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A way with words

Chris Johnston finds out how an author's skills can be used to improve pupil's history writing

Last year, Michael Long, a history teacher and assistant head teacher at Kingsbury High School in Brent, north London, was in a book store with his son when he came across a historical novel aimed at 12 to 13-year-olds, written by David Webb.

It got him thinking about how to improve writing in his Year 8 history class. He decided to contact the author, who is a former primary head teacher and author of 12 novels for young people.

After discussing ideas with Michael, David agreed to come to Kingsbury to run a workshop encouraging students to use their historical knowledge and develop their writing skills at the same time.

Thirty able Year Eights were selected for the day-long workshop focusing on the Tudors, which they had been studying in history.

The day began with David reading a chapter from one of his books. He then went through it, explaining where the ideas came from and the process a professional author goes through when writing. He then spent an hour getting ideas from the students and discussing how an author would elaborate on them. Pupils ended the day by writing their own fiction.

Following the workshop, students' writing has significantly improved.

"The language they are using is much more adventurous; the sentence construction is more complex - it's had a profound effect," says Michael.

Pupils now realise the importance of introductions, after David explained that an author has to impress a publisher right from the start. As a consequence, the students now structure the first paragraph in their essays much more carefully and have a better understanding of how to write for an audience, and how to compell them to read further.

"Their attitude to writing has changed by having someone who does it for a living come in to work with them."

Michael is confident the workshop will help students perform better in SAT tests. He urges other history teachers to try a focused workshop. Although it was designed for more able students, a workshop could be pitched at any ability level.

The session cost about pound;200, most of which covered David's travel from Manchester and a hotel room. Funding came from the Excellence in Cities' Gifted and Talented programme. Six Year 7 pupils from Kingsbury Green (a feeder primary school) also took part in the workshop.

From his point of view, David calls the cross-curricular exercise a "very good project" in which students came up with superb work.

The head of a Bolton primary until 2000, David Webb left to concentrate on his writing, and to conduct writing workshops and teacher training. His next novel for young people is set during World War Two and will be published this summer.

David Webb's most recent novels are available from Educational Printing Services: Tel: 01254 882 080

To contact David Webb: Tel: 0161 797 9840 Email:

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