LSIP Updates: Leadership of Primary Writing

Published: 25 October 2023
In Summer 2023, Learn Sheffield delivered a course on writing for primary-phase leaders. This article shares some of the key messages from this course and highlights the reasons behind schools prioritising reading.

In Summer 2023, Learn Sheffield delivered a course on writing  for primary-phase leaders. This course is being repeaded this year as part of our series of Strategic Leadership Courses. As many of you are aware, writing results in Sheffield for key stages 1 and 2 lag behind reading and are lower than national. This is due to a complex range of factors, including the pandemic which meant some pupils did not secure transcriptional fluency early on, and have gaps in key stage 2.

We want to share a few key messages from the course with colleagues. One of our big-ticket items, which we returned to often during the course, is how much emphasis should be placed  on transcriptional fluency in the key stage 1 writing curriculum. It is vital that the writing curriculum in key stage 1 provides pupils with the knowledge, skills  and practice that they need to form letters correctly, and spell simple words accurately. In order to achieve this pupils in the early stages of writing should be transcribing lots of dictated sentences. Dictation removes the cognitive load required to come up with content. Research has shown that working memory is important to writing for different reasons. First, it provides temporary stores for transient information created during composition. For example, while writers are transcribing a sentence, they may need to keep in mind an idea that they just thought about. Similarly, they may need to temporarily remember the content of a long next sentence while writing all the words down. Cognitive overload can be the reason why younger pupils start writing sentences  but forget half way through what they need to write in order to finish the sentence so that it makes sense. This leads to writing that lacks coherence and clarity. When we talk about dictation for those in the early stages of writing that does not mean pupils are not being exposed to compositional knowledge. This can be done very effectively through oral composition, such as re-telling simple fairy tales.

Dictation can have a bad reputation. It is often associated with the restrictive practices of the Victorian schoolroom – perceived as taking away the very qualities we want to develop in our pupils’ writing: creativity and an original voice. However, the big message from the training is that building automaticity in the transcriptional aspects of writing early on facilitates the ability to write creatively later on. Pupils who have not gained automaticity sometimes struggle with the demands of the writing curriculum in key stages 2 and beyond.

McCutchen has shown that skilled writing is reached when planning, translation, and revision of a text ‘can be interactively coordinated in working memory’. In the early acquisition of writing, each of the writing processes occupy almost all working memory capacity and thus cannot interact with other activated processes, such as the ability to use language to create nuances of character. McCutchen also suggests that editing imposes demands on the central executive. To find the very different types of errors or inaccuracies that can be present in a text, writers have to focus their attention on each of the different aspects of their text at a time, all of which takes a lot of bandwidth. So, the more fluent pupils are in the knowledge needed to proof-read their writing (spelling, punctuation, and technical elements of grammar) the better this aspect of editing will be. I guess simply put we are saying that the writing curriculum for novices needs to be different from the curriculum for pupils who are moving towards being experts.


We want to thank everyone for attending the course and leaders for enabling their staff to attend.

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