All together now

31st March 2006 at 01:00
Can working in a mixed-ability group improve writing skills? Victoria Neumark examines an early experiment with the 54321 approach - groups of five primary pupils working together for five days

"To me, the answer was clear - I had to come up with a writing idea that pushed the most creative, while at the same time giving less able pupils the opportunity to improve their own writing skills," says John Bell, head of literacy and gifted and talented since 2003 at Norwich Road School in Thetford, Norfolk. Walking round the school, he had noticed a lack of creativity and a formulaic approach, of children modelling adult writing.

"Even though the quality of teacher-led discussion was high, it moved up to another level when children talked to each other about the writing." He needed to take the risk of giving control to the children, and it was at this point that the idea of 54321 writing (children in mixed-ability groups of five) was born.

"I tried it first for six months in my own class," John says. There were worries about whether the gifted and talented would get as much out of the small group work as the less able. John identified four gifted writers in his class, one of whom had only shaky leadership skills.

Departing from tradition

One of them immediately challenged the process of starting with the introduction: he had his own ideas about structure. Would this piece improve on what he normally wrote? All groups chose to plan their work with a range of brainstorm clouds, spider graphs and general notes. By the end of the first day, introductions (and in one case a conclusion) had been written. It was clear that when children wrote in groups, the process frequently changed.

There were numerous alterations to the original and improvement points pencilled in. When comparing this with earlier work done by the gifted writers it could be seen that the constant challenging of ideas had made them make more changes than they would probably have done when writing individually.

Steps back and forward

Day two was, says John, "a bit of a kick in the teeth". Two of the gifted writers had taken home their introductions and finished the whole story. It was clear that they were used to working on their own and this group approach was going to challenge them.

Later in the day, it became evident that they were not leading their groups and were sitting on their own ideas. The teacher had to manipulate the groups to get these children to take a leading role in the discussions.

By the end of the third day, the gifted children were having a very positive effect. The less able writers were happy to come up with their own ideas and the gifted children were offering them ways of writing what they actually wanted to say in a way that engaged the reader, helping them to think and write at a higher level. But what about the gifted writers? Progress was held up by heated debate about what should go in the story, which was difficult for them as they had never been put in the position of having an idea rejected before.

Another problem was the different values that each brought to the process.

A number of the gifted children got frustrated by their less able peers'

desire to commit themselves to action straight off. The gifted writers enjoyed releasing the story gradually. It was a standoff between the two approaches.

By the final day, all the children were working alone, with obvious deterioration in the work of the less able. The gifted writers were in a rush to finish. One said he didn't feel the work was his, which was, says John Bell, "a crushing disappointment to me as the whole process was about giving the writing process over to the children".

Great for class cohesion

But, to everyone's delight, assessment of the work showed that all groups, apart from the gifted writers, had moved up a writing level. For the less able, the results were "staggering". For the gifted writers there was little difference, as they had started from a much higher standpoint. For the whole school, and for class cohesion, 54321 was judged a success.

The process

The process takes between two and five days, with children working in groups of five. Each group should contain one gifted writer - or at least one who is very able, one good writer, one average, one poorer than average, and one with special needs.

The most able writer acts as the scribe for the group. So, if a less able child has an idea but it doesn't quite make sense, the more able children can take that idea and shape it. This allows the less able child to see his or her idea on paper and it means they immediately feel a sense of ownership.

The teacher acts as facilitator. For example, if the children are writing narrative, you can teach short daily blocks of the process (no longer than 10 minutes) in the course of the week. Monday is introduction; Tuesday - the build up; Wednesday - examples of dilemma; Thursday - the resolution.

For the rest of the time, the teacher is an outsider (there is little point in giving control to group leaders if you can't bring yourself to trust them).

At the end of the first session, two photocopies of the work are made and the groups of five are reorganised. The most able writer stays with the least able and the other three children stay together. They all use the same opening but the work takes on a different slant. The more able writer in the second group becomes its scribe.

On the final day, you photocopy all of the work so that each child now works independently. The less able have a frame in which they have been a stakeholder; the more able have had to go beyond just being good writers, actually explaining the process to other children whose ending may not be brilliant but they do feel it is their own work.

Using the lit stops

John Bell uses a "lit stop" to aid discussion, always with the same three questions. These stops should last no more than two minutes:

* Where did you come from?

* Where is it now?

* Where is it going?

"This is my favourite part, as I love the energy that children generate in their discussions. I simply listen in. It's amazing how much more you learn when they talk, as opposed to how much they learn when you talk," he says.

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