MORE EMPHASIS should be put on teaching non-fictional writing in primary schools, one of Britain's leading experts in reading said last week - just as the writing of a report in Higher Still English is to become optional.
David Wray, reader in literacy at Exeter University, told an in-service conference attended by 600 East Dunbartonshire primary teachers at Celtic Park that the traditional bias towards narrative lessons had led teachers to underestimate the role and importance of factual writing.
Primaries feel more comfortable with the narrative approach because it is closer to children's speech and most reading schemes are also in this form, Mr Wray said. "This doesn't sit well with the writing and reading experiences that children have in secondary school and certainly in adult life. When they go to secondary, there is a gap between what they are used to and what they are required to do across the curriculum, not just in English."
In Higher Still English, however, the major piece of non-fiction - writing a report - is to be optional and the analysis of a non-fiction text will not be formally assessed. At the same time the controversial literacy hour in English primaries is shifting the balance towards non-fiction. Mr Wray said there was a greater acceptance that pupils had to be good at factual writing. The aim should be a 50:50 split, he suggested.
The current situation led pupils to quote or copy directly from a book when they attempt non-fiction writing without being able to understand or even read what they have produced.
Another major difficulty was the "blank page problem", which highlighted the need for children to be introduced to ways of getting started. Mr Wray commended the use of a "writing frame" in which children take the template of a particular writing structure - what a report might look like, for example. They would be given sentence starters, complete the sentences and so overcome the blank page problem.
Pupils could also be introduced to a grid format based on the letters K ("what do I already know?"), W ("what do I want to know?") and L ("what do I have to learn?"). This was "a vital planning tool" which allowed children to move away from copying.
"These approaches are not formulaic and they are not intended to be used as straightforward worksheets," Mr Wray said. "They act as a scaffold and are of unparalleled usefulness. The point is to focus children's attention on how the frames work and get them to compose their own." The framework approach had "taken off" in England and more than 30,000 copies of a booklet had been sold.
Catherine Dawson, a primary 6 teacher at Mosshead primary in Bearsden, reported an equally positive feedback from her colleagues. The grid could be extremely useful with pupils who had learning difficulties, she said.
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