02 Using targeted approaches to improve writing

ERO’s report Managing professional learning and development in primary schools (2009) concluded the extent to which teachers’ knowledge and practice improves depended to a large extent on how well the school managed its professional learning and development (PLD) programmes. Three key features identified in schools where PLD was well managed included:

  • having a good mix of school led and facilitated professional learning targeted at identified school priorities
  • using observation and feedback effectively to support changes to teacher practice
  • ligning PLD programmes with school priorities informed by analysed student achievement information, and information about teachers’ professional needs.

These features were clearly evident in PAPAKURA CENTRAL SCHOOL’S PLD introduced to improve writing. 

Writing PLD for every teacher at the school began in 2015, and followed whole school reading development. At that time, although achievement data identified more children were achieving to the correct reading level by Year 6, less than half of the children in the school had reached the correct writing level for their age.

School leaders were successful in joining a Ministry of Education writing development contract to bring about improvements at all year levels. In the first year, an external facilitator closely supported literacy leaders in the school, and in 2016 the school’s literacy leaders continued the developments.

The carefully planned and implemented PLD focused on teaching strategies and approaches leaders identified would contribute to improved writing outcomes for children.

Planning for writing professional development

The facilitator and literacy leaders identified and analysed teachers’ strengths and needs before planning and implementing the PLD. Observations of writing lessons in every class focused on evaluating teachers’ confidence with the following teaching strategies:

  • explaining the purpose of the lesson
  • making effective use of learning intentions and success criteria
  • creating opportunities for children to discuss or explain what they were learning
  • introducing visualisation strategies to create mental images before writing
  • enabling opportunities for additional teaching for groups of children needing further support to practise a specific writing skill
  • having teachers use effective questioning skills.

a female teacher is sitting in the middle of a semi circle table.  There are five students opposite her, three boys a girl with a pony tail and a boy on the end.  They are studying writing examples the teacher is holding as they disucss writing.

Analysis of findings from the observations of writing lessons identified many teachers were successfully helping children make connections between reading and writing, using and displaying learning intentions and success criteria, and encouraging and using paired and shared writing. Possible development needs were to:

  • have all learning intentions focus on the writing skill rather than the task
  • promote more modelling of writing skills in ways children could refer to later (modelling books)
  • increase opportunities for small group teaching for children needing to accelerate their progress
  • increase the use of open questions to help capture children’s prior knowledge and extend their ideas.

Leaders shared the analysis with staff and clarified next steps for development. The resulting professional development focused on development needs and increasing teachers’ understanding of the writing skills children develop as they move through the year levels. Teachers also:

  • shared different writing tools they used
  • spent considerable time examining and discussing writing progressions
  • participated in moderation sessions to increase consistency when assessing children’s writing samples

At the same time as teachers engaged in writing PLD, literacy leaders learnt how to support teachers to develop content knowledge and the practices required to improve children’s writing. The facilitator’s mentoring increased leaders’ confidence to undertake focused observations and professional practice discussions. Leaders also introduced systems to increase teachers’ capacity to reflect on their own teaching practice.

Teachers’ self reflection and professional discussions

Leaders carefully and gradually introduced the practice of teachers’ videoing their own writing lessons, to foster ongoing self reflection and improvement. Initially, two teachers volunteered to trial the new practice and reported back to other teachers before leaders extended the practice across the school. An observation and self reflection sheet teachers completed before the videoed lesson and reflection after the lesson asked them to identify the following:

  • the purpose of the lesson
  • how well the purpose and the learning intention were shared with the children
  • the explicit links to prior world and literacy knowledge
  • the explicit teaching of writing processes, language structures and vocabulary
  • the effective teaching points to include in the lesson and how clear they were for children
  • how well they catered for children’s diverse needs.

Teachers used the self reflection sheets to identify their strengths and next steps. They discussed these with a literacy leader before setting a development goal for the teacher. Teachers were highly reflective and identified useful and challenging improvement goals for themselves.

Later, teachers highlighted their developing confidence with supporting children needing to accelerate their progress (i.e. target students) by videoing small group writing lessons. Generally teachers became more explicit about the purpose of the lesson as they practised preparing for their video sessions.

Here is an example of an observation and reflection form completed after a teacher recorded and analysed a targeted writing lesson:


Class:  Year 5/6

What are the students learning today?  How to choose supporting detail carefully to expand/ elaborate their main idea.

Why are students learning this?  They are not yet writing proper paragraphs or providing enough supporting detail in their writing when they give an idea.

Main strategies to be used.  Using graphic organiser, teacher modelling, buddy discussions.

Particular aspect of the lesson (of my practice) that I want to focus on?  Are my target students engaging or are some fidgeting as they do sometimes?

How will I know that students have been successful?  When their plan shows at least 2 or 3 related points they plan to include in a paragraph that supports the main idea. When their writing reflects ideas that are grouped with more than one sentence to a paragraph and all ideas relate.

How will students know they have been successful?  When they can read their writing and it includes all the detail in the plan and the ideas relate so sentences do not stand alone.

Self reflection questions post video:

  • How well did I met the focus identified from the last observation? It doesn’t feel like the focus was met, children were not able to spend enough time sharing their own thinking.
  • Was this the right learning for these students to help them progress. How do you know?

It was the right learning because they were writing random sentences that didn’t flow. XXXX (one child) is now organising his ideas better and he needs another focus.

Extending writing opportunities

Three girls two with long black hair and one with long red hair and a pink head band are sitting on the floor working on their writing work books using pictures and charts.  There are two baskets of writing materials at the top of the picture one turquouise blue and the other pink.

Teachers recognised children could accelerate their improvements in writing by writing more than once each school day. The carefully planned five week teaching units helped children transfer skills learnt during writing time to other contexts covered during the day. The units related to a specific topic or context. Teachers identified the learning needs of groups of children and the writing skills they would like them to achieve in the five weeks. Teachers then back mapped to identify the stages they would work through to master a skill. Teachers also identified possible learning intentions and success criteria to help set goals with the children.

During a healthy living unit, one writing group focused on learning to sequence their ideas while another identified the features of text type. Both groups were involved in making posters, writing reports, instructional writing and writing recipes. The deliberate teaching points for each group were the main focus of the unit plan and the context was secondary.

We got teachers to focus on the learning first and the topic second. They had to work together to think about:

  • this is where we want to be in five weeks
  • how we are going to get there
  • what the steps are we need to take.

We had originally tried doing the back mapping and goal setting with children for just a three week period but we found this was too short a time. It also may have eventually led to less challenging and purposeful goals.


Students understanding their learning

Teachers introduced new processes to increase children’s understanding of what they were learning and actions to improve. These also helped children understand both their own role and their teachers’ role in helping them reach their goals.

Goals, success criteria and actions were set with each learning group at the beginning of the unit. In goal setting records were agreed and displayed for the children. Teachers recorded the name of the child who had suggested the success criteria to encourage more children to contribute their ideas. The children and teachers then also suggested actions the teacher should take to support them to achieve the goal.

Below are partially completed records of two goals for a group of Years 3 and 4 students. The asterisk denotes ideas suggested by a child.

Learning Goal: Write in paragraphs

How I know I’ve been successful

  • use topic sentence at the beginning of the sentence
  • give examples in the middle of the paragraph
  • use a concluding sentence at the end of the paragraph
  • use complex sentences*
  • use punctuation correctly like speech marks and commas.*

What Miss XXX will do to help us achieve the goals

  • let us do free writing like story writing*
  • share good examples of what a paragraph should look like*
  • give us inspiration*
  • help us with spelling once we have checked our spelling*
  • teach us dictionary skills.*

What I’ll do to achieve the goal

What my writing will look like when I achieve the goal

Learning Goal: Editing to improve my writing

How I know I’ve been successful

  • check our work makes sense
  • do buddy editing
  • give feedback
  • use two stars and a wish*

What Miss XXX will do to help us achieve the goals

  • help us use complex sentences to make our writing better*
  • give us new words to try out in our writing*
  • give us interesting adjectives to make our writing more interesting*
  • use icons when we are marking our work

What I’ll do to achieve the goal

What my writing will look like when I achieve the goal

Teachers also sought students’ perceptions of their own writing ability and interests. Early in the year teachers supported children to answer questions about their writing. Years 3 and 4 children answered the following questions. They selected the appropriate word shown in bold font when they recorded their views.

  • I really do / don’t enjoy writing because…
  • What do you like to do during writing time?
  • Do you think you are a good writer yes / no? Why do you think this?
  • What do you find hard in writing?
  • What types of writing do you like doing?
  • What would you like to get better at in writing?
  • What helps you learn in writing?

Children often identified how they liked free writing and writing about videos. Many said they had had difficulty writing complex sentences and using punctuation correctly. Children also highlighted their preferences for working with a buddy or working alone. Children’s responses were analysed to contribute to planning writing activities and grouping children with similar learning needs.

ERO spoke with some Years 3 and 4 children who told us what they were learning about and what they liked doing in writing.

We are taught about complex sentences and told not to be scared about using some big words.

We learn how to connect sentences and make them into more complex sentences.

I have learnt how to add more adjectives with my verbs so I can make my writing more interesting so others will want to read it without putting them to sleep.

I like making up stories when we are given some sentence starts. I wrote a good story from the sentence starter “The scary house rattled as…”

I like independent story time when we get to show how creative we can be when we think outside of the box.

I like being able to use a variety of subjects. We get given different tasks and nobody has to do the same.

We are pretty confident that all the kids in our class will reach the right level. We know that because we have these things that show what we have to be able to do, and we fill it in and check it ourselves (the child showed the self assessment sheet to the ERO evaluator).


A focus on oral language

Teachers realised a greater focus on oral language could help increase opportunities for children to discuss or explain what they were learning,

and with their use of visualisation strategies to create mental images before writing. This was especially important for children in Years 1 and 2 who were

not confidently using their background knowledge, or writing about a wider variety of life experiences. Teachers also sought to extend children’s spoken and written vocabulary through good questioning and discussion about contexts children were familiar with. The observation below highlights the focus on oral language to extend children’s ideas during a writing lesson for Year 1 students.

The teacher explained to the children they were going to write about summer. First she read a poem about winter to share a similar context. Initially children were asked to close their eyes and think about summer and doing things on warm days.

Children were very enthusiastic about an activity they called Peer Sharing. First they walked around the mat space and high fived another child who then became the partner they sat with. The children shared what they like doing in summer with their partner. The children already knew they were expected to share their partner’s thoughts later. Some showed a real sense of purpose by asking their partner questions so they could understand what they were going to share. The teacher noticed one pair of children were not sharing and reminded them of the question. They then shared their thoughts.

Later, two pairs worked together to hear about each other’s summer activities. Almost every child talked confidently in their group. The teacher noticed one child did not want to share and suggested the children in that group ask questions. The child then contributed their ideas.

The teacher brought the groups back together. Children’s suggestions about

fun summer activities were discussed and recorded in the writing modelling book. The teacher expected children to use full sentences when they shared their ideas with her. Generally most children used full sentences without reminders. The teacher then quickly put some of the key words the children had provided into two lists. Some children were excited to explain that one list was doing words and one list was about things. Some children reminded their peers they were called verbs and nouns.

The teacher then extended children’s ideas by having them think of and share amazing words that reminded them about summer – what you see and what you feel. The teacher recorded the lists of words in the modelling book. The teacher’s questioning helped children think of more interesting summer activities such as surfing or snorkelling in the sea, or making things in the sand at the beach.

The teacher then worked with one writing group while the other children completed drawing and writing activities about summer. Before the children began their independent task they discussed what it would look like for them to have successfully completed it. They decided the success criterion was “we will have drawn pictures of what is in our head and will have used describing words”. They had a blank page with four boxes to draw in four summer activities and write three interesting words about summer. The children frequently referred to ideas discussed in their groups or recorded in the teacher’s modelling book.

Meanwhile the teacher worked with two smaller groups of children. The first group went back to the poem about winter and used their sentences to make a poem about summer using the same format. Between each of the group teaching sessions the teacher quickly roved around the rest of the children, encouraging them to work quickly and not be too fussy with the pictures. She then worked with another small group of children that needed more support to decide on the three words they could include with their pictures.

The children talked to ERO about what they liked doing in writing. Most mentioned the variety of ways they got to talk about their ideas before they began writing.

I like writing. I understand more than I used to. I like talking first because we get ideas.

We do travel talking and sometimes we do memories. We also do a doughnut with two circles and talk and listen and then the outside of the circle moves and the other one talks while that one listens.


Every child’s contribution to discussions were expected and valued.

there are five examples of writing display by being clipped by pegs to a line of string across the classroom. The writing is about Elephants and are attached to paintings of Elephants, two light grey elephants and three dark elephants.