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Grammar, writing and drama activities – Use Pie Corbett’s portal story Elf Road to develop skills

These creative writing ideas and examples from Alison Wilcox will help pupils use compelling language to keep the reader on the edge of their seat

  • Grammar, writing and drama activities – Use Pie Corbett’s portal story Elf Road to develop skills

READ ON TO DISCOVER…

  • how children can learn new words and explore grammar for writing in context
  • how writing can be improved with drama acitivities
  • how to analyse story structure
  • how to plan a story and create a writing toolkit
Read in 5 minutes…

Billy had always been curious. One sunny afternoon, he was walking down Elf Road when he saw an unusual wooden door in the brick wall. The metal handle was shaped like a dragon’s mouth. Gently, he turned it and the door creaked open. Inside, there was a huge, dark hall.

On an enormous table, someone had set out a great feast with slices of chicken, bowls of salad, jars of fruit and plates of sweet puddings. Hundreds of tiny people were serving steaming pies, fresh strawberries like gleaming embers and glasses full of creamy drinks. They were dressed in rainbow coloured clothes with scarlet cloaks, pointed mustard yellow shoes and crimson caps. Billy tried to talk to the tiny people but they did not say a word!

In the middle of the table was a glittering dragon carved out of ice and in its beak there was a folded piece of paper.

“Look where you wish, but don’t touch a dish.”

So, Billy wandered further into the hall, walked past a great fireplace and, at the end, he found a golden cupboard.

Amazed, he opened the door and inside was a golden apple sitting on a silver plate. It smelt so sweet and his mouth was so dry that he picked it up and took a bite. The glistening apple tasted of sunlight! At that very moment, Billy gasped because he had remembered what he had been told.

Instantly, he could hear a thousand mocking voices ringing in his ears like sharp, clanging bells. Billy shuddered and ran from the echoing sound. Clutching the apple, he dashed through the dark hall, past the great table with the tiny people running behind him. Just in time, he found the wooden door that led him back to his own world.

Amazingly, two very strange things happened after Billy reached home. First, Billy planted the apple pips. One grew into a beautiful tree with blossoms of silver and apples of gold that glowed like tiny suns. His mother said that the fruit tasted sweeter than starlight itself. Second, poor Billy never saw the door again, even though he walked up and down Elf Road many times. At school, they said that Billy was always lost in his daydreams. He dreamed of dark halls, fantastic feasts and golden cupboards. Sadly, that other world had disappeared. Well, at least, Billy never found his way back…

Let’s get started

There are many stories around the world about gateways into other worlds. This ‘portal’ story has a warning at its core and is a great story for Year 3 and 4 children, though it can also be used with older pupils. Children love describing the new setting, the little people and the magical feast.

Get immersed in the story

Draw story maps and use actions to retell the story. Let the children work in groups. Weaker writers benefit from knowing a text word for word as this helps them to internalise sentence patterns and vocabulary. Stronger writers can retell the tale in their own words, embellishing. Make sure they perform their stories using expression.

Once the class are familiar with the story, read it. Discuss any vocabulary and also the following questions:

  • What does ‘curious’ mean?
  • Which words make the door sound different?
  • Discuss the effect of the words that make the hall sound scary: Gently, he turned it and the door creaked open. Inside, was a huge, dark hall.
  • Give two reasons to explain why Billy picked up the apple.
  • Which words suggest that the apple was amazing?
  • How do we know how Billy felt once he had eaten the apple?
  • Why were the voices ‘mocking’?
  • Explain why Billy shuddered.
  • How has the adventure changed Billy?
  • What do we know about Billy’s mother that might suggest what happened?
  • What does the final line suggest?

Explore grammar in context

Use the story to teach several ‘grammar for writing’ focuses. Notice the use of the comma and how it doesn’t appear before the word ‘and’ in the lists, eg:

‘slices of chicken, bowls of salad, jars of fruit and plates of sweet puddings.’

‘steaming pies, fresh strawberries and glasses full of creamy drinks.’

Underline the nouns in one colour and the adjectives in another colour. Children love writing descriptions of food so bring in a tablecloth, plates and a tea set to create a dining table. Make a list of favourite foods and brainstorm possible adjectives before creating new descriptive lists, building up noun phrases to describe food, eg: ‘On the table, he could see chunks of cheese, tasty teacakes and plates of buttery crumpets.’

Bring in some items of clothing to stimulate lists that describe what the little people wear, eg they were wearing flat cloth caps, mauve silk shirts and emerald green ribbons in their hair. Note down items of clothing and possible adjectives before getting started.

Improve writing with drama

Use a ‘feelings graph’ to show how Billy’s emotions alter during the story, noting quotes from the text to mark the ups and downs. Push back the tables and create a space in the classroom. Children should speak aloud what they know about or think of Billy before he had his adventure and afterwards. How has he changed? Children then step into the space and freeze to become an object in the great hall.

As the teacher moves round in role as Billy, pupils say aloud what object they are and describe themselves. Encourage them to use adjectives to build description and similes to show what things look like, eg:

  • I am the flame’s flicker in the great fireplace, like the scarlet tongue from a dragon’s mouth.
  • I am the great table, made from ancient oak and carved with strange creatures and peculiar patterns.
  • I am a silver plate, complete with a pile of ruby raspberries that have sugar sprinkled on top like snow.

After the descriptive work, turn what the children have said into a descriptive paragraph. Show the scene through Billy’s eyes (Billy stared round the hall) and use prepositions to build the description, eg in the middle, on top, to one side.

Billy stared round the hall. In the middle of the room stood a great table, made from ancient oak and carved with strange creatures and peculiar patterns. On top of it was a silver plate, complete with a pile of ruby raspberries that had sugar sprinkled on top like snow. To one side, flames flickered in the great fireplace like the scarlet tongue from a dragon’s mouth.

Let the children draw the little people, colour in their clothes and provide descriptive labels. This will help children imagine the scene. In role as Billy, children can then write a diary entry about what happened. Generate new ideas Start the children thinking about journeys into ‘magical worlds’ by using a playful poetry pattern.

Read the poetry example below, then use shared writing to show children how to generate and craft their own ideas before they write independently. The aim is to create interesting sentences of three, using commas and alliterative adjectives:

  • I opened the magical door and saw a diabolical dragon, an elegant elf and a greedy goblin.
  • I opened the magical door and saw a silent snake, a gorgeous goat and an elegant elephant.
  • I opened the magical door and saw a charming cherub, a sunlit saucer and a fragile photo.
  • I opened the magical door and saw a silky sunset, serious stars and mournful moons.
  • I opened the magical door and saw meagre mountains, ravenous rivers and ferocious forests.

Analyse the structure

Now box the story up with the children, like this:

This should help them begin to see the underlying pattern that eventually they will be able to use when writing their own ‘portal’ story. Complete the planner with the class giving ideas for a new story. The children then complete their own planner for their own story.

Create a writing toolkit

Focus on learning to write effective descriptions. Draw attention to the use of descriptive lists, well-chosen adjectives and similes to show the reader what things look like. Also, highlight the way in which the prepositions help the reader see where things are placed when describing. Illustrate the toolkit by referring to the story as well as creating new ideas, eg:

Write your own portal stories

Use shared writing to create the class story with the children then planning and writing their own versions. Stretch this over a number of days so that their stories gradually emerge, eg:

Josie had always been nosy. Early one morning before she set off for school, she noticed a strange looking door at the back of the cupboard under the stairs. It had peculiar carvings and the handle was shaped like a pair of strange wings. Carefully, she tugged it open, crouched down and crawled into the darkness.

The inside opened out into what looked like a vast park. In the distance there stretched a bright green forest. Far away, she could see a thin blue line that must have been the sea. Everywhere she looked, she could see strange creatures. Ahead there were yellow monkeys with scarlet wings, tiny tigers with ragged ears like elephants and giant, striped giraffes. Thousands of tiny people seemed to be guarding these strange animals. They were dressed in flat, blue caps, mauve, silk shirts and had emerald green ribbons in their hair. Josie asked one of the tiny people where she was but he just said, “You can wander wherever but don’t touch a feather!”

Click here to download more great free Pie Corbett stories, poems and resources.


Pie Corbett is an English educational trainer, writer, author and poet who has written over 200 books. He is also known for promoting creative approaches in the classroom and has experience as a teacher, headteacher and Ofsted inspector. Follow him on Twitter at @PieCorbett.

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