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Supporting Struggling Writers

Feb 2nd 2023

Writing is one of the hardest things we ask of our primary school pupils. It is a multi-layered process that relies on so many factors co-ordinating at once. As adults, we are not often asked to write a story at 9.45 on a wet, February morning but for children, it is something we ask them to do regularly – and it is no simple task.

There are so many elements that need to be considered: 

  • What they want to write 
  • The words they want to use
  • How to structure the sentence 
  • How to spell the words they want to use 
  • How to form the letters in those words
  • How to punctuate the sentence
  • How to improve the sentence
  • How to make sure their sentences and ideas link


Is there any wonder we hear that infamous phrase: ‘I don’t know what to write!’?  

To help us understand this, American literary expert, Berninger illustrated the process with ‘The Simple View of Writing’. Here, he highlights three overarching processes that are essential to writing:

  • text generation — which involves thinking of ideas and using oral language skills to put those thoughts into words and sentences
  • transcription — which enables the writer to move oral language into written language
  • executive functions — such as self-regulation (controlling one’s own behaviour, thoughts and emotions), planning, problem-solving and monitoring writing

The model places working memory in the centre, emphasising how it plays a role in enabling each of these skills to operate. As we all know, when our brains are full, it becomes difficult to remember everything. To cope, our brains bring to the fore the information we need and other things are lost. As one course member said recently, ‘It is like a shelf! To prevent information ‘falling off the shelf’, we have to use it regularly!’

This is why our pupils forget the skills they used so well in previous classes. That transition between year 2 and year 3, or from one teacher to another can have a huge impact, and we need to remind them of those skills they learnt previously.

The EEF (Education Endowment Foundation) have produced guidance reports for improving Literacy at Key Stage 1 and 2 and make several recommendations to support this process:  

Prewriting activities to support oracy 

  • When you start a new text with pupils, consider how you are going to hook them into learning and engage them with the theme. The more engaged they are with the text and the better they understand the context, the easier they are going to find writing about it.
  • Base their writing around this theme, developing background knowledge and understanding
  • Use drama and role-play activities to support pupils in considering the audience and purpose for their writing
  • Plan in paired and group discussions linked to the writing tasks
  • Encourage oral rehearsal of their writing from plans

Vocabulary development 

  • Consider the vocabulary and background knowledge pupils need when accessing a new text 
  • Include an introduction to the setting of the text and pre-teach vocabulary the pupils may struggle to understand 
  • Use a range of strategies to support – classroom visits and visitors; use of online materials and television programmes; words found during a guided reading session
  • Choose 8 new tier 2 words within the context of your topic/story e.g. succeeded, untangled. Introduce two words a day. Give clear meaning of the new words in the context of the story. Model meaning in different contexts and throughout the day. Pupils give examples after teacher modelling. Make deliberate errors for pupils to assess with thumbs up or thumbs down. Finally, use the words in a written sentence

Identifying audience and purpose for writing 

Ensure pupils know exactly who they are writing for and how their audience will use the information. Give examples of who might – and who might not – be interested. Make the audience and purpose as real as possible by sending letters to real people, asking for permission to display writing beyond your school and sharing their writing with the wider school community. This helps them to understand that they are not just writing to make their teacher happy! 

Modelling the five stages of writing 

Within the EEF report, there is clear guidance on modelling the five stages of writing: 

  • planning 
  • drafting 
  • revising 
  • editing 
  • publishing 

Try to establish a gradual release of responsibility so that pupils see you modelling the process of writing. Then become a scribe for their ideas, showing how to select from a pool of options. From here, encourage pupils to ‘have a go’ at constructing a sentence themselves. Once this process is complete, pupils should feel more confident at continuing to write independently. 

Develop effective transcription skills 

Literacy expert, Pie Corbett suggests a ‘ten-minute daily session of whole-class spelling games can be more effective than relying on a once-a-week spelling bash.’ 

So, what does a balanced spelling programme look like? 

The 5 main areas that should be part of the spelling curriculum include: 

  1. Developing pupil’s phonemic and morphological knowledge – i.e. the principles underpinning word construction 
  2. Applying this knowledge to words they use when writing
  3. Having opportunities to practise and be assessed
  4. Becoming more confident with strategies – re-reading to check
  5. Gaining a positive image of themselves as spellers

A good spelling programme gradually builds pupils’ spelling vocabulary by introducing patterns or conventions and continually practising those already introduced. Short, lively, focused sessions are more enjoyable and effective than an occasional skills session. 

Practising sentence construction 

Practising sentence construction helps pupils to orally and physically rehearse sentences and evaluate and improve sentences before writing.  

  • Do it daily. It is repetition that helps pupils acquire skills automatically
  • Relate to class text so that it links with classwork and the pupils are hearing the language, saying it, seeing it, reading it and ultimately, writing it
  • Marking can just be on the spot verbal feedback and action from the pupils
  • Pupils need to hear how the sentence ‘goes’. Model out loud so they can hear it
  • Reinforce this with ‘doing’ activities – words on cards, washing line sentences, add words in and take words out and move words about. Hear it, say it, see it, move it, make it! 
  • Use colour to make specific features stand out 
  • Be investigators and guide the pupils to work things out for themselves 
  • Model plenty of examples before the pupils have a go on their whiteboards, showing the pupils how to rehearse the sentence in your mind. Reinforce that when you write, you should think, rehearse, write and then reread

By putting these small steps in place and making them part of your daily and weekly writing routine, pupils will sharpen their skills. This should help these processes become more automatic so that writing is less challenging and ideas flow more easily.  

If you would like to find out more about teaching struggling writers, you can find our previously sold-out course ‘Supporting Rapid Progress’ here.