James Durran

James Durran

Occasional posts on teaching, English and literacy

Re-thinking ‘success criteria’: a simple device to support pupils’ writing


Colleagues and I have been working with primary schools to develop an alternative to listed ‘success criteria’ for writing, which we call ‘boxed’ or ‘expanding success criteria’ (or often just ‘the rectangles thing.’) It is very easy to adopt, and teachers have been finding that it can transform how writing is talked about and approached in the classroom, with an immediate impact on the quality of what pupils are producing. (That is something which we now need to research properly!)

When approaching a piece of writing, pupils are often given ‘success criteria’ in the form of a list of features which the writing ‘requires’ in order to be successful. These often include technicalities such as full stops and commas; they may include features such as metaphors, adjectives for description, varied sentence openers and so on; and they tend to include grammatical or cohesive devices, such as time adverbials, subordinate clauses or relative pronouns. In this way, they are tied explicitly to particular curriculum and teaching ‘objectives’.

These lists of ingredients clearly have usefulness – for reminding pupils of some things they might do to make the writing effective, for reinforcing learning, for providing a ready checklist for self and peer assessment, and so on. But teachers are increasingly aware of their potential drawbacks:

Together, these interrelated factors can work against pupils’ development as real writers, writing for real purposes and real audiences. By ‘real’, we don’t mean a real life situation, like a letter to the school governors, or a story to be published, although there is an important place for such tasks; we mean an imagined but specific and authentic purpose and audience.

Purpose and audience: the starting point for teaching

If pupils are to write a recipe, it is simple and easy to give them a list like this:

Certainly, these things are a useful starting point. But ask pupils then to compare the following two fragments, each giving exactly the same instruction …

Add Worcester sauce for extra flavour.

Slosh in some Worcester sauce to make it even yummier.

… and suddenly there is much more to consider and to teach. Who is the recipe for? Other children? A professional chef? Grandparents? What do they want and need? How can we engage them? What sort of verbs, nouns and adjectives might we therefore use? And so on. This is much more interesting for pupils. It is certainly more fun to teach.

It is important to teach about genre and about the features of different kinds of writing. But teachers know that, when pupils move on from thinking just in terms of text type, their writing opens up, with much more potential for richness, variety and authenticity. An account of a trip – perhaps in the form of an article – is not just a ‘recount’: it can be engagingly descriptive; it will have elements of entertaining narrative; it is likely to involve explanation, and even elements of persuasion and argument. Similarly a brochure about a town should be much more than a ‘non-chronological report’: depending on the intended audience, it will modulate between and blend elements of description, narrative, explanation, instruction and persuasion.

Purpose and audience: the starting point for feedback

Thinking about how to move on the pupil writing this story opening, it is easy to start listing technical or stylistic devices.

Billy went into the house. He looked into the kitchen. He saw a big dog. The dog ran to him.

The child could use more conjunctions, and perhaps a fronted adverbial or two. She could add description, using adjectives and adverbs. Perhaps she could expand some noun-phrases.

But, of course, the first question to ask this child is not ‘Could you use some…?’ or ‘Can you add in…?’ It is, simply: ‘What sort of story is this, and how do you want the reader to feel?’ Then things move forward. If it is a scary story, then perhaps the verb ‘went’ could be replaced by a scarier verb, with a scary adverb, such as ‘crept slowly’. Meanwhile, ‘looked’ could become ‘peered nervously’. The kitchen could be ‘dark and shadowy’. The dog could be ‘lion-like’ and it could ‘charge’ rather than ‘run’. The last sentence could be fronted with ‘Suddenly,…’ If it is a sad story, he might ‘walk slowly’ into the house, the kitchen could be ‘gloomy’. If it is happy, then he might ‘skip’ and the dog might ‘bounce’ up to him. And so on.

The ‘boxed’ or ‘expanding’ success criteria

So traditional ‘success criteria’ are really the wrong way round. They define ‘success’ in terms of the presence of ingredients, not in terms of the actual point of the writing.

The boxed criteria keep the ingredients, but link them explicitly to purpose and to the reader. It’s really that simple. In the middle, pupils put what the writing is and its intended audience; outwards from this are the intended ‘effects’ on that audience, or what the writing is meant to provide for its readers; outwards again are the ingredients – the features which might help to achieve these things.

For example, a guide for children to looking after a chosen pet animal might be planned like this:


The ‘boxed success criteria’ for the story (above) of Billy entering the house might look like this:


Note that in this example the ingredients are themselves described in terms of their impact: ‘scary nouns’, ‘frightening adjectives’ and ‘spooky similes’. Grammatical forms should be used for a reason, not for their own sake.

The grid might be created by the teacher and given to the pupils. It is more likely, however, that it will be constructed out of discussion with the class, and out of their reading and picking apart of examples. In the example below, for a description of what lies behind a mysterious door, the ingredients have come directly from discussion of an example text, and the outermost layer has been used for assembling examples of language.


Pupils might have their own grid in their books. (In the one below, the school has kept the label of ‘success criteria’ for the ingredients layer, to ease the transition to a new format!)

writing a speech ks2 success criteria

Or there might be a big class one on the wall.


Either way, it can be a dynamic, evolving thing, added to and adjusted as ideas are developed and shared through the planning, drafting and editing stages of writing. This is a tool which can live with the piece of writing through its stages: from reading and exploring examples, to planning and assembling ideas, to drafting and editing, to proof-reading, to publication, to reflection. And of course, at every stage, the starting point for teacher, peer or self-assessment and feedback is not a list of ingredients, but whether the writing is achieving what it is meant to achieve.

There is nothing radical or intrinsically innovative about this. It is just a visual device for focusing the thinking of teachers and pupils on what writing is actually about: communication and effect, not just the performance of skills.



* In the article Objectives and purpose in English , I wrote this about the hazards of misapplied success criteria:

In their 2014 report for CfBT on educational blogging and its effects on writing, Myra Barrs and Sarah Horrocks noted a discrepancy between primary teachers’ views of what makes ‘good writing’ and that of their pupils. The teachers valued “good content and ideas”, “real meaning and purpose”, “imagination, originality and creativity”, “fluency and momentum” and “a strong sense of a reader/audience.” In contrast, pupils’ conception of ‘good writing’ “reflected the teachers’ marking of their books, and the learning objectives and targets that they were used to: ‘It would need ‘wow’ words to impress me’; ‘Good sentences full of adjectives’; ‘Describing. Good punctuation’; ‘Vocabulary that catches attention’ ‘Description and similes.’”

Pupils tend to define success in terms of such mechanistic attributes because these – rather than the real purposes of reading, writing or talking – are so often the starting point in lessons. They also dominate the checklists of ‘success criteria’ given to children when they embark on tasks. A description will be ‘successful’ not if it ‘makes the reader feel as though they are there’ but if it contains at least one metaphor, at least one simile, some adjectives, and so on. A persuasive letter will be successful not if it is ‘powerful’ but if it contains all the elements of ‘AFOREST’ or ‘SPEARFACTOR’. And a response to a poem will be successful not if it convinces or is interesting, but if it contains P.E.E. paragraphs, quotations and at least three ideas. All of these elements may be useful, but they are ingredients not recipes. Checklists of features can limit, rather than raise, attainment, if they are allowed to define success.

It is often easy to spot where such features are being deployed by children, keen to ‘move up a level’ rather than, perhaps, to be real writers. In this piece, a Year 5 boy steeped in the excitable rhythms and language of football reports, writes:

All the fans were booing around the ground. We got a free kick. Our striker was taking it. He whipped it past the wall. We were level at half time. He celebrated by sliding on his knees. The goal was fantastic to watch – curved it to the top corner, wow! The ref blew his whistle for half time. The fans were singing.

Redrafting it, he dutifully writes in more detail, adds description and uses more adjectives, with ruinous results.

All the fans booing really loud around the ground. We got a free kick. The striker was number 10 and had orange boots. He took a run up at the football. He struck it. It went around the wall and went into the top corner. The player celebrated by sliding on his knees through the wet green grass. It was nearly half time. We were levelling. The ref blew his whistle for half time. The manager gave the number 10 a high five. The team went into the big changing room to talk about the plan for the next half.

For years, I have used in training an extract from a Year 7 girl’s writing, which I was given by Simon Wrigley. In her first draft, she introduces the reader to her main character like this.

His mates called him Flash Harry because he was a rich photographer who liked to flash his cash around. They weren’t really his friends, of course, because he was too horrible to have any friends. He had yellow teeth and always smelt of beer. He was also very rude.

In her second draft, she ‘improves’ her description.

His friends called him Flash Harry as he was a wealthy photographer who loved showing off his money. They were not really his friends due to the fact that he was an extremely rude alcoholic with yellowing teeth.

The feedback that she was given on her draft, the objectives that she was chasing and the ‘success criteria’ that she was following are long lost. However, it is quite fun to guess. What is very clear is the way that her second draft, although ticking off such ‘higher-level’ features as more sophisticated language (‘wow words’?), a more formal register and more varied connectives, has lost the vitality and the narrative richness of the first. A great piece of real story-telling has become a performance of skills, dislocated from real purpose.


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23 thoughts on “ re-thinking ‘success criteria’: a simple device to support pupils’ writing ”.

Please can you tell me which text you used to lead to the ‘Behind the door’ boxed success criteria example? I found these ideas really inspirational. Thank you.

Hi. Thanks! It was an abridged version of Alice in Wonderland, but I can’t remember which one now! I’ll try to find out.

Thank you. I’ve been feeling this too (writing to a checklist can deaden and stifle the writer’s voice) and will try out your ideas.

This is fab. Thanks for sharing!

Thanks James – This is a great approach and I successfully tried it with my class here in Tokoroa, New Zealand this week – so much more meaningful and user-friendly than We are Learning to’s and a list of success criteria.

I really love the boxed approche, I will certainly try it in my french class. The only hesitation I have is that my curriculum has different categories : Knowledge and Understanding, Thinking, Communication and Application. How would you go about to include these in the boxed technique ? Or would it be better to not bother and focus on the text as a whole ? Thanks again for the great post, I don’t really know how I happened to find it, but I’m glad I did! Bye Alex Ottawa, Canada

I was introduced to your idea of rectangles by the Devon literacy team. I have been trialling it my year 1/2 class and have found that we are much more focussed on the purpose of the text and how it comes across to the reader. I am about to plan a unit of poetry and wondered what your views were on the purpose of poetry. My poem tells people about the things that happen in Spring but why would I do it in poem format and not just sentences or an information text? Am I over thinking purpose?

Ha! Good question. I suppose it’s about how they want the reader to… – feel about spring – realise things about Spring that they’d never noticed before – hear the sounds of spring in the words – enjoy the sounds of the poems – its rhythm, for example – enjoy words working in new or surprising ways – be made to pay attention – be surprised by what they’re reading

…and so on.

Obviously you’d be selective! But the point would be to think about what a poem does for a reader (and, of course, for a writer) that prose doesn’t. I suspect that something about enjoying the sound of the words, or enjoying new ways of looking at things (similes/metaphors?) might work best.

Let me know how it goes!

Splendid work, Mr Durran. Will certainly be keen to use the “boxed” approach when working on writing.

Stumbled across this on a ‘sunny, Sunday afternoon’. Looking to use it with explanation texts with a P5 class. Purpose will be to explain how a device works or a phenomenon happens and the reader will depend on what the device or phenomenon is. Effect on the audience – I am assuming it would be they will have a clear understanding how something works and will be able to operate the device if need be or explain to someone else how to work it. They will not be confused. Have I missed anything?

Yes – that sounds good. The question will be: what other purposes, alongside those, might there be? Does it also need to engage the reader? Does it need to reassure them? Does it need to be a bit persuasive – to get across how great the device is? That will all depend on the audience and context…

We have now fully embedded the boxed success criteria device across our school – it is going really well!

That’s great! It either be good to see some examples…

I love the idea of this!

Does anybody have an example of how they have used the boxed success criteria for a non-chronological report? We are researching the Egyptians and then writing a report.

Can I ask where WAGOLLs come into it. Would you show an example upfront then use the box technique to unpick? Many thanks, so inspired by this. I

Hi. Yes, definitely. Explore examples and assemble the boxes out of reading. And keep adding. Glad it’s seeming of value!

This has made such a difference in how my students are approaching their writing! It’s revolutionary!I’ve never found it easy to introduce to students about audience and purpose for writing but this makes it so clear!

Thanks – that’s brilliant to hear!

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Speech sandwich

Speech sandwich

Subject: English

Age range: 7-11

Resource type: Other


Last updated

26 September 2014

doc, 131.5 KB

Creative Commons "Sharealike"

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A great visual when looking at speech. Thank you.

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Used with my year 3 class and worked really well.


Love this! I put the cheese after the bread and before the last piece too instead of the tomato too so that it was easier to remember the punctuation. Can't wait to try it!!


Children can definitely draw upon this as a tool to remember correct speech conventions - brilliant. Thank you

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writing a speech ks2 success criteria

Accessibility links

Writing direct and indirect speech

Learning focus.

Learn about direct and indirect speech and how to punctuate it properly.

This lesson includes:

three activities

Speech is an important feature in factual writing, such as newspaper reports and recounts. It enables the writer to share important information about what people involved in the story had to say.

Inverted commas are used to show direct speech in your writing. Recap and get moving with this fun video.

Learn more about how inverted commas are used to show direct speech by watching this video.

Factual writing such as newspaper reports or recounts include two types of speech - direct and indirect/reported speech.

Direct speech

Direct speech is when the exact words that have been said by a person are written down inside inverted commas.

"I'm pleased to have raised so much money," said Captain Tom.

Punctuating direct speech

A new speaker needs a new line. This might not be included in a newspaper report as the speech won’t be part of a conversation between people or characters.

You should use a capital letter at the start of each piece of speech.

Punctuation (question marks, full stops and exclamation marks) go inside the inverted commas.

If the person who is speaking is named before the speech, you must use a comma before the first set of inverted commas. For example:

Captain Tom exclaimed, “Let’s go and do some more laps of the garden!”

Indirect (reported) speech

When indirect speech is used, the writer will share the main points of what someone has said without writing exactly what they said in full.

No speech punctuation (like inverted commas) is used for indirect speech.

Could be written as:

You may need paper and a pen or pencil for some of these activities.

Test your knowledge of direct speech and inverted commas by completing this quiz.

1. Read through this Newsround report: Humpback whales return after almost becoming extinct.

Can you find the example of direct speech?

2. Now read through this Newround report: The jellyfish-juggling dolphin and other amazing animals.

Can you find the example of indirect (reported) speech?

You can check your answers using this answer sheet.

Read the sentences below carefully.

Writing on a piece of paper, change any that are in direct speech to indirect speech, and any that are in indirect speech to direct speech.

1. “Hurry up please, it’s nearly 3 o’clock!” shouted Granny.

2. Ruby asked whether she could have a chocolate ice cream for dessert.

3. The shopkeeper announced that there was no bread left.

4. Freddie whispered, “Do you have a spare pencil?”

5. “Are you going on holiday?” asked Pritika.

You can check your answers in this suggested answers sheet .

Where next?

In this lesson you have learnt about direct and indirect speech and how to punctuate it properly.

There are other useful articles on Bitesize to help you to understand more about non-fiction writing:

What are the features of a newspaper report

How to write a recount

What are fiction and non-fiction?

There's more to learn

More English Guides

More English Guides

Take a look at our other English guides.

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KS2 English

More from KS2 English

More from KS2 English

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Bitesize games

Explore brilliant games from BBC Bitesize.

There's more to learn ...

Writing direct speech

Writing direct speech

Punctuating direct speech

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writing a speech ks2 success criteria

Setting description KS2 – How to create powerful settings for stories

writing a speech ks2 success criteria

Use these simple strategies to give children the tools they need to create powerful settings for their stories…

Sue Drury

Story settings can go a long way towards establishing the atmosphere of a narrative and giving it a sense of tangible reality for the reader, yet they are often under-emphasised when it comes to teaching story writing skills.

As with all good creative writing, an engaging story starts with a good plan. As well as outlining the characters, overall plot, important events and so on, it’s essential that this contains detailed information about any settings.

Encourage your pupils to form a clear picture in their heads of these locations and note down key words and rich descriptions. Try getting them to close their eyes and sit in silence while they create vivid pictures with their minds that they can then convert into great descriptive writing.

What’s more, urge them to focus on the little things as well as the big backdrops; after all, details often make a memorable difference.

One of the first things to encourage your pupils to do is to engage all their senses when writing the setting. The temptation is often just to describe what can be seen, yet sounds and smells can often connect more powerfully with people than what merely meets their eyes.

Even the sense of touch, like the chilling caress of a sudden breeze, can add to the atmosphere.

Writing success criteria – show not tell

There are few hard and fast rules governing how to write a setting description but ‘show not tell’ has to be one of them. Although this is more straightforward when describing characters and actions, it can be applied to settings in the way that the protagonists interact with their surroundings.

Even so, this does not totally negate the need for precise and evocative vocabulary.

As much as we like to encourage pupils to use their very best words, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Encourage children to focus on the things that really contribute to the establishment of a convincing setting and actually matter to the progress of the plot.

Historical setting creative writing skills

Different fiction genres place different demands on the writer when it comes to setting the scene. Take historical novels for example. Part of the joy of these stories is that they can also function as a sort of informal history lesson, providing a fascinating insight into how people used to live.

That is why it is so important to help your pupils make the settings as realistic as possible and include details that have a chance of informing as well as entertaining.

Of course, not all stories are set in the real world. Although science fiction and fantasy give writers more scope for letting their imaginations run free, they do need to have some form of containment – otherwise the reader will be just too bamboozled to read very far. That is when planning becomes particularly important.

Once your pupils are happy with their plans, they still need to weave all the details into a coherent tale. Never underestimate how difficult this might be for KS2 children. You might even find it necessary to provide more structured writing frames for when they ultimately start composing their stories.

Nevertheless, with a good setting firmly embedded in their minds, at least they won’t be starting with a blank canvas.

Science fiction writing inspiration

This KS2 story writing inspiration pack from literary resources website Plazoom will help children develop high-quality writing around a science fiction theme. It features pictures, short example texts and a story planner workbook to help pupils on their way.

writing a speech ks2 success criteria

Sue Drury is literacy lead at Plazoom, the expert literacy resources website. Find more advice here . Follow Plazoom on Twitter at @plazoomshop .

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