It can be a struggle to help students recognise that writing needs to give a sense of the real; that it needs to hold an audience and have a sense of purpose. One way of doing this is to use simulations.
Many decades ago, the English and Media Centre (EMC) had success with a project called School Under Siege. This gave students an exciting scenario - being quarantined in school with a contagious illness - and lots of opportunities for lively discussion and writing. Teachers still recount their memories of doing the simulation when they were pupils; some remember it as the best thing they ever did in English. Some students became so engrossed that the events took on a life of their own and even the usually unengaged wrote reams and reams.
Simulations offer opportunities to write in role, in different genres and for different audiences in quick succession. Students can discover what is special about each genre and how they relate to others.
The student who is writing a letter of application, followed by a script for a video-diary and then an email home, is able to explore differences of style and address. If every piece of writing sounds just like the student's own talking voice, the teacher can explore with the student how to differentiate them. It also helps students to understand that terms such as "argument", "persuasion" and "information" can overlap with entertainment.
EMC publication Arctic Adventure offers a simulation based on a group of students who are young ambassadors for the Catlin Project, a science venture in the Arctic. Students are put in the roles of the few who have been chosen to visit the project. They must then write letters of application and blogs, reports, menus, emails and letters home - as well as engaging in several lively talk activities along the way. There are dilemmas to resolve (such as deciding what to pack in a small, shared rucksack when going out on the ice with one of the team) and dangerous incidents (such as a team member being badly injured) to role-play and write about.
When the material was piloted at a school in Kent for pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, teachers commented on the enthusiasm it generated, particularly among boys, and added that it provided good opportunities for cross-curricular work. It has proved equally successful with high-ability students, for instance in a mixed grammar school in London.
Barbara Bleiman is co-director of the English and Media Centre
Go back in time with English Heritage's cross-curricular simulation. What was life like for a child during the Blitz?
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In the forums
Teachers in the TES English forum debate whether we should replace Of Mice and Men with something "a bit more inspiring".
Find all links and resources at www.tes.co.ukresources025.