VCOP and The BIG Write - A Comprehensive Writing Program

Just a bit of housekeeping before we begin! 
1. This is not a sponsored post...this is just me wanting to rave about this wonderful program and offer my knowledge up to teachers and schools new to/thinking of using the program. 
2. PLEASE PLEASE visit Andrell Education for more information about VCOP and The BIG Write. Also, check them out on Facebook here and on their Instagram @bigwrite_vcop



VCOP and The BIG Write

So, what exactly IS this funny acronym and a word that is written in all caps? Put very simply, VCOP stands for Vocabulary, Connectives, Openers and Punctuation...the four essential elements needed to make any piece of writing interesting, engaging, entertaining and "flow". The BIG Write is where you put these four elements into practise and actually, y'know, DO some writing (sidebar: as I write this, I am acutely aware of what and how I am writing, and I am trying my very best to incorporate all my VCOP knowledge and skills into this piece of writing. For any teachers out there who do use the program I challenge you to see which levels of VCOP I am using...be kind!). The program was originally developed in the UK and has been adapted/modified as necessary to meet the needs of Australian teachers and our curriculum. 



Beginning the Program

If you or your school are investigating a whole-school exemplary writing program, hopefully you've come across VCOP and the BIG Write. I was extremely fortunate to participate in a whole-school PD for the program and I would recommend that if you decide to begin using this program, you go down that route too, as it ensures all staff are PD'd the same way and it provides a great opportunity for lots of professional discussions to talk place once back at school. However, I also know that whole-school PDs are expensive and time consuming, so this isn't always possible. In that case, I would recommend sending one or two people from each PLT or learning team (I.E. preps/reception/kindergarten, 1/2, 3/4, 5/6 or similar) OR two people from P-2 and 3-6 OR members of your Literacy/English/Curriculum team if you have one. That way, those staff members can come back and PD the rest of your staff on the program and will sort of become the 'point person' at their school for all things VCOP and BIG Write. 

The PD days are FANTASTIC! There are two altogether; Day 1 explains VCOP and its elements, what the BIG Write is and how to structure it and touches briefly on the assessment and marking side of things. Day 2 focuses a lot more on assessing and marking student work samples using the criterion scale, a document which Andrell Education have developed that aligns to the curriculum from Pre-Prep (Pre-Primary/Pre-Kinder etc) to Year 8. Safe to say, this criterion scale is AMAZEBALLS and I WISH I could show you how incredible it is, but due to copyright and all that jazz I can't, so you'll just have to see for yourself when you start the program! 

My school completed these two PD days over 2 years; Day 1 was completed during Term 2 and we then started the program properly in Term 3, giving ourselves a good 6 months to get into it, explore it and figure out what worked best for us. We completed Day 2 early in Term 2 the following year and then had the knowledge and skills to use the program in its entirety for the remainder of last year. We have now hit the ground running this year, having all the elements in place and have a solid understanding of our assessment schedule in terms of when we need to assess students, how we do it and how we mark it. Having said that, I still have a few elements of the program I have yet to introduce, but will do so next term (if I remember, I'll do a Periscope or another blog post about it!). We also complete a whole-staff writing moderation activity every fortnight, using a BIG write sample from our students. Each teaching team takes it in turns to supply a sample and all staff participate in "marking" the piece. This is a great way for us to have professional discussions about the program and ensure we are being consistent in our interpretation and approach when marking, so our results and data are as consistent as possible. 

 Exploring and Teaching VCOP

When you do the Day 1 PD, you will come away with a sense of awe at how wonderful and amazing this program is and why you didn't think of teaching writing this way before. I highly recommend having a school-wide 'plan of attack' for introducing VCOP, so then all students are on the same page (remember, consistency is key). For example, my school talked about VCOP in our classrooms after our initial PD, but didn't actually begin explicitly teaching it until the following term. 

When you introduce VCOP, and at the beginning of each school year, your VCOP display (an essential element of the program) will look something like this: 






Yes, it is supposed to be empty. The only thing on the display should be the Punctuation Pyramid. In my picture, I decided to create my own using some of the resources we were given access to after our PD, as my display is very large and I wanted it to stand out. If your display is smaller, you could just print off the actual Punctuation Pyramid and use that.I also have a poster my lovely classroom helper made me, which is for our "Kung Fu Punctuation People", which can be seen under the Connectives window. Once students master a level of punctuation, they get to put the corresponding coloured belt onto their Kung Fu Punctuation Person.  

When you introduce each VCOP element, it's recommended you spend around 2 lessons per week for 2-3 weeks on each element, which works out to be a whole term just on VCOP. This is essential, as it introduces the language and expectations to the students and gets everyone comfortable with each element. It is recommended you introduce Vocabulary first, followed by Punctuation, then Connectives and finally Openers. As you explore each element, you will build your display up so that it looks something like this: 





I like to put the WOW words for Vocabulary onto yellow pieces of paper, then blu-tack them to my window. It is also recommended that you put the student's name on the WOW word they found, to give ownership over it. In the meantime, I had my kids a few years ago write directly onto the window with liquid chalk, but more recently I have had them use post-it notes when they come across a WOW word or phrase and then stick that to the window. 






I also, in the early days of using VCOP, got my kids to create 'Punctuation Posters' for each different punctuation mark, as one of our VCOP activities. I put these up on the Punctuation window. 




Here are some other pictures of my VCOP displays over the years (they have changed due to different kids and different writing focuses; not all elements of the connectives for example are needed at the same time). 



















All 4 VCOP elements have a related pyramid, which shows a hierarchy of words that students should be using. The important thing to note about these pyramids is a) they start at the top and work down (that is, Level 1 is at the top and should be solidly achieved before Level 2 etc) and b) the levels DO NOT equate to year levels; that is, Level 4 is NOT what Year 4 or Grade 4 students should be using. Of course, we'd want them to aim for that level, but some will still be using Level 1, whereas some will be using Level 5. I really reinforce this concept with my kids, so they know that Level 3 doesn't mean Year/Grade 3; it's merely the level of their ability. I love telling them that even some adults and experienced writers can't always use all of the Level 5 words or punctuation...that always impresses them!

Exploring and Teaching The BIG Write

So, once the explicit teaching and exploration of the VCOP elements is out of the way, you can now begin the dedicated writing part of this program! That's not to say you haven't been doing ANY writing up to now...you just haven't done a BIG Write, and those my friends, are something quite special. 

Firstly, a dedicated English block (generally 2 hours) is set aside each week/fortnight/three weeks for the BIG writing session. It's up to you how you do it; at my school, we aim for fortnightly, but it can blow out to a three-week cycle due to timetable constraints and commitments. 

Prior to the actual writing (say you do that on a Thursday morning), the night before you send home 'talk homework' which is a key part of writing as the belief is: if they can't say it, they can't write it. This is purely oral "homework" where we ask the kids to chat to their families about what they are writing about the next day - oh, that's another thing, you always tell the kids their writing prompt the night before, so they can begin thinking about ideas and planning/writing things down. **You give out talk homework before a BIG (warm) Write, NOT before a Cold Write (assessment)** 

So the kids have completed their 'talk homework' and now it's Thursday morning...BIG Write day! You will always complete a VCOP session before doing a BIG Write, to warm up their brains and get them in 'writing' mode. I like to sometimes focus on a specific element - say it's openers - as that will be the whole class focus for the BIG Write session. There are a HEAP of fantastic games and resources that you can play to get them into the swing of things and Andrell Education have two CD-ROMs called "Big Write Games" and "VCOP Games" which I use ALL THE TIME! They're literally gold. 

Once you've done your warm up VCOP session (say 30-45 or so minutes, depending on the kids and their writing ability/knowledge of how BIG writes work), you will do a "BIG Talk" session for 5-10 minutes. This is where the kids who wrote down notes the night before as part of their "talk homework" can share their ideas if they want. This also gives ALL students the opportunity to TALK about the writing stimulus and hear ideas from others, which is especially important if they weren't able to complete the "talk homework" the night before. All I do is get the writing prompt/stimulus up on my SMARTboard and read through it with my kids, discussing it as we go. Simples! I don't mind if students have notes or ideas written down from their discussions with their families, but I only allow them to use these notes during "BIG Talk" time, not during the actual BIG Write time. 

Now, between the VCOP session and the BIG Write session there needs to be a break; mainly so you can set up the room for the writing session, but also so the kids have a break for a bit. Recess/snack/play time can be used as the break, or a quick 10 minute run/game outside will be fine. The BIG write atmosphere is very different to a normal writing session; classical/calming/soothing music is played and candles (battery operated candles are the best option here!) are on the tables, along with dictionaries and VCOP resources. You also use dedicated BIG Write pencil; these are special pencils that are only used during BIG writing time (I just bought a whole bunch of pencils and put washi tape around them). When the kids return from their activity break, remind them calmly of what they are going to do when they do inside. It's important they are calm and focused and not rushing in. Once they do get to their tables however, they can begin writing. 

These are the pencils we use for our BIG write; they are just normal HB pencils wrapped in washi tape. 


One of the main things I learnt from the Day 2 PD session was that these BIG (warm) Writes are a teaching session; that is, talk to the kids throughout writing time, have a focus group if you need one, go around and prompt/remind them to use correct punctuation, or help them find a word in the dictionary. It's important the kids work as independently as they can and that they don't move around the room, however you can help them and guide them in their writing. Before my Day 2 PD session, I was conducting BIG writes under test conditions, however I soon realised that this was wrong and was of no help to me or my students! How could I expect them to get better and evolve as writers, if I didn't guide and support them to do so during writing time? Once I was back at school and changed tack, it made a huge difference! The BIG Writes are very different to the Cold Writes, which are the assessment pieces of writing that are conducted under NAPLAN/Test conditions (i.e. NO HELP WHATSOEVER!) That is why BIG Writes are called Warm Writes...you can help the kids, as opposed to the Cold Writes where there is no help at all. 

At the end of writing time (say around 30-40 minutes, depending on the kids), I get certain helpers to pack away the pencils, resources and candles we have used. All the kids come to the floor with their writing and I select two people to sit in the "Author's Chair" (I.E. my teacher chair) to share their writing with the class. I then get the class to verbally give a constructive (green) comment and a positive (red) comment to the student who shared their work. 

My chair that I use after a BIG write as the "Author's Chair" and my floor space where the kids sit to listen. 


Follow Up and Proofreading Session

After a BIG Write session, you need another lesson/session (probably an hour or so-perhaps a bit longer for the first few goes) to follow up and reflect on students writing. This is done in a number of ways and the steps are outlined really well in the Day 1 PD. It's suggested you photocopy the writing  students did during the BIG Write session, so they can't edit or change it in any way. The purpose of these sessions isn't to edit and change, it's to reflect and notice what they are doing well and what they can improve on next time. 

Essentially, students are paired with a "breakdown buddy". I like to do this randomly and pick paddle-pop sticks with my kids' names on them out of a bucket. That way it's completely random and you have mixed ability, mixed friendship and mixed everything pairings! 

With their breakdown buddy, students at first need to both read ONE piece of writing; this is important. They both read the one piece together, then the person who did not write it gives a constructive (green) comment and a positive (red) comment. These are written on the author's writing in red and green pen/pencil. 

Next, on the same piece of writing (the pair complete one piece in its entirety before moving onto the second piece) both students read it again, but this time they look for the VCOP elements. Andrell sell awesome VCOP highlighters for this purpose. It's suggested you start with one highlighter (i.e. one VCOP element) for the very first breakdown session, then build from there. Again, after Day 1 when I was beginning the program, I didn't really understand that they should only be looking for one VCOP element to start with, so I threw them in with all 4 elements and wondered why it took them so long to get the task done! 

I suggest starting with Vocab (yellow) or Punctuation (green) as these are the easiest/simplest elements to look for. The person who did not write the piece of writing has the highlighter, but both people in the pair are responsible for finding the selected VCOP element. Once the pair has found all the Punctuation (for example) they would then begin on the other VCOP elements they are looking for. Once everything has been found and the page looks like a colourful picture, the pair then begin on the second piece of writing and follow the same process. As a point of reference for my students, I give them the same resources they had on their tables during the BIG Write, which is basically a "placemat" of the 4 VCOP pyramids, so they know which words are considered a connective (for example) and they then aren't just highlighting random words. Here is what the writing samples should be looking like: 







After they have done this, the students can then go to their student friendly criterion scale and tick (if they achieved it), dot (if they are halfway there) or cross (if no evidence at all) each goal/target on their scale. This would also be a great time to conference with kids about their writing. You can then set a future goal with the student, which might be something like using at least 3 WOW words in their writing next time. 

Their highlighted piece of writing should then go somewhere safe. We give our kids display books where they place their BIG writes and it will also (eventually!) have their student scales on the front for them to use and access during these proofreading and reflection sessions. 

Where to Next? 

Once you have explored VCOP for around a term, then you teach VCOP alongside completing BIG writes roughly every fortnight, you will be ready to move onto the next stage of the program, which is using the teacher criterion scale to mark and assess student's writing. This is covered in the Day 2 PD offered by Andrell. 

Basically, Andrell have created a writing marking guide bible for teachers, which is phenomenal, because not only does it link to curriculum standards, it spans Pre-Primary/Writers to Year 8 standards AND at the bottom of each level of the scale, they give a rough guide as to where the writing would fall on the AusVELS/Australian Curriculum English Progression Point continuum. Andrell even have a COLD WRITE ASSESSMENT PACK which is available for purchase. This has everything a school needs for their writing assessment purposes and (because they are so awesome) provides writing prompts and stimulus for 7 YEARS...that's enough for 5 cold writes a year, each year of a child's primary school life without ever having to repeat a stimulus. They also have stimuli for middle/junior high and senior high school students.

The Cold Write Assessment Pack is a real must-have for schools who use this program, as it is a comprehensive guide for how to conduct and mark each cold write. 

When you get to the cold writes, 5 are completed a year. A baseline is conducted within the first 10 days of the school year and is a recount. The other 4 cold writes are a narrative, exposition, narrative and recount spanning mid Term 1- Term 4. Each of these pieces of writing are then marked and assessed using the criterion scale. Teachers judge the writing against the scale level they feel is most appropriate. The scale is also great in that, if a student is scoring particularly high or low, you will know if you need to re-assess their writing on a scale which is a level lower or higher than the one you have chosen. 

At first, marking against this scale is daunting and time consuming, but the more you mark against it, the more familiar you become with it, so the faster you get at marking and the better you get at recognising key elements in your students writing. It's really simple to mark each element; you give a tick for solid evidence or understanding of the skill; a dot for developing and a cross if no evidence shown. At the end of the scale, you add up only the ticks and you will get numerical value, which then gives you an indication of an AusVELS/Australian Curriculum writing progression point. For example, a 14 on Level 2 might equate to 2.0, so the start of year 2/beginning year 3. Even though the student might be in Year 5, the writing they have produced is reflective of a different standard. 

There are 5 levels for the criterion scale, but the levels don't equate to year levels, just like with the VCOP pyramids. It's important for the kids to know that their level is for their ability and not to worry or judge themselves against anyone else, it's about how they move and develop in their own writing. I have kids working on Level 1-Level 4 of the scales, all in one grade 3/4 classroom! Once you have marked their cold writes against the criterion scale, then you can introduce the student-friendly criterion scale 

I'm really excited about using the student friendly criterion scale; this is the part of the program I am still yet to do, but will be doing next term, even though I've been using the program for almost 18 months! It's only now I feel really confident at being able to utilise the student scale as best as I can. Basically, it's a kid-friendly version of the teacher criterion scale used to mark their cold writes. What I plan on doing, is giving each student their relevant scale before we do a BIG Write and encourage them to try and complete a goal. They will not have this scale with them when they are writing. When they do their follow-up and editing session for the BIG write, they will get their scale out and see if they can tick, dot or cross any of their goals/targets; this is the same way I mark their cold writes. These student scales can then be used to assist with goal setting, student reflections and report writing (as can the teacher scale, which as I said is the bible for marking writing samples and is a joy to use when writing reports!)


So there you have it! A rather comprehensive review of a comprehensive and brilliant writing program! If you would like to talk to me more about VCOP and The BIG Write, please get in touch with me either in the comments below or on Instagram @missmelsclass (link is at the very top of the blog - the Instagram image). This really is a fantastic and all-round writing program and I have been so fortunate to have been involved in it for the past 18 months. I now see so many other schools and teachers joining in on the amazingness of it all, so I wish you good luck with your VCOP and BIG Write journey. You too will one day become a Punctuation Sensei master :) 









Comments

  1. Hi Mel

    Thanks for your extensive blog on VCOP and The Big Write. I found while trawling the internet. From the url it appears you wrote it April 2016. If so then you have had 2 more years with this approach to writing. I am very interested to know how you feel about it now that you have more experience with it.
    Cheers
    Steve

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Steve,
    Thanks for your comment. I continued using the program in 2017 as well, and still continued to love it. I moved levels to 1/2 and that presented a new challenge to teaching the program, but one that was really rewarding. I particularly like the assessment side of VCOP; it is consistent across a school and is so easy to assess, and then set goals with students. I also explored Breakdown Buddies a lot more in 2017, to great success. I am a huge advocate for the program, and which I was still using it! (Due to a change of schools I no longer actively use the program, but still refer to activities and the assessments regularly).
    Mel

    ReplyDelete
  3. Mel, how do you make VCOP work successfully in the Early Stage 1 arena (Kindergarten)?

    ReplyDelete
  4. This was a really great contest and hopefully I can attend the next one. It was alot of fun and I really enjoyed myself.. this

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