Writing frames, used with the whole class, have pretty much been a feature of every History department I have worked in, worked with, or visited.
The most common are the PEE branch that usually end with D or L.
In the early stages of my career, they were invariably paired with a burger, cake or sandwich display that reminded students that their writing must have layers – sound familiar?
Interestingly, I was taught to write using PEE at school and was taught to teach writing using PEE as a teacher. But can writing frames really improve students’ writing in History?
Sort of … but not really.
Acronymic style writing frames make historical writing easier rather than better, specifically analytical writing.
It also makes teaching historical writing to a class easier rather than better.
This seems beneficial as our subject is rich in complex concepts, sophisticated vocabulary and content that requires retention of a hinterland of prior learning, requiring the creation of new meaning from each encounter with unfamiliar topics.
It makes perfect sense to scaffold not only our students’ encounters with the past but also their development as a writer.
And as we all know, the key to a successful scaffold is what happens when it is removed.
Here lies the problem: often writing frames aren’t removed during KS3, or even KS4.
This became clear to me on a visit to a local college when my KS5 counterpart told me that most of what we teach at GCSE is unhelpful for A-Level due to our reductive approach to teaching exam technique to improve attainment.
My visit to the college led to me questioning my own use of writing frames (along with most of my practice, to be honest).
For me, if what I was teaching my students was going to be untaught, rather than built on, then I wasn’t teaching them at all, and PEE seemed to be the biggest culprit.
Developing Historical Writing
So, if a writing frame is being used throughout a students’ history lessons from Y7 to Y11 because removing it would lead to the quality of students’ work suffering, have we really been teaching them to write?
Possibly not, we may have just been making writing easier.
We might think this is a kindness to our students because difficulty leads to struggle, and History is hard enough; but KS3 is the perfect time to struggle with the writing process and learning to write academically is one of the desirable difficulties that will improve students’ attainment without becoming exam focused.
It seems clear to me that KS3 is the crucial time for the conceptual heavy lifting required for further study, allowing the student time and space to begin mastering how to communicate their understanding.
To play with sentences. To appreciate them as the building blocks of great paragraphs. To mimic the style of historians they might have read in class.
And if securing good outcomes for our students is what we want, first we must be clear on the limitations of writing frames as a whole-class strategy and then begin to consider the potential alternatives.
Limitations of PEE
Below are six potential limitations of PEE-style writing frames that might make them inappropriate for an ambitious curriculum that building on KS2 and prepares students for KS5.
1. A PEE paragraph would typically only secure a Level 2 response for AO1 and AO2 on a History GCSE exam (AQA).
It is hard to argue that this is ambitious for a GCSE class as it equates to roughly half marks. This is because a ‘range’ of knowledge is required for Level 3 AO1 and a ‘developed’ two step approach for Level 3 AO2.
PEE encourages the exploration of one point supported with an example and explanation. This has led teachers to create ever more elaborate acronyms to secure higher raw marks: PEED; PEEL; PEEEE; PEA, PETAL; IDEAL etc. If teachers keep having to redesign them, and there are so many, are they fit for purpose?
2. There are too many writing frames to remember, causing overload of the working memory.
Because each GCSE question stem requires a specific approach, students must remember which acronym is used for each question. In each exam. In each subject.
In History alone, for example, you must recognise when to NOP or SWOOP instead of PEED or PEEL for utility questions, and then not confuse a source with an interpretation.
Choose the wrong writing frame in a Y11 exam and all is lost; have a change of teacher, who uses a different acronymic writing frame in Y9, and students feel like they’re starting from scratch.
3. Acronymic style writing frames are not typically an improvement on the quality of writing most students produce at KS2, and therefore are not ambitious.
As the Wasted Years highlights ( the expectations of Y7 pupils are often lower than expectations in Y5 and Y6.
And as we have already noted, acronymic writing frames don’t help at A-Level and university.
Requesting copies of Year 6 writing to use in my department meetings and inviting primary school teachers to scrutinise our KS3 books can be incredible helpful. The work our colleagues do in primary schools is enlightening.
4. Truly excellent examples of students’ writing rarely sticks to the writing frame provided by the teacher.
Typically, an excellent piece of writing is a combination of what they have learnt in school and countless hours of reading books.
This close relationship between reading and writing leads to a confident command of sentence form, vocabulary, and contextual knowledge, resulting is an excellent response.
Here we glimpse the gap between advantaged, word-rich students and disadvantaged, word-poor students.
The use of a reductive writing frame further widens this gap, as students who read less only encounter the sentence types that fit within the writing frame, denying them rich encounters with new words, sentences forms and ideas that ultimately would improve their attainment over time.
5. The English subject community, that devised PEE style writing frames, are moving away from them. More recently on Twitter (See @shadylady222 and @_codexterous), English teachers have moved towards the What? How? Why? approach.
They argue that PEE is a cue often allowing students to know what is expected but not how to enact it. WHW, on the other hand, can help students generate their response and next steps as they are posed as questions, linking the thinking with the writing.
This works for analytical pieces in English as students need to explore the devices chosen by authors for their impact, like a literary critic.
When teaching History, I think we should turn our attention to the work of historians for answers.
6. Historians don’t write using formulaic writing frames. Pick any historian’s book off the shelf, turn to a random page, and scrutinise the writing. You’ll find patterns within the writing but not ones that resemble the writing frames we sometimes use in schools.
For example, a quick read of Peter Frankopan’s brilliant book, The Silk Roads will show you the skilful way he uses the word “Nevertheless” as a discourse marker to move past the limitations of sources and begin to assess their value, linking directly to utility questions on the GCSE specifications.
What you will not find is PEED. Although I agree that being a historian might not be the goal of KS3 and KS4, for me writing like a historian is a noble goal.
The key word here is “like”. But “how do historians write?” I hear you ask, “that’s much too hard!”.
I don’t think it is from experience and answering the question of “how do historians write?” is the other side of the coin to “why do historians write, and what do they write about?” which, as a subject community, we have spent much more time trying to answer.
How do historians write: life beyond the venerable PEED
Historians write paragraphs comprised of excellent sentences about their powerful ideas, demonstrating their command of content, concepts, and subject specific vocabulary. When analysing the writing of historians, certain sentence forms are privileged within historical writing
1.Noun appositive for detail
A sentence form used to communicate an encounter with a noun (person, place, event etc) when you want to add multiple layers of detail:
William the Conqueror, who defeated Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings*, is remembered by many as one of England’s most violent monarchs**.
* Subordinate clause adding detail.
**main clause adding more detail.
2. Adverbial openers for analysis (Consequently, politically, regionally)
A sentence form that starts with an adverb, enabling the writer to communicate specifics about an action or an event. In history, these can be incredibly powerful as they can be marker of analysis. Starting with them can help students begin sentences with a clear purpose:
Regionally, King William’s use of practical brutality was felt hardest in the North of England during the Harrying of the North.
3. Discourse Markers for argument (furthermore, therefore, however)
A sentence type that manages the flow of discourse or argument. In History, these allow writers to communicate more powerful, complex ideas, demonstrating the layers of thought that they have gone through to arrive at their ideas:
Earlier in William’s reign, however, he had forgiven Edwin and Morcar of their treason to secure Anglo-Saxon allies and Norman legitimacy.
4. Fronted subordinates for sequencing (Before, during, after, in)
A sentence type that front-loads the sentence with information that adds detail and depth. In History, these work very well with dates, events and places, again giving purpose to students’ sentences and getting them to use precise historical detail:
By the 1070s, Anglo-Saxon resistance had become less threatening to William’s grip on the crown allowing him to focus on the religious reforms he had promised Pope Alexander II.
5. Subjugating conjunctions for cause and effect (After, when, although, whereas, if)
A sentence type that allows us to combine two sentences and their ideas. In History, this is great for communicating cause and effect or contrast and showing the sophisticated links between events or actions instead of seeing them as discrete entities:
When William received the Papal Banner supporting his invasion of England, it came with the obligation to reform the Anglo-Saxon Church and impose the Benedictine Rule on the monasteries.
6. Co-ordinating conjunction for explanation (because, but, so and, or)
A sentence form that allows us to combine two clauses of equal weight. These sentences overlap with a very familiar literacy term: connectives. These are essential in history for explanation and combining our ideas:
William had to eventually remove Archbishop Stigand from power because of his commitment to the pope but only when he had removed his opponents so to secure Norman legitimacy, fulfilling his promises to his international allies. *
* Hochman’s ‘because, but, so’ strategy doesn’t have to be used within one sentence with students, although it can add a layer of challenge when appropriate. Providing a part finished sentence stem three times and asking students to finish each one using each of the ‘because, but, so’ is a great activity to support decision making when writing. See The Writing Revolution (2017)
Nb. Strictly speaking there are overlaps between discourse markers, conjunctions, adverbial openers, and fronted subordinates that are incredibly interesting but tricky for those of us who learnt to write without being conscious of the sentence forms we use. For now, being able to separate them is beneficial for both students and teachers to become familiar with before appreciating their nuances.
Formulaic writing frames typically make writing easier not better, and if we feel the need to make them more complex and question specific to improve the outcome, we need to question why we are using them at all.
Whether your goal is to develop on KS2, prepare for KS5, achieve better exam results or even getting your students to write more like historians, writing frames might not the solution.
With a refocus on developing an ambitious curriculum progression model, we must ask ourselves how we are going to make our students better writers.
If writing frames must be used, they should be deployed on an individual basis as a form of scaffolded intervention with a plan of when it should be removed.
Sentence level instruction should be an important feature of our teaching if improving historical writing is our goal.
This would certainly precede extended writing tasks.
Often extended pieces are vague and heavily reliant on sentence starters and writing scaffolds, raising questions about their value for measuring progression at all.
We need to keep in mind that great paragraphs are a product of great sentences, and some sentence forms are privileged within the writing of historians.
These sentences forms, when modelled and practised, provide clarity for students when making decisions about their writing and responding to feedback.
Do you want them to add more detail about the king? Then add a noun appositive; is their entire response lacking dates and sequencing?
Ask them to edit in three fronted subordinates in three sentences that mention actions or events. If you believe their paragraph lacks structure, show them how to use a Single Paragraph Outline more to look forward to on this in future.
John Hough leads the PGCE History programme at Liverpool Hope University and is Archdiocese Subject Leader for History in Liverpool. Previously, he worked in schools as a Literacy Coordinator, Lead for Practitioner Development, Head of Humanities and Associate Assistant Principal. John works closely with the Chartered College of Teaching as a mentor and assessor.