(TFW Part 2): Exploring Talk for Writing by Sam Heal

Talk for Writing is a unique approach to teaching writing that focuses on the extensive use of classroom talk to help children to improve their writing in a range of text genres. It develops their ability to ‘read as writers’ and enables them to explore the thinking and creative processes involved in generating and planning ideas and incorporating techniques learned from other writers into their own work. It further allows children to rehearse the structure and sequence of a piece of writing and guides how the text should sound – its style and voice. It also encourages them to generate and rehearse appropriate language and grammar as they work collaboratively to plan, draft, and improve their writing.

The focus of T4W is based on both a recognition of what successful writers do and on what ‘being a writer’ means. For experienced writers, many of the creative and thinking processes involved in writing are internal and automatic. For example, many writers can hold an internal dialogue with themselves about the possible effectiveness of alternative language choices. However, for developing writers these processes need to be made explicit and they will benefit from their own writing processes being explored through talk in a supportive learning context. It is this developmental exploration, through talk, of the thinking and creative processes involved in being a writer that underpin the T4W pedagogy.

The concept  of ‘being a writer’ is built on a key set of principles: enjoying writing and finding the process creative, enriching and fulfilling; reading widely, recognising good writing, and understanding what makes it good; being aware of the key features of different genres and text types; learning about the skills of writing from reading and drawing upon its models; having ‘something to say’ (a purpose and audience); knowing how to develop ideas and how to plan and prepare for writing; making informed choices during writing (including vocabulary, grammar and text structure); understanding how to reflect upon, refine and improve writing; and responding to the constructive criticism of others. For experienced writers, many of these processes are internal and automatic, T4W aims to help students to explore what being a writer means.

The Talk 4 Writing approach enables children to read and write independently for a variety of audiences and purposes within different subjects. The approach moves from dependence towards independence, with the teacher using shared and guided teaching to develop the ability in children to write creatively and powerfully. It is powerful because it is based on research around the principles of how people learn.

Talk 4 writing is comprised of a three-stage pedagogy of imitation, innovation, and independent application/invention.  These key phases of the Talk for Writing process, enable children to imitate orally the language they need for a particular topic, before reading and analysing it, and then writing their own version. As Mary Wyatt says, ‘Text should be the beating heart of the lesson.’

In my school we underpinned the work in Talk for Writing by establishing a whole school core reading spine of quality fiction, poetry and non-fiction that all children had a right to experience and draw upon and that all teachers had a responsibility to deliver. Imaginative units of work were developed to create a whole-school plan/scheme of work which ensured that all text types were covered; those texts became progressively more challenging, and skills were revisited and built upon year by year. This plan was refined over the years.  It was well-resourced and documented and therefore released teachers from planning and preparation so that they could focus on adapting their teaching for children’s learning.

A piece of Year 3 writing an innovate on The Three Billy Goats Gruff


Although the choice of texts and their suitability for the objectives we wanted to cover in English were at the heart of text choosing discussions, we did also look for opportunities for disciplinary literacy. In primary, some examples of this were a warning tale written for Year 4 and set in the Viking era which was followed up by an information text about Viking food. Science texts about animal classification or adaption were also explored within English lessons. The expectation within other lessons such as geography or science lessons were that when opportunities for writing arose that the expectations for accuracy were high and genre features were expected and required. This whole school approach was backed up by a recent 2019 BLOG report by the EEF which emphasises the importance of ‘disciplinary literacy’ within secondary schools -an approach to improving literacy across the curriculum. It recognises that literacy skills are both general and subject specific, underlining the value of supporting teachers in every subject to teach students how to read, write and communicate effectively in their subjects.

The three stages

A typical T4W unit begins with an exciting hook into learning. It can be a gateway into a child’s imagination. It can allow them time to dwell on something and consider a life away from their own. (Thomas J 2019 Hook, line, and sinker). Hooks can come in many forms from the elaborate to the simple: they can be inside hooks, outside hooks, role play hooks or experience hooks. Some examples might include a trip out of school to the woods or the beach, a mysterious letter delivered to the classroom or a sticky trail of porridge. Whatever form they take, they should result in all the eyes in your class widening with excitement and curiosity.

Imitation stage
Through meaningful repetition and re-visiting, children learn the text and internalise the language structures needed to eventually write their own texts. The text is read in every lesson as re-visiting and talking the text in this way helps children to identify transferrable ideas and structures, and to internalise its structure.  For example, we explore how even simple stories develop through setting, characters, plot and resolution, to become familiar with its syntactical patterns and to begin to acquire its specific vocabulary.  

How to get started

Following a reflection on the needs of the children based on assessment for learning (AfL) or summative assessments, the teacher will select a model text. The text could be fiction, nonfiction or poetry and it may be written or adapted by the teacher or a text from an author. The model text is pitched above the children’s level and has built into it the underlying, transferable structures and language patterns that students will need when they are writing.

The text is made into a text map which is drawn /constructed.  Ideally, this happens whilst the children watch but I find that rather tricky so I prefer to prepare my text maps in advance. The text map is a pictorial representation of the text which visually supports the oral retelling. I usually split my text over four or five A3 pages and each page represents a paragraph within the text. Important words such as openers and conjunctions are written and colour coded, and punctuation is always shown. Other items are drawn.  However, if you struggle with that, google images will be your friend. There is no need to write or draw each word in the text as the aim is that it scaffolds the children as they learn and eventually retell the text independently. This text is displayed and read every day as a class and in pairs or groups. If your class are new to T4W you will need to introduce the actions that help to internalise the language structures of the text. Pie has a set of suggested actions which I have slightly adapted.


The important point to note is that if you are implementing T4W across the whole school then the key actions need to be consistent throughout school. Whilst sharing the text with the children for the first time it is fun to get them to devise actions for the key parts of the story. They are usually far more inventive than us. Just as not all words need a picture on the map, not all words need an action. Punctuation also needs an action and Kung Foo punctuation ideas are useful here but do avoid saying full stop or exclamation mark as although you may feel this will help to embed the punctuation it can detract from the story and does not mirror what real readers do. The text map and actions strengthen memory and help students to internalise the text. The whole class communal learning helps to build confidence and community within the class. Children begin by mapping the story themselves. Instead of word-for-word retelling, what follows is an internalisation of main events or ‘scenes’ in the story. This means that when they come to retell, children aren’t restrained by the need to know each word. Instead, they can embellish the story as they’ve learnt it more loosely. They use their knowledge of story language and sentence structures from their reading to support the embellishment of the model story. Children who are particularly confident may orally innovate immediately. However, some children may still require the structure and scaffold of a more detailed text map and more strongly encoded word for word story. It is essential that during this initial stage the children become orally competent and can re-tell a chosen text by the end of the Imitation section. Pie recommends that the children hear the text, say it for themselves and enjoy it before seeing it written down. However, in my class I always have the written text displayed as some children enjoy making the connection between the images and the writing right from the beginning of the unit. Once the children have internalised the language of the text, they are able to start to think about the key ingredients that help to make it work. Once children can ‘talk like the text’, the model, and other examples, are then read for vocabulary and comprehension. This stage includes a range of reading as-a-reader and as-a-writer activities which help the children to pull the text apart and explore the content and structure. In T4W we use a boxing-up technique (splitting the text into sections) to help the children to analyse the basic text structure. Once the boxing up is complete, the class co-construct a toolkit for this type of text so that they can talk about the ingredients that have helped to make the text work. This is a key stage in internalising the toolkit in their heads. Activities such as drama are used to deepen understanding of the text. All of this first phase is underpinned by rehearsing key spellings and grammatical patterns. Short-burst writing is used to practise key focuses. Following much exploration of the model story with this Reading as a Reader stage, including a focus on reading and grammar teaching within context (which supports the writing phases excellently), as well as opportunities for drama and writing in role, the Reading as a Writer stage is essential and provides the bridge between reading and writing. The two key elements of this part of TfW are the creation of the writers’ toolkit and the boxing up of the underlying structure of a text. Innovation stage Once the children have internalised the text, they are then ready to start innovating on the pattern of the text. Innovation involves helping children to generate their own version of the known text, with the teacher modelling the process through shared writing. They use the text map and structures to co-construct new versions with their teachers and they begin to explore their own ideas. Younger children and less confident writers alter their text maps using post it notes and orally rehearse what they want to say, creating their own version. With younger pupils, this is based on changing the basic map and retelling new versions. Older students and more confident writers use boxed-up planners and the teacher demonstrates how to create simple plans and orally develop ideas prior to writing. Ideas may need to be generated and organised or information researched and added to a plan. Once the children are familiar with the new shared version The key focus in this stage is shared writing with the teacher that then helps the children to move away slightly from the text and write their own. The teacher may also work with different groups in guided writing, helping children develop their ideas and refine their new versions. At this stage, the invisible thought processes that are central to writing are made visible and teachers make their writerly thoughts audible. It’s during this time that the teacher will identify specific areas for learning and give the children the opportunity through shared writing, to explore different skills before they are expected to do it independently. The teacher will also explore and demonstrate how to accurately use ambitious vocabulary and sentence structures that, again, the children can then apply to their own writing. Demonstrating how to regularly read their work aloud to see if it works is important here. This process enables the children to write their own versions through developing their ability to generate good words and phrases and also develops the inner judge when they start to decide why one word or phrase is best. Shared writing may look more like the teacher writing and sharing what a good one looks like (WAGOLL) or be a more collaborative experience where children have a chance to contribute ideas or a mixture of the two. Not only does this provide a model of excellence but it’s also another opportunity for children to magpie ideas. Good ideas and examples will be hung on the washing line alongside the shared writing so when the children come to write they have models and words and phrases to support them. Throughout the shared writing, teachers make visible use of the boxed up underlying structure to write from their planning, and skilful use of the writers’ toolkit that has been built through the unit, therefore the children will be strengthening the toolkit so they start to understand the type of ingredients that may help. Once they have finished their own paragraph(s) children should be encouraged to swap their work with a learning partner. Then either with the aid of a visualizer or from peer/teacher feedback, the whole class can also discuss some of the more successful work and identify what made it successful. Time should be planned in for children to respond to any feedback from teachers. Levels of innovation Simple substitution – for example change words, character or settings. Addition – add to or embellish to expand or extend a text. Alteration – alter part of a text in ways that change the course of events. Genre swapping -for example switch a story to a newspaper report or change the story type to science fiction or a myth. Change time/person or view – for example past to present tense. Reorder the text -for example with flashback, time slips and flash forwards. Write in the style of different authors Add in sequels or prequels /prologues Blend story types It is crucial to note that whilst substitution is invaluable for younger children and those who are new to English it should not be the only technique used in primary schools as the aim is to grow independent writers. Independent application/invention stage. The independent application stage is the children’s opportunity to combine the techniques that they have mastered and apply them in an independent piece or number of pieces. By this time, the children should have confidently internalised three things: · a model story · a writers’ toolkit · the underlying structure (through boxing up) These are the three vital elements that lead to independent writing. This is the final stage of the unit and will provide the children with the most freedom with regard to their writing. The teacher will assess what the children can do and adapt their planning in light of this. This phase will begin with some discreet teaching of an area that the teacher has identified as needing further work prior to the children writing their own piece. More examples of the text can be introduced, analysed and compared before the children can have a go themselves on a related topic of their own choosing. The teachers will work with the children to set ‘tick able targets’ which focus on aspects that they need to focus on. Again, this section will end with response partner and whole class discussion about what features really worked, followed by an opportunity to edit and improve their work. This process also helps the children internalise the toolkit for such writing so that it becomes a practical flexible toolkit in the head rather than a list to be looked at and blindly followed – as Pie says, “Tools not rules!” At the end of the unit, the children’s work will be published or displayed, either in the classrooms, wider school or on the school website.


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