Context-free writing: a strategy to raise engagement

How many people (even if they don’t care to admit it) have bought a Take That album? But how many people would buy an album of Gary Barlow rapping?

Last week, an Inspector called. Amongst other things, she suggested we look at what we are doing to engage our children, and particularly boys, in writing. Here is a brief description of one of the strategies we have elected to develop.

Time-upon-time, I have seen children battle to write in a range of styles; who hasn’t? I would like to make clear now that I fully advocate the need to be able to write for different purposes. But my opening paragraph alludes to the fact that we all have strengths and sometimes we need to play to them.

Amongst our staff, there has been some discussion about whether expecting children to write in one style over another can stymy enthusiasm for, and achievement in, writing. Again, there is no suggestion that we should stop teaching things that they find difficult. That would be ridiculous. But there is increasing curiosity about what would happen should we harness children’s motivation for things that they are already good at.

As a consequence, after half-term, we will be experimenting with our first two week, context-free literacy unit in Year Three classes.

Rather than using a standard teaching sequence for writing to build towards a written outcome in a particular genre, the unit will not be based on a genre at all.

Instead, its focus will be on teaching three sentence level objectives: using ‘because’ as a conjunction in complex sentences; using adverbial phrases of time to start sentences; and using embedded clauses to add detail to writing.

Each of these facets of writing will be looked at in detail: through anlysis of high-quality examples; through teacher modelling; through shared and guided writing. So far, so familiar.

The planned difference in a ‘contest-free’ writing unit arrives only at its very conclusion: at the stage where children are ready to produce a significant written outcome. It is now that rsponsibility for their learning will be given to children; it is now that, instead of being asked to write a quest myth, a story in a familiar setting, a letter to an author, they will be allowed to choose their genre: take something that you want to write about and use it to show off everything you have spent the last two weeks learning about.

Will it work? We don’t yet know. Can Gary Barlow rap? Perhaps, but would you stop him from going back to singing for a confidence boost if he found it a struggle?


7 thoughts on “Context-free writing: a strategy to raise engagement

    1. I have just done something similar for the 500 words competition. I spent a week focusing on sentence level and word level objectives before giving the children free reign to write their stories. The quality of writing was much improved with some cracking stories being submitted. Try it, it works.

  1. Which year groups are you targeting? We currently use the levelled sentence and punctuation AFs as individuals’ targets. The children reference these when undertaking an extended piece of writing. Teachers will then mark/higlight where the targets have been met or not. It has a similar effect in that the pupils will focus in on ‘conjunctions, relative clauses, sentence openers or speech punctuation’ based on their current target. This too seems to work as a barrier breaker. I am keen to hear how your research works out. Good luck.

  2. I teach Year 3 too – I really like the sound of this, and I’m going to suggest it to my colleagues. Very interested to hear how it works out…

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