Martin Galway is a Teaching and Learning Adviser for English at Herts for Learning

On Friday of last week, the STA released a video that sought to address “particular areas of concern” around the assessment and moderation of year 6 writing.  The video covers a number of areas and opens with some commentary around the statements relating to Working at Greater Depth within the expected standard (GDS).

I’ve been meaning to write about this particular standard for a while.  Partly because I am preparing for a  course  that looks at GDS early next term.  Partly because I have a particular interest in stretch and challenge in English. Partly because I have seen GDS referred to in terms that suggest it is some sort of Holy Grail – holier than it perhaps ought to be.  And then partly because we genuinely like to be helpful and to share our thinking.

If you’re not teaching in year 6 you might be wondering what this relatively new GDS is all about.  Essentially, it’s this:

The pupil can write for a range of purposes and audiences:

-managing shifts between levels of formality through selecting vocabulary precisely and by manipulating grammatical structures

-selecting verb forms for meaning and effect

-using the full range of punctuation taught at key stage 2, including colons and semi-colons to mark the boundary between independent clauses, mostly correctly.

In order to be judged as working at greater depth, pupils also have to have demonstrated that they are able to meet all of the statements that make up working at the expected standard. You can see the statements that make up the expected standard in the writing section of the Interim Teacher Assessment Framework (ITAF).

As I have already said, the video opens with some commentary around the GDS standard, specifically bullet point 1 relating to shifts in formality.  My first blog in this series was going to be on what can really help a child to be an assured, accurate, motivated and expressive writer – a likely GDS candidate – but this video has bumped the formality requirement to the fore and so we shall go with that flow.  If you are chomping at the bit to address the statement relating to verb forms, there will be a blog on that in the near future, but in the meantime, you may want to visit this earlier piece that I wrote last year.

In the earlier blog on verb forms, I touched upon some of the issues surrounding the ITAF.  I won’t take up space revisiting them here, though I would highlight once again that the sparse nature of the GDS descriptors means that those 3 statements carry considerable weight. Key here is to unpick what is meant by “shifts in formality”.  To help, I have drawn upon the STAs singular exemplar for GDS – take a  bow Frankie – and have pulled out the annotated examples  – and some other relevant elements – that occur in that body of work. You can download my summary of the examples found in Frankie’s work as a PDF here:  Formal / Informal elements in Frankie’s work

formal pdf 1informal pdf 1

The PDF contains  many examples of the the sorts of features and vocabulary use that indicate levels of formality in a piece of writing, but it is not exhaustive.  As the STA video states: ‘levels of formality exist on a continuum’ and there are many other ways in which formal and informal tones might be achieved. Many of these will occur in children’s writing, especially in the form of speech in narrative, or in the likes of a persuasive speech, or in a text that explains a process in familiar language but that includes technical terms. Common enough writing tasks.  However, the STA video carries some key stipulations that need highlighting.  To award the GDS standard, children must:

  • use shifts in formality on more than one occasion within a piece

  • achieve shifts in formality in more than one piece in their range of writing evidence (so at least two pieces of writing)

I would argue that shifting in formality is something that real writers do.  Whether they happen to do so in a number of places, in a number of pieces  in a particular bank of  writing is something else altogether. These bullets indicate that some thought needs to be given to whether children have been given the right kinds of opportunities to demonstrate more than one shift in a number of pieces.  It’s clear from Frankie’s work that shifting from an omniscient narrator to  a stretch of dialogue in a story is one route to demonstrating this aspect of the ITAF.  The use of technical language in Frankie’s pieces on ballet also provide further evidence for this bullet.  Are our pupils getting the chance to write with some passion about a subject close to their heart?  Ideally a subject that they can bring into sharp relief through the demonstration of their technical knowledge  of the topic.

I said earlier that my first blog in this series on the GDS standard was ‘going to be on what can really help a child to be an assured, accurate, motivated and expressive writer.’  It might not surprise you to hear that I think that it is through a rich background of reading and plenty of writing practice – both in the classroom and outside, under the child’s own steam. Writing because they want to, and because they have something to say. It’s how I felt about my potential level 6 writers too.  Some had a flair chiefly due to their love of books.  Verbs were skillfully deployed and did not miss a beat or hit a false note.  Shifts (in time, in place, and in levels of formality I guess) were smooth and only jarred if the piece called for it.  Purpose and effect were integrated seemingly naturally.   With this in mind, I think it is important to keep in mind that these shifts of formality that look so clinical in a decontextualised list, or as part of a set of exemplification materials, occur frequently in the materials we share with our children.  A random grab from my bookshelf throws up the following examples – the more formal elements in bold:

From Eren by Simon P. Clark

The moon was bright and slim as a knife, a scratch of light in the sky.It glinted off the water on the road. Clump, clump, clump.  Another jolt, another bump.  I reached forward to squeeze Mum’s hand. ‘What a ride!’

From Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

Really, truly, with all of his heart, Odd found that he was still in the world he had known all his life.  That he was still in the country of the Norse folk, that he was in Midgard. Only he wasn’t, and he knew it.

From The Song From Somewhere Else by A F Harrold

It wasn’t a friendly question.  The  person asking it in that teasing, hateful baby talk was Neil Noble.  He was a year above her at school and hated her.  No, that wasn’t quite true, was it?

Perhaps more notably, in M G Leonard’s recent – and marvelous – Beetle Boy – a very early shift is overtly telegraphed through reference to a formal text form:a police report.

… More than anything else, Darkus knew his dad was not the kind of father who would abandon his thirteen-year-old son.

The police report stated that the 27th of September had been an unremarkable Tuesday.  Dr Bartholomew Cuttle, a 48-year-old widower had taken his son, Darkus Cuttle, to school and gone on to the Natural History Museum, where he was the Director of Science.  

In non-fiction we only have to turn to the rather marvelous The Week Junior.  One regular feature that I particularly like – and that provides some very good models of discursive writing – is The Big Debate.  This week’s issue (11th March, issue 67) looks at that timeless question: Do you want to live forever?

Here’s a snippet.

the week junior

The left hand paragraph’s use of statistics and some light technical vocabulary strikes a more formal tone in the earlier sentences than the later sentences that begin to engage with viewpoint.  The closing line, and the opening line of the right-hand paragraph makes a clear shift to a more informal tone through its direct address to the reader, using the second person.

It’s hopefully clear that there are no end of models to draw upon, and sources of reading material to inspire and engage our young writers – not for them to mimic so much, more for them to (yes!) enjoy, grapple with, perhaps assimilate  in support of their increasingly fluid writing.  Books and other texts that an 11 year-old might reasonably choose to read for themselves.  What is really key is that we are able to recognise the required elements for ourselves so that that Holy Grail of last year might come to be more tangibly within our grasp.