Let’s not forget the three circle magic

All this talk of ‘getting our country back’ (pause while I hold my head in my hands and let out a deep groan) has led me to thinking about the implications of change and the bringing in of the new. Education has certainly undergone sweeping change with a new curriculum and assessment arrangements. As a profession we’ve wised up to many practices that were and are pedagogically shaky, like ability grouping, rigid three part lessons and an obsession with teacher performance over pupil learning.  We’re starting to think for ourselves at last and hit back at dictates and initiatives we’re told are the right thing to do; instead we’re deciding that for ourselves.  Yet with all eyes looking forward, we must take care not to discard practices that really worked for pupils and teachers, just because they belonged to an age coloured by prescription and dis-empowerment for so many.

The three circle English planning sequence is one of these gems I think we need to revive and bring out into the light again. Some schools never stopped using this approach to planning writing, but when the new curriculum came along, some school became quite confused about the structure of a teaching sequence in English: do they plan on the basis of genres, quality texts or chunks of the English curriculum? Lots of schools are doing different things; many have opted to buy in planning schemes to give them the supposed security of coverage, but the three circle medium term plan is a great way to bring all these requirements into one place, and I was much aggrieved to meet a group of teachers the other day who had never head of it before. Eeek!

The reason I’m a keen three circle planner is that it begins with both pupils and teacher reaching a shared understanding of quality in the writing and moving children towards a quality written outcome based on a quality text which allows all the little bits and pieces of writing to be put into context, and this is so important these days with all that prescriptive spelling, punctuation and grammar we expect children to learn – it’s pretty stale without a context.

My obsession with the three circle planner came about eight years ago when I was made a Lead Teacher for Literacy for Lewisham – those were the days when local authorities had money and would pay for more experienced teachers to go out to support less experienced teachers across the borough – imagine how important that was for teachers in their first years, sat alone in a one form entry school? Now, schools have to become an academy chain to get this kind of support I suppose. Nevertheless, at that time I went on a day’s DfE training run by the people who wrote the National Literacy Framework. This was attended by a wonderful woman (whose name escapes me now) who came up with the idea of the three circle planner.  It was then that I was introduced to the concept of ‘backwards planning’. This seems like second nature nowadays, but back then AfL hadn’t really kicked in and things like success criteria were in their infancy – keying pupils into quality was assumed rather than made deliberate, and the assumption was often wrongly made. .

The idea of backward planning is simple,  but very effective. It starts with the end result – the quality outcome and then works backwards. I remember how adamant this woman was that when you sit down to plan – you as the teachers have the outcome of the whole writing unit written down at the bottom of the page, then you pick your way back to the start. This is no different from locating your destination on a map before you start a journey, then working back to the start point  with your finger to trace the best pathway rather than simply starting out and trying to find your destination on the map. This way you see the start and the finish clearly and don’t get side tracked only to finish up somewhere else.

At the time, I’d been teaching about three or four years, but this idea was an epiphany for me. So often I would support teachers with planning and they would get side tracked by ‘activities’ at the expense of learning and this was because the outcome hung about at the end somewhere in the distant future, rather than being the focus from the start.  When you plan backwards – you can’t take your ‘eyes off the prize’, so appealing ‘activities’ like making pirate hats, animal masks or turning your class into a jungle can’t side track the learning unless it’s crystal clear that they are part of that journey towards the prized outcome.

Here’s a three circle planning sequence I put together recently for a writing unit I did with Year 2: I’m sure other people have done much better planners, but it’s an example at least. The termly topic was China so I found a lovely traditional story about China and based the sequence around this. The destination or quality writing outcome is clear at the end of the circles – the three circles overlap indicating the transition from one stage into another.  The three stages lead to that quality piece of writing at the end, and all activities are designed to lead to that in one way or another either as word, sentence or text level learning.

The first circle is familiarisation – here you’re really asking, what does a good one look like? You can use more than one text here to get a feel for a genre or focus on one, but the point is to arrive at a shared understanding of the quality. What is it about this that is good? Make a list? Allow the children to help create it. Identify the language features and sentence types. Why are these important? What do they do?  Experiment writing some of your own. I like the children to get to know the text inside out and I love the Pie Corbett talk for writing approach so if the story is too long to recite often, or there’s a range of texts, then I create our own ‘Pie Corbett’ version of the story using most of the original words and phrases, but editing the length usually down to an A4 page of text. This helps the children to see the whole shape of the story and feel that writing one themselves is achievable. For very young children a story map with pictures on is helpful. Long stories that are pages and pages long seem like an impossible task to a young child, but if you write a version that is just a bit longer and better than they could do, it serves as a model for them to aim for and base their own success criteria around. This is all about the Zone of Proximal Development isn’t it – the distance between present and future learning.

Like this, the children and you become immersed in the text. Find the version of this particular text I created here. I also dropped in lots of the SPAG I needed them to learn as well.  Often I will allow the children to make the story characters using card and lolly sticks, then they act out the story in groups- this embeds key words, phrases and sentences into their memory which they can call on when they write their own. It also helps them to see the whole plot clearly. This is a key technique devised by Pie Corbett and for years now I’ve seen it work wonders. All the best writers mimic good writing they’ve read, and all writers have to be able to say it before they can write it.

After familariation then there is capturing ideas. Here children get further into the features of the text like character and setting type. We investigate what these are like through things like writing in role with  letters between characters, diary entries or speech bubbles between characters etc. Here you can drop in lots of the SPAG too and link it to the context of the writing. This is also when the more arty activities can come in, but it’s important to make sure they lead to the writing outcome and involve the children in thinking about the story plot and language features. For example, it would be no good making a river if the children didn’t spend time thinking about the vocabulary to describe water movement;  this then supports their setting description later. Distraction activities here might be things like making Chinese food or making a raft to cross the river – these don’t lead to supporting  the writing outcome. I always say that if an activity can’t be linked to some aspect of the content of that final quality writing outcome then it’s just a distraction. Fine, if you want to make Chinese food in DT to make a good link to the topic that’s great, but it’s not literacy; there’s no food in the story to write about.

After all this lovely text immersion, then it’s time for invention – the children plan and write their own stories. Some children will be able to really make it their own, change characters and setting for example. For less experienced writers, they might only manage a straight retelling of the story relying heavily on following the simplified Pie Corbett version. The children might plan their stories on a story mountain or a story map similar to the one they might have used to map out the original story in the first place – this makes sense because they understand the structure and how the story fits together.

I tend to do the writing sessions in sections that follow the story map – the opening, build up, problem, solution and ending so the children don’t rush to write the whole thing at once, but instead drill down to what makes a good opening etc before they write one. Sessions can begin with the children looking through a piece and picking out the best bits. Sometimes I write a couple of versions by hand and get them to pick out which one is the best and discuss why – this helps to draw out the success criteria for the writing in that session. Shared writing and editing are important at this stage with lots of paired talk about how and what. We always do a lot of revisiting writing through edit and improvement sessions; it really helps children to do this in pairs and redraft sections so that there is what I call a ‘noticeable improvement’ in content and presentation. Lots of talk about what this might be goes on too. All this rests on that familiarisation at the start, when the children were really keyed into the text quality. By the end, the children have written, edited and redrafted in order to create their own stories that can be published and shared.

I like this method of teaching writing because it covers genres, as well as curricular content and all that SPAG, but also puts quality texts at the heart of the process. It also frees up teachers to chose text that they know suit curriculum topics and the children’s interests and backgrounds. Essentially, any good children’s text can be used, teachers shouldn’t be tied down to those set by schemes that might not suit the context.

So perhaps this is all old hat to you and you’ve been a three circler since year one, but if not, the three circle planning sequence could support your writing planning and make the writing more meaningful and lead to pupils writing their own excellent texts rather than simply meeting a curricular check list. But whatever you use, ensuring pupils engage with quality text examples is the key and then ensuring lessons lead towards a quality text outcome will guide planning and prevent tantalising activities leading you astray.

I’m also using the three circle planning sequence for maths so that the in the familirisation stage pupils are supported in understanding the concept and practising methods. Then in the capturing ideas stages they would be understanding and applying the method in different contexts and lastly, in the  invention stage, they would be developing mastery in the concept by being able to create their own problems, solve other’s mistakes and write their own ‘how to do…’ success criteria for different aspects of the concept.

So – there you go, three circle planning. Love it.

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