What's all this then?


I tweet too much. So I needed somewhere else to start storing all the words. This is it. Think of it as the external hard drive for my thoughts.

I don't have an obesssion, a dream, a fixation or a hook, so don't be expecting a focus here. It's like great big lumps of my twitterings. You may see teaching stuff, rants, maternal anxiety and occasional sojourns away from reality.

Anyway, I like a nice chat so we should talk. By we, I of course mean me...

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Big Rant about Big Writing


This article has been updated since I wrote it after Ros Wilson contacted me via Twitter, I am editing the post to incorporate her comments and will state again that these are my personal views. The green text indicates changes I have made. The grounded opinions I express are simply that. 

The other night I was being childish about Big Writing and its creator, Ros Wilson, on twitter. Here’s what I really think. If you’ve never heard of Big Writing please at least read down to the weblinks so you know.

And if you’re not a Primary School teacher you probably never have heard of Big Writing, which is a worry really, given that thousands of  primary schools use it as a means to teach English. It’s not a government initiative, it’s not part of the National Curriculum and it’s not included in the National Literacy Strategy but it is used increasingly in  schools.

Many schools state that it is improving writing. The courses, provided by the consultancy firm Andrell Education Ltd, aim to “raise standards” and lots of schools believe this method of teaching does just that. It is a question of belief, however, as Big Writing is a set of principles which is not underpinned by any specific educational theory. It has not been subject to academic or peer review and there is no recognised research on its efficacy. Ros Wilson herself has said here

“We currently have a Marketing Student from Huddersfield Uni on sandwich year placement with andrell, doing some action research... but otherwise nothing I know of… We have deliberately never sought national attention but have relied on filtering upwards through children and schools... the way we believe best practice will always disseminate, and that has worked for us…”
[Ros Wilson points out that this forum post is two years old. As such the word "current" should be ignored. I don't know if there is any more recent research, only that there was none up to this point]


If you would like to find out more about Big Writing, the Andrell Education website is the source of all information. A quick google will find you lots of resources, discussion and testimony from people using Big Writing. It won’t find you any objective or independent research.

This is the "home of Big Writing" http://www.andrelleducation.co.uk/home/
This is the best summary I found by a school using Big Writing. It's a really good beginners guide to the ideas http://www.staveley.cumbria.sch.uk/BigWriting.htm

Now, what I’m going to say isn’t objective either, but it’s as relevant as any other writing on the topic. If you’re still with me let’s go…

Candles and Mozart

Big Writing sessions are supposed to take place in calm and quiet, which is undeniably a good thing for writing. However, Ros Wilson suggests you take this further and light a candle and play Mozart while the children write. I like candles, I like using them in meditation, PSHE and RE. I like Advent candles, divali lights and menorahs. I don’t like creating an esoteric environment for writing though because I think writing needs to be firmly rooted in the real world where children will be writing for the rest of their lives.  A Year Six tutee said to me last week,

“I hate writing. Maths is much better, because it’s something you actually use. You need Maths all the time. Writing is just writing.”


We need to engage children like this, especially boys, and suggesting that you can only write when the moon is in the seventh house and Venus is aligned with Mars is not going to help. Keep writing real, give it a purpose, give it an audience.
[Of this comment, Ros Wilson says "You obviously know nothing about what I, personally, say Bird". This is true: this post is not about Ros Wilson personally. My knowledge of what Ros Wilson says is based purely on Big Writing training materials and my experience of using them.]
In real life, I've got my lappy on my knee, tea by by side, the telly is on, the kids are winding up the cats and I'm writing.  And whilst calming or inspirational music can be great in the classroom, let’s not limit it to Mozart. The alleged "Mozart Effect" was the interpreted result of one study which has never been replicated satisfactorily and we need to look at the bigger picture regarding music and intellectual development. The only magic in Mozart is his flute.

VCOP

For the uninitiated, this is the core of Big Writing. It stands for Vocabulary, Connectives, Openers and Punctuation. These are the elements that Big Writing deems to be core in learning to write. The whole of grammar, syntax, punctuation, coherence and content is pared down to these four areas.

I first came across “VCOP” scrawled by children in the margin of KS2 SATs Papers when I was marking. The children who did this wrote in the most peculiar way. The writing was disjointed and repetitive. I was baffled by the number of children who wrote lovely pieces, then went back and “corrected” them according to VCOP practices thereby rendering their writing completely incomprehensible.  The diagnosis in Marker circles for these children is that they’ve been “VCOP’ed to death”.

VCOP is a piecemeal way of teaching writing. It sticky tapes quick fixes over limited teaching.
[Ros Wilson states that this is factually wrong. It is my opinion]
The result is children who don’t understand how their language functions trying to use rules that cannot be generally applied.

For example, children are taught to use “openers” to make their sentences more “interesting”. Good openers are words like Firstly, suddenly, sadly.  What you then get are sentences like, ‘Strangely, I opened the door’ and ‘Slowly, I thought the room looked weird'. It doesn’t make sense, because no-one has taught the children these “openers” are adverbs and that adverbs give context to actions by telling you how, when, where or why something happened. They are taught that “openers” vary your sentences, not that sentence structure can be varied by beginning with an adverbial phrase, or switching the subject and the object to create a passive voice or a host of other ways. And are our expectations so low that we don't think they can understand this?

Ros Wilson states that this sort of "stulted purple prose" is not typical of children who have grasped the concepts of Big Writing, but may be seen in "emergent BW". I should add that these are examples from Y6 writing. Maybe Big Writing was introduced late to these children and that is why they show a very limited grasp of the use of adverbs as openers. Perhaps then we should worry about Big Writing being introduced to children in late KS2, as their SATs writing may be peppered with this inappropriate use of language? Or perhaps other ways of teaching writing would not result in these artificial constructs.

Punctuation is scattered liberally throughout VCOP’d children’s work. Often they don’t know why they are punctuating. They just know they’ll get more marks if they use all the things on their Punctuation Pyramid: bonus points for a colon.

Many Big Writers in Year 6 no longer know what an adjective is, or a noun or a verb. They don’t know how to use clauses. In short, they don’t have the tools to use their language. They aren’t learning to write. VCOP may provide useful signposts, but it cannot and should not replace thorough teaching in different writing styles and genres and in the basics of language structure.  The natural writer doesn't need VCOP, the struggling writer needs much more. We as teachers must give students the tools to do the job properly.

Vernacular

Like many movements, Big Writing has it’s own vocabulary. Let’s look at some examples.
Vocabulary itself becomes “wow words”. This isn’t enough. What of technical vocabulary? What of making it appropriate, relevant and original? Stealing a “wow word” off the board doesn’t tackle that.

Children “up-level” sentences to make them more interesting. What’s wrong with calling it editing, like the rest of the world does? Making writing “interesting” is a ubiquitous goal in Big Writing. Please note that in a SATs reading paper that asks “Why did the author do this?” (and most of them do ask); the answer “to make it more interesting” gets zero points. Always.

We won’t go into “tickled pink” marking and “green to grow” pens here because I don’t have the strength. I’ll just conclude that the over simplification of language in a method of teaching language depresses me, and makes life difficult for later teachers. We expect children to develop mathematical language, scientific language - why not language for language? We wouldn’t want to hear Year 6 children saying “I’m doing an All Together Now” sum when they meant addition. I don’t want to hear them using “shouting sticks” when they mean exclamation marks either.

Oh, it also advocates Received Pronunciation, which children is told is your “writer’s voice” or “posh voice”.  You don’t have to be a sociologist to see worrying connotations there.

What have we learned?

Well, let’s hope as a profession we have learned from the lessons of Brain Gym which saw many teachers ridiculed for embracing really, really Bad Science. Brain Gym had some lovely ideas, like exercise and co-ordination games being good for learning, but it had no sound theoretical basis, in fact quite the opposite.

Big Writing has some lovely ideas - dedicated writing time, engaging games, modelling and preparing for writing. It doesn’t have a theoretical start point, or any research supporting its claims. Using the resources may give your teaching an added dimension, but let’s not get evangelical about it. It's not a pedagogy, it's an activity. Honestly, if you’re a good teacher, you don’t need Big Writing. Have faith in your ability to teach your language. And if you’re not confident, do what we tell our students to do - read! Go and learn from the real masters of English.

I’ll get down off my soapbox and put my shouting stick away now. I’ve got a Dan Brown to read [JOKE. Honest.]

Addendum: Ros Wilson has contacted me to inform me that this post is "interesting but superficial and ill-informed". I am sorry that my light-hearted writing style has been viewed as superficial. I agree that it is not an in depth or academically rigorous analysis. This article is not aimed specifically at educators so I felt the need to explain in a very non-pedagogical way.


However, I have had Big Writing training and worked in a school where Big Writing is embedded. I also researched Big Writing for myself and tried to find other research articles to support or contradict my views. I am a trained and experienced teacher (with S-level English Lit no less), so I don't feel ill informed about the teaching of writing. 


To read more of my brief twitter discussion with Ros Wilson, see here. I thank her for taking the time to express her concerns to me and offering me a Big Writing training day. Now, back to that Dan Brown...

2013 update: This rant is the most read thing on my blog,  so I just wanted to say thanks for reading and do read the comments, because I think they add to the discussion around Big Writing. Better yet, add your own opinion of Big Writing. I'm reassured that people are questioning this way of teaching, I think questioning is something we need to do more and more as private companies worm their way into state education. We should question their value and purpose, always. For more on that, see here. It's another rant, really. But it has owls in.
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26 comments:

  1. As a parent of 3 primary aged children in a school where they are very, uhm, big on Big Writing, I agree with your points.... sometimes my children's writing sounds very odd and I realise now its those bloody silly openers. And I also agree there are SOME good ideas within the Big Writing plan... they are enthused by the idea of it, one of mine loves the Mozart, but it is worrying that language is being dumbed down.
    Jo

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  2. Thanks. The openers are, I think, the most artificial of the ideas. And that's because they are an umbrella for lots of things that need to be taught separately. If taught badly the results are, like you say, odd.

    Music does work with some children. But not all, and I think my point is that we need variety, in teaching styles and in the music. This from the person who taught Year 3 to sing "Star Trekkin"...

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  3. I don't have any children so I have no idea about how schools are today. I do have a six year old niece who recently told me off for saying 'maths' instead of 'numeracy', though, so I'm aware that children are not taught in the same way today as I was (*does numeracy on fingers*)er, um, er gosh, back in the 80s-early 90s. (Gulp!)

    I did study English Language at 'A'Level and I have to say that this 'Big Writing' thing sounds a tad bizarre. As you say, the whole 'opener'/adverb issue doesn't seem right.

    When I was at school we were taught what nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions and the like were and then we were taught how to use them. In my opinion there are no shortcuts in English. It's one of those subjects that has to be taught and learnt in depth, methodically and logically.

    I've always fancied being a teacher and have considered training as one but things like 'Big Writing' are what puts me off the idea.

    Great post, always.

    Laura (@beadsbylaura on Twitter)

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  4. Thanks Laura,

    I think English is a gradual process too, it has its building blocks and stages, just like Maths: we wouldn't expect children to understand algebra before they could use the four operations properly after all. Language works the same way.

    Prescriptive teaching strategies are driving me out of the profession too. It takes all the fun and creativity out of teaching when you are always using someone else's ideas and methods. Especially when you don't agree with them in the first place...

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  5. Your views of Big Write are very damning. Was this strategy the only strategy applied to teach writing in you school? I find the VCOP materials very useful if chosen carefully to suit the learner - your comment about the "openers" I do not find to be true in my classroom - yes children are aware sentences need to start in a variety of ways to make their writing lively and interesting and we discuss the reasons for choosing particular vocabulary and the effect it has on the reader. Making adventerous choices in vocabulary use should be encouraged - making slightly misguided choices is part of the learning process.
    Big Write is a resource for teaching - not a scheme of work to be followed by the letter!

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    1. Thank you for your thoughts, Anonymous.

      Naturally, we did not rely solely on BW to teach English. It was one strategy amongst many, but we do find that now we've stopped using it the children are making far better progress with their writing, and that marking is a more pleasurable experience, if that's possible!

      My concern with openers is not that they do not engender discussion, obviously any good teaching can do that, but rather that they gloss over many more interesting topics for discussion. If we want to look at sentences like forensic detectives, I'd rather do so with greater precision than under the banner "opener".

      I agree that learning to make adventurous choices is vital in helping children to enjoy and own their writing. I would go further and applaud all bold and risky choices that children make in writing: vocabulary can't, and shouldn't, be looked at on its own. Its effectiveness is utterly dependent on context.

      But on that topic, Michael Rosen is far more eloquent and compelling than I could ever be, so I'll just point interested parties to his blog here:

      http://michaelrosenblog.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/who-owns-literacy.html

      It's thought provoking stuff, and I'd recommend anyone who, like me, is disenchanted with teaching resources like BW has a good peruse of his posts on the teaching of writing. He brings back the joy!

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    2. My eldest son now 10 and at middle school used to get incredibly worried and upset the night before big write. I put this down to him being over anxious. I am now experiencing exactly the same thing with my younger son (8). Both boys have worried to the point that they don't want to go to school on Big Write day. This cannot be condusive to effective learning and I would question why are children being put under so much pressure to perform for this one piece of writing? Surely, all writing is important?

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    3. I'll try again, without the typos..


      I'm sorry to hear that. I hope the school has taken steps to reassure them and that you are able to discuss your worries openly with the school. I agree, putting children under pressure is never a positive thing and hope they find a way to come back to enjoying writing when taught in other ways.

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  6. I have responded to the last poster, I think. If her children are stressed the school is not doing Big Writing as we advocate it. I was in a xchool yesterday where results in year 5 have moved from 14% in 2011 to 77% in 2012 and the children are very happy and love school. ROS wILSON

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  7. Hello Bird...Big writing has hit Australia...we like picking up what hasn't worked in the U.K and trialling it for a number of years...only to then say "Oh yeah, you were right...that was a load of rubbish". Colourful semantics case in point

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    1. Goodness! What can I say? I'm sorry for your loss? ;) I wrote this post a while ago, maybe now there is some proper research on the effectiveness of Big Writing that you could use when considering whether to take it on or not. I hope it doesn't squeeze out other teaching methods - balance is everything and variety is the spice of life. And other cliches that I'm sure could be "uplevelled" into something marvellous.

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  8. I love this! I read your post and am in total agreement with everything you say. I absolutely detest the whole notion of 'Big Writing' and as a Y6 teacher argued and proved it just didn't work with my cohort (heavy boy weighting and 90% EAL) and that their writing improved through 'real' experience. Well done you for writing this. I'm sure Andrell education and Ros Wilson have made a whole load of money on the back of this and as Ros herself has replied with statistics that's ultimately what it's about isn't it. Uplevelled indeed - the word makes me cringe! In fact I discussed it with lecturers during my MA and they could not believe that this was being taught in schools as a way of getting children to write. The comment from the parent that her boys dreaded the big writing was extremely interesting as that was true of some of the children at my school.

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    1. Thank you very much for the kind words! I'm hearing more and more, on here and on twitter, about schools moving on from Big Writing, which I find a most refreshing start to 2013. Interesting to hear about experiences from a largely EAL group as well, thank you for this contribution to the Big Writing Assessment.

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  9. I'm currently teaching in the UK but am from NZ and have been trying to do a bit of research on this Big Writing; What puts me off almost completely though, is the website stating "If your experience is not like this, it is not being implemented correctly". And Ros has basically said the same thing in her post above. That is an EXTREMELY narrow-minded view (in my opinion)...

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  10. A good point. I *can* understand how an initiative may suffer if implemented badly. However, a well-thought out and robustly tested methodology shouldn't commonly produce negative outcomes. I think I come back to my original concern: that Big Writing has no basis in sound, educational, peer-reviewed research. Without that grounding, it is flimsy and open to all sorts of unhelpful interpretations.

    The alternative view, is that if something is useful and sensible, it's impossible to suffer 'incorrect implementation'. Common sense says, if it works you can make it work.

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  11. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  12. Well done Bird. Big writing is ridiculous. I cannot bear the way subordinate conjunctions and coordinating conjunctions are bunged in alongside text cohesion connectives. Chn have no idea what type of sentence they are making or why they are using these connectives. Interstingly, a connective is called an opener if at the start or a connective in the middle of a sentence. However, it is actually a connective in both cases. How confusing or children.

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  13. Hi Bird, I was wondering if I could contact you to discuss your opinions on Big Writing as part of an assignment I'm doing. Would be very grateful. Thank you :) I'm jogyouon on Twitter - also contactable via email: jog_you_on at yahoo.co.uk

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  14. My son hated big writing so much he once spent the vast acres of time (to him) writing all the numbers from 1 to a 1000.
    In my experience the key to improving writing standards is using peer marking+ discussion, and reading good quality texts to use as a model.
    Keep it fun and fresh. Hate all these formulaic " solutions".
    Also, the more they read the better the content of the writing becomes.
    I could go on.....

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  15. I am a primary school teacher who at present teaches year 6 age group. I am aware of the need to teach basic grammar (nouns, verbs, adjectives,adverbs, pronouns and prepositions) and I do so independently of Big Writing lessons. This is vital for the children to have an understanding of how language works.

    Big writing is a useful tool when used along side traditional teaching methods. A good teacher will provide the knowledge required for the child to use these tools correctly and teach the children how to properly use VCOP,including openers, which should be evident from the work they produce.

    It is important to provide balance and variety in the choice of teaching methods and learning strategies.

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  16. Thank you for putting into words exactly how I feel about TBW - thought I was alone in thinking that the Emperor was wearing no clothes...

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  17. I previously taught in a school where BW was being increasingly held up as the 'perfect' model, while Talk for Writing was being casually cast aside!!! The inevitable announcement that whole school BW training was to take place and that BW would be adopted as policy proved to be the proverbial straw. Whilst the 'talk homework' linked to regular extended writing did indeed seem useful, the insistance on lengthy sessions of easy classical listening, 'up leveling' (a bushism surely!) and a marking scheme that seemed increasingly out of date, seemed like a thick layer of suffocating marzipan on the literary cake (I'm not a fan of marzipan). I do wonder how teachers using BW can effectively level and moderate writing when the BW marking ladders do not match the 2013 STA writing moderation guidelines. The goalposts have changed...again. Maybe that's why Ros Wilson has recently published 'Big Talk' ...a talking approach in the classroom to support writing?! Pie Corbett's hat must be spinning on his head.

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  18. This article is so interesting. I'm a primary school teacher, originally from the UK, but have lived in NZ for the last 10 years. I had never even heard of the Big Write until a few months ago and I have to say it does sound a little ridiculous. I passionately believe that the best way to improve children's writing is to give them numerous wonderful, exciting, interesting and inspiring experiences, which unfortunately this generation do not seem to be getting out of school anymore. Sorry, I know it's a cliche, but it's true. You need to have something to write about and something you WANT to write about, before you can start to work on sentence structure, vocabulary or punctuation.

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  19. Ahh thank you!! You have given me the best laugh for a while with your 'moon is in the seventh house' comment!!! And I am very glad to see others having strong doubts about the whole dumbed down terminology, the hideous expressions such as 'writing in a posh voice' (I'm in Australia for goodness sake - we don't have a posh voice!), and the random inserting of openers, wow words and punctuation.
    We only introduced BW this year, but I see so many unnecessary problems with it! I personally dislike the test conditions of the Main session - silence is totally unnatural for me as a writer and more so for 6 and 7 year olds, who labour through the allotted time. I am already seeing tension in some students.

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  20. Thanks for this.
    I read it as an English graduate and Primary teacher specialising on literacy support, and it expresses many of my concerns about Big Writing. As you say, "The natural writer doesn't need VCOP, the struggling writer needs much more."
    If VCOP stood for Vocabulary, Content, Order, Punctuation I would be much happier with it, but, like you, I see some very odd, stilted writing coming out as children try to "write by numbers".
    I came to your blog having just been planning IEP targets which included VCOP, which prompted me first to Google VCOP (to see if I could find some explanation for what I find a rather bizarre and arbitrary approach to writing - and yes, I have received training in Big Writing; nevertheless, aspects of it still trouble me). All I found was uncritical spouting of the mantra. So I then added "VCOP criticism" and found there is still no evidence of positive impact on pupil performance in or attitudes to writing.
    Why do so many teachers jump so eagerly on the latest (often commercial) bandwagon while suspending our critical faculties? And why are those of us who are reluctant to swallow the latest dogma undigested presented as negative or obstructive?
    I love language. I love reading, and I love writing. I love teaching children to read and write, and to enjoy doing so.
    Back to your starting point: audience and purpose are at the heart of writing.
    I suspect the enthusiasm for VCOP comes from the fact it offers a codified way to mark and grade work. However, in my experience it doesn't encourage lively, lovely writing that engages the audience and communicates effectively.

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  21. I have to say that I have read positive reviews on Big Writing and found them cheesy- telling children to go home and discuss a 'big idea' with their family or siblings. Apart from the positive interaction ow is this going to develop their writing ability? I have been a NAPLAN marker and experienced many odd sounding expressions in adverbs and adjectives like you describe here. I would like to remain anonymous please as I have connections with schools using the program.

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