Written by Jo Shackleton and Margaret Fennell – highly experienced writing moderators and authors of NFER's Bite into Writing.
When schools welcomed pupils back after the first lockdown, many focused – understandably – on rebuilding children’s confidence and motivation, as well as their social, emotional and mental wellbeing. Indeed, research  published by NFER found that school senior leaders’ top priorities for September 2020 (following the first lockdown) was to provide support for pupils’ emotional and mental health and wellbeing; to re-engage pupils with learning; and to settle them into school.
Anecdotal feedback suggests that many children turned out to be remarkably resilient, settling back into their school environment quickly and easily.
By the summer term 2021, the picture  was mixed, with some senior leaders saying that pupils’ behaviour was good or better than before the pandemic, and others reporting increased issues with pupils’ behaviour. Again, anecdotal feedback bears this out, with some schools commenting on year 6 classes losing concentration and generally being more difficult to manage than usual.
How has pupils’ writing been affected?
Given that schools were partially closed several times between March 2020 and March 2021, and that some pupils missed additional schooling as they needed to isolate, it’s completely reasonable – and, indeed, quite likely – that they will have missed covering parts of the curriculum that schools might have expected to teach in a normal school year.
With statutory tests and teacher assessment cancelled for the second year running, many schools continued to make their key stage 2 writing teacher assessment judgements even though it wasn’t a statutory requirement, whilst others used local arrangements to provide data to report to parents and support their secondary colleagues. It wasn’t unusual to hear teachers commenting that pupils who ‘in a normal year’ should have reached the expected standard, or even greater depth, just hadn’t quite got there.
We saw work from some really very able year 6 writers who were making basic errors in aspects of writing that would have been taught way back in key stage 1. Had they got out of the habit of checking their work? Had earlier learning not been fully secured? Or were there underlying misconceptions that needed to be addressed.
So at the start of this new school year, it’s time to take stock – before gaps in learning become stubborn barriers to progress.
How to identify gaps in learning
We suggest you set two year 6 writing tasks – one fiction and one non-fiction. Ideally, these writing activities will stem from a class reading of a short quality text, such as a short story. Do this in the context of your day-to-day teaching – these don’t need to be ‘cold’ tasks – and make sure that the non-fiction pieces are text types that your pupils should be familiar with. They could choose from the following:
- a) a chapter continuation in the style of the author or a reconstruction of part of the story from the viewpoint of a particular character.
- b) a report on an event or incident in the story or an article for a local newspaper, reporting a key event from the story.
Now you’ll need to assess these pieces in detail – although you don’t necessarily need to write individual feedback for each pupil. This assessment is diagnostic – it will help you plan and focus your year 6 teaching and make sure your pupils know what features of their writing they need to pay close attention to.
Use the following as a checklist:
- Is the writing appropriate to its audience and purpose? Is there a good awareness of the reader?
- Is the level of formality appropriate? Is it established and maintained?
- Are grammatical structures, including multi-clause sentences, varied, controlled and appropriate to the writing?
- Is vocabulary well-chosen and appropriate?
- Is the writing appropriately structured and organised? Is it cohesive? Are verb tenses correct and well managed?
- Is the writing correctly and helpfully punctuated? Are any aspects of punctuation insecure or underused?
- Is spelling accurate? Are there any unusual errors or inconsistencies?
- Is handwriting joined and legible?
It’s quite likely that you’ll soon start to identify patterns – priorities that emerge for the whole class and small groups as well as for individual pupils.
How to address gaps in learning
How you address your findings will depend on whether the patterns you’ve identified relate to aspects of the curriculum that pupils may have missed, or features of writing that you’ve taught and thought they’d learnt. (If it’s the latter, it may be worth considering other approaches to support pupils’ understanding of them.)
It will also depend on whether they’re affecting most of the pupils in your class or just a few.
For example, if most of the class seem to have forgotten how to use commas, revisit them with the whole class – perhaps by modelling or using an investigative approach. Then follow through rigorously in your marking and feedback for the next few weeks to reinforce their application. General feedback like ‘Be careful with your commas’, whilst time-consuming for you, will make little difference to pupils if they aren’t clear about their use.
If 5 or 6 pupils are producing writing that – say – lacks cohesion, work with them in a small guided group to address the issue explicitly and support them as they apply their learning.
If one or two individual pupils are struggling with an aspect of writing that the rest of the class seem to have secured – or if they’re making unexpected errors in aspects of writing that were taught in KS1 or in early KS2 – consider one-to-one pupil conferencing, just to make sure that there’s not an underlying misconception that’s not yet been revealed.
Be firm about the ground rules for writing – expect pupils to be the proofreaders and editors of their own writing!
Learning might look a little bit different in your classrooms this year
You might decide to keep doing some of the things you developed during remote home learning. You might adjust the way you teach a bit – doing more guided group work or teacher modelling, for example. Although the past two years have been extreme to say the least, it’s not unusual for pupils to slip back over the long summer holiday, and this type of ‘annual stocktake’ may well become regular practice too.
 Sharp, C., Nelson. J., Lucas. M., Julius, J., McCrone. T. and Sims, D. (2020). Schools’ responses to Covid-19: The challenges facing schools and pupils in September 2020. Slough: NFER.
 Sharp, C. and Nelson, J. (2021). Recovering from Covid-19: What Pupils and Schools Need Now. Slough: NFER