Unexpected genres

9th February 2001 at 00:00
Non-fiction texts areof all kinds and everywhere, points out Geoff Barton. Literacy teaching will never be short of materials

I have read a number of books recently aimed at trainee English teachers. They invariably trot out the same set of homilies. First they give a dutiful trawl through the history of English teaching, pausing to sneer at the unseemly spats over key stage 3 testing, then lament the demise of 100 per cent coursework options, and finish with a swipe at the National Literacy Strategy. Perhaps I am becoming cynical of cynicism. It does not seem funny any more.

That cosy world of coursework and differentiation by outcome such books celebrate suddenly seems more cosy for teachers than it was for students. I cringe in hindsight at the diet of English my pupils had during the first part of my career. They were lucky to have read anything written before 1960, except perhaps the odd war poet. Literature consisted largely of Kes, Stan Barstow's stories (which I still love) and Of Mice and Men. For a while I was persuaded that teaching Shakespeare made me an oppressor and that poetry worked best when it was light verse.

Look at pupils' English diet now. My son - aged seven - came home raving about the work he is doing on Greek myths and asking vexing questions about compound nouns. A colleague of mine woos her Year 8s with Milton. My Year 11 naughty boys gave their best-ever literature responses to Wordsworth last year. Then there is JK Rowling, David Almond, Jacqueline Wilson and Philip Pullman. There is nothing impoverished in this mix of classics and new writing.

Meanwhile the range of non-fiction texts in class has exploded into new and exciting areas. Unexpected genres are there for the taking - sports writing, advertising transcripts, film screenplays, and cookery books. Yes, Delia Smith has made it on to my personal list of set texts.

All this is in a context which, some would have us believe, is closing down reading pleasure. I cannot remember a time when reading in class was so liberating and lively. Those who recount the old lie of a reductionist curriculum similarly misrepresent the Framework for Teaching English Years 7 to 9. They describe it as a narrow list of skills, neatly carved and arranged on a cold platter to be served up to unwilling pupils. They miss the point. The key to teaching the Framework successfully is to see it chiefly as method rather than content. It is not a list of language points to be mechanically ticked off like the morning register. Instead, it is a process. Start with something active - a question, puzzle, activity, mystery text. Best of all use a question to kick-start the exploration:

* How do writers build suspense?

* How do writers tell stories from different points of view?

* How do advertisers of products that are really tacky persuade us that we cannot live without them?

Next look at a sample text. The best texts are short and pithy: a snippet from a brochure or leaflet, a cutting from a Daily Mail editorial, the instructions on how to programme your video. Arid analysis will not work. Students have to explore the text actively. So write it for a different audience - someone who has owned a video previously, or for someone who is not even sure how to open the box. Make it more personal. Make it more impersonal. Make it chatty. Set the instructions out in a continuous prose paragraph. Change them to bullet points. Add more description. Cut all description. Make the verbs more active. Tell the whole thing using dagrams and labels.

This is the best kind of language study: students exploring how a text works by taking it apart and rebuilding it. I call it bionic English.

Next begin to formulate conventions. What are the best ways of giving instructions? What would you advise a writer to do if (a) the subject is technical and (b) the audience is unfamiliar with the topic? Make a list of style hints, tips or rules on how to write effectively within this genre.

Now put the rules into practice. Write the next paragraph of an instruction text. Write the opening of a different piece of instructional writing. This is the part of the process that most builds students' confidence. Pause. Ask students to read bits out. Write their examples on the overhead projector. Invite feedback and criticism. Sharpen the understanding of language conventions. This takes English back to its textual roots - to Empson and Leavis and I A Richards - promoting close, engagement with the texts. This is not reductionist. Choosing to read an extract from cookery writer Nigel Slater is not to debunk Dickens. Nor does a stringent approach to literacy mean the creative heart of English is being squeezed.

For some texts we might use drama as the starting-point, for example, to look at point of view, or get someone to role-play a set of instructions. Talk will usually underpin the whole process - exploratory talk between students, feedback to the whole class, questions to clarify and statements to explain. The key is a combination of planning and creative thinking. Planning is crucial to avoid deluding ourselves with hindsight. It is easy to pick up the Framework objectives and to say "yes, I've covered all of those". That is not the point. There is a need to make language conventions more explicit, and this requires more careful planning, identifying the objectives we aim to cover and - crucially - articulating these to our pupils.

The other aspect is creativity. The Framework lends itself to importing a range of new texts into the classroom. Short extracts focus the mind and can then develop into extended reading and writing. Ignore the doom-mongers and do what English teachers do best: bring enthusiasm about reading, writing, and speaking and listening into the classroom, and encourage your students to respond. It does not have to be called literacy: it is just good English teaching.

Geoff Barton teaches in Suffolk and is a Fellow of the English Association. He is author of 'Writing to 14' (Oxford University Press)E-mail: geoffbarton@mac.com



* Grab leaflets from the supermarket or doctor's surgery

* Explore the conventions of text messages and e-mail

* Compare printed newspapers and their internet versions

* Analyse charity websites

* Rewrite instructions for kitchen appliances

* Compare the language of 'The Beano' today with 40 years ago

* Explore different cookery writers - from Mrs Beaton to Elizabeth David to Jamie Oliver


* Compare the final paragraphs of stories in three genres - romance, horror, crime thriller

* Explore an easy-reader version of a Victorian novel

* Analyse graphic novels

* Explore the language of teen magazine photostories

* Compare two versions of the same fairy tale

* Use 50-word short stories to explore narrative structure

* Retell a story using only dialogue

* Change the point of view of a crime thriller from third to second person

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