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Literacy | Primary schools

9 strategies for improving writing skills in primary school

By Michelle Casey

06 Jan 2023

Primary students improving writing on a computer

Learners use writing as a vehicle through which to express themselves and their ideas, both in and out of the classroom, in every subject across the curriculum. By improving learners’ writing skills, you prepare them for success in wider life.

In this guide, you will find practical advice for teachers on developing fundamental writing skills within the primary classroom.

The ability to express ideas in writing is one of the most important of all skills. Good writing is a mark of an educated person and, perhaps for that reason, it is one of the most important skills sought by employers and higher education institutions (Conley, 2003; Schmoker, 2018).

Developing our learners as writers is more than just asking them to remember tricky spellings, handwriting joins or grammatical constructs. It is a process which is intricate and complicated, but if done consistently and thoroughly, gives learners a tool which is vital for their school years, across all subjects and in life after education.

Writing makes learners’ thinking and learning visible. It provides them with the opportunity to clarify and refine their ideas for others and to themselves.

For learners to progress in their writing, they must have a solid understanding of the 5 basic writing skills and plenty of opportunity to practise and develop these skills.

Grammar is the system and structure of a language and comes with certain rules. It underpins how words are put together meaningfully and sentences are constructed. When writers use good grammar, they can effectively communicate what they want the reader to know. Through learning about nouns, punctuation, tense and aspect, brackets, semicolons, and connectors, learners can make their writing clearer and control its impact on their readers.

Spelling instruction helps learners to develop a connection between letters and their sounds. It also helps learners to recognise high-frequency common exception words. Teaching students strategies for spelling supports them in communicating effectively through writing.

While sentences can be written without punctuation, writing becomes a lot more effective if punctuated correctly. Good punctuation allows writers to convey what they mean and enables readers to understand the intended message or meaning. Every piece of punctuation has a particular role; they all work to give clarity and meaning to our written words.

Read more about the rules behind punctuation.

Handwriting is an important skill for learners to develop. Poor handwriting can harm school performance.

If a learner views handwriting as something arduous, this can reduce their motivation to write. This lack of motivation may lead to a reduction in practice which can further compound handwriting difficulties.

When learners can write comfortably, legibly and at a good pace, it gives them more ‘mental space’ to think about the content and creativity of their writing, as opposed to the logistics.

Learn more about handwriting in primary school.

Reading comprehension is the capacity to read a piece of text and understand the meaning or intent. It is important in the development of writing skills. Before learners can write with meaning, they need to be able to read.

The skills developed in reading and reading comprehension activities feed into many skills required for effective writing. It helps them to:

  • Sound out and blend words for meaning
  • Extend their vocabulary and learn how to use it contextually
  • See how words in a paragraph or in a sentence relate to each other

When the concept of reading at a base level has been achieved, learners can then start to think about a text critically; they can infer meaning and intent and transfer this to their own writing. As well as this, reading comprehension relies on a strong understanding of vocabulary and grammar; writing skills work together and strengthen one another.

For writing to progress, learners should have a good grasp of sentence structure. They should know the basic types of sentences: simple, compound and complex.

Learners should also be able to modify sentence structure for effect - for example, by using fronted adverbials or passive voice. Learning different ways they can structure a sentence helps learners convey their intended meaning in their writing.

Teaching learners to recognise the different genres of writing and their characteristics and purpose will help them to implement these techniques in their own writing.

Throughout their schooling, learners should be exposed to a wide variety of nonfiction, narrative and poetry texts.

Within nonfiction, they will be exposed to explanation texts to inform; non-chronological reports to explain and persuasive texts to persuade and entertain, to name a few.

Within narrative texts, learners will examine stories with dilemmas, traditional tales and stories in a historical setting, among others.

Learners will also have the opportunity to explore poetry including structured poetry, visual poetry and free verse.

Learners should be given the opportunity to become familiar with a text type and its features. They should examine the language used, sentence structure, grammatical features and layout. They could highlight and annotate features of the text as they identify them - in this way, they form a kind of checklist for their own writing.

Well-chosen texts provide learners with good-quality models for their writing. In this way, they are exposed to rich language structures which lets them see how writing works and the effect it can have on the reader. Students draw on their reading experiences when producing their own writing.

Learners should be exposed to these high-quality texts across a range of genres, demonstrating a variety of writing styles. It is important that the texts chosen reflect the social and cultural diversity of the class while introducing them to a world outside the familiar.

This exposure can involve Independent Reading, Guided Reading, Shared Reading and just good old Reading for Pleasure, where the teacher or the learners take the lead.

According to the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE), ‘Reading texts to children that they are not ready to access independently exposes them to language they can own.’ This gives those struggling readers an opportunity to be enriched by high-quality vocabulary with the right scaffolding.

Learners should be given plenty of opportunities for regular reading in the classroom. Some schools implement a whole-school policy whereby one session per week or fortnight is blocked out for Reading for Pleasure.

Reading is often not only encouraged but required as part of homework tasks. It is normal for there to be certain expectations for reading sessions to be carried out at home. This is often a book from a specific level that the teacher has matched to the learner’s reading ability. However, whatever age-appropriate texts students are reading at home is beneficial: magazines, catalogues, leaflets, websites, and books from home.

Parents/guardians should be encouraged to read with students at home too; this gives learners another perspective on the text from their parent/guardian and (hopefully!) helps foster a love, or at least a like, for reading.

When learners are writing, they should be clear on who their intended audience will be. Will it be their peers? Younger students? The headteacher? The King? The MD of a company?

In being clear on their intended audience, learners can further develop their understanding that writing is a tool for communication and expression. And of course, writing is not limited to literacy lessons - writing is used across all subjects, which gives learners even more opportunity to write for an intended audience and purpose.

The teaching of writing is more effective when learners see the purpose of it, and with an audience in mind, they can adapt their tone accordingly.

Some examples of writing students could produce inspired by text or real life:

  • A letter to the headteacher persuading him/her to allow a longer break time.
  • A newspaper report on a school/ local event.
  • Instructions on how to play Minecraft (or another game that is relevant and appropriate to them).
  • Within a topic (e.g., superheroes), learners create their own superhero, then write an explanation text to explain the superhero’s powers, special gadgets, crimes/issues targeted and how they became a superhero.
  • After reading a story or part of a story, learners write about an event from a character’s point of view not presented in the text.

Children could have access to free writing journals and, if possible (in the jam-packed curriculum we are all navigating!), time to develop their own personal writing projects, allowing their personal writing style to emerge.

With the popularity of diary-style series like Wimpy Kid and Tom Gates, the idea of keeping a diary may be very attractive to some learners. It is a good way to get children writing outside the classroom environment. Learners who keep a diary are twice as likely to exceed age expectations in writing.

According to the National Literacy Trust, the vast majority of children state that they enjoy writing more when they can choose what to write about. If learners can begin to derive pleasure from writing in this way, then hopefully this can be transferred to writing in a more formal setting.

Giving learners the opportunity to read aloud enables them to hear how punctuation and sentence structure combine in the sentences they read. It may even help them to think more deeply about perspective as they read from the point of view of new characters.

Reading aloud also provides the teacher with chances to correct misconceptions, such as mispronunciations and new vocabulary. These are all skills that can be channelled into their own writing composition.

As well as this, reading aloud is a good way to celebrate a student’s written work - they can present their achievements to their classmates.

Providing students with sentence starters can help with writing flow. It provides reassurance that they are on the right track in their writing. With all the different writing genres our learners are exposed to and then expected to write, it can be beneficial for some learners to have this scaffold.

Sentence starters could be in the form of a ‘word bank’ on the board or on a piece of paper, generated by the teacher. To give learners a little more ownership, this ‘word bank’ of sentence starters could be generated as a class and left on display.

More independent learners may enjoy coming up with their own word banks as they read texts; they can ‘magpie’ sentence starters they’d like to use for their writing.

Cooperative writing is a useful tool in helping learners on their writing journey.

One aspect of this is shared writing. It involves the teacher crafting a piece of writing on a whiteboard. The learners are encouraged to give input, often aided by teacher questioning and prompts. The result is a collaborative passage which learners can use to help with their independent writing.

Another type of cooperative writing is modelled writing. This requires less student input, but the students get to watch the act of writing. The teacher might write a sentence, and then articulate their thought process as to how the vocabulary in the sentence can be improved or what form of punctuation would work best here. In this way, learners can see the strategies the teacher draws on as he or she writes.

A third method of cooperative writing is guided writing. This involves the teacher working with a smaller group of children within the lesson (when the others are ‘on task’). This usually focuses on a specific objective that this group in particular needs support with, e.g., adding more detail to writing by using fronted adverbials. In this approach, the children usually produce their own writing in their English books with the teacher prompting and questioning.

Where possible, try to connect what the children are interested in with their writing. For example, if you have learners interested in Minecraft, they could write a letter of persuasion to the Prime Minister to persuade him to allow Minecraft lessons in school.

Another way of getting the children interested and excited about writing is to use humour. Show learners two emails to compare - both could be complaining about something. One could be written using formal language and the other could be written informally, bordering on being rude.

Example of formal writing through a letter
Example of informal writing in a letter

This lets learners see the effect of both pieces of writing.

Another way to use humour is in writing an explanation text. It could be about something perceived as mundane such as ‘How a Dishwasher Works’ but could be made humourous in the following way:

Example of humorous writing through instructions

Children can then use this to write their own explanations in a similar way.

Another idea is to set something up to happen, e.g., to use the superhero topic again - have an adult in school dress up as a ‘thief’ and another adult as a superhero. They could burst into your classroom at an agreed time and have a very dramatic ‘chase’ around the room and the superhero could catch the ‘thief’. Of course, you would have to consider the children in your class and if this would be appropriate for them. This dramatic action could be a good springboard to inspire children to write.

It is important to encourage parental support with writing at home. Parents may need guidance in how they can help their children with writing at home. It might be a good idea to put together a list of ways they can help, for example:

  • Allow children to help with everyday writing such as emails, shopping lists, writing birthday cards.
  • Try to make sure your child has an area (no matter how big or small) where they can write, as well as the tools for writing.
  • Let children write about what interests them: a recipe they have helped make, a film review, a similar story to one they have read, similar lyrics to a song they have heard.

Talking homework tasks are a good way to involve parents. Talking homework is used as part of Ros Wilson’s Big Write approach. Big Writing is when learners produce an extended piece of writing independently.

The night before the Big Write, learners are given a homework task to discuss their ideas with someone at home, for what they could write the next day. This means children are getting lots of input and parents are sharing in the learning.

To learn to write, students need a blend of different skills such as vocabulary knowledge, grammar knowledge, an understanding of sentence structure, fine motor skills and more. While some of these skills come down to dedicated instruction in the classroom, such as when transcribing and practising handwriting, some of the fundamental skills of writing can be boosted by a digital literacy curriculum such as Bedrock Learning.

Bedrock’s vocabulary curriculum teaches learners aged 6-16 the Tier 2 vocabulary they need to thrive, from Year 3 level all the way to advanced reading and vocabulary. Tier 2 vocabulary is taught through an intelligent Block system, ensuring each learner is placed into the right Block for their reading level - this ensures the texts are challenging, yet accessible. The smart Block system differentiates teaching for learners of different abilities, stretching confident readers and supporting struggling readers.

In addition to this, Bedrock’s core curriculum teaches vocabulary alongside a complete grammar curriculum, differentiated for primary and secondary learners. Grammar is taught through bespoke fiction and nonfiction texts, engaging teaching videos and mastery tasks, ensuring long-term retention.

Informed by the National Curriculum, Bedrock’s core curriculum not only teaches learners the grammar they need for their KS2 SATs, but also combines grammar and vocabulary instruction to boost reading comprehension and writing skills overall.

Discover how Bedrock’s curricula can support your learners throughout primary school - and beyond!

Explicit vocabulary, grammar and GCSE English instruction to support learners across the curriculum and beyond the school gates.