Crafty idea to discover their writer's voice

28th March 2008 at 00:00
A creative writing pack to improve primary and early secondary pupils' work has been launched in Dundee

Children's writing skills hit a plateau around P4. This is what Margaret Foley, quality improvement officer in Dundee, found while investigating the work of primary schools in the city.

"After an early lift-off, with the emphasis on synthetic phonics, sight vocabulary and emergent writing, they started to struggle as they were asked for more use of language, drawing on reading experiences and interaction with texts," she explains.

Pupils' vocabulary was limited, she says, their characterisation poor - they described appearance but not thoughts or feelings - and they appeared to be incapable of picking a tense and sticking with it

So Ms Foley and Nick Hesketh, Dundee City Council's children's author in residence, set to work designing an imaginative writing resource, The Writer's Craft.

"In particular, we wanted to introduce them to the way a writer must read his or her own work," says Ms Foley. "Throughout the units, they have to read backwards and forwards and make sure there's a good flow, continuity and quality to what is being put together."

The pack, which took a year to produce, was launched in schools at the beginning of this session. There are nine units aimed at pupils from P5 to S2, with others for composite classes and P4 still in the pipeline.

Each unit is linked to a film or film genre, in an attempt to tap into popular culture. So P6 is introduced to Jack, a young boy living in the 18th century who works on a sailing ship, The Griffin, which transports spices, tobacco, molasses and rum around the Caribbean. He is "as brave and loyal as one of his captain's hunting dogs".

The obvious film link is Pirates of the Caribbean, but teachers could explore other 18th-century adventure stories, suggests Ms Foley. "When we say that things like TV and film have a detrimental effect, it's because there is not a high-quality interaction. It has been shown that, by learning to read the screen, pupils can enhance their inferential comprehension of reading texts - the two things don't have to fight each other."

Further units focus on Largson, an elfin warrior; Kitty, "a Lara Croft-type character"; Boogle, an ogre who is as "cunning as a fox"; and Carla, who is the heroine in a dragon adventure.

In secondary, pupils are introduced to a young James Bond and to horror as a genre. "The materials try to tap into what's popular and current. The elfin warrior character, for instance, suggests a whole range of films in that genre you could draw on, about the young boy who is of pure heart and can save the day - Harry Potter, the Arthur legend, The Lord of the Rings.

"But what we have not done is suggest clips of film to show; that should emerge as the class discusses the character. These materials are only as good as the dialogue that takes place in class."

The skills Ms Foley identified as lacking, such as character development and vocabulary, are worked on through activities which link back to the characters and stories featured in the different units.

Pupils are asked to maintain the flow of a story, keeping it consistently in the past or the present by selecting the correct verb tense. They fill in blanks to familiarise them with the vast pool of words in the English language; and are encouraged to explore the use of words - a butterfly can flutter, but can a tiger flutter through the jungle?

Eventually they get the chance to "write on" or continue a story started by Mr Hesketh. Invention, as far as Ms Foley is concerned, can only come after imitation and innovation. "It's a common problem that we ask children to invent too soon," she says, "and if we do that, we are not really getting what that person could produce. Some young people really need to be supported in discovering their writer's voice."

The Writer's Craft (pound;32), Educational Development Service, co Rockwell, Lawton Road, DD3 6SY. T 01382 434888.

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