A new creative writing resource uses pictures, sounds and 'thought maps' to fire pupils' imagination. Stephen Manning reports
You're walking through a forest to the sound of soothing acoustic music.
You are at peace with nature and with your surroundings. Suddenly the music changes to sinister synthesiser. Are aliens about to land? You're in the same place, but you know you're now in a very different story.
This is the approach behind Picture the Music, a CD-Rom primary literacy resource for key stages 1 and 2, combining still images with music to get young children thinking about creative writing, and especially about a story's narrative structure.
This can be a difficult task but Philip Davis, the resource's creator, believes the best way to do it is to utilise the kind of narrative they are already familiar with - that of television and cinema.
"Children have lost the ability to see the purpose of writing," says Philip. "But they have some understanding of narrative because they see it used on TV and in films. This is trying to show them that everything on screen has been written down, that writing is purposeful."
The CD-Rom features around 600 pictures of buildings, landscapes, characters, objects and animals, covering everything you might encounter in a story - castles and caves, ogres and skeletons, aliens and mythological creatures. Philip also composed and recorded the 80 minutes' worth of music on the supplementary audio disc, ranging from uptempo beats to gentle acoustic guitar tracks and scary synthesiser music, along with electronic bleeps, special effects and "natural" sounds such as ocean waves and footsteps in gravel.
The four stages are Look, Listen, Think, Write. The children are shown an image, then the introduction of a piece of music changes their perception of what is happening. "Pictures are what they see, music is what they feel," says Philip.
The next stage is to organise their ideas using "thought maps". These have five points to introduce the elements of narrative: opening, build-up, problem, solution, ending. On the whiteboard, images are placed on the points to stimulate ideas. The children might also have mats with the five-point maps, on which they write or draw their ideas.
The main problem with creative writing is not knowing what to write, but once the ideas are organised in this way, the task becomes less daunting.
Getting the younger children to engage with narrative, however, isn't easy.
"They tend to want to bring in what they know, like family members," says Philip.
"A grandmother will suddenly walk in on a story set in outer space. So you need to get them into a more imaginative orbit."
But as the Picture the Music website states: "Once children are writing from their imagination, rather than from memory, they are unstoppable." It is also important to get them thinking past the literal, as Philip explains. "On one map, for the opening I put a picture of a rocket and the build-up was a planet.
"Then for the problem, I introduced a mushroom. The obvious interpretation they came up with was that there were mushrooms, perhaps poisonous ones, growing on this planet. I told them I wanted them to thinking a bit more creatively so it became a mushroom-shaped footprint or some kind of explosion resulting in a mushroom cloud."
The resource also features a music section, which dispenses with images and "grows" a story out of natural sounds placed in sequence. In the poetry section, the elements of narrative are replaced by simile, metaphor and personification.
Philip started to develop the programme about six years ago when he was a teacher and ICT co-ordinator in Plumstead, south-east London. He stopped teaching full-time about 18 months ago and is now a teaching consultant, running workshops and training days in schools around the UK
Picture the Music costs pound;39.99 one copy (just software), or pound;99.99 with 30 mats. See it at the Education Show, Birmingham NEC, March 22-24.www.picturethemusic.com