National Writing Day and Transactional Writing

a school child sat at a desk writing

To mark National Writing Day, our CEO, Sarah Ledger gives her thoughts on ‘transactional writing’.

In my early years of teaching, the area I’d spend the most amount of time planning, was explicitly teaching creative and descriptive writing.

Transactional writing had its issues for me, but it was nowhere near as challenging.

It wasn’t until I began to discover a formulaic approach to descriptive and creative writing, that I actually started to feel and see success.

I know there is great controversy around formulas for writing, but for me, as a teacher I needed structures I could teach and scaffold in order to support my students in ultimately becoming independent and creative writers.

Read…a lot

Reading is the key to everything. Being literate is the roots underpinning access to everything in society, so it’s no surprise that to become a proficient writer, it starts with us reading and listening to writing.

In order to understand how to construct a piece of writing, students need to hear and read creative and descriptive pieces.

Reading and listening to texts also develops knowledge, which is essential to become a good writer (EEF KS3 and KS4 literacy guidance).

Hearing texts read out loud also helps with a student’s understanding of prosody.

Prosody is one competency of reading fluency, the other being automaticity, and the punctuation of a text supports with prosody, otherwise known as expression.

For students to begin to grasp the importance of punctuation choice, they need to hear how authors use punctuation in their work as a tool in developing atmosphere, tension, metaphor, time shifts etc.

When writing they then put themselves in the position of the author, questioning their punctuation use.

A skill which supports their analytical responses also as an awareness of authorial intent, is crucial.

Start at sentence level

I’ve always found sentence starters and sentence types a really helpful way of developing writing, and personally, I find the process really enjoyable to.

Going to the sentence level allowed me to model a constructed piece and then to provide the scaffold, whilst students were developing their skill.

I first came across this in a morning’s professional development session with Alan Peat. I’d read Alan Peat’s book ‘Writing Exciting Sentences’ and was so taken by it that I booked him into school to do a whole staff PD morning (we were a secondary school).

His approach highlighted to me the power of starting at sentence level and giving students a structure and scaffold to get them started, which is latterly taken away, as and when the individual’s confidence grows.

I then, like many of us do, dabbled with this and other concepts and began creating pneumonic and checklists which students could follow in order to explore and use different sentence openers and sentence types.

I know the arguments around this creating robotic and formulaic writing, but to get students starting to think about purposeful crafted sentences, it certainly worked for me, so I can only offer the wisdom of experience and suggest you try it.

The power of image, music and a good plan

Imagery can feel like an impossible concept to teach beyond ‘his lips were as red as roses’!

For imagery and figurative language to work it has to be fully embedded into the concept of the piece and add to the representation of the piece rather than being just bolted on. This is a tricky concept, so pictures and music were always my go-to.

One of my favourite lesson sequences for writing was actually the beginning of a Year 10 poetry scheme, which started with writing to try and foster a deeper understanding of authorial intent and imagery before we delved into poetry.

The sequence began with Salvador Dahli’s painting, Metamorphosos of Narcissus’ and Keane’s track ‘Bedshaped and asked students to infer links between the two, generating planning ideas for a descriptive or creative piece.

The use of image and music acted as stimulus to get over the hurdle of ‘where do I start?’.

This is obviously a vital skill as many English Language GCSE exam boards use pictures to stimulate writing, many of which are worth a significant percentage of the final grade.

On reflection, I used Dahli’s work a lot. Another favourite was ‘Swans Reflecting Elephants.

Music, picture and video is an alternative source for writing stimulus with another favourite of mine being ‘Handlebars’ by Flobots where simple screen shots can be used to look at narrative sequencing and planning frames.

There are countless techniques you can use to create writing from pictures: zooming in and out, boxing off, 2 mins before the picture, 2 mins after, character and setting profiles etc. This, plus the scaffold of the sentence starters and types, gives students an ‘in’.

Those who didn’t need the scaffold could create freely, while those who did could create something of quality in the confidence that they had the plan and checklist to hand.

The Writing Rope

Recently - and I wish it had been sooner - I’ve discovered Joan Sedita’s ‘The Writing Rope’.

This immediately sprung an interest as I use Scarborough’s Reading Rope in my everyday work at Lexonik and interest in The Science of Reading, so finding a writing rope intrigued and excited me.

In a similar guise to Scarborough, Sedita entwines 5 key competencies, suggesting that to be a proficient writer, each strand needs to be developed individually but ultimately develop as a whole in order to possess proficiency.

The five core strands are:

  1. Critical Thinking
  2. Syntax
  3. Text Structure
  4. Writing Crafts
  5. Transcription

All of the five are explored by Sedita in her work. They are all of vital importance but the one that sits the heaviest with me is transcription, questioning how much time we truly focus on it at secondary school.

Transcription relates to getting the writing out, in other words, spelling, handwriting and typing or keyboarding.

Just like reading fluency, if you’re slow in any one of these key areas, your writing is going to sound jarring and short.

You’re unlikely to get an extended piece from someone who struggles with the process of handwriting or typing.

So maybe ask yourself this question:

if you come across an older student who struggles with transcription, what’s your plan?

What interventions do you intend to use?

How will you support them in the context of your classroom?

Writing is a complex skill that needs to be explicitly taught. Like anything, the ultimate game is to make the art and crafting of writing pleasurable, but in order to get to the pleasure zone we need to feel confident and capable in our abilities first.

If you’re looking for more ways to support your learners in the classroom, check out our literacy interventions here. Or contact us today.

Discover the power of transactional writing and download our free resource here.