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Something to write home about

John Fines on how you can drastically improve the performance of pupils who struggle to put their ideas into words. The Nuffield Primary History Project was set up to explore how to help teachers implement the national curriculum. Working with teacher Tony Hopkins, I decided the best way forward was to go into schools and teach national curriculum history and try to analyse the problems from a practical basis. Often we were concerned with history study units, but we were also concerned with techniques, (eg use of drama), resources (eg use of pictures) and the work children did and how it was assessed.

One school I chose was a middle school, Midhurst Intermediate, where I worked with children through their sixth, seventh and eighth year. The feature we focused on in this school was pupils' writing of history. It struck me there were children who showed a high degree of intelligence in discussion debate and drama but their ability to transfer their ideas on to paper was limited.

So with one class we set out to examine closely how far we could improve the situation. We chose a Year 8 class we had worked with before and set out to get them to understand our goals. We demonstrated constantly the importance of developing their own ideas, their own response to a topic; that they must think and apply their minds such that the outcome would be theirs and theirs alone. We stressed the need to establish reasoning by reference to evidence, to show the grounds on which their thinking was based. And we insisted that their writing consist of a proper introduction, main body and conclusion, all accurately and sensitively done.

We set up an assessment programme that was simple enough for children and their parents to understand. Using this scheme, we saw them regularly as individuals to show them how they had improved or failed to improve on their last performance, and to set them new goals. They clearly treasured these occasions, and were put out when we couldn't find time to see them.

To help them cope with the problems of writing we tried to give a variety of circumstances in which they could work. For example, on one occasion they were given a range of pictures and asked to mark down their observations, moving towards a statement on the sequence of the pictures. Another time we used a game in which, for four lessons, they lived through the French Revolution, each taking a prescribed role such as peasant, king or queen, keeping a daily diary and writing their memoirs at the end. We used empathetic exercises, such as giving them a genuine letter from the First World War. These letters were often self-censored to spare relatives from further worry. The pupil were asked to interpret it and write to a relative saying what they thought it really meant. We took them to the Imperial War Museum, and gave them the task of reporting what they had seen in only one small area.

It seemed to us that the presentation of a proper diversity of writing tasks was most important. Writing is hard; children see it as "work" and we must try to give a proper variety of inputs if we are to see a genuine commitment on the children's part to respond and do better.

We spent a lot of class-time discussing the writing while they were doing it, demonstrating basic writing skills with the whole class. We built vocabularies by, for example, showing how one may expand a subject by thinking about its language and improving our own. We brainstormed ideas on to the blackboard and then tried to prioritise them, selecting only five, and working on a pattern within which the five ideas would fit. We worked together on introductions and conclusions and struggled to get some idea of how to do them better.

We also spent a lot of time encouraging the weaker writers by working with them as they wrote and showing them the bits that were good and worth developing. This often took a a lot of time and the more able pupils had to be patient. We tried to make it up to them by spending a relatively long period of time with them on their work at the end of the process.

What were the results? Well, all improved, as we might have expected from a relatively massive input from two teachers. The improvement was noted as very strong by the external evaluator, who also examined the pupils' work in other subjects. But the ones who made the greatest leap forward were in fact the least able writers. Starting, in some cases, from being able to scratch down at most three or four lines of highly inaccurate text, we had children writing two or three pages and showing a special care as to how it was expressed and set out.

All the children demonstrated an understanding that it was their ideas we were after, and showed a rising curve of confidence in expressing these ideas. All of them realised they had to produce evidence to prove their statements. All showed care in setting out introductions, well-ordered central sections and conclusions, and in writing accurately. Even their handwriting improved.

The evaluator saw the work as a model for the whole school, hoping that other departments would see their way to putting a similar stress on writing. He was interested to see how clearly the children understood our requirements and how committed they were to trying to fulfil them. Indeed the only criticism the children offered was that they wished to have more time to talk to us individually about their work, for that was what they valued the most.

* A full report on this venture is obtainable for Pounds 5, cheques payable to theNuffield Primary History Project at the Shrubbery, Upper Bognor Road, Bognor Regis, West Sussex

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