A substantial minority of schools receive an action point from Ofsted to improve the amount of extended writing undertaken in school.  Inspectors say that teachers provide too few opportunities for extended writing and that this is true across the curriculum.

Ofsted are right, of course, that pupils need to write at length, but more than stamina and time will be required to achieve this.  Setting quotas for the amount of extended writing is a blunt instrument because it makes poor writers fail at length instead of failing briefly.

To teach extended writing well, two things are required.  First, you have to teach strategies for extended composition:

  • how to generate and select ideas for inclusion;
  • how to marshal ideas into paragraphs, and paragraphs into a sequence;
  • how to introduce and develop ideas within and between paragraphs by using connectives, key sentences and helpful signposts;
  • how to top and tail a rounded piece of writing;
  • how to self-monitor during the process of composition so that the writing is consistent in tone and proportion.

Even so, you may find that pupils continue to write in bland, pedestrian prose regardless of length.  Bear in mind that the new National Curriculum is much more focused on writing in elegant, varied and correct prose.  Length alone will not secure that.

The second thing to do, then,  is attend to the quality of the prose. To develop a more sophisticated style of writing, pupils need coaching in micro-writing, focused at sentence length or in short paragraphs.  In the old days, we called this kind of work ‘expression’ and it sat alongside ‘composition’ as one of the two great pillars of writing.

Microwriting takes a sentence, highlights its grammatical structure and then invites pupils to borrow the grammar to write a similar sentence of their own.  It gives them instant access to complex sentence structures they are unlikely to stumble upon without this prompt. The activity increases their sentence stock and increases their confidence in construction of complex sentences.  They try on new language for size.  It is the very best way to teach grammar, and it draws on effective reading to support less effective writing.  It is economical with teaching time and it brings quick returns. The same process can be followed to show how a paragraph may be developed.

If you do this just once a week, pupils will become familiar with the conventions of multi-clause sentences and they will soon develop a repertoire and the confidence to add sentences of their own.

It’s important to teach pupils how to compose at length, but it’s also important to teach pupils how to manage and articulate ideas together. Don’t panic if you have to improve extended writing: teach both expression and extended composition.