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Teaching factual writing: purpose and structure

David Wray and Maureen Lewis remind us of the need to focus on the teaching of factual texts in primary classrooms. They offer one particular teaching strategy, ‘writing frames’, trialed by teachers in the EXEL (Exeter Extending Literacy) Project, as a useful strategy in assisting young writers learn to write factual texts.


As members of a postmodern literate society we need to read and write a wide range of texts, including factual texts. However, much of the research in the United Kingdom into the development of children’s writing has concentrated on personal and fictional texts while factual literacy has been relatively neglected. Our work with teachers in the Exeter Extending Literacy (EXEL) Project (see, for example, Lewis, Wray & Rospigliosi, 1994) demonstrated that although many classroom practitioners recognised the need to widen the range and quality of children’s non-fiction writing they were unsure as to how to do this. This article sets out to describe the theoretical background to our project and some of its practical outcomes.

Genre theory: new insights, new approaches

There has been an increasing interest in encouraging students to write for a particular purpose, for a known audience and in an appropriate form. However, what constitutes an appropriate form is often presented in general lists of different text types; e.g. `notes, letters, instructions, stories and poems in order to plan, inform, explain, entertain and express attitudes or emotions’ (Department of Education and Science, 1990).

Such lists imply that teachers and students know what differentiates one text type from another. At one level this may be true – we all know that a story or narrative usually has a beginning, a series of events and an ending. We have a general sense that this differs from a recipe. And many teachers discuss these differences with their students. However, it is still relatively rare, in the UK anyway, for teachers of elementary school students to discuss non-fiction texts by drawing on knowledge of the usual structure of a particular text type in order to improve students’ writing.

It has been argued (e.g. by Martin, 1985) that our implicit knowledge of text types and their forms is quite extensive and one of the teacher’s roles is to make this implicit knowledge explicit. Theorists in this area have been referred to as `genre theorists’ and they base their work on a functional approach to language (Halliday, 1985). They see all texts, written and spoken, as being `produced in a response to, and out of, particular social situations and their specific structures’ (Kress & Knapp, 1992: p.5) and as a result put stress on the social and cultural factors that form a text as well as on its linguistic features. They view a text as a social object and the making of a text as a social process. They argue that in any society there are certain types of text–both written and spoken–of a particular form because there are similar social encounters and events which recur constantly within that society. As these `events’ are repeated over and over again certain types of text are created over and over again. These texts become recognised by the members of a society, and once recognised they become conventionalised, i.e. become distinct genres.

These distinct genres, however, need to be learned by our children. And we need to help to make explicit the purpose and features of such genres for them.

Written genres in the classroom

Several ways of categorising the written genres used in classrooms have been proposed over the years. Collerson (1988) categorises written genres into `early genres’ (labels, observational comment, recount, and narratives) and `factual genres’ (procedural, reports, explanations, and arguments or exposition), while Wing Jan’s (1991) categories are: `factual genres’ (reports, explanations, procedures, persuasive writing, interviews, surveys, descriptions, biographies, recounts and narrative information) and `fictional’ (traditional fiction and contemporary modern fiction).

In our project we took as our model the categories of non-fiction genres identified by linguists Martin and Rothery (1980, 1981, 1986). The six non-fiction genres they identified were recount, report, procedure, explanation, argument, discussion. Of these, recount was overwhelmingly the most used in student writing.

Martin and Rothery argue that being competent in the use of nonfiction written genres in our society offers the language user access to power. Persuasion, explanation, report, explanation and discussion are powerful forms of language that we use to get things done and thus have been labelled the `language of power’. It can be argued that students who leave our classrooms unable to operate successfully within these powerful genres are denied access to becoming fully functioning members of society. This suggests we can no longer accept the overwhelming dominance of recount in our students’ non-fiction writing. Our challenge as teachers is to provide students with the `language of power’.

The problems of writing non-fiction

For the inexperienced writer this overuse of `written down talk’ or written recount can indicate a lack of knowledge about the differences between speech and written language.

Bereiter and Scardamalia (1985) highlight the supportive, prompting nature of conversation where somebody speaks which prompts someone else to say something and so on. This reciprocal ;prompting or `turn taking’ is missing from the interaction between a writer and blank sheet of paper. Bereiter and Scardamalia’s research has shown that a teacher’s oral promptings during writing can extend a student’s written work, with no drop in quality. The prompts act as an `external trigger of discourse production’ (1985: p. 97). The teacher-student, and peer conferences, have become part of writing classrooms, it would seem, to support this process. Bereiter and Scardamalia further suggest that students need to `acquire a functional substitute for…an encouraging listener’.

Other problems students experience when reading and writing non-fiction text are caused by the complexity of the cohesive ties used, the use of more formal registers, and the use of technical vocabulary (Halliday & Hasan, 1976; Perera, 1984; Anderson & Armbruster, 1981).

An approach to helping students

Our challenge was to find ways of supporting students in their learning to write non-fiction. Vygotsky proposed that children first experience a particular cognitive activity in collaboration with expert practitioners. The child is firstly a spectator as the majority of the cognitive work is done by the expert (usually a parent or a teacher), then a novice as he/she starts to take over while under the close supervision of the expert. As the child grows in experience and capability of performing the task, the expert passes over greater and greater responsibility but still acts as a guide, assisting the child at problematic points. Eventually, the child assumes full responsibility for the task with the expert still present in the role of a supportive audience. This model fits what is known theoretically about teaching and learning. It is also a model which is familiar to teachers who have adopted such teaching strategies as paired reading and an apprenticeship approach.

In busy, over-populated classrooms, however, it can be difficult to use this model, constructed around an ideal of a child and an expert working together on a one-to-one basis, as a guide to practical teaching action. In particular, it seems that students are too often expected to move into the independent writing phase before they are ready. Often the pressure to do so is based on the practical problem of teachers being unable to find the time to spend with them in individual support. What is clearly needed is something to span the `joint activity’ and `independent activity’ phase.

We proposed a scaffolded phase, where we offer our students strategies to aid writing but strategies that they can use without an adult necessarily being alongside them.

One such strategy we have been exploring is that of `writing frames’. A writing frame consists of a skeleton outline to scaffold students’ non-fiction writing. The skeleton framework consists of different key words or phrases, according to the particular genre. The template of starters, connectives and sentence modifiers which constitute a writing frame gives students a structure within which they can concentrate on communicating what they want to say while scaffolding them in the use of a particular genre. And in the process of using the genre, students become increasingly familiar with it. The frame should be developed with the students drawing on how the various non-fiction genres are structured in what they read.

How writing frames can help

The work of Cairney (1990) on story frames and Cudd and Roberts (1989) on `expository paragraph frames’ first suggested to us that children’s early attempts at written structures might profitably be scaffolded. Cairney describes story frames as `a form of probed text recall’ and a `story level cloze’, whilst Cudd and Roberts claim that expository frames `provide a bridge which helps ease the transition from narrative to content area reading and writing’. Using these as a model to develop frames that would introduce students to a wider range of genres, we have evolved and developed, in collaboration with teachers, a range of writing frames for use in the classroom. These frames have been widely used with children throughout the elementary and middle school years and across the full range of abilities, including students with special needs. On the strength of this extensive trialling we are confident in saying that not only do writing frames help students become familiar with unfamiliar genres but that they also help overcome many of the other problems often associated with non-fiction writing.

There are many possible frames for each genre and we have space here for only two examples (see Lewis & Wray, 1995, and Lewis and Wray, 1996, for much more extensive discussion).

Recount genre

Using the recount frame, nine-year-old Rachel wrote about her trip to Plymouth Museum. The frame helped structure her writing and allowed her to make her own sense of what she had seen. It encouraged her to reflect upon her learning.

A trip to Plymouth Museum

Although I already knew that they buried their dead in mummy cases

I was surprised that the paint stayed on for all these years.

I have learnt some new facts. I learnt that the River Nile had a god called Hopi. He was in charge of the River Nile and he brought the floods. I also learnt that sometimes people carried a little charm so you tell a lie and you rubbed the charm’s tummy and it would be OK.

Another fact I learnt was that they put pretend scarab beetles on their hair for decoration.

However the most interesting thing I learnt was they mummified cats and sometimes mice as well.

Discussion genre

Using the discussion frame helped eleven-year-old Kerry write a thoughtful discussion about boxing. The frame encouraged her to structure the discussion to look at both sides of the argument.

Kerry’s framed discussion

There is a lot of discussion about whether boxing should be banned. The people who agree with this idea, such as Sarah, claim that if they do carry on boxing they should wear something to protect their heads. They also argue that people who do boxing could have brain damage and get seriously hurt. A further point they make is that most of the people that have died did have families.

However, there are also strong arguments against this point of view. Another group of people believe that boxing should not be banned. They say that why did they invent it if it is a dangerous sport. They say that boxing is a good sport, people enjoy it. A furthermore reason is if this a good sport, people enjoy it. A furthermore reason is if they ban boxing it will ruin people’s careers.

After looking at the different points of view and the evidence for them I think boxing should be banned.

How the frames might be used

The use of a frame should always begin with discussion and teacher modelling before moving on to joint construction (teacher and students together) and then to the student undertaking writing supported by the frame. This oral, teacher-modelling, joint-construction pattern of teaching is vital, for it not only models the generic form and teaches the words that signal connections and transitions but it also provides opportunities for developing students’ oral language and their thinking. Some students, especially those with learning difficulties, may need many oral sessions and sessions in which their teacher acts as a scribe before they are ready to attempt their own framed writing.

It would be useful for teachers to make `big’ versions of the frames for use in these teacher-modelling and joint-construction phases. These large frames can be used for shared writing. It is important that the child and the teacher understand that the frame is a supportive draft and that words may be crossed out or substituted, extra sentences may be added or surplus starters crossed out.

We are convinced that writing in a range of genres is most effective if it is located in meaningful experiences. The concept of `situated learning’ (Lave & Wenger, 1991) suggests that learning is always context-dependent. Thus, we have always used the frames within class topic or theme work rather than in isolated study skills lessons (Lewis & Wray, 1995).

We do not advocate using the frames for the direct teaching of generic structures in skills-centred lessons. The frame itself is never a purpose for writing. Our use of a writing frame has always arisen from students having a purpose for undertaking some writing and the appropriate frame was then introduced if they needed extra help.

We have found the frames helpful to students of all ages and all abilities (and, indeed, their wide applicability is one of their most positive features). Teachers have commented on the improved quality (and quantity) of writing that has resulted from using the frames with their students.

It would, of course, be unnecessary to use a frame with writers already confident and fluent in a particular genre but they can be used to introduce such writers to new genres. Teachers have noted an initial dip in the quality of the writing when comparing the framed `new genre’ writing with the fluent recount writing of an able child. What they have later discovered, however, is that, after only one or two uses of a frame, fluent language users add the genre and its language features into their repertoires and, without using a frame, produce fluent writing of high quality in that genre.

The aim with all students is for them to reach this stage of assimilating the generic structures and language features into their writing repertoires. Use of writing frames should be focussed on particular children or small group of students as, and when they need them.


We need to give greater attention to teaching students to write effective and well-structured non-fiction texts. The concept of genre gives a useful framework, while writing frames are a strategy that helps us help students to reach our goals.


Anderson, T. & Armbruster, B. (1981). Content area textbooks. Reading Education Report No. 24. University of Illinois: Center for the Study of Reading.

Barrs, M. (1991/92). Genre theory: What’s it all about? Language Matters. Thinking about Writing. London: Centre for Language in Primary Education No. 1.

Bereiter, C. & Scardamalia, M. (1987). The Psychology of Written Composition. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Cairney, T. (1990). Teaching Reading Comprehension. Milton Keynes, UK: Open University Press.

Cairney, T. (1992). Mountain or mole hill: The genre debate viewed from `Down Under’. Reading, 26, 1.

Collerson, J. (1988). Writing for Life. Newtown, NSW: Primary English Teaching Association.

Cudd, E. & Roberts, L. (1989).13sing writing to enhance content area learning in the primary grades. The Reading Teacher, 42, 6.

Department of Education and Science. (1990). English in the National Curriculum. London: HMSO.

Halliday, M. (1985). An Introduction to Functional Grammar. London: Arnold.

Halliday, M. & Hasan, R. (1976). Cohesion in English. London: Longman.

Kress, G. & Knapp, P. (1992). Genre in a social theory of language. English in Education, 26, 2.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lewis, M. & Wray, D. (1995). Developing Children’s Non-fiction Writing. Learmington Spa, UK: Scholastic.

Lewis, M. & Wray, D. (1996). Writing Frames. Reading, UK: Reading and Language Information Centre, University of Reading.

Lewis, M., Wray, D. & Rospigliosi, P. (1994). `In your own words please’: Helping children respond to non-fiction text. The Reading Teacher, 47, 6.

Martin, J. (1985). Factual Writing: Exploring and challenging social reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Martin, J. & Rothery, J. (1980). Writing Project Report No. 1. Sydney: Department of Linguistics, University of Sydney.

Martin, J. & Rothery, J. (1981). Writing Project Report No. 2. Sydney: Department of Linguistics, University of Sydney.

Martin, J. & Rothery, J. (1986). Writing Project Report No. 4. Sydney: Department of Linguistics, University of Sydney.

Perera, K. (1984). Children’s Reading and Writing. Oxford: Blackwell.

Wing Jan L.(1991). Write Ways: Modelling writing forms. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

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