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.


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.


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.

Friday, 18 February 2011

An open letter to Schoolgate Mums... with love, honest.

Hello Mum-at-the-gate!

Nice to see the sun isn’t it? Yes, dinner money was due in this week. Well, that’s the chitchat done with. Let’s get down to business.

Being a parent can be difficult, yes? It’s tiring, it’s trying and sometimes you might find yourself sat on the stairs at 2am with a blanket over your head wondering what happened to your life. What? No, that wasn’t me. It was a friend. Anyway.

The point is, we all know what we’re up against trying to raise children in this rather peculiar century. So why are we making it harder for each other?  Parenting really isn’t a competition, and this playground isn’t a dojo; you’ve no need to be giving me the steely glare, we’re not going into battle. What I’m saying is, shouldn’t we be a whole lot more supportive of each other?

I’ll be honest: your children, whilst excellent examples of the form, do not interest me at all. I’m sure they’re lovely, but I’m indifferent to their spelling scores and housepoint acquisition. And I’m a bit bemused as to why you’re worrying about my kids. They’re no threat to yours: they’re different and they’re not in competition either. They’ll probably barely remember each other in 30 years, let alone be fighting it out for that dream job or the affections of a literary hero. So let’s stop comparing them.

Look. Remember labour? The sweating, the quantities of fluids, the desperation. And then seeing your baby? Your actual brand new person. Well, imagine the midwife had come in and said,

“Look, I know that’s your baby, but look at THIS ONE. This one will be reading ‘The Masked Cleaning Ladies of Om’ in Year 3 and I’m afraid yours will still be on ‘Biff and Chip’. Wouldn’t you rather have this one?”

You’d probably say something like,

“What the bloody hell are you on about? Biff and who? I don’t care about that. I couldn’t give a monkey’s about reading books. It really isn’t important. Now kindly do one.”

And you’d be right. It isn’t important. It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now. Let’s remember that. You love your child: the rest doesn’t matter.

While we’re at it, let’s talk about us. No, not like that, I mean all of us. Us women here on the playground.

We’ve all been in the wonderful world of work, even if we’re not now. (Unless you’ve been living in a mansion on a trust fund, in which case we should really be better friends.) At work, if you’re no good at something, or a job comes up that you really hate, you rush to palm it off on someone else, don’t you? Come on, I know it’s not just me. If someone else can do the work you loathe better than you and they actually enjoy it, then yeehah! Time to breathe a sigh of relief and head down the pub.

It really shouldn’t be any different now, at school. For example, I like making cakes. I’m not too bad at it. Look! http://twitpic.com/1pqqwj  But just because I bake doesn’t mean you should have to if you hate it. It’s not a competition. Leave baking to the master bakers (sorry, I had to). Similarly, I will not be running in any parents’ races at Sports Day, but if that’s your kind of fun, you go for it. I hope you win. If you can hear Readers without needing to swig from a hip flask of gin, then great. I can’t.  Again, it’s not a competition. Let’s just be relieved that we can, as a body, fill all the roles the school has for us. Let’s be grateful someone else can do the facepainting at the Fayre when we don’t have the skills, because 200 kids all done as “A Tomato” doesn’t look good.

In short, let’s be nice. Let’s be supportive. Let’s tread gently, because we never really know what’s going on behind someone’s polite smalltalk face. Let’s save that fearsome maternal fighting spirit for those that deserve it. No, not the school down the road. The politicians who would take our school funds, the companies who would brand our kids, and last but not least, those unbearable parenting gurus who make us feel inadequate so they can sell their books. Let’s get them first.

Now, time to go, the best kids in the world are coming out of school. No, I meant mi…. oh never mind. See you tomorrow…

Monday, 14 February 2011

An unromantic story for Valentine's Day.

It was February 14th 2004 and I was 8 months pregnant with our first baby. My routine midwife check that week had thrown up a worry. She thought the baby’s heart rate was a little high. So I was booked into the maternity ward to spend the morning hooked up to a fetal monitoring machine while they checked everything was ok.

Valentine’s Day was a Saturday that year and so Mrbird came with me.  It wasn’t what either or us had planned. I’d considered maybe waddling round the kitchen cooking something effortlessly effortless followed by an evening with my legs elevated on the sofa. Not in the exciting way, I just had badly swollen ankles.  A day spent in a dingy delivery suite pondering the state I’d be in the next time I saw one of those was not my idea of fun.

I was worried and Mrbird knew that. He is adept at reading my very subtle signs of anxiety: the rabid swearing, bleeding nose and snarling response to all attempts at small talk. So he distracted me with much bigger talk; about the baby, our lives together, what we thought parenthood would be like, our hopes, our plans.  As we talked, the baby’s heartrate began to slow down.  We talked my cares away. I forgot about the job that was causing me so much grief and the impending arrival of Ofsted and focussed on the person who could take away the stress, and on the imminent arrival of our baby.  Maybe that’s what calmed the the baby down.

Or it could have been my singing. The little fetal monitor read showed a much calmer line during “Somewhere beyond the sea”. I loved the baby even more for being the only person in the world to appreciate my lyrical stylings; such devotion is beyond even Mrbird.

After a while, the midwives were happy with the results on the screen and we were allowed to go home. I felt like we’d weathered a storm. It was good news for the years ahead, a sign that we could cope with the demands of parenting together. Yes: we were very, very naive. We had yet to know of sleep deprivation on a hallucinogenic scale, of Force 10 vomit. And I’m glad of that.

You can stick your candlelit dinners and your fluffy Wuvhearts. You want to know if someone loves you? Spend Valentine’s Day in the hospital together (not by choice. That would be weird. Besides, the food is terrible). And you want hearts? The best one I ever saw was the one beating steadily on the fetal monitor screen.