Recently I was working in a school trying to help improve the quality of their teaching of writing. The children were working on setting descriptions. On the board they had an image from their class book, depicting a typical scene of a marketplace in Ancient Egypt, each stall labelled with useful vocabulary for their wares.

In the picture there were: fruit sellers dealing in juicy figs, dom palm nuts and blood-red, nabk berries; farmers had set out their stalls, stacked high with barley and flax for making linen; and colourful clay pots brimming with fennel, juniper and thyme, their pungent aromas drifting across the marketplace, as the crowds scuttled across the dusty ground, going about their business under the baking sun. 

Can you picture the scene? Do you feel like you were there?

This is going to be brilliant, I thought and then the teacher modelled their opening, “The boy ran into the marketplace and looked at all the weird old stuff. Wow! That stinks he thought.”

After the lesson, I asked why they hadn’t used the ideas from the picture and her reply was that she had thought about doing that, but then decided that as the children would have no idea what it would be like to be in a market place in Ancient Egypt, that she didn’t see the point.

“Then why did you set there?”

“Hmmm, yeah good point.”

The longer I teach, the more I worry about the separate teaching of writing and writing skills. In fact, I’d go as far to say that there are no skills in English (I’d let you argue the toss with me when it comes to handwriting). In many schools I see English skills books, in which students practice the ‘skill’ of writing sentences. I often see learning objectives (or WALTs or whatever your school is calling them) like this one:

LO: We are learning to practice our skills in writing fronted adverbials.

What does that mean? Is that a skill? Can I practice that in the same way that Tiger Woods honed his short game? Did the Brontë sisters wander their house in Thornton, practising the use of a subordinate clause?

English is a knowledge-based subject. Take the setting description lesson as an example. The knowledge was there for the taking. I presume that they had chosen the book because it tied in with their history topic and I could see in the picture, that the knowledge of what was being sold in that marketplace, was what was needed to bring the scene to life – to make your reader feel as if they had wandered into that village 5,000 years ago.

Of course, the children don’t know what it is like to walk into a village in Ancient Egypt, that’s why we are going to teach them. It’s our job to hold their hand (not literally) and guide them into an ancient Mayan civilisation, or a colony of Mars or through the intricate workings of the circulatory system.

But, I know why teachers have become hesitant. As a Key Stage Two writing moderator I have seen the government transcripts for pupils who have not quite made the greater depth standard. Let me share with you one of my favourites and when I say favourite, I mean utterly depressing example of stupidity on their insistence of formality. The piece was a letter, inspired by everyone’s favourite Shakespearian emo-romance, ‘Romeo and Juliet’.  A year six pupil, in role as Juliet was writing a letter to her father and referred to their impending ‘wedding of the century’. The accompanying transcript read that this was a modern term not fitting of 14th Century Verona and therefore not written at the greater depth standard. Really? Is it any surprise that a ten year old hasn’t quite nailed the archaic speech patterns of a Veronese lady from over 600 years ago?

Another problem is when it comes to non-fiction writing we have spent too many years setting writing tasks masquerading as a piece of history or science writing, that were in fact vehicles to collect cross-curricular writing for our English work. So often when speaking to students about a piece of writing that lacks cohesion or sense, it becomes apparent that what they are actually lacking is the knowledge, meaning that instead they have been trying to hit success criteria writing checklists without understanding what it is they are trying to say. This year we wrote essays for the first time and a student in my class, who normally moans about writing, told me afterwards that they’d been dreading writing about the Anglo-Saxons, but had really enjoyed it. Why? I asked. Because I actually knew what I was writing about, she replied. The seven weeks of carefully and sequentially building their knowledge had paid off.

I know some argue that we should let them write about what they already know. But I don’t want to read 20 pieces about Fortnite. Am I robbing them of an opportunity to write about something they love? I’d argue not. Mostly, these passion pieces lack a clear vision of audience and purpose, and they become a stream of information, that critically forgets the fact that their audience may know nothing (or not care) about loot, maps or a battle royale. Instead, we need to make sure that the knowledge comes first. In writing this is called research and we need to be their guide in this, we need to fill their lessons with rich knowledge gathering and drama and an understanding of what it is they are writing about. If they can talk about it and explain it, then and only then can they write about it.