Talk for Writing

Talk for Writing

Testing a programme which aims to improve pupils’ writing skills.

The project

Talk for Writing is an approach to teaching writing that encompasses a three-stage pedagogy: ‘imitation’ (where pupils learn and internalise texts, to identify transferrable ideas and structures), ‘innovation’ (where pupils use these ideas and structures to co-construct new versions with their teachers), and ‘invention’ (where teachers help pupils to create original texts independently). These tasks aim to improve writing ability by giving pupils an understanding of the structure and elements of written language.

This project sought to develop Talk for Writing into a whole-school programme. The pilot programme ran for 18 months, from January 2013 to July 2014, and involved ten schools in Portsmouth. It included a series of 6 full days for school leadership teams (project teams) plus three whole school conferences (“Big Days”) to train teachers and teaching assistants. It covered all primary age groups from nursery to year 6. In addition to the training and support for schools, the programme provided materials, resources, and guidance for staff development, planning and progression. Each school appointed a “literacy lead”, who shared responsibility for implementing the programme with the headteacher.

This developmental pilot was subject to an evaluation, which had three aims:

  • to appraise the research literature underpinning key dimensions of the Talk 4 Writing pedagogy;
  • to evaluate the promise and feasibility of the programme, and provide formative recommendations to inform future evaluation and development; and
  • to provide an initial quantitative assessment of the potential impact of the programme on writing skills that could be used to inform any future trial.

The evaluation took place over twelve months and involved six of the 10 intervention schools, one of which withdrew halfway through the programme following the appointment of a new headteacher, and three comparison schools. There were two comparison schools in Portsmouth and one in London. 

Key conclusions

  • Most of the teachers were enthusiastic about implementing Talk for Writing within a whole school approach and felt that it provided a consistent approach to teaching writing. However, one school was withdrawn from the project by a new headteacher.

  • Features of the programme were embedded in the classrooms, and teachers generally found the programme straightforward to implement.

  • The project displayed mixed evidence of promise. Teachers reported that it had an impact on pupils’ writing skills. However, the literature review found mixed support from the current research base for the principles underlying the programme.

  • Further research is required to securely estimate the impact of the approach on academic attainment. It would be valuable to undertake some additional development work to refine the approach before it undergoes a full trial.

  • Other research suggests that oral language may play a stronger role in supporting writing in the early years than in Key Stage 2. The programme might benefit from targeted support of key oral language competencies to support the production of early written text in struggling writers and those with weaker oral language skills.

How was the evaluation conducted?

The evaluation used a mixture of quantitative and qualitative methods to examine the promise and feasibility of the programme and its readiness for a full trial. The evaluators conducted a literature review of the supporting evidence for the Talk for Writing approach. Interviews, lesson observations and a survey were conducted with school staff to collect views of the project and examine fidelity to the intervention.

An impact evaluation was carried out. However, the results of this impact evaluation must not be mistaken for those of a randomised controlled trial, and causation cannot be securely identified. Five schools that were delivering the programme were compared with three matched comparison schools with similar proportions of pupils eligible for free school meals or on the SEN register. Teachers’ reports of their approach to the teaching of writing were elicited prior to the start of the programme and one year later through an online questionnaire. Pupils’ writing in key stage 2 was assessed at word, sentence and text level using a standardised measure of writing at three time points. 

Limitations of the study

The programme was in development throughout the period of the evaluation, so this evaluation was not able to test a fully-developed version. Responses to the questionnaire at second administration were limited in the comparison schools and a significant minority of teachers in the intervention schools did not comment on the programme. Although schools had been working with the Talk for Writing team for a year when the second wave of questionnaires were released there was still a further five months of the programme to run. No data at pupil level were available at reception and Key Stage 1. Observations took place in a small number of settings. The self-selected nature of the intervention schools, the non-random nature of the comparison and the small number of schools involved limit the conclusions that can be drawn. Schools opted to participate in the programme and intervention schools were based in one city, which limits the generalisability of findings.

What did the evaluation find?

The evaluation found that the programme was feasible. It was clear from both the interviews and the observations that the schools were enthusiastic about implementing Talk for Writing. Literacy Leads reported that they were confident that their schools were implementing Talk for Writing faithfully, and the majority of staff in all schools were reported to be fully committed to the project. However, one school withdrew from the project in February 2014 following a change in leadership and concerns about the efficacy of the programme.

The evaluation demonstrated that the project displayed some evidence of promise. School staff reported that the project had a positive impact on pupils’ writing skills and improved their confidence with teaching writing. The literature review concluded that the strength of prior research evidence that supports Talk for Writing was variable. Some elements of the approach were well-supported by evidence, but other unique features were not.

The impact evaluation estimated that after one year there were some small differences between intervention and comparison school pupils’ attainment on writing tests. Where there was evidence of change in the writing measures sometimes this favoured the intervention group, and sometimes this favoured the comparison group. In all cases, the effects were small or very small. However, due to the non-random nature of the comparison and the small number of schools involved it is difficult to draw secure conclusions from these impact estimates.

Question Finding Comment
Was the approach feasible? Yes Most schools completed the project. Teachers were very positive about the programme and embedded some features in their classroom practice.
Is there evidence of promise? Mixed The majority of heads and teachers reported a positive impact on pupil attitudes, progress and attainment. However, the evaluation was not able to securely estimate the impact of the programme on academic attainment, and prior research evidence provides a mixed amount of support for the principles underlying the approach.
Is the approach ready for a full trial? No Further work is required to develop the programme before it is subjected to a full trial.