School Testimonial: Redesdale Primary School

With many schools looking for writing resources to complement their curriculum planning, we spoke with Mr Mike Shackleton, Deputy Headteacher at Redesdale Primary School, to discuss year 6 writing. Redesdale Primary School were part of the development and trialling of Bite into Writing materials. 

What helps motivate your year 6 pupils to write?

Over the last few years, we have put a lot of effort into reading for pleasure as a school, whether that’s identifying high quality texts to read aloud to classes or investing in new, engaging texts for children to read outside of school. The idea of identifying set texts that we're going to study in our English lessons across every year group, together with the accompanying resources to support them, has been really helpful in motivating our Y6 pupils to write.

What role does a whole-class text play in motivating year 6 pupils to write?

I think that the quality of the text and the selection of the right text for a particular group of children is key to motivating our year 6 pupils to write. Linked to that, I suppose, is enthusiasm from the teacher. You want the teacher to be really inspired and really engage with the text because that then rubs off on the children as well! It's nice to give the children exposure to different books that perhaps they wouldn't have picked up normally themselves, whether that’s books that focus on relevant issues or that are set in certain locations. Taking the children out of their normal reading zone is great.

When I first started teaching, everything was based around novel studies and I’m sure some schools still focus on that approach.  Over time, the schools that I have worked in have moved away from that a little bit, more into ‘we are now going to be looking at this genre of writing’. First and foremost, at Redesdale Primary School, we want our children to be engaged in their English lessons and be immersed in fantastic texts that have been carefully selected for them by their teachers.  We also want to use books and the themes / characters / lessons they contain as an inspiration for our children to write with genuine purpose.

Redesdale Primary School were involved in the trialling of NFER’s new writing resource for year 6 pupils, Bite into Writing, during its development process. Mr Shackleton provides his school’s experience with this new classroom resource.

You mentioned the importance of a whole-class text. How did your pupils find the texts chosen for Bite into Writing?

I thought the texts that were chosen were of a very high quality. My class absolutely loved ‘Everest’ and their thirst for non-fiction has prompted a big investment in school on high quality non-fiction texts across Y1-Y6. The pupils loved the facts and information, but also the level of adventure and challenge within the whole book and related activities. ‘Olive’s Army’ is not a book that I’ve read before, although we do have several Emma Carroll books, but Y6 found it very engaging, and it linked nicely with their prior knowledge of WWII as well as pushing them to consider more complex matters associated with that period of history.  With Otters’ Moon, I thought the text really considered some sensitive but topical themes in an appropriate and accessible way.

I thought all three of the texts were well chosen for different reasons, but they were all engaging with a really good level of challenge.

How did you find the combination of reading comprehension and writing?

Each Bite into Writing book is based on an identified text and also includes some really thoughtfully linked texts that teachers might also want to dip in and out of or have as recommendations for children to read themselves, if they are interested in a particular part or topic. Each chapter has a range of suggested questions which can be discussed during English lessons to centre children’s thinking on the book and deepen their understanding of the language, themes, and characters.  Then, there are some suggestions for short pieces of incidental writing, connected to the focus text that can be used for writing activities. Bite into Writing has that whole package where you've got some ideas for starting points for staff but also allows me, as a teacher, to be able to take it in whatever direction I'd like to.

How well did the ‘Talk and explore’ activities support pupils’ understanding of the text?

I thought that was a real positive for us, as it tied in with our whole-class reading approach. In KS2, we have a separate 30-to-45-minute block at the start of our day where we have whole-class reading. We look at extracts / chapters from 3 connected texts across the week, and then unpick them with questions and book talk. The ‘Talk and explore’ activities were very similar to our whole-class reading approach but it was nice that we were then able to use that approach throughout the whole book, exploring it, and sharing it as a class, before using it as a starting point for our writing as well.

How did Bite into Writing fit into your curriculum plans?

We didn't use every single activity in the three Bite into Writing resources, but we based a lot of our planning and presentations on the ‘Talk and explore’ activities as a starting point to unpick the text.

If we hadn’t been a trial school, I think the flexibility of Bite into Writing would have attracted me to the resource. It's great for a teacher, in terms of reducing workload, to have a resource to base a unit of work on. Bite into Writing provides a solid foundation or starting point, which isn't necessarily a prescriptive scheme of work, because you don't get that kind of one-size-fits-all approach to teaching.

How helpful were the ‘Write-bites’ in preparing pupils for extended pieces of writing?

I thought they were helpful for staff. It's always timesaving to have a bank of suggestions to inspire children to write. Using the Bite into Writing resource has played a role in changing our practice a little bit. I think perhaps in the past, we would have spent a whole unit of English breaking a text type or genre up and thinking about how we teach the children all the different component parts,  whereas I’m not sure that is necessarily the most engaging way to teach children. There’s a lot of learning value in providing children with more opportunities to experience lots of different types of writing.

To what extent did the ‘Spotlight texts and teaching prompts’ help pupils’ understanding of the writer’s craft?

I think in the past this is what we might have called a WAGOLL, What A Good One Looks Like! Before using Bite into Writing, I would quite often end up writing my own because I’ve found that hours of searching online for examples of something can be reduced time by writing my own version! Having high quality Spotlight Texts and prompts to support the writing of those texts was a definite advantage.  To also have examples of what other pupils around the country have produced, when they've attempted to write that piece, helped me compare what my pupils were producing after my teaching. The breakdown of all the teaching points, and the suggestions for what children would need to include to write a good piece were great for us as a staff, and really helped our pupils produce some superb writing.

Did the annotations and commentaries in the ‘Writing exemplars’ help identify possible next steps in learning for your pupils?

Yes. It was helpful for us to be able to think about how many of our children we would have classed as working above or working at the expected standard. But not only that, to then also start thinking about how we want to try and encourage these children to become better at writing. What do we also need to get them to evidence in their work? That was extremely helpful as we were able to identify whether it was a specific grammar or punctuation issue, or whether it was perhaps something more about their craft of writing.  This enabled us to think about how we could build that into our own lessons to help those children become better writers the next time they produce something similar.

Finally, would you recommend Bite into Writing to other schools?

Absolutely! I used some of the materials for some English CPD I delivered when re-writing our Writing Curriculum and several staff members who were teaching across Y1-5 were quite envious of the Y6 staff and their Bite into Writing resource!  I think sometimes, there's so much literature out there that it's quite hard deciding which resources / books to focus on in each year group at each point in the year. 

Bite into Writing has provided some clarity for us as a staff and as a school regarding how we want to organise, plan, and teach English going forwards.

I'd certainly recommend Bite into Writing, and in fact have already showed some of the materials to a local deputy head and she was so impressed that she’s recommended them to her year six teachers as well! The resource would work well for schools in a MAT or cluster group, as schools often work together to look at year six writing assessment. Having something where perhaps all the pupils have completed the same unit would allow a more effective moderation session, rather than all looking at different texts and writing outcomes.

Mr Shackleton finishes by saying:

I've been really impressed with the resource, and we've actually built several of the books into our long-term plan for writing across the curriculum!