In a world of their own

10th October 2003 at 01:00
When her creative writing lessons turned in dull results, Sarah Bott dreamed up an inspirational solution

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One pair of Virtual Reality Goggles. One careful lady owner. Fully functioning, effective, multi-sensory transportation facility. Complete with narrative writing enhancement guarantee. One size fits all.

Transportation mission: the beach. Ready? Goggles on. At this command, 31 pairs of Year 6 eyes close and the class begins to transport itself. Within seconds we are all standing on a beach - no insurance forms to complete, no bags to pack and definitely no sick bucket ready for that long coach journey. Thanks to the speediest and safest way to travel, we have arrived.

We're not all on the same beach - it's one that our experience and imagination allows us to arrive at. We all have a 360-degree colour vision of our own beach, complete with surround sound. This is virtual reality and we are ready to write. The idea for virtual reality goggles (VRGs) was born from my desire to feel more motivated and enthused about marking 31 creative-writing books at home after a long day in the classroom.

The children's stories often lacked real, vivid description - the kind the reader needs to respond to and believe in. Their writing seemed flat. The narrative was two-dimensional and lacked depth.

After much thought I came to the conclusion that my teaching was the problem. I needed some way of adding that third dimension; something that would inspire the children and allow them to create interest and emotion; some way of demonstrating the importance of making the experience real for the reader.

The children needed a "virtual reality" to explore and with the help of a pair of science safety glasses the VRGs were invented. I guess sunglasses would have added that futuristic sci-fi appeal, but the first pair of VRGs were see-through plastic. They may have had flailing elastic straps and a rather unfashionable appearance, leaving a most unfortunate goggle imprint on the wearer's face, but they worked.

The first virtual missions began. A cassette of sound effects featuring noises such as crashing waves, proved very useful for our maiden voyage, and the entire class, equipped with their goggles, began to explore. We travelled to a multitude of places using our senses to guide us. What could we see, hear, smell, taste, touch - and how did this make us feel?

The football match was thrilling: the chants of the crowd, the tasty delights of a half-time chicken and mushroom pie and the nail-biting tension of the penalty shoot-out.

We managed to survive the storm at sea, but will never forget the crashing sound of the waves, the rocking of the boat and the taste of fear.

The beach was much more relaxing and we spent some time sitting quietly in the welcome shade of a palm tree, sipping our ice-cold drinks and listening to the gentle waves lapping over the sun-kissed sand.

Phew! It was quite a literacy hour and we were exhausted when we returned.

But there, on 31 mini white-boards, lay the answer to all my prayers. The children had experienced that third dimension and their descriptions proved it. They had been able to see it, talk it and record it. There in front of them were the kind of ideas that, when added to a well-planned plot, could succeed in creating reader interest and emotion, and a very happy teacher.

It's been a few years since that first virtual experience, but our goggles are still working and are used in many a literacy lesson. Other year groups have also taken them for a test drive, so students are highly skilled "wearers" by the time they arrive in Year 6. Eventually they are able to explore their virtual realities without wearing the goggles. They instinctively know when to use them to create extra depth. When Year 6 writers find the words "more VRG" scribbled alongside a setting in their stories, they know it's a message from me to dive back into their virtual world, interrogate their senses and add that extra detail that will engage and excite the reader.

Does VRG improve SATs results? It's impossible to say, but it has certainly encouraged young writers to become more involved in creative writing.

Children use the goggles to inspire beginnings, build suspense and tension, create realistic settings and develop believable characters. Armed and trained in VRGs, they have descriptive power at their fingertips and the ability to "hook" their reader and leave them wanting more.

Sarah Bott teaches Year 6 at Ocker Hill Junior School,Tipton and is a leading literacy teacher for Sandwell local education authority

Our report titled "Positive discrimination" on page 14 of the September 12 issue contained the wrong email address for Colin Macfarlane. The correct address is:

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