Literacy is not just for Christmas

4th December 2009 at 00:00
Books are not an unusual gift at this time of year, but for the pupils at Carmondean Primary, their handmade missives were more than just another Christmas story

The illustrated stories the children are creating look more like illuminated manuscripts than conventional books, and could easily have been made by dedicated medieval monks. But the learning and teaching, in this project at Carmondean Primary, in Livingston, are thoroughly modern, deceptively simple and rather revolutionary.

"The idea is that writers write because they have a story to tell," says Gill Friel. "The message for the teacher is that it's important for children to be emotionally connected to their story. Only then will they care enough to want to tell it well."

The starting point is not teaching to address difficulties with grammar, punctuation or word choice, explains the former headteacher and education consultant. "Of course these are important. But that approach leads children to see writing as just another task they do to please the teacher. They don't understand why they've to use different words. They don't spontaneously apply the teaching to new tasks. They see their job as applying rules and using specific words. They're actually learning to be quite passive.

"There is no room for ideas or creativity, and they're not getting the idea that writing is about exploring ideas or sharpening their thinking. Often the teacher gets 30 versions of the same story."

That is not happening at Carmondean, where head Jan Lumsden invited Gill Friel to deliver inservice to all the teachers, then mapped out a four- week block of teaching across the school to put what they had learned into practice - and produce 400 different Christmas stories.

"The children have their heads down and are loving it," says Mrs Lumsden. "They're completely absorbed. We've kept maths going and are using drama to act out their stories. But anything that doesn't link naturally to their books has been dropped and will be picked up later. The focus across the school is imaginative writing. We keep good records and will pick subjects up later, and maybe do a bit less writing for a time. It's what Curriculum for Excellence is about. The children are producing wonderful work."

So are the teachers, says P4's Joanne Hitchen. "I came away from Gill's inservice excited by the idea of creating quality work that meant something to the children. There's also that aspect for me as a teacher - I'm getting the time to do quality teaching, irrespective of the subject.

"Yesterday, we were doing the next piece of writing for our books, and I took them home with me, because you never manage to get round them all. I was looking at some of the wee kids who usually struggle with writing and was flabbergasted at what they'd managed to produce. I couldn't believe it."

These benefits come at a price, Mrs Friel tells teachers frankly. "It's a demanding approach. Teachers need to analyse quickly and teach individuals, groups and the class in responsive and pro-active ways. They need to observe what children do and how they do it, try to see the task from the child's point of view, decide what to teach and how to teach it most effectively."

Having put the approach into practice for three weeks, Miss Hitchen can confirm that it is no easy option. "It's difficult, but in an enjoyable way. I have 30 children in my class, who are going to have produced a book by the end of four weeks. You have to think of all those individual needs and get to help them all.

"You need to have high expectations of every pupil to get the benefits. So I'm going home with the books every night, looking at what the children have done that day, writing comments so they can make improvements. It's a lot of work.

"On the other hand, you're not having to do bits and pieces of maths and reading and art. You have one focus for four weeks."

Mrs Friel has collaborated for many years with Sue Ellis, reader in literacy and language at Strathclyde University, who explains the thinking that underpins the approach: "Research shows that two things build learner engagement. One is strategic teaching that makes links from one lesson to the next, as well as across the curriculum.

"Learners often see teaching as context-bound. You give them really good teaching but they think it applies only to that lesson and that subject area. So we need to encourage them to make links, to take teaching points in one lesson and apply them to others.

"The other thing we know increases engagement is working for a real purpose. So if the children think about who's going to be reading their story, and actually write it as a gift for that person, you build that purpose in from the start."

Every Carmondean pupil has therefore selected someone they care about, who will receive the book they are making. In Christmas week the Primary 6s are also going to read their stories to the children in the nursery, whom they will be buddying next year. "That means we've not to make it too scary, because they're just small," says Lauren McKissock. "We do have to make it like `what's-going-to-happen-next?' though."

At a more personal level, Lauren and her brother Nathan are making their books for the newest member of their family. "Our sister's three on Thursday, so we're both going to give our books to her," says Nathan.

Hannah will give her book to her cousin; Molly to her brother.

"A lot of people are giving their books to their grandad, but nobody's mentioned their granny to me," says Mrs Lumsden. "I'm a bit upset about that, because I'm a granny and I'd love to get one for Christmas."

"I'm giving mine to my gran," Luke Taylor (P6) pipes up. "And my grandpa. My mum and dad will read it first, then pass it to them, then they'll share it with my cousins and everybody."

This kind of present, produced by sustained effort, is more valuable than one bought in the shops at the last minute. "You plan it one day, and write things down in your jotter," Luke says. "That gives you more ideas and you can change them before you write them in your book."

It's an approach that contrasts with the short burst type of teaching that is more usual with writing, or indeed most subjects in school, says Mrs Ellis. "The hardest part of imaginative writing is getting started. So if you do a piece of writing one session, then a week later start a different piece, you're always asking them to do the hardest bit."

Surprisingly perhaps, given children's love of variety, the Carmondean pupils, now in their third week of the project, are still keen - and not just the usual high achievers. A show of hands in each classroom gets an enthusiastic response and lots of volunteers to talk about their books:

"I like it because it's crafts as well as writing, and we get to make our characters and do our Santas, and cut them out and draw pictures," says Jamie. "It's fun."

"It joins all our learning together in one bit of work," says Rebecca. "You concentrate on one thing, rather than having a bit of art to do, then a bit of reading, then a bit of writing."

"You have to keep going or give up," Jack says. "But if you keep on going, it's done before you know it. And getting there is fun."

"It's about your own ideas," says Abdurrmen. "You get those by using your brain. But if you can't come up with any, the teacher writes some on the board to get you started."

The children are more confident now about their writing, says Miss Hitchen. "They've been doing a lot and getting praised for good work, as well as one-to-one time. Gill gave us the approach and an outline for the work at each stage. She inspired us. As a teacher, you're adapting as you go, depending on your class, where they want to take it and what they need as individuals.

"Doing it as a whole school has loads of advantages. The teachers are all talking about it in the staffroom. We're sharing our knowledge and experiences. The children are talking to each other in their own class and to children in other classes, especially those with brothers and sisters. It is so nice as a school to be all working towards a common goal."

- Gill Friel delivers inservice sessions to primary schools on fiction, non-fiction and poetry writing: Tel: 01360 311245; E:


The essential element of good literacy teaching is that it must be sustained, says Judith Gillespie, chair of the literacy commission that has been examining literacy teaching and learning in Scotland's schools since the summer of 2008.

"Literacy has to be a constant priority in schools. No matter what else teachers are asked to address, literacy remains at the top," she said.

"Apart from constancy and continuity of effort, there is no magic bullet. You can't ever think `I've done it'. In every generation there will be youngsters who have problems, and without sustained effort will continue to struggle. The Literacy Commission has identified how centrally important literacy is to all learning - and, indeed, to the whole of a person's life."

- The Literacy Commission's report, A Vision for Scotland, is published today.


- Sustained and concentrated over several weeks. "Children live with their story long enough to tell it well".

- Explicitly aimed at building intellectual, social and emotional engagement with the writing.

- Guidance and comment, from teacher and peers, provided during the writing, rather than only when over.

- Art, talking and listening integrated with the writing.

- Writing for a real purpose - to give the book to a loved one.

- Children encouraged to look for links with other curricular areas.

- Space and time built in for children to think. "When I get to a hard bit in my writing, I'll get up and make a cup of tea," says Sue Ellis. "Kids in school can't do that."

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