideas and oral rehearsal) and teacher demonstration (including teacher scribing, supported writing and guided writing). Subsequently, key elements of this model were alliteratively summarised in Primary Writing Project materials as ‘Imitation’; ‘Innovation’ and ‘Invention’/’Independent Writing’ (see also Corbett & Strong, 2011).
Talk 4 Writing-my journey
My large inner city primary school in the north of England had children from the most economically challenged areas of the city as well as a few from more affluent homes. School had an above average number of free school meal children and children for whom English was an additional language. We were not happy with our teaching of writing which lacked cohesion and we were disappointed with our results which mirrored the national under attainment in writing. I was lucky enough to attend the 2006 T4W conference organised by the National Literacy Trust. This sparked a journey which was to lead to me trialling the approach in my classroom. In turn this led to a whole school trial of the approach and our school continued to use this approach consistently throughout school until the present day. T4W was one of the key factors in moving our school from the Ofsted Requires Improvement category to us becoming category Good in all aspects of English. We found it to be truly supportive approach which offers a coherent and cohesive approach to not only writing but all aspects of English learning. For us it answered the question – How can independent writing be the very best it can be? Our children echoed the opinion of the child who told Pie that he loved T4W as he thought it was like magic.
In Brunei I have used T4W with Year Two and Year Three and the results both academic and for the children’s confidence and self esteem have been equally magical. Children have moved from writing one or two sentences independently to being able to write a full story. They began to see themselves as writers and to understand the process. Although it has lost a little of its impact during online learning as my school cannot facilitate live class teaching, it still remains a powerful vehicle for change. One of my children during the innovate stage online told me that she could not wait to write her own story and already had ideas for the changes she would make.
As English teachers we are indeed duty bound to agree that Literacy is fundamental for success in school in all subjects and, in turn, the real world beyond school but to paraphrase the little boy’s statement to Pie if it can also be magic then we should be willing to strive towards that.
Primary writing project Talk for Writing: Review of related research Roger Beard, Emeritus Professor of Primary Education, UCL Institute of Education, London
EEF Blog: What do we mean by ‘disciplinary literacy’? Professor Sir Kevan Collins 5 July 2019
Getting to the end point – real, quality independent writing. 2019
Story Reading into Writing Pie Corbett 2013
Improving primary science guidance report Oct 2021 EEF
Improving literacy in secondary schools guidance report 2019 EEF
Literacy Changes Lives The role of literacy in offending behaviour Christina Clark and George Dugdale National Literacy Trust November 2008
The Economic & Social Cost of Illiteracy World literacy foundation 2018
Talk for Writing: Review of related research Roger Beard, Emeritus Professor of Primary Education, UCL Institute of Education, London