Greater Depth – Can it be taught?

Image result for digging deeperWhen assessing writing, the fine line between expected standard and greater depth can be challenging and raises questions such as:

  • What tips a child’s writing into that greater depth band?
  • Is greater depth exclusively for the brightest children or can others achieve it?

First, let us consider what ‘greater depth’ means.

greater (comparative adj) – above average

depth (n) – complexity/richness

When assessing for greater depth writing, we are looking for writing that is above average. This writing will be more complex in its use of sentence structure, vocabulary and sequencing of ideas. It will demonstrate a richness of understanding of grammar (and how to manipulate it), genre, and how to appeal to an audience.

Who will achieve greater depth?

As a LA moderator and English leader, I hear many answers to this question. These can generally be summarised into the following two assumptions:

  • ‘Your brightest children are obviously greater depth.’

Are they? This is a wild assumption. Some may be able to write well, but this does not mean their writing will automatically be considered ‘greater depth’. They could be producing writing that is technically accurate but lacking in the richness required for ‘greater depth’. The emphasis should be on the writing and not the child. Therefore, it is important to detach a child’s general ability from the work they have produced. Much as moderators do when they read through a child’s work. They don not know the child, and will assess the writing based on just that – the words on the page. 

  • ‘Some children just have a flair for writing so these children achieve greater depth.’

It is true that some children have a natural flair for writing. (Remember – not all of your ‘bright’ children will have this natural flair. Don’t assume that they do.) These children are usually avid readers, who are able to draw upon what they have read to inform their writing. More often than not, these children do produce writing that is undoubtably greater depth, if not more so.

Greater Depth vs Naturally Talented

I hear talk of greater depth being a continuum or a spectrum. However, isn’t this worryingly familiar? It takes me back to the time when levels became sub-levels and this is what the government were trying to move away from in the new curriculum. The Teacher Assessment Frameworks state that all statements should be met (with the exception of allowances made for particular weaknesses). Therefore, for me, there is no spectrum because to achieve greater depth a child needs to ideally have met all of the statements. When teachers compare children writing at greater depth, what they’re actually comparing are those who have met the statements with those who have gone beyond them. Those children, your talented writers, who have a natural flair for writing and meet the standards unquestionably have most likely gone beyond what is required for that year group. Therefore, try not to use these children as your benchmark for greater depth, else you could be doing other able writers in your class a disservice by comparing their great writing to exceptional writing.

This leads nicely on to my next point to consider – Is greater depth exclusively for children who are considered to be bright?

The answer, in my opinion, is no. Teachers have high expectations and we want all children to achieve their full potential. For some children, who perhaps are producing work that is ‘working towards’, greater depth may be a step too far. Yet for those who are achieving the ‘expected standard’, it is possible, with support and guidance, to achieve greater depth. I truely believe it can be taught.

How to Teach for Greater Depth

I preface this section by stating that I am no expert. I have an English degree and have taught for 12 years but my musings on how to teach English may not be everyone’s cup of tea. I am often asked to share how I teach English and I will blog about this further but my intention here is to explore how my teaching of English provides opportunities for teaching for greater depth.

My teaching of English centres around what I call the ‘Four Areas of Richness’. (These apply generally and not just for the teaching of greater depth):

  • A rich environment

Greater depth is writing with richness, therefore I create an environment that is ‘rich’ for the children. This means promoting a love of reading and writing, and expressing their importance. For children to achieve greater depth (at both Year 2 and Year 6), they must draw upon what they have read as models for writing. Therefore, putting reading on a pedestal and making it the core of my teaching really helps children to see the link between being a reader and becoming a writer. Exposing children to a wealth of texts by a range of authors, and of different genres, helps them to develop what I call their ‘inner magpie’. In my classroom, there is space for us to collect vocabulary/structures that we like from books read. My English board is a working wall, where I display the stages of the writing process, and I have a separate space to celebrate published writing. The celebrating of writing in all of its stages creates a rich writing environment.

  • A rich subject knowledge

It goes without saying that a teacher should know what they are teaching. For me, a rich subject knowledge is more than simply knowing the technical aspects of writing (grammar, punctuation and spelling). It is equally important to know how to write effectively for a range of purposes and audiences. After all, this is what we expect of the children, particularly those who are working at greater depth. Knowing how to model effective writing is a key part of teaching English and benefits all children, not just those who are lower attainers. Greater depth writers need to see how us teachers have drawn upon what we’ve read as models for our writing. We cannot just expect children to know how to do this without guidance.

  • A rich understanding of assessment

Again, it goes without saying that teachers should know what the assessment expectations are for writing in their year groups. In years 2 and 6, the Teacher Assessment Framework (TAF) outlines the expectations for greater depth so it is important to have a deep understanding of what those statements mean, and to make use of exemplification materials to support assessment. What I teach provides children with opportunites to meet this assessment criteria repeatedly throughout the course of the year. Having that end goal in sight and knowing how to work towards it is important.

  • A rich curriculum

Creating a rich curriculum that provides children with opportunities to write for a range of purposes and audiences is essential. Quality texts and stimuli (such as visual literacy and experiences) lead to quality writing. If we want children to achieve greater depth, we have to ensure that the texts we expose them to are going to provide the richness of vocabulary and sentence structures required. Sadly, I see teachers on social media falling into three main writing traps:

  • I can’t stand this text but we’ve always taught it.

If you don’t enjoy the text you’re teaching then change it. There is a wealth of incredible texts to choose from, and also many teachers who will have planning to share. If you are engaged in what you’re teaching, then children will more likely be engaged in what they’re learning. Enthusiasm is infectious, in my experience.

  • I’ve found this extract on *insert name of popular resource site here*.

I’ve seen teachers trying to base a two week unit on a text from a website and, understandably, finding this a challenge. Extracts can be good to supplement your teaching unit, but should not be the foundation. Quality texts (including visual resources) provide more writing opportunities, which makes planning easier. If we want children to reach for the greater depth heights, quality is key.

  • I need to find something to link to my topic.

I am all for cross-curricular links and some topics lend themselves to this approach beautifully. For example, World Wars is a topic that can be supported by a vast range of quality texts and visual stimuli. However, I have seen teachers try to link their English lessons to topics that are quite vague. For example, Disney, Food, and Colour. Equally, I’ve seen teachers try to find texts to match History or Geography topics, where the quality of texts available is poor. My thinking is that quality must come first. If texts do not offer the quality needed to produce greater depth writing, then avoid making a tenuous link to your topic. For example, next year one of my topics is The Normans (yawn) but, as there are no quality texts to support this unit (perhaps with the exception of non-fiction), I will teach a separate English unit. There are so many fantastic texts out there but, sadly, opportunities to use them are missed because of this need by some schools to have everything linked. (I could go on, but perhaps this is a topic for a separate blog post.)

Once the four areas of richness are embedded, the next key to success is effective modelling.

From Reader to Writer

When modelling writing, I have an idea in my head as to what grammar points I wish to focus on. But, accurate grammar alone is not the mark of a good writer, and certainly not enough to achieve greater depth.

I show the children how I draw upon what I have read to inform my writing. For example, when modelling part of a story based on ‘Rose Blanche’ I showed children the following structure:


I then modelled the following:

The van sped away with the frightened boy inside. Where had it come from? No one knew. Where was it going? No one knew. Who else was inside? No one knew. 

I also used this line from ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ – The dot that became a speck that became a blob that became a figure that became a boy’ –  and turned it into this: ‘As Rose approached the barbed wire, she noticed something moving in the distance. A dot became a speck became a blob became a figure that became a boy.’

I encourage the children to collect structures they like from stories they read so they can use these in their writing. Sometimes, they will use structures I modelled in a previous unit. For example, the line above from ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ was used by a child in our work on ‘The Hobbit’. In this particular part of the story, Thror (the king of the dwarves) begins to stockpile gold at an alarming rate. She wrote, ‘A coin became a stack became a pile became a heap that became a mountain.’ Not only had she remembered this structure, but she used it appropriately and this is the mark of a greater depth writer. 

Thinking Like a Writer

Bridging the gap between reader and writer and developing an ‘inner magpie’ is key to achieving greater depth in writing. Children begin to think like a writer and have a bank of structures to draw upon. My class like to collect their favourite structures on a magpie notebook page (some schools have specific books for this purpose) or on a post-it that they can then stick into their writing book as they write.


Not only do I model drawing upon my extended reading, but also upon the text we are studying. Children being able to write in the same style and with the appropriate level of formality is also key to greater depth writing. For example, we studied the Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Speckled Band’, and as we read the text we collected formal words/phrases. This then enabled children to use the appropriate level of formality in their own writing. One child, who at that point was working at the ‘expected standard’, began his story with, ‘My dear friend Sherlock Holmes is a somewhat perculiar fellow who one does not often encounter.’ Wow!

Clearly this child had put himself in Dr Watson’s shoes and had a good understanding of what it means to have an ‘inner writer’s voice’. This is something I have also heard Jane Considine speak of and it is the voice that guides the writing. When writing, I encourage my class to listen to their inner writing voice.  I talk to my class about my own writer’s voice and how it changes depending upon what I am writing. For example, when writing from the viewpoint of Bilbo Baggins, my writer’s voice is Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in the film. If writing a Sherlock Holmes story, my voice is ‘posh’ and formal. The children discuss what their own writer’s voices sound like, which is often a hilarious exercise, and this consideration of what a writer might sound like is a useful tool to put children in the right mindset for writing. Thinking like a writer leads to good writing and, in the case of those striving for greater depth, can lead to great writing.

Vocabulary – Deliberate, Considered and Appropriate

Vocabulary choice is essential when writing, and teaching children to deliberately select words for effect is key to unlocking the greater depth door. Not only do I collect vocabulary from texts and display them in class, but I also carefully consider vocabulary at the planning stage of writing. Children knowing what vocabulary they will use at different points is helpful for those of all abilities, but particularly for those who are aiming for greater depth as these children can consider where to deliberately use different words/structures for effect.

Here is an example of language collecting at the beginning of writing a text:

word wall

(The symbols you see here are Jane Considine’s FANTASTICS and BOOMTASTICs which I think are fantastic for sorting vocabulary and ideas.)

When needed, I add a plus or minus symbol in front of certain words so we can ensure we are selecting words that create the right atmosphere – positive words for a positive atmosphere and negative words for a negative atmosphere. This also helps us to ‘weed out’ words that do not fit the atmosphere we want to create. Creating a mood in writing is also a mark of a good writer and helps writing to move towards greater depth.

Here is an example of how children working at greater depth have planned with vocabulary in mind:

lighthouse 2

You will also notice here that the children have used one of my ‘theme bookmark’. I create these lists of words about different topics on bookmarks and challenge children to weave them into their writing, thus creating a theme which permeates throughout a piece of writing. Children who are striving for greater depth are able to embed some of this vocabulary into their writing effectively. For example, ‘a glimmer of hope’/’happiness radiated from the crowd’/’a smile illuminated his face’.

As time goes by, the children either create their own or simply create a theme without writing the words down. When reading work aloud, children are sometimes able to identify a theme that a writer in class has created. My favourite was from a child who used ‘water’ as a theme in a setting description of the dwarves’ mountain in ‘The Hobbit’:

‘Gold ran like rivers between the crevices of the rock’/’Diamonds dripped from above, creating spectacular glistening puddles’/’The wind came like a tsunami, battering the trees and washing away all sense of calm.’

Figurative Language – Avoiding Over-use

Figurative language is also key to injecting some spice into writing and creating pieces that are worthy of being greater depth. I am a big fan of Jane Considine’s BOOMTASTICs as a way of introducing children to figurative language. We collect examples and consider where best to use figurative language at the planning stage of writing. The problem is that once children are introduced to figurative language, they can overdo it and the writing becomes strange and unnatural to read. The trick is to encourage children to drop this language into writing sparingly to create ripples in the water rather than a tsunami on the page. I have modelled writing in which I deliberately over-use figurative language to illustrate this point and then compare it to one I model with fewer examples. Discussing the effect of the writing and making comparisons is helpful for those greater depth children who go too far.

Non-Fiction Vocabulary

For non-fiction writing, I encourage children to use tier 2 words (high utility words that are not bound by context). For more information on these words, read ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’ by Alex Quigley. It is a fantastic read!)

I model using these high utility words when modelling non-fiction writing and reinforce their use across the curriculum, e.g. when writing up Science investigations. Using these words in non-fiction writing not only makes the vocabulary fit the purpose and genre but also helps to create more sophisticated pieces of writing.

Encouraging Editing 

An important part of the writing process is editing. All children are encouraged to edit their writing to make improvements and enhance what they have written. However, children working at greater depth (and beyond) often find this challenging. These children may be excellent spellers, or accurate in their use of punctuation and grammatical features. What do they edit?

I find it helpful  to encourage these children not only to consider their use of language but to re-visit their writer’s voice. They should read their writing in their writer’s voice and consider the overall effect created. There are so many areas of writing to be edited so this is why I created my own editing station cards to support this process. The greater depth writers in my class found these cards helpful as they supported them more with making additions to their writing, rather than making adjustments, of which these children need make very few.

Grammar Grove

Full set of 5 editing stations can be found here for free –

I will blog further about the writing process in general, but, for me, the key to cracking the greater depth code is considering greater depth at every stage of the writing process and enabling children to work towards this by creating the ‘four areas of richness’ in the classroom and in practice. Greater depth is not an exclusive club for those who are talented writers. It is achievable for others, with guidance and an understanding of what it means to add depth to writing.

Honorable mentions

Jane Considine is inspirational to see in action and her book The Write Stuff is fantastic for ideas on how to teach writing. For those of you who are interested in her symbols, as seen in the images in this blog, visit The Training Space website to buy them.

Alex Quigley’s book ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’ is a book I could not put down. This is a ‘go to’ book for ideas on how to teach and explore vocabulary in the classroom.



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