English - Go to great creative lengths

5th October 2012 at 01:00
Extended writing tasks may be old-fashioned, but they work

When I was at school in 1976, Mr Jackson's writing lessons started thus: "Your title is 'The Journey'. You have an hour. Tonight, I will check it. Tomorrow, you will rewrite it."

What did 1970s teachers do during inspections? I don't recall drastic switching to four-part lessons with mini-plenaries and an invasion of wildebeest to maintain engagement. No one said, "Good morning, inspector. Today we are rewriting Macbeth as a limerick, then peer-assessing." We just carried on writing, only stopping to dip our quills. Why? Because writing at length, editing and rewriting was an acceptable strategy.

Today's typical GCSE exam tasks, such as crafting an entire speech in 30 minutes or a formal letter in 25, bear very little relation to the real world: anyone taking 25 minutes to write an application letter from scratch can look forward only to watching daytime television.

The problem was that Mr Jackson's strategy was often the only one and so, rightly, had to take its place among others. Where has it gone then? Has it been smothered beneath Ofsted's preference for a change of activity every six minutes so that pupils can explain what they think they would have learned if they had been allowed to carry on? Recent encouraging Ofsted noises indicate that a solid period of uninterrupted writing within an English lesson is acceptable. What a relief to teachers who have been doing it anyway, but guiltily: the pedagogical equivalent of fiddling taxes. Still, the most common complaint from pupils about extended writing is, "What to write?"

Autobiographical writing furnishes pupils with a ready-made storyline. I find "My first... " narratives a rich source of ideas. Also, turning an experience into a "letter to my future self", telling it from several points of view (alien bystander?) or with the added challenge of generic features such as Gothic motifs, can add interest. Verbal preparation - such as recounting to a partner who makes notes, then interrogates for extra information - discourages generalisation.

Collaborative work gives writing an anticipatory edge. Two pupils plan a fictional story, then write the first paragraph together. From then on, they write individually and are not allowed to confer. Comparing their finished stories helps them to identify elements of personal style despite a similar storyline.

Timed writing in stages adds pressure, but also structure, and works well for extended description. Pupils could describe a supermarket using the five senses, or at different times of day or from varying points of view. Throw in some surprises: "Now write for five minutes as the person manning the CCTV cameras." "Now write as a deaf person doing their shopping." "Now write as a can of beans."

When I write on the board "Paragraph 1 - simile; paragraph 2 - exaggeration; paragraph 3 - rhetorical question" as compulsory though not exclusive elements, this seems to work well. First, however, we discuss the definition of a paragraph.

For the competitive element, the (realistic) word count is still the undisputed champion. I don't know why they love it, but they do. Add spice by telling them that every string of 20 words has to contain one they have found in a thesaurus.

Writing a draft at length, checking, correcting and rewriting: it is not exactly cutting edge. But while they are doing it, you can wander round and teach individuals: something you cannot do while coordinating an invasion of wildebeest.

Fran Hill teaches English in a Warwickshire secondary school and is a freelance writer and performer. You can download her e-book, Being Miss, from the Amazon Kindle store

What else?

Pupils with a lot to say will enjoy Temperance's autobiographical writing scheme of work.


For a creative approach to redrafting, try Claire Kelly's PowerPoint. bit.lydrafttime

Spotlight on ...


Encourage pupils to treat others equally and to celebrate their differences.

Start with a crossword on citizenship and diversity. Do pupils know what it means to segregate a community or to be prejudiced?

Try Brentford0's resource pack and discuss homophobic bullying with the help of case studies and profiles of famous gay people, such as Alan Turing.

Compare customs across the globe with Culturecrossing.net. Then get pupils to research cultural differences between Britain and another country.

For a creative task, ask pupils to write a soap opera storyline that deals with issues of prejudice in a small community.

For these resources and more, try the TES Diversity in the Classroom collection.


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