The key to raising attainment

Talk for Writing, developed by Pie Corbett supported by Julia Strong and the Talk for Writing team, is powerful because it is based on the principles of how people learn. The movement from imitation to innovation to independent application can be adapted to suit the needs of learners of any stage.

The Talk for Writing approach enables children to read and write independently for a variety of audiences and purposes within different subjects. A key feature is that children internalise the language structures needed to write through ‘talking the text’ as well as close reading. The approach moves from dependence towards independence with the teacher using shared and guided teaching to develop the ability in children to write creatively and powerfully.

Schools underpin their English work by establishing a core reading spine of quality fiction, poetry and non-fiction that all children experience and draw upon. Imaginative units of work are developed to create a whole-school plan that is refined over the years, is well-resourced and documented to release teachers from planning and preparation so that they can focus on adapting their teaching for children’s learning. The approach moves through different phases as outlined below.

The Talk for Writing method

The Talk for Writing method enables children to imitate orally the language they need for a particular topic, before reading and analysing it, and then writing their own version. Here are the key stages:

1. Baseline assessment and planning – the ‘cold’ task

Teaching is focused by initial assessment. Generally, teachers use what is known as a ‘cold’ task or ‘have a go’. An interesting and rich starting point provides the stimulus and content but there is no initial teaching. The aim of this is to see what the children can do independently at the start of a unit, drawing on their prior learning. Assessment of their writing helps the teacher work out what to teach the whole class, different groups and adapt the model text and plan. Targets can be set for individuals. By the end of the unit, pupils complete a ‘hot’ task or ‘show us what you know’ which is an independent task on a similar type of writing with a good stimulus. Progress should be evident which encourages pupils and helps schools track the impact of teaching.

2. The imitation stage

The teaching begins with some sort of creative ‘hook’ which engages the pupils often with a sense of enjoyment, audience and purpose. Writing challenges such as informing Dr Who about how the Tardis works or producing leaflets for younger children about healthy eating provide a sense of purpose. The model text is pitched well above the pupils’ level and has built into it the underlying, transferable structures and language patterns that students will need when they are writing. This is learned using a ‘text map’ and actions to strengthen memory and help students internalise the text. Activities such as drama are used to deepen understanding of the text.

Once students can ‘talk like the text’, the model, and other examples, are then read for vocabulary and comprehension before being analysed for the basic text (boxing up) and language patterns as well as writing techniques or toolkits. All of this first phase is underpinned by rehearsing key spellings and grammatical patterns. Short-burst writing is used to practise key focuses such as description, persuasion or scientific explanation.

3. The innovation stage

Once students are familiar with the model text, then the teacher leads them into creating their own versions. A new subject is presented and the teacher leads students through planning. With younger pupils, this is based on changing the basic map and retelling new versions. Older students use boxed-up planners and the teacher demonstrates how to create simple plans and orally develop ideas prior to writing. Ideas may need to be generated and organised or information researched and added to a planner. Shared and guided writing is then used to stage writing over a number of days so that students are writing texts bit by bit, concentrating on bringing all the elements together, writing effectively and accurately. Feedback is given during the lessons as well as daily using some form of visualiser so that students can be taught how to improve their writing, make it more accurate, until they can increasingly edit in pairs or on their own.

4. Independent application – the ‘hot’ task

Eventually, students move on to the third phase, which is when they apply independently what has been taught and practised. Before this happens, the teacher may decide to give further input and rehearsal. Students are guided through planning, drafting and revising their work independently. It is essential to provide a rich starting point that taps into what students know and what matters so that they’re writing is purposeful. Writing may be staged over a number of days and there may be time for several independent pieces to be written. With non-fiction, students should apply what they have been taught across the curriculum. The final piece is used as the ‘hot’ task, which clearly shows progress across the unit.

It is important that at the innovation and independent application stage, the writing becomes increasingly independent of the original model rather than a pale copy. Whilst four-year-olds may only make a few simple changes, older students should be adding, embellishing, altering and manipulating the original structure. From Key Stage 2 onwards, almost all children will be using the text structure and writing tools to write, drawing on the model, their wider reading and experience so that they are writing independently at a high level. This has to be modelled in shared writing.

The aim of Talk for Writing is to develop imaginative, creative and effective writers. In the same way, the aim of Talk for Reading is to grow confident, critical and appreciative readers. No student can be said to really be a reader until they make their own choices about what to read and begin to develop a taste. In the same vein, children are not really writers until they decide what they want to write and have opportunities to create their own writing tasks and write about their interests and lives creating stories, poems and informative writing for themselves. For this reason, schools plan ‘invention’ units which often sit between taught units. These ‘invention’ units are when students have time for their own writing. Teachers may provide a stimulus such as a film clip, interesting object, drama, wordless picture book, work of art, music, visitor or visit as a starting point but the students decide what and how to write. This is truly independent writing. In the early years, children should be playing at making up stories daily, acting stories out and at least once a week be led by the teacher through making up class stories for future sharing.

5. Building on progression

The quality of the model texts is crucial to progress. The models should be short and provide excellent examples of the key linguistic features being focused on, and they should increase in difficulty. With younger children, the imitation stage will take longer, as the children need to establish the language patterns that will underpin their learning; this is so that they can see how to innovate on a text and write their own version independently. As they get older, more sophisticated ways of imitating text and a greater range of models can be used, and there will be a greater emphasis on ensuring that the innovation stage helps the pupils to move away from the initial model, so that they become increasingly skilled as independent writers.

When the children are first taught a text type, they will co-construct the toolkit to help them understand the ingredients to consider. As they progress up the school, these toolkits should travel with them so that, year-on-year, they are refined as the pupils develop their skills. Over time, they should internalise these toolkits so they select appropriate features automatically and no longer need a visual support to scaffold their writing.

The impact of Talk for Writing

Talk for Writing has had an outstanding impact on schools. Typically, schools have found that children initially double their rate of progress and, where the approach has been applied systematically across a setting, many schools have moved from dire results to outstanding success. Schools already performing well have not only increased attainment, but also enjoyment and engagement.

Impact on school attainment

Many schools have found that daily storytelling can have a dramatic influence on progress in composition. For instance, the initial teacher research into this approach focused on 4- and 5-year-olds in Reception classes. At the start of the year, only 2% of the sample was able to retell a whole story. By the end of the year, 76% retold a whole tale in fluent standard English attainment

In a 2008 study carried out in Lewisham (reported in ‘Stories to Tell, Stories to Write’, available from Lewisham Professional Development Centre, Kilmorie Road, London SE23 2SP), 100% of the primary age pupils tracked made average progress in writing and 80% made 3 or more sub-levels of progress in one year. This was particularly impressive because the children being tracked were selected because they had been making less than average progress. A 2010 study, again in Lewisham, found that a similar cohort of children made on average 2 years’ progress in one year, this time focusing on the impact of Talk for Writing on non-fiction writing.

A 2008 study in Salford, by teachers at St Thomas of Canterbury Primary School, showed that the approach is very powerful for children who have English as a new language. Indeed, compared with a control group in similar schools, those pupils benefiting from the Talk for Writing approach on average made outstanding progress.

Where schools have a systematic approach to implementing Talk for Writing, results have been outstanding. For example, at St George’s Primary, Battersea, where around 67% of pupils are on free school meals, following the introduction of Talk for Writingthe school rose from dire results to achieving 96% –100% level 4 in all tested areas. Over 50% of children scored level 5 in English for the last three years of the old system. High standards have been sustained for the 2016/17/18 results.

At St Matthew’s in Nechells in Birmingham, the SATS results in 2009 were 34% combined. Then the school started using Talk for Writing. By 2013, outcomes at KS2 had soared: Reading Level 4+ –93%; Writing Level 4+ –97% and Maths Level 4+ –97%. In 2015, the school achieved an Outstanding Ofsted grade. Pupils scored 87% in reading in the new much more challenging exam system in 2016; and achieved over 90% in all tested areas in 2017 and 2018. 86% of pupils are pupil premium.

At Selby Community Primary School, where around 50% of pupils are on free school meals, following the introduction of Talk for Writing the school rose from results at 22% Level 4 in 2011 to well above national averages since Talk for Writing was embedded in 2012 onwards. Despite assessments becoming more challenging, writing is now a strength of the school in every year group, with the % of pupils achieving greater depth is now double the national average.

What the children say

“Dear Pie Corbett, I am writing to you because I think your ideas about how to get children to stand up and say stories is brilliant. I used to hate writing. It was boring listening to the teacher groan on and on because I would just sit there and do nothing. Also then it was hard. Now I love it because it is so much more easy and I produce more work. I think it’s got easier because our teacher teaches us all the things and then we learn stories that include all the things. I also feel more confident…”
Pupil’s letter to Pie Corbett presented as evidence of impact by teacher on the Sheffield Talk for Writing project

“I also find it helpful actually saying the words so I know what kind of words I can use for my own writing. It’s amazing how much I’ve improved my writing, though I can’t spell every word.”
Pupil from Sheffield Talk for Writing non-fiction project

“It helped me to memorise it, and drawing the pictures was fun. Usually, I don’t enjoy writing but with this we got to act out and learn in a fun way. Now I know what the writing should sound like and then I can write about anything.”
Sunil, pupil from Lewisham Talk for Writing non-fiction project

“Yes I like writing more because I like the flow of writing – it feels good in a way. I’m concentrating and listening more and that has helped my writing.”
Hope, pupil from Lewisham Talk for Writing non-fiction project

What primary teachers think

“Previously we did lots of speaking and listening but it didn’t seem to emerge in the writing. The Talk for Writing techniques really motivated the children. Now they automatically read what they have written and discuss whether it sounds good. It has transformed the way they write.”
Leading teacher from Primary National Strategy Talk for Writing project primarysay

“I’ve had such a great time in the last year doing Talk for Writing with my class that I really want to share this. The effects were extraordinary. I could see the effect in all the subjects and the evidence in the books is amazing. When you watch the children write, now you can see them thinking about how to compose.”
Shona Thomson, teacher showcasing impact of the approach at the non-fiction Lewisham conference

“Having done a lot of oral storytelling with KS1 children, I was a little sceptical about getting Year 5 children to stand up and get really involved in expressive oral re-telling. How wrong was I?!”
Maria Wheeler, teacher on Lewisham non-fiction project

What secondary teachers think

“I have had a look through the evaluation sheets and, to be honest, they brought tears to my eyes.”
Brighton literacy consultant summing up feedback from a follow-up training day which included teachers feeding back on how they were integrating the approach into their teaching.

“Teachers in all departments have been very enthusiastic about the approach. Students have loved stealing ideas.”
Deputy Headteacher from Talk for Writing pilot secondary school, Feltham

“Just thought I would offer a quick update. As planned, we are continuing to reinforce the strategies that you brought to us and ensuring that strategies are implemented across the school. During a recent LA review, the renewed and consistent focus on literacy was highlighted as much improved practice. Thanks again – you have left us with a strong legacy.”
Deputy Headteacher, Whitehaven

“I think this was dynamite and is THE issue we should focus on as it encompasses much of the AFL and behaviour sessions.”
Teacher following school training day in Coventry

“There was something about the Talk for Writing project that struck a chord with me. This was comparing maths to written communication in a direct and explicit way. It felt like an epiphany in the hall listening to Julia Strong explaining about Talk for Writing. This was the answer and as I began to work with aspects of this approach I started to feel as of this was the magic wand I had been looking for to move my students and me onwards to the land of written mathematical communication.”
Zeb Friedman, Maths adviser and teacher, Brighton and Hove

“Thanks so much for these materials. I started today to put some of the ideas into action in the classroom (getting my low ability Y8s to come up with an icon for each of Point Evidence Explain has helped already: ‘evidence’ as a little magnifying glass over a page – brilliant) Teaching “imperatives” to my Y7s via mime (one girl then remembered they called them “bossy verbs” at primary school and it all clicked!) So I’m following your advice and trying to make it work in my own classroom first before I do much whole school stuff.”
Literacy Coordinator from a school in North Yorkshire

“I was inspired by your Talk for Writing presentation and have tried some of the ideas in my science lessons. I feel that it is a natural next step for us. If you are interested, I have video interviews with Year 11 students who used the approach and found it enormously helpful.”
Science teacher, Lancashire

“I attended your Talk for Writing session at Varndean school last Friday and I wanted to email you to say thank you. I have a very difficult Year 9 group. They are mostly low ability and many have behaviour problems. I used your boxing up activity today and also instructed them to be word thieves and select sections from the modelled piece of text that they could use in a letter I wanted them to write. I had a fantastic lesson with them! They were all engaged, they all finished the task and they wrote brilliant letters! I’ll be carrying on like this with them! Thank you so much. The session gave me a lot to think about and this is just one example of how effective the methods you went through have been for me this week.”
Emma O’Keefe, English teacher, Brighton

Related research

Below is some of the academic research related to Talk for Writing.

1. Talk for Writing: Review of related research. A research review of Talk for Writing by Roger Beard, Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Education. This looks at the research that underpins the Talk for Writing process. In this, the Primary Writing Project, which was a two year cluster approach to establishing Talk for Writing in groups of schools, is referred to (2015).

2. Developing a communication supporting classrooms observation tool. A Department for Education research report which covers most of the underlying aspects for Early Years on developing communication. At the back there is an observation tool and all the research references (2012).

3. Transforming Writing Final Evaluation Report. This was a research project that looked at the role of formative assessment within Talk for Writing (2013).

4. Children’s cognitive development and learning. A Cambridge Primary Review Trust report by Usha Goswami with comments on imitation (2015).

5. The relationship between oral and written narratives. A three-year longitudinal study of narrative cohesion, coherence, and structure by Pinto et al. at Department of Education and Psychology, University of Florence, Italy (2015).

6. An accessible book that covers much of the research and refers to Talk for Writing is Time to Talk: Implementing Outstanding Practice in Speech, Language and Communication (2013) by Jean Gross CBE who was the UK government’s former Communications Champion.

In addition, Chapter 1 (p3-17) of Talk for Writing in the Early Years is entitled The centrality of story and the origins of Talk for Writing and looks at how and why Talk for Writing was created.