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Learning to write in the rain forest

Creative writing in geography boosts literacy, say Rachel Atherton and Nikki Flanagan.

That literacy provides the infrastructure for learning across the curriculum is recognised in the extension of the National Literacy Strategy to key stage 3. Almost all tasks at school involve writing, but the contribution this makes to literacy is often limited. For example, most writing in geography consists of short exercises involving copying, structured questioning and gap-filling. Such tasks often fail to extend writing skills and show little evidence of understanding, requiring a low level interaction with the subject matter.

Writing is developed most effectively when it is sustained over some length and uses the pupil's own words and construction. Expressive writing is fitting to both learning the subject and to developing writing skills, and can be described as "thinking aloud on paper". Pupils write about topics in their own terms and set their own framework for interpreting and recalling information.

"Mind movies" were introduced to us by Rachel Lofthouse, lecturer at Newcastle University. This strategy is described in Thinking Through Geography by David Leat (Chris Kington Publishing 1998. See The TES Humanities Curriculum Special, March 24 2000).

A vivid text is read aloud to a class to stimulate their imagination and then the pupils describe "what happens next" in a piece of extended writing. It is a motivating and fascinating learning strategy and an excellent way of accessing pupils' knowledge. Mind movies can be used at any stage within a topic but work most effectively as either an introductory or consolidatory piece. In the example here, a mind movie is used in a final lesson with Year 8 on rainforests.

Stage 1: Settling It is important for pupils to be focused and aware of what they are expected to do. They must close their eyes and listen carefully. They could rest their heads on their desks.

Stage 2: Transferring Pupils must be mentally removed from the classroom and introduced into a different setting. The narrative should describe them gradually leaving the classroom and beginning their journey. "Transferring" should not be rushed. An excerpt from one script is: "You are to imagine yourselves leaving the classroom, floating up into the clear blue sky... you look down and see your school far beneath you, getting smaller..." A description of the pupils' descent follows, with enough detail to enable them to familiarise themselves with their new surroundings.

Stage 3: Imagined experience The pupils now embark on their imagined journey, so the narrative must be rich in adjectives; the greater the detail, the easier it will be to trigger their visual memory. Music may be played. While they are in the rain forest, questions are posed by the narrator to scaffold the writing. The pupils are prompted to consider themselves and their actions (What were they wearing? What could they see? Who were they with?).

Stage 4: Record the adventure The pupils are now "returned" to the classroom and begin recording their "new experience". The prompting questions can be written on the board to help them focus. The time spent on this will vary with the nature of the group. We have found that most pupils can write independently for up to 30 minutes.

We were been astounded by pupils' high level of concentration. Many were loath to stop writing. The overall response was extremely positive. One pupil said: "I got really into it but thought nobody else would be doing it, so I opened my eyes and they all were."

Despite a reduced factual content, the writing was of a high standard, showing us how this strategy allows for the parallel development of geography and literacy.

Rachel Atherton and Nikki Flanagan are PGCE students at the University of Sheffield

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