The way you tell 'em;Literacy

26th February 1999 at 00:00
Sue Palmer looks at how pupils can develop their short-story writing skills in time for the national tests

That time of year is looming again, as teachers across the land engage in the unwelcome seasonal activity of teaching to the tests. The 10-year-olds of England and Wales will practise story-writing as though their lives depended on it. Perhaps they do. It's a strange thought that our pupils' life chances may rest on how well they can churn out a neatly-rounded short story in 45 minutes. Especially since, once they've left primary school, there's little chance they'll need to write another.

Yet year after year, pupils opt for the story-writing task, so test-season after test-season teachers have to show them how to do it.

I'm one of those who does occasionally have to write short stories in a very short time (phone call from desperate editor: "I need 400 words, suitable for six-year-olds, somehow connected with the weather. And can you do it by lunchtime?"), so teachers sometimes drag me into classrooms to give a few hints to my fellow authors. The tips that follow sum up what advice I can give, which is not a lot. Essentially, the secret of writing short stories is to read lots of them.

In this respect the literacy hour should be a useful innovation test-wise. Shared reading of good stories, coupled with discussion of how the authors achieved their effects, might be more productive than endless practice of past papers. There should be no shortage of stories - just nip down to the infant department and purloin some good large picture books - perfect discussion material.

The literacy hour format can also be easily translated into a "writers' workshop", for focusing on aspects of the writer's art (such as characterisation, setting, planning, carrying a story through direct speech).

During the hour you can:

* Look at (or, in the case of story planning, imagine) how some authors deal with the issue.

* Ask pupils to try it themselves in a shared writing session, with you scribing as the children talk about what to write.

* Send them off for 20 minutes to have a go themselves, while you work more closely with the guided writing group.

* At the end, reassemble for a plenary celebration of their work.

One focused workshop a week should improve children's grasp of narrative conventions more than regular attempts to dredge up a complete story. As the tests draw near, they'll need practice putting the whole thing together, and eventually doing so under exam conditions.

But if you really want my advice, take the non-fiction option every time.

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