“When is it my turn?” Pupils as writers in the Reception Year

Blog post by Anna-Mai Armstrong, Headteacher at Westbury-on-Severn CE Primary school

In 2014, after five years of teaching in KS1 and 2, I moved to Reception in a one form entry school. I was excited and trepidatious. I had heard many stories about how in Reception pupils “just play” and how the curriculum was “completely different”. I spent months reading about Early Years pedagogy from different perspectives and put lots of energy and creativity into my Continuous Provision. At that time we were a Talk 4 Writing school and I was English lead- the teaching came easy to me and the children loved to learn a story by heart and be immersed in the themes of the story but how to get them writing? Independently? Using their phonics? Sat at tables? Using finger spaces? There were so many barriers- poor fine motor skills, low motivation, not enough sounds learnt. I went on courses about “Reaching for the stars in EYFS” which promoted writing as part of play as the best way of supporting writing. I tried it but it seemed flawed to me- only a tiny minority of pupils could be encouraged to write lists or notes as part of their play and when they did, they would make so many handwriting or spelling errors it was almost encouraging bad habits. However, I persevered, as well as teaching phonics, during which pupils wrote daily.

My Headteacher at the time came into observe one day and was shocked that I wasn’t doing “guided writing” with the pupils. I explained all about the Early Years approach of writing in provision but she insisted that I sat down with groups of children, as their friends played all around them, and model write a sentence and then ask pupils to do the same. This sentence was random and plucked from nowhere, vaguely relating to our theme- or not. She didn’t care. I tried it. It only worked for the ones whose phonics and handwriting were strong. For the reluctant writers, this soon became their personal hell (and mine)- they wanted to play, they couldn’t do it, they didn’t have any ideas and it was putting them off writing BIG TIME. I now realise this was “cognitive overload”. They needed more support and more inspiration. I needed something else- and fast.

This was when “story scribing” started. By this time, I was active in many social media EY groups and I heard it being discussed. I read Anna Ephgrave’s book “The Reception Year in Action” which blew my mind and soon became my bible. I read “Princesses, Dragons and Helicopter Stories” by Trisha Lee and did a lot of thinking. Eventually, I brought the “storytelling chair” into my classroom (an old wooden chair my own children had sat on that we had upcycled) and started story scribing with a few pupils per week. This was transformative; to each pupils’ sense of themselves as a writer, to my ability to support them with handwriting and spelling, and to their motivation. Everyone wanted to be the storyteller! The magic happened at the end of the day when the storytellers’ stories were acted out. Anna Ephgrave was very particular about this bit- it was giving their writing meaning, purpose and an audience, instantaneously. They would drag the storytelling chair to the “story circle” at about 2.45pm (the storyteller would sit there, like a monarch) and their story would be read aloud by me (grammar corrected orally) with their friends acting it out. We would all applaud and then it was the next storyteller’s turn.

The writing happened when their friends were playing during “free flow” times. They would sit in the chair and choose characters and a setting, without judgement from me. There were few rules- they had creative control. Often the plot was very basic but every child could tell me a story in their own way. They would learn that they had to slow down so I could write, they watched me model letters and words, helping me to sound them out.  At the start of the year, they would write the tricky words and letters that they had learnt- I never made them write sounds or letters that we hadn’t yet taught so the writing process was shared. Also, I had a special pen and all stories went in the class story book and their own learning journey- which the parents would see. Often, I would photograph the story for the parents on the same day and, in later years, I would even film the acting out for parents. By the end of the year most pupils could write a significant part of the story independently and some highflyers would bat me away and sit and write the whole story themselves. I cherished those moments!

When Pie Corbett came in for his next developmental visit, he said that the pupils’ story scribing was “the best he had ever seen”. He loved that I gave them so much freedom and autonomy and this became a hallmark of my practice for years to come. Despite Pie’s validation, the pupils’ adoration of the process and the parents joy at reading their children’s hilarious and charming tales, it was not recognised by visiting advisors (who questioned all of it and asked me why they weren’t “marked”) or by any other members of SLT who did not understand it at all. I was moved into Y1. I started looking for other jobs.

I became Head of School and English lead in a smaller village school with just 15 pupils in Reception in 2018. This was where I really honed story scribing and developed keen, able writers year on year. This school was not a Talk 4 Writing school and I did start pupils on Literacy books (by now Bold Beginnings was slowly eroding Early years pedagogy and requiring YR to be more like Y1) but I still experienced the same reluctance with writing when I sat pupils down as a group to write something effectively dictated by the teacher and the theme. This writing was not joyous or motivated, it was a task to complete before they asked me “Can I go now?” Nobody ever asked to go when they sat in the storytelling chair. They asked when it was their turn. What made it such a success I believe was the creative freedom and control they had over storylines and subject matter, the 1:1 support they got in a supported way (no cognitive overload occurred, I was there to prompt, support or scribe difficult parts but also to remind them of tricky words or sounds they already knew) and to see their story come alive, acted out by the whole class. This gave their story status and meaning.

As Headteacher now in a tiny village school, I have shared my love of story scribing with the teachers (and the EYFS team- we have a Preschool) and I have lent them my Helicopter stories book, showed them my class books (which I carefully took with me when I left!)  My storytelling chair sits grandly in the reading corner of the YR/Y1 classroom, reminding me of past story sessions when I was a teacher.  Staff are keen but there’s too much other work needing doing before we introduce it. However, we are honouring National Storytelling Week at the end of January where they will have a taster of it for the week and hopefully will find a way to incorporate it into their busy timetables in future. I owe it to the pupils to make sure this happens, and soon.



The Reception Year in Action by Anna Ephgrave https://www.amazon.co.uk/Reception-Action-revised-updated-month/dp/0415659736

Princesses, Dragons and Helicopter Stories by Trisha Lee https://helicopterstories.co.uk/product/princesses-dragons-and-helicopter-stories/

Bold Beginnings Ofsted publication 2017


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