How to Improve a Child’s Writing Ability through Big Writing

June 20, 2016 Published by

And so there I was in the nursery, one child producing some amazing monkey noises, while the other fluttered about pretending to be a butterfly…    

Sorry, I was just practising my ‘power sentences’, a method I recently discovered at a seminar on Big Writing. Big Writing is a teaching approach developed by Ros Wilson, who has over 45 years of experience in education. It is based on the principle that “If a child can’t say it – a child can’t write it” (Ros Wilson, Raising Standards in Writing, 2002), Big Writing uses talk, purpose and fun to improve children’s confidence in their writing.

Talking to your child is vital, says Wilson, because, “what’s heard is what’s said, and what’s said is what’s written”. In the first few years, children will often be at home, so what is heard will depend largely on their parents. So it might not be surprising that children from different backgrounds are likely to have different experiences, but the difference might be bigger than you think.

In a professional home, it’s more likely that children will be spoken to with richer language, e.g. “It’s beautiful and sunny outside. What shall we do today, shall we visit nan or go to the park?”. In a low income home, parents are more likely to use what is termed ‘business talk’, i.e. a question or command such as “Do your homework,” or “Eat your dinner”.

Because of this, a child in a professional home will hear an average of 2,100 words every hour (including repeated words like ‘and’). This adds up to 48 million words by the time they are four years old. In comparison a child from a low income home will hear around 600 words per hour, a total of just 13 million words by the age of four (Hart & Risley, 2003)

This makes for a clear disadvantage when children start school, where classes rely heavily on speaking, listening and writing skills. The point of writing is to communicate, but children can’t do that if they don’t understand the words they are using. A sentence with just one word they don’t understand can quickly become meaningless.


Child Writing at Home 

How to use the Big Writing method

Big Writing emphasises fun, active learning. Try these tips to help improve your child’s writing skills: 

Power sentences:

  • Encourage your child to use one or two power sentences in each paragraph they write –
    • Start with a connective word, or a word ending in -ly/-ing
    • Include a POWER word like wow/gigantic
    • Include POWER punctuation (? ! …)

Children might not always get this right, but don’t worry about this – praise them for trying and continue to model the correct way (e.g. keep using the power word in sentences so they can learn it’s meaning).

You can give your child a topic to write these sentences about (e.g. something they have done today) or ask them to change a pre-written paragraph to include power sentences.

Describe a picture:

  • Show your child a picture and ask them to come up with as many –ing words as possible to describe what is happening.
  • When they’ve done this, they can choose one of the words and write a power sentence using it.

Call my bluff:

  • This is a funny game that’s great for language and imagination skills.
  • Give your child an unusual word (this could be a power word), with one correct definition and two made up definitions.
  • Ask them to work out which is the real one. You can also get your child to do the same for you.

Lead by example:

  • You might read alone at bedtime, but it’s useful to read and write in front of your child too, as they are likely to copy what they see.

Read together at bedtime:

  • Ros recommends reading to your child until they are about eight years-old.
  • Read books that they are interested in (favourites can be read over and over again), but try to avoid pushing your own favourites onto your child if they don’t like them.

Eat together at mealtimes:

  • This might not always be possible, but try to do it as often as you can.
  • Mealtimes give families a chance to exchange stories about their day – have a bit of fun and make it up if you like.

Appeal to your child’s interests: 

  • Do it their way and make it fun.
  • For example if your child likes laughing, talking, competition, or rude and disgusting things (think Roald Dahl), use that to your advantage. 

The activities don’t have to take a lot of time out of your day – many of the suggestions are ideal for travelling in the car, or while queuing at the supermarket. A little bit of practice every day will do wonders for their writing. Be sure to visit the Andrell Education site if you need more Big Writing ideas.


Alternatively you can learn more about Big Writing through Ros Wilson’s books, which are listed below and available on Amazon :

Big Writing: Writing Voice & Basic Skills (2012) 

Big Writing: Talk the Big Talk (2012)

Big Writing: Raising Writing Standards (2012)


Got a question? Ros is happy to help via Twitter, @RosBigWriting.



Photo Credit: Writing by Ben Timney licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

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This post was written by Anna Taylor

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