Using Formative Assessment to engage reluctant writers

Simon Blower

After a 16-year teaching career culminating in the role of Deputy Head teacher of a large Primary school in North Yorkshire, Simon Blower co-founded Pobble to take a simple idea from his classroom to the world.

As Pobble’s COO, Simon manages the Customer Happiness team, supporting a community of thousands of teacher and school users in embedding the “Pobble Approach”.

Simon is passionate about making a difference for young writers and supporting teachers to deliver high quality literacy sessions. By still leading Pobble days and training in schools around the world, Simon continues to see first hand the impact of Pobble on pupils and teachers in the classroom.

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As a teacher, and later Deputy Head, my classes invariably contained reluctant writers - usually boys! I was always on the lookout for new ways to support my teaching of writing, with a focus on strategies that would ensure that every one of my children achieved their full potential.

Early in my teaching career, I did a lot of work around assessment for learning (AFL). I found that embedding the principles of AFL into my teaching of writing to be particularly effective. Here I outline some of the approaches that I use, and I've also explained how they led to the development of Pobble, an award winning approach to teaching writing.

My approach to the teaching of writing

Provide exemplar texts
I consider every writing unit to be a journey. The first step is always to look at example texts with the children. We would discuss the texts together, considering their strengths and weaknesses. We would then agree how we might reach our final destination and what a piece of writing at this final point would look like.

At the beginning of my teaching career I used to create these exemplars myself. However, in time, I began to photo-copy children’s writing and use these as my example texts. I found that the more exemplars I could share with the children for them to review and discuss, the more ideas they would introduce into their own work. By observing the children reviewing the texts I could also make quick assessments as to the key features of the text that I needed to focus my teaching on. As a class we could then discuss these features and generate success criteria together.

We initially launched the Pobble website as a simple means of sharing our exemplar texts with other teachers within our network. Rather than photocopy, we photographed our examples and posted them to the Pobble website, which we opened up to teachers around the world.

What started out as a small initiative in a classroom in North Yorkshire has now grown into perhaps the largest online bank of children’s handwritten work in the world. We have hundreds of thousands of searchable handwritten texts sorted by age group, genre and topic and we even pick out the best examples for teachers to use as model texts. I’m proud to be regularly told that Pobble is now a “must have” for all primary teachers.

You can sign up for free access to Pobble’s bank of handwritten exemplars here.

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Find a great stimulus
As well as sharing exemplars with the children I always thought carefully at the beginning of the writing journey about the stimulus needed for our writing activities. I used high quality texts, video clips, experiences (like music or sport), extracts from books and over time, lots of imagery. Finding good images was often a real challenge, particularly for creative writing. This prompted us to create Pobble 365, which introduces an inspiring image with a number of writing activities for each day of the year. Pobble 365 is now used by over 10,000 classrooms around the world every single day!

As more websites and resource providers entered the market, finding high quality resources became even more challenging and time consuming. My colleagues and I would spend hours on search engines looking for content, or we would default to our favourite websites, even though we knew they were repetitive for the children.

At Pobble we realised that we could save teachers so much time by bringing together resources from multiple providers. We surveyed our teacher community and identified the resource providers most respected by our peers. We created partnerships with those organisations so teachers could search across multiple resource providers in one place on Pobble. This enabled teachers to build high quality lessons quicker and as a result, have more time to focus on how they might deliver their key teaching points.

Pobble’s lesson delivery tool now also includes slides designed to help teachers build a sequence of lessons, including opportunities to reflect on success criteria, learning objectives, activities and key questions. Teachers can also easily adapt their lessons based on the informal judgements they are making throughout the teaching cycle.

You can access Pobble 365 for free here.

Promote independent learning

In my experience, both as a teacher of 16 years and of working in hundreds of schools with Pobble over the last four years, the biggest challenge still facing many teachers is providing engaging writing tasks. In my classroom I used exemplar texts to drive independent analysis and learning from my pupils, and we have carefully built this into Pobble too.

Our pupil logins allow children access to the exemplars on Pobble. They can read work, not just from the child sat next to them or the WAGOLL* selected by their teacher, but from their peers from around the world. This immediately improves engagement as the children are excited to read work from beyond their school community. This also allows the children to magpie ideas and use them to improve their own work, independently, or in groups.

The children are also supported in leaving high quality, structured feedback on the work of other pupils in their class, school or from around the world. By giving children access to work from their peers which they can relate to, they are far better equipped to move forward confidently with their own piece of independent work.

*WAGOLL - what a good one looks like.

You can sign up for a webinar providing a detailed demonstration of Pobble here.

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Create a purpose to write
Children need to feel like there is a real purpose for their writing. Children I have worked with have always been more inspired to write when they know their writing will be seen. This behaviour is consistent across every age group and ability that I have taught. This could be achieved through sharing work on a class display, providing opportunities to visit other classrooms, or even visiting the headteacher.

As schools began to embrace technology, opportunities emerged to share writing through school websites and pupil blogs. My last class of 39 Year 5 pupils loved blogging and were proud to have their work published each week. However, as a school leader it was a challenge to get other teachers blogging with the same enthusiasm as me.

Whilst creating Pobble I wanted to support teachers to use this type of technology whilst reducing the workload burden that it might create. For example, Pobble schools choose up to 5 children a week to be published. By limiting the amount of work published each week, not only did we reduce the additional workload from these types of activities, there was an even greater incentive for children to produce their best work. Pobble also moderates all comments on writing centrally, again reducing the burden on teachers in keeping online activities safe.

In my classroom, and later supported by Pobble, children learnt to review, edit and redraft work always producing their best piece to potentially showcase to an audience. This began to have a noticeable impact on attainment. Technology and Pobble enhanced these activities, enabling easy sharing with parents, and the creation of online portfolios of writing to support moderation.

School leaders, to find out how to use Pobble in your school, you can book a discussion with Simon here.

Facilitate teacher collaboration through assessment and moderation

When teaching in year 2 and year 6 I regularly attended local authority moderation events. These were always well attended and the LEA advisers tried hard to make them effective. However, as a relatively shy teacher, I often came away frustrated. We’d only looked at a few pieces of writing, a couple of teachers had dominated the discussion, and I wasn’t able to gather the key feedback I needed for my borderline cases. I would often drive back to school thinking about the questions I wished I had asked.

I wanted to solve this challenge by creating a more effective way of seeking feedback on assessment judgements. Through using Pobble you build up an online evidence bank of pieces of writing for your children. These can be sorted into assessment files and shared online with colleagues at any point of the year for formal or informal feedback, in or outside of the school community. This ongoing feedback increases the reliability of teachers' assessment judgements, enabling them to make more informed judgements about a child’s end of year attainment.

If you’d like to find out about using Pobble Moderation in your school, book a discussion with Simon here.

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