Discovering Oracy: 1. Talk 4 Writing

Talk 4 Writing: Boxing up GCSE and A level Science

Talk for Writing is a comprehensive and creative literacy program created by Pie Corbett and supported by Julia Strong. It encourages children to imitate topic specific language orally before reading and then writing the now familiar words. T4W is a phenomenon that has revolutionised literacy education predominantly in Primary Schools.  Indeed it was an inspirational Reception Teacher, Mrs Louise Hunt of Geddington C of E Primary School, who first drew my attention to the technique by demonstrating the incredible impact it had on learning. Her class bloomed, overnight it seemed, into independent story tellers.  Through Mrs Hunt’s enthusiasm and guidance, Pie Corbett’s technique been used successfully throughout the school with different aged children and for different genres of writing including scientific report writing.

Even without delving into primary research every teacher can see that literacy is pivotal to learning, it is after all how ideas are met, reported and assessed. It is the case in Chemistry, Science and indeed all subjects, that words matter and furthermore how they are strung together into sentences and paragraphs matters. Pie Corbett talks about developing linguistic competency with a method that not only forces the information to be processed but requires an understanding and ownership of its meaning. The traditional read then write process has metamorphosed into read, hear, speak then write so that a learner is provided with ample time to recognise words and the pattern and flow of language that give rise to fluency and meaning.


As I understand it, T4W can be broken down into 4 stages:

  1. The Hook; the starting point or context to introduce vocabulary and language patterns verbally.
  2. The imitation stage; the teacher provides a model text from which the student verbalises the vocabulary met in the context. This is the time to probe understanding and draw forth ideas, to identify and modify misconception.
  3. The innovation stage; small group work to “box up” the model text into stages and then make modifications to create a personalised version. Storyboarding and other visual techniques offer the opportunity for dual coding. Innovation demands an understanding of meaning if the text is to be successfully modified so the sense remains unchanged.
  4. The Invention stage; here the students take what they have learned, the vocabulary and language patter and, apply them to a new context to create an independent text or even solve a problem.

When learning science practical work should provide a mechanism for linking the abstract domain of ideas to the concrete domain of observables. Practical work should drive and enrich understanding of the subject and report writing should showcase this progress. In practice this is not always the case as, technical skills, vocabulary, analysis, calculation and evaluation all vie for attention creating confusion rather than clarity. The T4W methodology offers an opportunity to develop mastery of both generic report writing but also conceptual understanding. Whilst working through the T4W process, a scientific concept will be repeatedly revisited until the learner has the ability to apply it in a new context. In this respect T4W is helping students’ progress through Bloom’s taxonomy of higher order thinking skills as well as supporting their literacy development.


Using T4W in practical science lessons

The objective here is to physically experience an abstract scientific concept by using practical skills to generate data and then use data processing to provide supporting evidence for that concept. The mechanism can be linked to the T4W process as outlined below:

  1. The hook, is introducing and perhaps demonstrating a practical activity, an exemplar method is provided that includes how to process the data generated by the experiment.
  2. Imitation, if the technique has been demonstrated this is where the students carry out the practical will be encouraged to talk through what they did and what this tells them. Listening to and developing their choice of vocabulary here is important so that terms like volume and amount are not used interchangeably. A visual practical map could be used as scaffolding to support students; perhaps target key terms rather than key events.
  3. Innovation, here the student will be focused on boxing up the text, this can include the sequence of steps required for a calculation. Once the exemplar has been boxed up the text can be modified. A simple modification would be to alter any numerical values and follow these values through the calculation steps.
  4. Invention, the student will take the ideas explored and employ them to carry out a new task such as write a method, analyse data or complete a similar calculation.


A concrete example from a year 10 GCSE Chemistry lesson:

Hook: An experiment to work out the formula of magnesium oxide. Here the students are given an exemplar method and calculation

Imitation: The students are asked to carry out the experiment, before doing so the students are asked to read through the method and in small groups’ story board the task and highlight the key pieces of data that they need to collect. Also identify and mark any hazards such as hot equipment and an open flame. Ask the students to practice any tricky techniques such as moving the crucible or lifting the lid using tongs. By the end of this task there should be a rough story board, the mass of crucible+ lid, the mass of crucible+ lid+ magnesium before heating and then the mass of crucible+ lid+ magnesium after heating.

Innovation: the exemplar text will provide collecting the data as demonstrated by the experiment and how to process the data to find the mass of magnesium. To achieve this we will box up the exemplar text, include any linking information from the text and innovate with the numbers generated during the experiment.

Magnesium Oxide Experiment

Invention: the last part of this activity was to see if the students could now follow this technique to answer the following question: 2.4g of carbon reacted with 0.8g Hydrogen to form a compound. What is the formula of the compound?

C=12 H=1

First box up the question as we did above

Work out mass of carbon 2.4g
Work out mass of hydrogen 0.8g
Use mass and Mr to calculate moles magnesium Mass (g) /Mr  = moles(mol)

2.4g/12 = 0.2 mol

Use mass and Mr to calculate moles oxygen Mass (g) /Mr  = moles(mol)

0.8/1 = 0.8

Work out the ratio of moles of each element as a whole number 0.2 C : 0.8 H

divide by the smallest

1C : 4H

Write the empirical formula for magnesium oxide CH4
Evaluate Note use H not H2

The class repeatedly applied the boxing up to a number of questions and by the end of the lesson everyone could use this method to calculate the empirical formula of a compound. It should be noted that a number students did not want to continue to box up the method as they felt it was no longer necessary.

I have created a couple of laminated exemplar templates to box up questions as we meet those (examples below). I will target calculations and longer answer questions for both GCSE and A level classes to encourage a systematic approach to tackling a question.

I would very much like to hear from other teachers using talk for writing in science lessons of any key stage. I feel that this is an important tool particularly in view of the curriculum changes which have a greater emphasis on long answer questions and maths skills.

For more information about Pie Corbett and Julia Strong’s work visit their website

Calculation Exemplar

Question Exemplar


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