Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Showing Instead of Telling in The Middler by Kirsty Applebaum

 Kirsty Applebaum, the author of one my current favourite reads 'The Middler' (definitely a 5 star rated book - read my review here), give this advice to young writers:

One of the most amazing things about story is that it has the power to skip past the time-consuming ‘learning and memorising’ part of our brain and go straight to the ‘just knowing’ part. We don’t need to pause and rewind halfway through Toy Story, for example, to work out whether Buzz Lightyear is over-confident in his flying ability, or remind ourselves that Woody is jealous of this dashing interloper. We just know. And the reason we just know is that we’ve been skilfully shown.

‘Show don’t tell’ (i.e., demonstrate rather than explain) is a rule often cited in the writing world. I don’t 100% agree - a writer should show or tell, I think, according to the effect they wish to achieve. In The Middler, however, I did try to show rather than tell, because I wanted to achieve an immediate, plunged-into-Maggie’s-world sensation for the reader. I wanted them to just know.

Take Maggie’s dad. If I was to tell you about him, I’d say he was a family man - clean, tidy and prone to becoming slightly overwhelmed in stressful situations. But I don’t say any of those things in The Middler. Instead, I show him - cooking dinner for his children, wiping the table, and stumbling over his words when confronted with difficult issues.

Middle grade readers can learn to spot this technique. For example, ask them to focus on chapter one of The Middler, where Maggie, Jed and Trig leave the house and go to school (available here: https://nosycrow.com/product/the-middler/). Can they answer some questions about the differences between the three siblings? For example: who is the least organised? Who is more careful with their possessions? Who is the most outspoken? Who is the quietest?

Next, ask them to identify exactly which parts of the text enabled them to answer to these questions. They might reply, for example, that Trig speaks up in assembly, while Maggie hardly says a word out loud through the whole chapter.

Students can then go on to show in their own writing. Ask them to make up a character of their own (or perhaps choose a character from a fairy tale) and jot down a few words to describe (or tell) what their character is like. Friendly? Mean? Easy-going? A worrier? Next, ask them to write a short piece about this character leaving the house and going to school/work, just like Maggie, Jed and Trig. BUT – no one is allowed to use the describing words they jotted down. Can they show these things, rather than tell them?

Soon they will have a deeply powerful writing technique under their belts, plunging their own readers into a whole story-world of just knowing. To infinity … and beyond!

Saturday, 8 December 2018

What You're Forgetting When You Teach Writing


Time in a primary classroom is at a premium: there are so many things to try to fit in. Even under the umbrella of English there is handwriting, spelling, grammar, punctuation, composition, reading, and more. It’s so difficult to make sure that everything is covered. And there are certain parts of the writing process which are either misunderstood or don’t always get a look in because of time constraints.

The 7 stages of the writing process

The writing process, according to the EEF’s ‘Improving Literacy In Key Stage 2’ guidance report, can be broken down into 7 stages: Planning, Drafting, Sharing, Evaluating,Revising, Editing and Publishing.

In a recent training session, when I asked a group of school leaders and teachers to write down elements of current practice in their own schools for the teaching of writing, we found that most of the time was spent on planning, drafting and editing. In fact, there were very few examples of how the other stages were being taught.

Click here to read more: https://bradford.researchschool.org.uk/2018/12/08/895/

In summary

  • Set a clear purpose and audience before beginning the writing process;
  • Teachers complete the task themselves;
  • Allow children to work at each of the seven stages of the writing process as they work towards a final piece;
  • Model each of the seven stages to the children using the I/We/You approach at each stage; and
  • Evaluate,share and revise by checking the writing fulfils its purpose.

Monday, 19 November 2018

Building Sticky Note Sentences

The EEF's KS2 Literacy Guidance has as one of its recommendations that teachers should 'develop pupils' transcription and sentence construction skills through extensive practice' (recommendation 5).

It states that 'it is important to promote the basic skills of writing—skills that need to become increasingly automatic so that pupils can concentrate on writing composition... this includes the sentence construction. If these skills are slow or effortful then this will hinder progress in writing composition. High-quality practice is essential to develop fluent transcription skills.'

Writing grammatically accurate sentences is something that many children really struggle with. This is particularly so for those who have less exposure to the English language either orally or in print. As a result, children for whom English is an additional language and children from low income backgrounds, for example, may need a more step-by-step approach to learning how to write sentences.

The EEF guidance goes on to say that'sentence construction can be developed through activities like sentence-combining where simple sentences are combined so that varied and more complex multi-clause sentences are produced. Initially, the teacher can model this, but pupils should go on to work collaboratively and independently. Pupils need to learn to construct increasingly sophisticated sentences, for meaning and effect, with speed.'

Now, the activity that I am going to write about in this blog post is neither innovative nor complicated - it is a very simple activity carried out by teachers all over the world and it is not something I claim to have created (in fact, I'm very sure I've received training from Alison Philipson, Philip Webb and Jane Considine on very similar activities). However, the fact that it does seem to help children means that it is worth sharing here on my blog.

The Context

The lesson that the photos come from was with a mixed attaining group of year 4 children. They had been reading the beginning of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and the work completed in the session was based on Chapter 1.

This activity could be adapted for any year group - more on this later.

The Activity

The purpose of this particular lesson was solely to help children to write grammatically accurate sentences. However, this could be used to cover many writing objectives, for example, using connectives, writing fronted adverbials, including parenthesis, using accurate punctuation, etc.

To begin with, based on the chapter of the book, we generated some very simple sentences based on the summary of the chapter that they had written during their reading lesson. With one group I wrote all the words on the board - they had to transfer the words one onto each sticky note and then rearrange them into 4 sentences (they knew there were four as there were four full stops and four capital letters).

Two children rearranging the words to write the 4 sentences.
With the 4 sentences I deliberately demonstrated how simple and short sentences can be. We discussed whether or not a sentence with only two words was really a sentence - we decided it was although I didn't completely go into the language of 'subject' and 'predicate'! Instead we talked about it having a noun and a verb. Some children were surprised that two words could make a full sentence.

Here are the four sentences we generated for use in the rest of the activity:

The four sentences we generated as a starting point
The first sentence edited to give information
about 'where' and 'when'. This was written after the
sticky note activity.
For this activity we decided to help the children to think about the potential content of a sentence using some of the 5Ws (Who, What, Where, Why, When). We worked out that so far all of the sentences we had written contained the 'who' and the 'what' (we planned to leave the 'why' to another day as it would involve a greater range of conjunctions).

Next, I modelled how to include the 'when' and the 'where' by adding information to the sentences. Once we had transfered the additional words onto sticky notes we were able to play with the sentence, moving parts and making changes to things like capital letters and full stops and adding in commas.

By moving parts of the sentence around we were able to reinforce some prior learning about fronted adverbials.

In our particular example we discussed how certain rearrangements didn't really sound right and didn't make much sense ('Sitting on a bank, Alice was on a hot day and she was bored'). Instead we opted for: 'On a hot day, Alice was sitting on a bank and she was bored.'

The fact that the words of the sentence were written one on each sticky note meant that children were physically able to rearrange the words in order to find something that made sense. The children did not struggle to move entire clauses because they had seen the whole clause added at once (and knew that the purpose of it was either to add information about 'where' or 'when' something happened).

The children worked in pairs - here is one example of the first sentence before the 'when' clause was added.

Here is one example of the first full sentence before it was rearranged.

My example on the board. An alternative way to model from the front is to use larger pieces of paper folded in half and
hung over a 'washing line'.

Once this had been modelled, and the children had had a go at playing with the modelled example, I asked the children to have a go at adding 'where' and 'when' clauses to another of the sentences: 'The rabbit ran'. Children first worked on sticky notes but were soon able to form their sentences orally before writing them in their books.

Some children demonstrated an over-reliance on the use of 'on a hot day' so I challenged them to use either 'before' or 'after' to write about 'when' the rabbit ran.

Adapting this activity

This activity, or versions of it, could be used from the very beginning of a child's writing journey. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Ordering words in sentences
  • Adding adjectives or adverbs
  • Replacing nouns with pronouns
  • Improving vocabulary
  • Including action and/or dialogue into descriptive writing
  • Using commas, colons, semi-colons, dashes, brackets
  • Joining two sentences with conjunctions
  • Adding relative clauses
  • Changing tense
  • Editing and revising to add/remove information
With any of these as a focus the basic requirement is to have something to write about (a picture, a story, a video clip) and to start off by writing the simplest sentence possible (2-4 words is all that is needed). Sentences can then be quickly built to the point where the desired objective becomes the focus.

I would love to hear from those who've done this kind of thing before and from those who try it for the first time.; please share examples of the work you and your class create!

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Guest Post: How To Write Non-Fiction by Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton

Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton are the authors of the Football School series (as well as newspaper articles and several grown up books about maths, football, and... colouring in). Currently on book number three in the Football School series, Alex and Ben are experts at writing about facts and information. Here they give some advice to teachers and children about how to write those tricky non-fiction pieces of writing.

1) Choose a subject that you are passionate about. If you love something, then this passion will come through in the text.

2) Read! Non-fiction is writing with facts in it. Before you start writing you need to find facts about the subject you are writing about. One way to do this is to read: you can read websites, magazine articles and books. Make notes on what you read.

3) Speak to people! Another way to get facts is to ask people questions. For example, just say you want to write about pizza. You might want to go to your local pizzaria and ask the pizza chef some questions. They will know a lot about pizzas! Write down what they say.

4) Plan! Once you have done your research, you should have a few pages of notes. Read the notes and work out roughly plan the text. If you have several facts, choose a sensible order for the facts.

5) Clarity! The best writing is clear writing. There are tricks to writing clearly. One is to write in short sentences. Another is always to use simple language. Even if the ideas are complicated, keep the language simple.
6) Repetition. Avoid repeating the same words again and again, since this will make your text boring to read.

7) Don’t make assumptions. In other words, don't assume that your readers will know as much as you. If you refer to something that happened in the past, be sure to explain exactly what did happen the past so the reader isn’t left confused.

8) Do not use technical terms that only a specialist will understand. Make sure that every word you use would be understandable to a classmate who doesn’t share the same interests as you.

9) Don’t use cliche. A cliche is a phrase that is over-used, like “cool as a cucumber”, or “110 per cent”. Cliches make the text feel predictable and boring.

10) Have a conclusion. It is always nice to end a piece of text with either a summary of what has come before, or a final thought.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Writing Characters In Key Stage 2

My new year 5 team and I sat down to plan together for the first time last week. Our class novel is Cosmic by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and the teachers decided they were going to focus on character both in reading and writing lessons. With a view to having children write their own piece of narrative involving a character of their own invention we set about planning how we would teach them to introduce their character to the reader.

I have lost count of the number of times I've taught children to write character descriptions but I know that every time I've done it there has been a niggle. A paragraph describing what a character looks like and what they like is not something we come across that often in the books we read. I have seen numerous requests from teachers for passages from books which contain good character descriptions and whilst there are some out there, I haven't noticed it to be that common, especially not for a main character,.

So, my team and I discussed how we might teach children to write about their characters in the way a real author might. Looking at Cosmic we found that information about Liam's character was scattered throughout the first few chapters. To begin with, the information about his character is explicit, then the information becomes more implicit, then, crucially, no new information about his character is given - all his actions, thoughts and feelings for the rest of the book are congruous with the character that has been introduced in the first few chapters, apart from instances of the events of the story changing an aspect of his character. I don't know if that's how Frank Cottrell-Boyce planned it to be, but that's certainly how it seems to have panned out.

I suppose what we were looking at teaching was characterisation - how a writer portrays their character. In Cosmic we found examples of both direct and indirect characterisation but what we didn't find was a big chunk of direct characterisation, which is what children are often taught to do (which is probably fine at an earlier age).

Our first port of call was to read the book in order to be inspired both by the character and by the organisation of the text. Reading lessons focused first on retrieving information about the characters (as well focusing on the all-important vocabulary that is foundational to understanding how characters are being described). They then moved on to being focused on inferring information about the character based on their actions. Examples of these comprehension questions can be downloaded from my TES resources page. These, and the accompanying book talk (discussion), gave the children the chance to see how authors pepper the text with carefully-placed pieces of information about their character.

Next came the task of developing characters for their own stories. This was done in the usual way - nothing too innovative or fancy here - if it ain't broke, why fix it? Children drew their characters and annotated them with phrases that they wanted to use to describe them.

It was the next part that was going to be difficult. How were we going to get children to use the information about their characters in a piece of narrative without writing up as one paragraph of character description? We decided to focus on one thing at a time: the inclusion of descriptive phrases and not the creativity that would have had to go into writing a piece of narrative. To achieve this, one of the teachers wrote a short piece of narrative devoid of any description, direct or indirect, of the characters mentioned. She double-spaced it and provided a copy for each child. The children then edited the piece to include, in relevant and suitable places, phrases of description of their character.

An example of the provided narrative and the edits made in an attempt to add character description.
At the point of writing this children have had a first attempt at completing this activity. After reviewing a few books it would seem that the children need to revisit their original characters, develop some more details and then ensure that when they edit the narrative that they have included the information that conveys to the reader what their character is like. For example, one child's character is a snail, but nowhere has he mentioned its shell, its tentacles (yes, apparently that's what they actually are) or its single, slimy foot. All children have also missed the opportunity to add a direct piece of description after the character catches sight of their reflection in the control panel - this will be a simple, whole-class starting point to modelling how they might further include character description in the narrative.

What Do Authors Say About This?

But what do I know? I've only read a load of books. So I asked a few people who've actually written books how they go about describing their characters. Their replies provided food for thought for further lessons (bring on PPA!).

Writing Dialogue To Convey Character

Lisa Thompson, author of The Goldfish Boy and The Light Jar, says that she has 'never written a character description', which is pretty much why I've written this blog post - published authors don't really seem to do it.

She advocates conveying the character's personality through the things they say - how they 'speak, their mannerisms and gestures'. This is definitely a good starting point for an interesting sequence of key stage 2 writing teaching.

Lisa also talks about how she just writes and the character appears - I'm not sure this would happen naturally with less experienced young writers.

Writing a Letter From The Character To Discover Characteristics

Author of both Bubble Boy and All The Things That Could Go Wrong, Stewart Foster, found, when writing his second book, that he got to know one of his main characters when he wrote (in first person) a letter (click here to see the letter in a Twitter thread from Stewart) from the boy to his brother. This would be an excellent exercise for children to undertake in order to help them think like the character would think. As in ATTTCGW this letter could be included as part of the narrative, making for a more varied and interesting text. Cosmic begins with Liam speaking (from space) a monologue to his parents - this is very similar in style to the letter.

Compare And Contrast Instead Of Direct Description

Victoria Williamson, the author of The Fox Girl And The White Gazelle, mentions the idea of sprinkling bits of description 'through the first few paragraphs or pages... so it's not just an info dump. She also mentions avoiding the use of any direct description, instead she chooses to point out similarities and differences between two characters in order to bring them to life. Perhaps a technique to try out with greater depth writers in upper key stage 2.

As well as this Victoria suggests that writers can describe a character through another character's eyes, which works especially well when writing in first person. As she wrote in her guest post on my blog though, this can lead to a skewed perspective on 'reality' because characters see things only from their point of view.

Describe Interactions With Other Characters

As we explored in our reading sessions on Cosmic we can often infer lots about character by the way they act and behave, particularly, as Tom Palmer (whose book Armistice Runner is published today) points out, the way they interact with other characters. This might include their gestures and stances as well as the things they say and do.

I think that to help children to do this in their writing it might be useful to go back to a text and analyse how authors have done this themselves. Children could make a list of what a character does and make inferences about what this tells us about their character. Again, another skill perhaps for the children who write fluently already.

In addition to this, more confident writers might want to use character description to signify something important in the story - a turning point in the plot, or to show how a main event has affected and changed a character. I can imagine teaching this to a small group and modelling how this might be done.

Click here to read about how Tania Unsworth, author of The Girl Who Thought Her Mother Was A Mermaid, writes her characters. Tania Unsworth mentions many of the techniques already covered - her answer to my question would be a great one to study with the children.

Hopefully our attempt to do something a little different, and the hugely helpful insights from the professionals might inspire one or two of you to try some new things out when you next teach characterisation. I'd love to hear from you if you've tried something like this before - please leave a comment here or on Twitter!

Tania Unsworth On Conveying Character

Tania Unsworth, author of the wonderful The Girl Who Thought Her Mother Was A Mermaid describes the process she goes through when writing her characters:

For my main characters, I try not to present a physical description, unless it's important for the story or it reveals something significant about them (perhaps they have bitten nails, for example). I think leaving the physical description somewhat vague allows the reader to conjure up a much richer, more flexible image in their mind's eye, and thus involves them more fully in the creative process. Hopefully it makes the character feel personal to each reader. The kind of writing I admire and aspire to is what I think of as 'generous' - it leaves as much as possible to the imagination of its readers. I have a different approach to minor characters, often describing their appearance in detail - they tend to be more two dimensional as a whole, mostly seen through the lens of the main character.

So how do I convey character? I try and do it in terms of their reaction to things. I aim to put them as quickly as possible into a situation where their responses begin to reveal how they see the world, their fears, hopes etc. Dialogue is another useful way of doing this. I love dialogue! How they talk, how they respond to the person they're talking to. As an exercise, it can be fun to take a chunk of dialogue from a book and without knowing anything else about the story, try to see what can be deduced about the protagonists simply from their conversation.

I tend not to start a book with a very clear idea of my main character. I learn about them as I go along, through their responses to things that are happening in the plot. By the end of course, it's turned the other way around - the character has formed to such an extent, that THEY are shaping the story.

It's a strange sort of paradox that I can never quite get my head around - how my characters grow out of the needs of the story, but at the same time how they ARE the story itself...does that make any sense?

In terms of teaching character writing - you are the expert! I'm not sure I can offer anything new that you haven't thought of. I suppose I would suggest as an exercise that pupils not start with a character at all, but with a situation. Something has happened to someone. Then perhaps they could simply ask themselves a series of questions. How does that person respond? Why? Is it different from how other people might respond? What are they thinking? What do they feel? I do think that just like the reader, the writer has no idea of their own characters at the start - they must find out by asking a lot of questions. Sometimes it's only at the end of writing a story that the writer achieves an understanding of their own characters...which means more often than not, that they have to write it all over again!

For more on teaching character writing click here for my blog post Writing Characters in Key Stage 2.

Monday, 15 January 2018

The Pearl

It crept towards her, out of the pages of her diary. Those empty rectangles of nothing. And from where there were entries and to-do lists it swaggered out across the pages, parading past her, jeering. When she did manage to shut out the noise, it whispered derisively instead. Not into her ear, but directly from the centre of her head, engulfing all else, like backwash on a beach rattling her logic, dragging all order away and into the deep.

It wasn’t as if she had nothing to do, and it definitely wasn’t because she wanted to do nothing. It was just that what she did have to do felt like nothing. The sense of urgency and fear that she relished did not make residence in the items on her schedule. It didn’t even really feel like her schedule, and definitely not her agenda. Someone else’s, perhaps. Maybe no one’s in particular. Just a schedule.

Things to do, things to do. Busy, busy. No time. The familiar phrases taunted her. She had once felt that way; she felt that absence keenly. It left a vacuum, now perforated and being slowly inhabited by the swirling grey of a winter North Sea, carrying sand and seaweed, grating and tangling with her thoughts.

When had she last been on the beach? Too long ago. The stretching sands and undulating water reminded her that, despite how she felt, the tumult in her head was only… not imaginary, but… something that could be controlled more easily than she could control the heaving mass of water rushing to meet her feet.

King Cnut. He had been demonstrating that he couldn’t stop the tide coming in. So misrepresented these days. He knew he didn’t have divine powers, and that only God did. She pondered this. Then she pondered her train of thought, wondering why she was now sitting at her desk with her organiser open in front of her thinking about God.

She flipped it shut, decisively. Although, she knew not what she’d decided. Only that she would shut it and that somehow, perhaps, that would change the course of her thoughts. Then she realised actually, that in imagining the events going on inside of her head as something more tangible, she had spent a blissful few untouched minutes – she had fought back, stemmed the tide.

She got up. She knew she should do it more often. She should get out there. The nothing must become something. And it would only become something if she made it so. If she found the purpose in it all.

Feeling the sand between her toes she headed to the shoreline, the retreating surf beckoning. The tide was turning taking with it that which had filled the void. The emptiness returned, but it was welcome – it could be filled. And this time she would curate its contents. The sea was back where it belonged and the pages of her diary remained closed.

Something winked up at her, its lustrous shell reflecting the moonlight. The world had its order – tides would come and go. She didn’t have divine powers, but she knew someone who did. Nothing is nothing, everything is something, she realised. The last sounds of the sea washed away, the corridor seemed a brighter place and a pearl began to form around the last remaining grain of sand.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue: Oracy Games For The Classroom

Hello and welcome to another blog post on thatboycanteach.blogspot.com, the blog that has done for teachers 'what being hit repeatedly on the head with a large croquet mallet does for small frogs... or so I'm told'. You join me here today as I consider what teachers can learn from the long-running BBC Radio 4 panel game 'I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue'.

Whilst the chairman always introduces the teams as being given silly things to do, the entertainment is usually derived from witty and clever wordplay which demonstrate the competitors' mastery of the English language. Both the EEF's KS1 and KS2 literacy guidance reports have the development of pupils' speaking and listening skills (or oracy skills) as their first recommendation - in the KS2 document the emphasis is on developing pupils' language capability.

The KS2 guidance specifically mentions the benefit of collaborative approaches to improving oracy skills:
The impact of collaborative approaches on learning is consistently positive, but it does vary so it is important to get the detail right. Effective collaborative learning requires much more than just sitting pupils together and asking them to collaborate; structured approaches with well-designed tasks lead to the greatest learning gains. Effective collaboration does not happen automatically so pupils will need support and practice. Approaches that promote talk and interaction between learners tend to result in the best gains. The following should be considered when using a collaborative learning approach:
  • Tasks need to be designed carefully so that working together is effective and efficient, otherwise some pupils will try to work on their own. 
  • Competition between groups can be used to support pupils in working together more effectively within their group, though over-use of competition can focus learners on the competition rather than succeeding in their learning, so it must be used cautiously. 
  • It is particularly important to encourage lower achieving pupils to talk and articulate their thinking in collaborative tasks, as they may contribute less.
  •  Professional development may be needed to support the effective use of these strategies.
Now obviously the games that the participants play on ISIHAC aren't research-based but if we apply the principles above, and pay heed to the warnings too, we should be able to use some of them to promote a collaborative approach to improving oracy skills, and as a result improve reading and writing skills as well.

Without further ado, the games:

Ad-Lib Poetry: The teacher (or another child) reads or invents a line of poetry. Children than take it in turns to continue the poem, one line at a time. The focus could be on rhyming words, adjectives, synonyms or telling a story. This game does not have a strong competitive element.

Cheddar Gorge:  Children all start with 10 points. By taking it in turns to say a word each, children should aim not to be the one who completes a sentence. If the word they say finishes a complete and grammatically correct sentence they lose a point. The main tactic is to try to force the next person to complete the sentence. This game has a focus on correct grammar and syntax and might help children to assess whether or not a sentence has been completed. Teachers could record the sentences and model correct punctuation. As an extension to this children could be permitted to name a punctuation mark instead of giving  a word - this would allow for the inclusion of parenthesis and other clauses.

Compressed Works: Children give brief synopses of films and books whilst other children guess the title. Similar to this is Rewind where children explain the plot of a book or film as if everything happened in reverse order. This could be played in pairs, groups or as a whole class and gives children the opportunity to practise summarisation - an important and often difficult reading skill.

Letter Writing: Similar to Cheddar Gorge, children take it in turns to say a word, this time 'writing' as famous or historical person to another such person, usually about something they are known for. This can be played in teams with the two teams taking the roles of the two correspondents. Letter Writing could be a good game to use in history lessons or in response to the class novel with children taking on the role of the book's characters. This could be simplified for any style of writing so that children orally co-create a piece of work prior to recording it in writing. One tactic in this game is to add in conjunctions, adverbs and adjectives to prolong the sentences. Another variation is Historical Voicemail  where children suggest messages that might have been left on the answerphones and voicemails of historical figures.

Uxbridge English Dictionary: Children come up with new definitions of words based on the parts of the words. This is potentially difficult so this game might need some preparation in the form of teachers selecting words that would work well. This is a word play game which requires children to know meanings of other words, rather than the one they are redefining. A health warning exists here: it might be wise to supply true meanings as well so that children don't believe that their new definitions are correct.

What's the Question? Either the teacher or a child supplies an answer to a question. Children then have to make suggestions as to what the question could have been. Plausible or funny answers can be accepted. This game might get children thinking about cause and effect and is a great opportunity for them to ensure that their questions are succinct and linked well to the answer.

Word for Word: Children take it in turns to say a word. The aim is to say a word that has no association to the previous word. If another child can prove, however ingeniously, that the word a child say is associated with the previous word, then they gain a point. This game could develop children's vocabulary as they hear words that others know and by trying to find links children will think carefully about word meanings.

Click here to listen to examples of the show on the BBC iplayer (may not be suitable for children)

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Being A Writing Teacher: 6 Reasons Why Teachers Should Write


"No one would say 'I can't read', so why do people say 'I can't do maths'?" We've probably all heard that frustration expressed before, and it's a point worth making. But, where primary school teachers are concerned, it doesn't make a difference if they say they can't, they have to anyway. As in, they will teach concepts by modelling them and will solve problems at least in order to work out what the right answers are. They can do maths despite what they say.

But this isn't about maths. This is about writing. And what you will never hear is 'I can't write.' And that's not because they can write and they do write. It's because they think they can't write, know they don't write, and are perhaps are bit ashamed of that. And I'm not even talking about writing for pleasure in their own time, I'm talking about modelling writing in the classroom. I know that there are teachers out there who will avoid writing if they can help it.

It's understandable - good writers are revered, and rightly so. Writing has become the preserve of a select few - those who have truly mastered our language and appear to effortlessly produce flowing prose. Writing isn't for everyone... except for every single child in the education system! We expect them to write, yet many of us teachers have opted out of being writers, having done our time during our own schooling. 

I've said before that teachers should all be readers and actually that's an easy pill to swallow compared to this: all teachers should be writers. Primary teachers should at least be able to write at the level expected of the most able writers in the school. This of course means that secondary teachers should be even more proficient.

How can we teach children to write well if we don't write at all? Even if you are fairly confident in modelling writing in class, ask yourself how good it really is. If you only ever write for those few minutes every now and then in class, are you really honing your skills? Would you benefit from writing for pleasure a little more? This is as much a challenge to myself as it is to anyone who may be reading this - I do not claim to be an expert writer and I know I could do better.

These thoughts have been whirring round my head for some time now, at least since the beginning of the year when I encouraged people to join the #WeeklyBlogChallenge. In fact, on further reflection, I've been acutely aware of the need for teachers to be writers since giving some training where, actually, I think I encountered some fairly reluctant writers.

The benefits of striving to be a proficient writer are, as you can imagine, many fold. I'd suggest six main benefits, though:

1) You will understand the pressure that children feel when you present them with a cold task, or even a task that they are well-prepared for. And when you've experienced that feeling of having a mind as blank as the page in front of you, then your writing lessons will get a whole lot better. If you are someone experienced in seeking inspiration, then you will become a teacher who is better at providing helpful stimuli.

2) Your modelled writing will inspire the children: sometimes all they need is a few words from a good example of writing to get them going. For this reason, many resources (such as the excellent Pobble 365 website) provide exemplar paragraphs and openers, but there is power in the children experiencing the writing created in front of them...

3) The act of modelling writing will inspire the children. I've noticed many times that when a teacher joins in an activity, be it Art, PE or an assault course on residential, that children respond more enthusiastically too. I know not of the pedagogical reasons behind this, only that it is what I've observed to be true.

4) You will feel more confident to share your writing. If you write regularly, even if progress is slow-going, words, sentences and paragraphs will come more naturally to you. If this is the case then you will feel far better prepared to stand up and 'perform' a piece of writing. You'll also find it easier to complete shared pieces of writing as you will know how to weave the pupils' words and ideas into a great piece of text.

5) You will be able to model the editing and revising process more realistically. Children at the top of the primary age range are expected to choose words for meaning and to understand the impact that the chosen words might have on the reader. Often, teachers model editing and revision as an exercise in word swapping, but with very little purpose. Someone with a little more  experience of writing will more naturally model a process where choices are made for a reason, and they will be able to verbalise those reasons too. 

6) You will give more effective feedback to the children about their writing. No matter how your policy dictates you provide feedback, it remains that someone with more experience as a writer is better placed to identify strengths and weaknesses in another's work. Based on your own experience of writing, you will be able to work out exactly what it is a child needs to do next to improve their written work.

The act of writing is an act of creativity, and there are many other benefits to self that being creative brings. There is a sense of great achievement to be had from writing something, whether that's something that helps one to explore one's own thoughts, feelings or ideas, or something that can be shared with others. And achievement is enjoyable: if you begin to enjoy the creative process of writing then this will no doubt translate into an enthusiasm for teaching writing - and enthusiasm is infectious. 

Here's the challenge, teachers: become a writer and begin to infect your pupils with a love of producing the written word. Will you accept?

Read the Arvon/University of Exeter/Open University research 'Teachers as Writers' here: http://www.teachersaswriters.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Arvon-Teachers-as-Writers.pdf

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Reading: Attacking Children's Immunity To Imaginative Literature



An excerpt from 'To Kill A Mockingbird':

"Miss Caroline started the day by reading us a story about cats. The cats had long conversations with one another, they wore cunning little clothes and lived in a warm house beneath a kitchen stove. By the time Mrs Cat called the drug-store for an order an order of chocolate malted mice the class was wriggling like a bucketful of Catawba worms. Miss Caroline seemed unaware that the ragged, denim-shirted and floursack-skirted first grade, most of whom had chopped cotton and fed hogs from the time they were able to walk, were immune to imaginative literature." 

Reading this reminded me of the argument post-2016 reading SATs paper. Many thought the stories (and their vocabulary) were out of the realms of accessibility for many year 6 children. After all, most ten-year-olds have never rowed a boat to a little island, let alone ridden an albino giraffe. But, so the argument goes, neither has the most experienced and privileged of children ever gone to steal a precious stone from a dragon, along the way meeting dwarfs, elves and goblins and procuring for themselves in the process a magic ring. For many of us stories are the means by which we experience events and happenings that our everyday lives could not possibly provide.

However, Anne Kispal's 'Effective Teaching of Inference Skills for Reading'  says (on page 17) that 'the importance of background knowledge cannot be over-stressed' and summarises (on page 23) that the factors common to those who are adept at automatic inferencing are, among others, a wide background knowledge and a sharing of the same cultural background as that assumed by the text.

Lee, through the voice of Scout Finch, posits the idea that children of limited life experience are 'immune to imaginative literature'. Is this true? Does the breadth of our actual experience allow us to access further experiences in fiction? Lee makes the point that children who are so accustomed to the realities of animals find it ridiculous to relate to a story where the animals are anthropomorphised, which is probably a fair point. A story about farmers and animals behaving as animals would perhaps have been better received, but that would not have broadened the scope of the hearers.

So, we ask the question: What is the point of reading? There are obviously many possible answers to this question, but for the sake of this discussion I'll follow that question with another: Should we read only about what we know or should we read widely to expand what we know? The answer is obvious.

However, many of us would attest to knowing children who appear to be 'immune to imaginative literature'. So we must ask our selves how immunity is compromised. The answer is: by repeat attacks, often from more than one infection or from virus that has adapted to beat the immune system. What does that mean for breaching the 'immune system' of someone who does not engage with fiction? We must:

Repeatedly attack their immune system: Giving up isn't an option. Continuous exposure to stories and books will break down their immunity eventually and they will gradually find themselves able to enter into, and enjoy, fictional worlds. In general, children who grow up from a young age listening to stories want to hear more stories.

Attack with more than one infection: Provide stories of different genres (humorous, mystery, romance, classic, gothic, suspense, horror, adventure, quest, fantasy) and in different formats (picture books, short films, comics, short stories, long stories, text maps, cartoon strips, novels, fictional, factual, biographical). Eventually a wide and varied diet of infectious stories will take effect. Often children, through this exposure, will find their weakness: the books they love the most.

Attack with adapted viruses: Provide stories that are differentiated based on need. Some children need the expert advice of an adult who can pick out just what will appeal to them - perhaps the chink in their immune system's armour is a book about adventurous construction vehicles. A parent or teacher may be the only one capable of identifying that need. Once the digger-obsessed child reads that book, then he may find he has a thirst for adventure stories, at which point a whole canon of books may suddenly become more appealing to him: immune system breached.

*Leaving the analogy behind now; it is key that we prepare children for exposure to texts on subjects on which they have no knowledge and prior experience. With an immersive curriculum where vocabulary is focused on children can be prepared for the new concepts that they come across in narratives. Using non-fiction books, images, videos, drama and real-life rich experiences children can be brought into the world of the novel they are about to read or are currently reading, leading to a greater understanding of the plot and content, for example. This is a very short summary of a huge idea which will allow children to access almost any text - I have written a separate blog post to cover these ideas.

Some sceptics may question why we put so much effort into compromising a child's immunity to imaginative literature. The reasons are many fold: stories widen our experience and understanding of the world, reading stories is enjoyable, stories encourage creativity and they provide us with a voice with which to tell our own story. One of human nature's most basic concepts is the way we see life past, present and future as a story; story-hearing and story-telling is written into our DNA. Stories are important.

Although Miss Caroline seems to have judged her class wrongly, it might just be that she had the right idea: exposing children to imaginative literature, even if the first time it falls on deaf ears, is an important part of their education. In this we can follow her example. Only, Beatrix Potter might not be the best choice for the rough-and-tumble Scout Finches of this world.

*with thanks to the staff at Penn Wood Primary for some clarification and food for thought on this issue.