Over the past two years, many schools have been tempted by the glossy key stage 3 test materials that have been produced with the endorsement of GCSE examination boards. These resources usually track GCSE assessment objectives back into Year 7. In English departments, we have often welcomed this approach.
However, my view is that we risk taking KS3 in completely the wrong direction when we put the demands of a high-stakes accountability system ahead of our pupils’ long-term benefit. As Amanda Spielman, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector at Ofsted, recently lamented, such practice will not “set our children up for great futures”.
My concern is that some assessment objectives appear to have become more equal than others and are dominating our planning.
Why, for example, is the requirement to “analyse how writers use structure” more worthy of focus at KS3 than the requirement to “use spoken Standard English effectively in speeches and presentations”? Perhaps because the latter is much harder to teach and assess properly.
And why is the requirement to “communicate imaginatively” often squeezed into the margins of KS3 planning? Is it enough to plonk a picture in front of students and tell them to respond to it in 40 minutes using a check-list of grammatical structures en route? Yes, they may end up doing that at the end of Year 11, but they do not need to do it at the beginning of Year 7 after a year of test preparation in Year 6.
This desiccated approach to “writing imaginatively” surely cannot be in our pupils’ best interests. So what should we be doing instead?
In a recent workshop, Annabel Watson, from the University of Exeter Centre for Research in Writing, made the point that it is critical to allow young writers the freedom to explore ideas; to test things out; and to write to find out what they want to say.
She also made the point that our pupils need time and space to plan and refine their ideas; time to produce exploratory free-writing that will not be marked; time to share and revise their work as they write; and time to re-read the writing at a later date before producing a final version.
One excellent way to make this happen is by planning extended time in Year 7 for a writing project. For this, you could adapt something that is ready-made for your particular cohort of pupils. For example, Exeter University’s Grammar for Writing Project contains some fantastic KS3 resources that also help consolidate the language learning that pupils bring from Year 6.
However, if you would prefer to create your own resources, then I have some experience.
All my projects are based on the same premise: the central character – the first person narrator – is placed in a challenging scenario and has to work through a series of unexpected plot developments before being able to return home.
Over the course of 4-6 weeks, pupils create a fantasy world and navigate their narrator through that world in their own way. Most will start to make connections through discussion with their own interests, prior knowledge and experience. This in turn will impact on the quality of their writing.
Success is not, of course, guaranteed: writing projects need careful planning and close guidance. So here are five tips for creating projects that work.
1. Setting choice is key
The most successful settings tend to be remote locations in a dystopian future where the characters have no access to smartphones or the internet. This encourages pupils to engage in methods of problem-solving that are often unfamiliar, as their characters are forced to interact with others.
2. Specify the basic plot
You will need to map out the skeleton of the ‘plot’ for yourself so you can guide the pupils through the story, but do not release any spoilers about the planned plot twists. The secret is to be gently prescriptive in terms of plot direction while providing opportunities for choice based on their character’s profile. (Do not let them kill off their first person narrator. You will be starting with the end in mind – they will not.)
To begin, create a brief back story that explains how and why the character has arrived at the particular location.
3. Start with exploratory tasks
Devise some short exploratory tasks to help pupils create their character (the narrator) and setting – these tasks can also help consolidate language learning from Year 6. For example, this could be a character profile (containing expanded noun phrases); a sketch and brief description of the setting (using prepositional phrases); or rules and regulations for survival in the new community (using imperatives).
4. Do not mark everything
There is no need for marking marathons in the early stages. My advice is that you use peer assessment, the school rewards system and, if possible, the lure of the laminated wall display. Just ensure that pupils are on task with ideas that will work as the project develops and give the the class time and space to share ideas and read out work. Build in time for discussion about the use of language and its effects. For example, discuss as a whole class the use of different persuasive devices in a speech which asks for a volunteer to make a dangerous reconnaissance mission.
5. Use question prompts
Start posing questions that will result in the narrator making decisions. For example: You have just arrived on this planet, and the inhabitants took care of you when your spaceship crash-landed. Do you and your colleagues have the right to take from the planet the minerals that your government has asked you to collect? Carefully chosen questions can stimulate high-quality discussion, and work particularly well if pupils have already had opportunities to develop their formal oracy skills.
As pupils start to grapple with such issues, set writing tasks that will build on the discussions, and move the project forward. For example: scripts of arguments between characters (draw attention to the relative merits of standard and non-standard English in dialogue); diary entries after a stressful incident (focus on tenses as they switch between recounting events and describing thoughts and feelings); and letters home (using emotive language or concealing the truth to spare the feelings of those at home). Give pupils time to read/listen to/discuss other pupils’ work.
Only when the pupils are fully immersed in the story will they be ready to produce a final piece of narrative under controlled conditions for assessment. I usually go with “The Final Encounter” or “The Aftermath”, depending on the setting. In my experience, these final narratives are often very powerful pieces of writing as the pupils have invested a lot in them. And apart from all the other possible benefits – including those Watson outlined along side a deeper understanding of their own view of the world – I truly believe projects like this will make a difference to pupils’ writing at KS4.
Fran Nantongwe teaches English in Norfolk