Practical ideas and strategies to improve writing skills

Written by: Fiona Aubrey-Smith | Published:
Deep learning: Pupils from St John Baptist are immersed in values-led writing and literacy work every month (image: Alex Ifraim)

Drawing on the work of a number of schools, Fiona Aubrey-Smith shares some practical ideas from headteachers and class teachers to improve writing skills – especially for boys

When in discussion with headteachers across the country about practical school improvement actions, the challenges around improving boys’ writing are frequently cited.

There are many ideas and strategies out there to address the gender imbalance, but there are some which go far deeper and probe the very origins and foundations that underpin writing for all children.

Simple ideas

One of the most important prerequisites to writing is of course language – both the ability to articulate thoughts and ideas, but also having a wide and varied vocabulary, specifically a palette of words which relate to the subject matter. Gathered from a range of schools across the country, you might like to try some of these creative and imaginative ways to broaden vocabulary.

One new word

In everyday conversation with children, aim to explicitly use one new word in each interaction – even children entering Foundation Stage love to hear and then use new words. The more unusual the word is the more likely they are to reuse it themselves. It is also a great exercise as a teacher to expand our conversational vocabulary. Often the additional words that we use relate to topic or foundation subject areas rather than conversational lexicography. You might share a school-wide word-list or staff-word-of-the-day to get started with this. Some schools use online word of the day resources (see further information).


When starting a session or transitioning to an activity, try using photographs of profound or inspirational images, or unusual things from nature (shells and nests are great for this kind of activity) and ask children simply to share a word relating to it, or a word to describe how they feel when they see or hold it.

From this initial word bank expand to include a broader vocabulary by using a thesaurus, and leave these enhanced word-lists on a display. Such an activity only needs to take a minute or two and can be a great one when photos are displayed on the board while children change for PE for example.

The word banks are often remembered by children as they are not limited to a single lesson, and can build up as a great display over time (this links brilliantly with Philosophy for Children approaches).

Thesaurus tools

Children can only use the words they have seen or heard before, so the key is to introduce new words to the group as well as sharing words within the group. For children who are put off by the scribing of new vocabulary and the handwriting and spelling difficulties it can bring, try using voice recognition thesaurus tools. Some schools that use iPads and iPods have been using the voice-activated tool Siri.


For children with English as an additional language (EAL), try exploring ideas in their first language and then undertaking literal translations of what they have said or written. This can be very helpful as a tool for expanding English vocabulary because in many languages translations are more of a “best fit” approach to matching words. By translating the child’s original ideas the sense of imagination and sophistication remains and the process of translation opens up a superb opportunity to identify, through conversation or with the help of a thesaurus, an additional palette of words which could be used.

Other key stage 2 classroom tips

The ideas below have been contributed by Jenna Watson from Owslebury Primary School in Hampshire:

  • Use engaging texts which create atmosphere and inspire their action-packed imaginations. We explored the prologue in the book Cogheart which encapsulates magic, mayhem and mystery in a gripping battle between two airships – they were instantly hooked.
  • Writing in genres which relate to technology – after our residential I encouraged my class to write emails and blogs about their trip away from home.
  • Using picture books which invite the boys to create their own narratives yet also deal with current real-life themes. We explored The Arrival and this encouraged dialogue about migration and how places look strange to the eyes of someone else.
  • Use WAGOLLs (What A Good One Looks Like) and spend time analysing texts in detail. For younger children, allow time for talking about the WAGOLL or “taking” ideas for their own writing (even the smallest successes will enhance their motivation).
  • Use learning journeys and share these with boys. Boys are often competitive and enjoy knowing what their end goal will be as part of their motivation and drive. Boys who struggle with writing can see how lessons fit into a wider goal and this makes their learning seem more realistic and achievable.

Going deeper – a case study

At St John Baptist (Southend) CE Primary School in Lewisham, around 80 per cent of children are from minority backgrounds and 46 per cent of children are EAL, which are unfortunately often contexts that give boys (and girls) an even greater challenge to achievement in writing.

However, led by the inspirational John Goodey, executive headteacher, this outstanding school bucks that trend and consistently empowers children through accelerated progress and high attainment. Consistently in the top 10 per cent of schools for writing attainment nationally, and with higher attaining children achieving nearly three times the national average last year alone, the leadership team believes that this is largely about their approach to the building blocks of learning.

Relationships are at the heart of the ethos at St John’s with children and staff talking deeply together and establishing a shared vocabulary prompted by values. Mr Goodey believes that by focusing first on values, and then by building an irresistible educational experience on top of these foundations, children grow both a breadth and depth of vocabulary to use in their writing, as well as the skills and attributes that they will need to become resilient and successful learners for life.

Mr Goodey passionately believes in this values centric approach. He explained: “In our society boys are – wrongly – often not expected to communicate as much as girls, and compounding this challenge is that boys generally acquire language at a slower rate than girls. This places boys at a disadvantage from the start, so we need to find creative and irresistible ways to break down those barriers and enable every child – boys and girls – to become articulate.

“In order for boys to experience early communication success that will then shape and inspire their engagement in learning, it is important to fill them with language. Specifically, they need language that will help them to make sense of the world around them. Once they have this environmental and sensory word bank they will be able to expand their ideas and consequently their understanding grows exponentially.”

St John’s is now working in partnership with St Mary’s Primary School, also in Lewisham. This values-based approach has now been implemented at St Mary’s and has been fundamental to the raising of standards there.

Values-led approach

So what are the practical steps that Mr Goodey recommends? How can other schools achieve this ambitious vision? I asked him to explain their approach:

“At St John’s and St Mary’s our children are immersed in our 22 values. Each value is explored in depth for a month which ensures exposure to a range of related vocabulary and the ideas connected with it. With value words such as Respect, Friendship, Kindness and Perseverance acting as starting points for discussion and deep thinking, links are easily made to other related values and to other aspects of language.

"By monthly immersion in each value we also ensure that the language is not just used in isolated discussion, but that the vocabulary and its meanings and practice are embedded through sustained repetition across school life, and through a range of voices, both children and adults. It’s vitally important that building vocabulary doesn’t just happen in isolated subject areas.

“The learning that takes place across our schools is real and multi-sensory and we use reading, writing, art, drama, music, RE and the broader curriculum to explore our values in meaningful ways. Consequently, values are seen as multi-sensory and multi-disciplinary, and this ensures that every child has the opportunity to find a way to access the meaning of each value in a way that is familiar, engaging, challenging, inspiring and comfortable to them.

“As children move through the school, they explore each value word every two years; broadening and deepening their personal understanding of each value and developing their own moral compass along the way. It is easy to think of progression in-year but meaningful progression for children will be more sustained and applicable when its embedded over a longer period.

“As with any area of learning, children will make greatest and most sustainable progress if they understand and own their own learning journey. We found the use of Professor Guy Claxton’s Building Learning Power great for developing children’s meta-language for learning. If you haven’t already explored this, look up the four learning powers – resilience, problem-solving, collaboration and reflection.

“We further add to this through a raft of ‘learning muscles’, and related words and phrases. This meta-language is used as a constant resource when reflecting on learning and teachers continually exemplify these words in the course of their teaching. We encourage children and focus on developing their confidence in the use of meta-language and in the process of reflecting on their learning.

"Over time they take ownership of their learning and invest self-belief and effort when engaged in new learning. We believe that this structured approach to developing values and learning about learning helps boys – and girls – to become confident learners.

  • Fiona Aubrey-Smith is director of One Life Learning, sits on the board of a number of MATs, and is vice-chair of governors for a maintained primary school. Email

Further reading

John Goodey has written and spoken extensively about his values-led education work and recommends a headteacher reading list including:

  • An Ethic of Excellence: Building a culture of craftsmanship with students, Berger R (Heinemann, 2003).
  • Leaders of their Own Learning: Transforming schools through student-engaged assessment, Berger, Leah Rugen, Wooden (Jossey-Bass, 2014).
  • Building Learning Power: Helping young people become better learners, Claxton G (TLOL, 2002).
  • Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential, Dweck C (Robinson, 2012).
  • Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing impact on learning, Hattie J (Routledge, 2012).
  • From My Heart: Transforming lives through values, Hawkes N (Independent Thinking Press, 2013).
  • Embedded Formative Assessment, Wiliam D (Solution Tree Press, 2011).

Further information

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