Independent writing – an introduction

Independent writing is something which I have tried previously, although very much in an unstructured way. The point was simply to give children the opportunity to write….quite literally about whatever they would like! Needless to say that whilst having the best of intentions, the very act of giving someone free-reign over what they write will have varying levels of both uptake and quality.

Within several weeks the stories and longer pieces of writing that had initially been offered were being reduced by many to simply pages with lists of their friends or lines of times tables. As lovely as it is to read that children have many friends, it was time for a re-think.

 

The Rationale

Since first starting my teacher training, I have found that in each class I have taught there have been a number of children who are what might be considered to be ‘reluctant writers’. Historically, and making a sweeping generalisation by bringing data into the equation, this tends to be particularly prominent in boys.

We are now so focused on ensuring that children are able to develop their writing to include the many SPaG features listed in the appendix of the National Curriculum. But how can you ever help children to incorporate these into their work if you are only ever managing to get a few ropey sentences from them? Often, capital letters and punctuation are amiss, spellings are all over the place and the ideas themselves disjointed. We can only help to develop these SPaG skills once there is physically enough writing on the page to be able to talk about each of the foci which we wish to address.

That’s exactly where independent writing comes in to play!

Over the years I have tried using a range of different strategies, in particular:

  • Pie Corbett’s ‘Talk for Writing’ offers some wonderful opportunities to explore a range of different genres of text and activities by posing pictures or sound clips which the class discuss in great length. These are often wonderful and can produce some interesting writing, but in my experience it tends to ‘overload’ some children and they then struggle to develop something succinctly and meaningful. It is a phenomenal idea though and I would encourage anyone to try it – although the original books are quite difficult to get hold of now!
  • Using some wonderful websites, such as Once Upon a Picture and Pobble 365 which again provide visual stimuli for discussions and story writing. The illustrations on these websites are simply stunning! Absolutely beautiful! Focussing particularly on Pobble 365 for a minute, a daily picture is uploaded to their website along with a PDF document with discussion points and a small number of activities. Again, absolutely great starting points, but in my experience the children need slightly more of an input for this and so typically would write a few short sentences rather than sustaining a longer piece of writing, which is the aim of independent writing.

 

The Independent Writing Session

So, we come now to our revised independent writing session. It all started with me raising the above points in a meeting with our Deputy Head (Nicky – who also is the Year 3 class teacher) and Head Teacher, Roger.

Nicky explained that she’d seen a really phenomenal improvement in the quality of her classes’ writing since starting independent writing sessions. Having looked at some of their books it was true, the development in such a short period of time was incredible! It was unquestionably worth a shot!

I ordered 35 hardback A5 books (at around £1.10 each) which were labelled up and kept in a vintage style suitcase, which now sits at the front of our classroom taking pride of place! Revealing these special books to the class, and the magic within the case itself, was part of our first lesson.

It was incredibly important to stress to the class that these books were going to become special to them and that they are places where the children can write whatever they’d like to. I explained to the class that we wouldn’t ever be marking the books, nor would the adults read them without their permission. But we would of course be delighted to if they asked us to.

First and foremost, these sessions offer a chance for the children to write what they would like to and for their writing to be valued! They can be tied in to some of the BBC Live Lessons and Puffin Virtually Live videos, which usually feature well-known authors. For example, through watching these, children come to realise that they can create completely wacky and fantastically bonkers story ideas and that there’s still huge value in these and the creative process of drafting, writing, editing, re-drafting and publishing this work.

These Independent writing sessions must show that everyone involved values that writing process and the ideas each other generate. For example, all the staff that work within the class have their own independent writing book, which are all kept together with the children’s in the same suitcase. We sit amongst the children, use the same stationary as them, and write whenever they are. In fact, anyone who comes into our class, whether they be visitors, volunteers or anyone at all, will participate in our writing sessions collectively if they’re in during that time. The class need to see this approach, to know that we value this process and what they’re writing.

Beyond the classroom, our Deputy Head pops in to see what the class have been writing about during her leadership time on a Wednesday. Some of the class have been chosen to work with the Head Teacher, Roger Billing, and can be seen sat discussing their ideas with him in the Heads office once a week. In fact, Mr Billing even has his own Independent Writing Book and will sit and write with the children, and share his ideas with them too.

Throughout each session we play music very quietly in the background which is also meant to stimulate the brain and release serotonin (feelings of well-being and happiness). As a school which actively promotes Mindfulness, using the MindUP programme, the children understand the science behind the brain, having studied this during the course of the year.

Each sessions lasts for about 20-30 minutes worth of writing time. It’s genuinely an incredibly relaxing time in our day and calms the class right down because they are all so invested in what they’re writing. In fact, one child who consistently refused to write, and who during our first session laid sprawled out on the carpet wearing ear defenders to prevent them from hearing the music, was seen sat writing the second chapter of their story by the end of the fourth session. Amazing!

At the end of each session, each table is asked if someone would like to share what they’ve written. We tend to hear from one person, per table, per lesson which means that everyone can be heard throughout the course of the week.


So, what to write about then? 

We are fortunate enough to care for 2 Tortoises in our class and so I decided that this would be our starting point. I tried to think of a range of different genres that the class could write about. See my example here. As far as possible, I tried to link it in to as much of our school life as I could, such as Fresh Fruit Tuesdays.

At the end of our first session, I asked the children for their ideas about things that they would like to be used as topics for each week’s stimulus (each sheet lasts one week – 5 daily sessions). They came up with a huge number of ideas that they were deeply passionate about and I’m currently working on developing these e.g. Week 2 – Magic.

It doesn’t just have to be ideas that you come up with though, picture books are a great resource. I’m particularly looking forward to copying some pages from the Big Picture Book of London and using a different part of London as a focus each day. Or, what about even using a book with no words such as Journey. The possibilities, much like the children’s writing, are limitless! There are plenty of lovely lesson ideas circulating on Twitter too, such as using different shoes to help develop inference.

 

Something for the whole school

As I mentioned earlier, Year 3 have also had their own Independent writing lessons. I’m delighted to say that we have a range of shared lessons in the pipe line. These include a fantastic lesson which Nicky taught to Year 3 using magical items alongside the story ‘Magic Bunnies’ which she’ll be teaching to my Year 4s towards the end of this term. We also plan to teach each other’s classes to share our differing experiences with them. There are even opportunities for the children to swap classrooms and to write with different year groups as well. For example, mixing Years 3 and 4 up together, or giving some of the Y4 children opportunities to extend themselves by discussing their work and refining this with pupils in Y6.

 

Where next?

The whole point of these sessions is to encourage children to write and to show that you value what they have written. It’s to give them exposure to different types and genres of writing, so that in time you can tackle other areas in English/Literacy lessons, like for example SPaG foci. You know your classes better than anyone, so I’m sure you’ll be able to plan for how to let your children continue their lifelong learning journey.

There are a couple of websites in particular that I’d like to share with you though:

  • Vocabulary Ninja (shared by @nickyeasey) offers a word of the day with a definition, synonyms, antonyms and a daily challenge. Nicky has one per day on the first slide of SMARTboard each morning. For £1.50 for a terms worth it’s an absolute steal!
  • Describing words (shared by @missespiWS). Enter a noun and it gives you a bank of adjectives for that word. You can order by usage, frequency or uniqueness. You can also click on the adjectives for a definition. Definitely worth while having opening during writing lessons!

Hopefully all of these processes will help your children to grow wings, to take flight and to soar!

 

My principles for Independent Writing:

Finally, there are a number of fundamentals to these sessions working:
– You have to all buy into the writing process, staff and children alike. It has to be shared and vested interest.

– Your SLT need to understand the value in this process.

– Trust. Trust the children to become avid writers, to create their own magical worlds and develop something which is meaningful to them. Trust the educators too – so that they can be bold, be brave and take dynamic risks. If a Head sees the children and staff all engaged in the writing process when they’re walking round, then that’s brilliant! It shouldn’t be see as a ‘cop-off’ or ‘not a lesson’. It could have an amazing impact – so please, give it a go!

 

How does this link in with Writing for Pleasure?

We’ve all heard of #readingforpleasure, particularly given that it is part of the National Curriculum. But it’s something which we’d very much hope that all schools would encourage anyway. We strive to encourage all our children to become both lifelong learners and to love reading for pleasure.

Perhaps lesser known, but equally important is the concept of writing for pleasure. If you haven’t heard of this before then I’d encourage you to read this blog about the principles behind the pedagogy for writing for pleasure. You’d be surprised to see how many of these princples independent writing can fulfill!

Through all staff and children writing every day we are actively creatiting a community of writers around us. Within days of starting Independent Writing in Year 3, it spread to Year 4 and then on to Year 2. Children are encouraged to share this work not just with their peers in the class, but with adults and children in other classes too. This approach allows us to promote children to share what they’ve read, what they’ve written and how they have created these ideas, through discussions and scaffolding. It enables us to tackle grammatical features in other lessons, having established the building blocks and confidence to self-regulate their writing; reflecting on the choices of vocabulary and the impact these have on the reader, as well as editing and improving their work.

These sessions have so much potential and cover so many of the writing for pleasure principles, I really hope you’ll give them a go. They honestly can become anything you’d like them to. Be bold, be brave, take risks and have a go!

 

Questions or Comments?

Please feel free to e-mail me tom.ritson@thewroxham.net 🙂

Or, keep up to date with our latest work by following @Year4_TWS and @WroxhamSchool