Talk for Writing
By Pie Corbett
Talk for Writing, developed by Pie Corbett supported by Julia Strong, is powerful because it is based on the principles of how children learn.
Talk for Writing enables children to imitate the key language they need for a particular topic orally before they try reading and analysing it. Through fun activities that help them rehearse the tune of the language they need, followed by shared writing to show them how to craft their writing, children are helped to write in the same style. Schools that have adopted the approach have not only increased their children’s progress but have found that children and teachers alike love it. It not only works throughout primary schools from the early years to Year 6 but also in secondary schools where it is key to making literacy across the curriculum really work.
Talk for Writing is powerful because it enables children to imitate the language they need for a particular topic orally before reading and analysing it and then writing their own version. Pie gives a brief explanation of the basic principle of Talk for Writing here. It builds on 3 key stages:
The imitation stage
Once the teacher has established a creative context and an engaging start, a typical Talk-for-Writing unit would begin with some engaging activities warming up the tune of the text, as well as the topic focused on, to help children internalise the pattern of the language required. This is often followed by talking an exemplar text, supported visually by a text map and physical movements to help the children recall the story or non-fiction piece. In this way the children hear the text, say it for themselves and enjoy it before seeing it written down. Once they have internalised the language of the text, they are in a position to read the text and start to think about the key ingredients that help to make it work. This stage could include a range of reading as-a-reader and as-a-writer activities. Understanding the structure of the text is easy if you use the boxing-up technique and then help the children to analyse the features that have helped to make the text work. In this way the class starts to co-construct a toolkit for this type of text so that they can talk about the ingredients themselves – a key stage in internalising the toolkit in their heads.
The innovation stage
Once the children have internalised the text, they are then ready to start innovating on the pattern of the text. This could begin with more advanced activities to warm up the key words and phrases of the type of text focused on so the children can magpie ideas. Younger children and less confident writers alter their text maps and orally rehearse what they want to say, creating their own version. The key activity in this stage is shared writing, helping the children to write their own by “doing one together” first. This could begin with using a boxed-up grid (innovating on the exemplar plan) to show how to plan the text and then turning the plan into writing. This allows the children to see how you can innovate on the exemplar text and select words and phrases that really work. Demonstrating how to regularly read your work aloud to see if it works is important here. This process enables the children to write their own versions through developing their ability to generate good words and phrases and also, hopefully, develops the inner judge when they start to decide why one word or phrase is best. If, during this process a teaching assistant (or in KS2 an able child) flip-charts up words and phrases suggested, these can be put on the washing line alongside the shared writing so when the children come to write they have models and words and phrases to support them. Throughout the shared writing, the children should be strengthening the toolkit so they start to understand the type of ingredients that may help. Once they have finished their own paragraph/s children should be encouraged to swap their work with a response partner. Then with the aid of a visualiser, the whole class can also discuss some of the more successful work. Time now needs to be found to enable the children to give their own work a polish in the light of these discussions and perhaps to begin the dialogue about what works by writing their own comment on their work for the teacher to comment on.
The invention/independent application stage
The teacher now has the opportunity to assess the children’s work and to adapt their planning in the light of what the children can actually do. This stage could begin with some activities focused on helping the children understand aspects that they were having difficulty with and should include time for the children to have a go at altering their work in the light of what they have just learnt so that they start to make progress. This stage will continue to focus on the next steps needed to support progress so the children can become independent speakers and writers of this type of text. Perhaps some more examples of the text are compared followed by more shared writing on a related topic and then the children can have a go themselves on a related topic of their own choosing. Typically, teachers work with the children to set ‘tickable targets’ which focus on aspects that they need to attend to. Again this section will end with response partner and whole class discussion about what features really worked, followed by an opportunity to polish your work. This process also helps the children internalise the toolkit for such writing so that it becomes a practical flexible toolkit in the head rather than a list to be looked at and blindly followed. At the end of the unit, the children’s work should be published or displayed. The teacher will now have a good picture of what features to focus on in the next unit to move the children forward. It is important to provide children with a purpose for their writing so classroom display or some sort of publishing is useful.
The impact of Talk for Writing has been outstanding. Typically, schools have found that children initially double their rate of progress and, where the approach has been applied systematically across a school, many schools have moved from only a third of Year 6 achieving level 4 to over 90%. Some of the feedback we have received can be seen below. If you want to give us your feedback on how Talk for Writing has been effective in your school please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
In a study carried out in Lewisham (reported in ‘Stories to tell, stories to write’, available from Lewisham Professional Development Centre, Kilmorie Road, London SE23 2 SP), 100% of the primary age pupils tracked made average progress in writing and 80% made 3 or more sublevels 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 more recent study in Lewisham (2010) 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 recent study in Salford by teachers at St Thomas of Canterbury Primary School showed that the approach works very powerfully for children who have English as a new language – indeed, compared with a control group in similar schools, those pupils benefiting from the ‘talk write’ approach on average made outstanding progress.
Where schools have a systematic approach to implementing Talk for Writing, results have been outstanding. For example, at Trevithick Primary, Cornwall, KS2 results have risen from 43% achieving level 4 in writing to 100% in 2012 and 2013; with 55% achieving level 5, and 14% level 6. Similarly, at St George’s Primary, Battersea, the school has risen from dire results to achieving 100% level 4 in all the tested areas with over 50% of children scoring level 5 in English in 2013.
In 2010, Honiton Primary in Devon received an Ofsted judgment of Notice to Improve; consequently they adopted the Talk for Writing approach and in 2013 they received an outstanding grade across the board.
What the children say about Talk for Writing
“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. childrensay “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