And in the beginning was the word…

In their book The Writing Revolution, Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler argue that sentences rather than paragraphs are the ‘building blocks’ of good writing. They reason that many students simply don’t have mental ‘bandwidth’ to cope simultaneously with the grammar, syntax, spelling and punctuation, as well as the meaning they are trying to convey: the imposition of cognitive load is far too great.

Hochman and Wexler are categorically right! But, I want to take this further. While not disagreeing that the ability to write well-constructed sentences is a must, the beginning of good writing comes before writing sentences: in its embryonic form, it begins with the word and word building, which if taught well, quickly leads on to good sentence writing.

From little acorns do mighty oak trees grow!

A high-quality phonics approach teaches young children reading and writing from the beginning and the secret to establishing great writing is to create a schema for sounds and spellings on which we build, layer by layer, all the formal ingredients of sentence construction, including punctuation.

For example, when children start school in Reception, we, at Sounds-Write, spend the first two weeks teaching the spellings < a > < i > < m > < s > < t > to build, read and spell words like ‘mat’, ‘sat’ and ‘sit’. And, if during the following two weeks, these are followed by < n > < o > and < p >, bearing in mind that we always teach them in the context of real words with which the children are already familiar, this would already give us over thirty words the children have been taught to read and to write.

For the child, that’s four weeks of spending half an hour a day learning eight sound-spelling correspondences, practising word building, word reading, sound swapping and playing games linking sounds to spellings (already taught). This is the fertile and well-prepared ground from which our nascent oak trees begin to mature.

The practice of the skills has shown over and over again that what is at first slow and ponderous quickly speeds up enabling the learner to perform more than one task at a time. How so? Because the underlying operations are taught to automaticity, and automaticity is central to developing expertise.

After the first five sound-spelling correspondences (SSCs), we add to the mix words containing SSCs which haven’t as yet been taught formally. These would include words like ‘the’ and ‘of’. When reading, the children would be assisted by the teacher to read words like this by the teacher saying, “This,” pointing to the word ‘the’, “is ‘the’. Say ‘the’ here.” And that’s exactly what the children do. They say ‘the’ as they read it.

As any phonics teacher using ‘decodable’ readers knows, reading the sentence ‘The man sat on a mat’ is now a straightforward matter. The teacher helps with the word ‘the’ and the children read everything else.

At first, progress is slow and children will say the sounds and read the words. However,  as with all skilled activities, speed picks up and children begin to read faster by reading whole words – not because they have memorised those words as wholes but because decoding becomes more and more automatic: word reading takes place under the level of conscious attention. This is what automaticity looks like. In other words, the process of learning to read and write becomes instantaneous and begins to look something more like adult reading. Moreover, the greater the opportunities to practise, the more accurate, fluent and more seamless the skills become.

The power of dictation

By the time the class have moved on to be taught the next batch of sound-spelling correspondences and have thus had sufficient time and practice to become thoroughly conversant with the code they’re learning and the skills they need to use that code, the teacher can begin to give simple single sentence dictation, a kind of formative and contextualised assessment of the children’s ability to link sound to spelling. This is the genesis of writing in text.

Dictation is enormously powerful because it forces children to retrieve from memory the spellings they need to represent the sounds in each word they write. This, in turn, helps the process of embedding the relationship between sound and spellings in long-term memory. Moreover, while dictating, the teacher is simultaneously error-correcting and making judgements – a fine-grained measure of what each child has learnt and what might need to be re-taught.

Words containing sound-spelling correspondences that haven’t as yet been taught formally can be written on the board and children can be asked to copy them and to say the words as they copy them. This is a two-stage process: first, they copy the word but, increasingly and very quickly, as they gain understanding of how the alphabet code works and, as they do when they write transparently decodable words, children begin to say the sounds in words such as ‘the’: /th/ (voiced) /uh/, ‘the’.

In the space of the between four and six weeks of beginning school for the first time, most children are writing simple, dictated sentences. At the teacher’s behest, they are already putting a capital letter at the beginning of a sentence or at the beginning of someone’s name (Tim, Sam, etc.) and a full stop at the end. As instruction extends, the class’s knowledge and skills increase and they will be adding more sophisticated punctuation, such as question marks and speech marks.

If alongside the addition of code knowledge, the explicit teaching of conceptual understanding and the skills of segmenting and blending, dictation is practised two or three times a week, by the end of the first two terms in school, children know how to write simple sentences because the process has been carefully modelled for them – I do, we do, you do. It’s all about, as Greg Ashman is fond of saying, ‘sweating the small stuff’.

Of course, the move into children’s creative writing begins to happen somewhere in the middle of this process and it is underpinned by children being provided with a rich diet of literary and informational talk. For example, in schools in which Talk For Writing is taught, this is where the two strands of the reading rope intertwine to inspire startlingly good examples of creative writing.

Thanks to David Hawgood / Acorns and oak leaves, near Thame / CC BY-SA 2.0