Suspense: a Talk for Writing unit (Phase 1: imitation)

Our recent Talk for Writing unit on suspense in Year 6 has been the most successful of the year. A number of factors have contributed to this: children internalised the text well and this happened early in the unit; we focused heavily on sentence accuracy, ensuring that there was daily opportunity for children to practise writing accurately; children internalised and were able to recall the writers’ toolkit and therefore it was used well by all in the writing phases. This series of three posts will be an overview of what our Talk for Writing unit looked like, including snapshots from planning, our working walls and children’s work.

To begin with, we assessed the children’s writing within the genre of suspense. Children were given a context and we had a class discussion about content so that they were well prepared to write. Image, video and sound were used to create an atmosphere and immerse them in the genre. This writing provided us with an overview of children’s individual writing needs within the genre whilst also highlighting any general needs across the class and year group which could then be planned for.

Pre assessment imagepre assessment

We prepared children for reading the focus text by exploring the context of the story and by introducing and discussing any unfamiliar vocabulary that they would encounter. Image and video are used regularly at this stage to ensure children have a grasp of difficult concepts. This vocabulary was then used to create a set of speed words for the unit. Speed words were practised daily as part of the warm up for each imitation lesson. Children working on a shorter version of the text had a differentiated version of the speed words, based on the vocabulary in their story. After daily practice, it  means that decoding and word comprehension are not a barrier to reading, even for children working below expectations.

Vocab speed words

Once children had a sound understanding of the vocabulary they would encounter, the differentiated versions of the focus text were then introduced. Most of the class worked on the main version, whilst children whose reading and writing levels are below expectation and those who struggle to write accurately, worked on the shortened and simplified version of the text. We then introduced the text map as soon as possible. Children experienced daily rehearsal of sentences and paragraphs from the text. The class teacher’s role here is key – we modelled reading behaviours such as re-reading and ‘going over bits’ in order to perfect retelling. We focused on the intended effect of our suspense text throughout our daily retelling – in this case ‘to make the reader think something bad will happen’. Knowing the intended effect at this stage helped both teachers and children when we came to creating writers’ toolkits later in the imitation phase.

Focus texts Text map

We used work on adverbials as a bridge between reading the text and understanding (being able to answer comprehension questions about it). Most children annotated the text identifying the type of adverbial being used by the writer to give more information about the verb:

adverbial annotate chn

Children who would find the writing need of this too challenging completed a colour coding alternative.

To follow the work on adverbials, children completed sentence work which focused on innovating adverbials in a sentence. This not only prepared them for the next phase of innovation but also provided us with valuable time to work on sentence accuracy. Following the structure of sentences from the focus text by innovating early in the unit contributed towards their internalisation of a variety of grammatical structures.

Innovate adverbials

Children then completed AF2 questions about the focus text. Those working beyond age-related expectations worked on a mixture of AF2 and AF3 questions. Having completed the bridging activity on adverbials, children were well prepared for success in this activity.


As children are immersed in oral rehearsal of the text, work on ‘talking the text’ is valuable. In this unit of work, children annotated with codes we generated together on how best to read the text aloud. Like our daily retelling of the text,  focusing on the intended effect in this activity – making the reader think something bad is going to happen – was crucial. This is what a child’s work from this activity looked like:

talking the text chn

Alongside retelling, once children had a good grasp of the text, they would also ‘quick write’ it. This involved them writing 1-2 paragraphs accurately per day using the picture prompts from the text map. Children working on the shortened version of the text would ‘quick write’ in this structure:

Quick write

Here , sentences have been structured so that they are seperate and therefore easier to follow. 

During the imitation phase, quick activities focusing on grammar were dropped into lessons. These were usually based on children’s needs which either came to light during their pre-assessment or during their daily sentence work. Activities are either jumpstarts (quick activities at the beginning of lessons) or dedicated lessons focusing on new grammatical concepts.

grammar jumpstarts

After picking out and selecting various sentence types for our focus text, part of the imitation phase involved deconstructing, discussing, modelling and practising these, in preparation for writing. Children and teachers created save-it boxes of sentences which could then be drawn upon during innovation and invention.

Sentence work sentence work chn

As well as introducing new sentence types, we also dropped in short activities which revised old sentence types so that children were building a repertoire of tools for their writing. Revision of previously covered sentence structures were all within the context of the new unit and the new story.

Towards the end of the imitation phase, we collaboratively created writers’ toolkits. Teachers modelled identifying and analysing how the writers of suspense texts had achieved the intended effect. Children then worked in small groups to continue this with other extracts of text. This activity ensures that children are exposed to and talk about what good writers do and how to achieve similar effects in their writing. For children who wouldn’t be able to access this work and who still need to work on accuracy in writing, we devised activities such as this:

Toolkit BE

Here, children were exposed to the language of the toolkit that the rest of the class were constructing, but were also taking part in activities which met their needs as writers.

For the next couple of days and throughout writing phases, we practised recalling the toolkit because in order for children to write well, they need to be able to remember how to achieve certain effects. We blanked out the main wording of the toolkit, leaving only a short prompt. It was then covered with a sentence which shows the effect in action. For example ‘describe a sudden noise’ is covered with ‘A door banged’.  Daily practice recalling the toolkit ensured that it was internalised, just like the focus text.

Recall toolkit

The next two posts will describe the key moments from the innovation and invention phases.


12 thoughts on “Suspense: a Talk for Writing unit (Phase 1: imitation)

    1. emmasutton2013 Post author

      Glad you’ve found it useful! Next post on Innovation has now been published – let me know if you have any questions.

  1. Pingback: Suspense: a Talk for Writing unit (Phase 2: Innovation) | Penn Wood CPD

  2. Pingback: Suspense: a Talk for Writing unit (Phase 3: Invention) | Penn Wood CPD

  3. Rachael

    This was very helpful, as others have said, I have rarely seen Talk for Writing planning written in detail, and as a newcomer to the program, which we are currently rolling out in our school, I am particularly finding the imitation phase difficult to plan. I have had the Talk for Writing training, and I thought that the idea was that children didn’t see the text during the first phase. Am I mistaken, or have you decided that actually, using the written text is more effective in teaching? (I personally would really like to be able to use it!)

    1. Nick Hart

      Hi Rachel

      Children internalise language and story patterns in a number of ways: by hearing it being read to them (including different versions), by reading and rereading for fluency and comprehension, and by using a text map to trigger recall of language or structure.

      Using the text is also very useful for the teaching of reading comprehension. Children can only comprehend texts if they have a sufficient domain knowledge of its content. The imitation phase builds their domain knowledge so that they can comprehend at increasingly sophisticated levels.

      Above all, Talk for Writing should have formative assessment at its heart. Making decisions about planning and what sequences of lessons will look like is a minute by minute necessity, to paraphrase Shirley Clarke. Whatever children need to know or practise in order to comprehend the texts or write effective versions is continually assessed and acted on.

      I hope this helps.


  4. Natalie

    Hi Nick,

    Very useful planning. Thank you for sharing. Please could you let us know which texts you used to support with this unit?

  5. kianh85

    This is great – thank you for the time and effort put into sharing this. I have done the T4W training but have never differentiated the text before. My currently class has a large majority of children with EAL needs but also some sting writers. How do you manage the differentiated texts during the imitation phase? Do you make 2 different text maps? Thank you


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