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Master The New English Curriculum And Get Children To Understand The Impact Of Their Writing

Ian Eagleton saw big improvements when he helped children to take control of their writing – down to the very last semicolon. Here’s how you can do the same...

  • Master The New English Curriculum And Get Children To Understand The Impact Of Their Writing

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A Year 4 class. We’re tackling The Tempest as part of a theme week and I am thoroughly enjoying the challenge of presenting Shakespeare to children at primary age. During a class discussion, I pose the question:

“So how do you think Ariel became imprisoned in a tree?”

Obviously, I know what the answer should be. We have already explored the characters and their relationships and I am expecting them to remember from the previous lesson’s freeze-frame activities the role of the unseen witch, Sycorax. Someone will answer in the affirmative and I can then pat myself on the back at seeing how much they have remembered.

A hand flies up. It belongs to a child whose feet were kicking in excitement as we watched the BBC’s Shakespeare: The Animated Tales. She was transfixed by the magical story of mischief and mayhem on a forgotten, unknown island.

“Yes, go on. Have a go! Why do you think Ariel is in a tree?”

“Because he wanted to be!”

Sniggers from around the class and the children shake their heads. I take a deep breath.

“Well…if you think about it, the tree is a prison for Ariel, isn’t it? You wouldn’t want to be trapped, all squashed up in a tree, would you? Has anyone else got an idea?”

But the hand flies up again.

“No I wouldn’t want to be in a tree, but maybe Ariel is punishing himself for something…”

Now at this point, I can either end this exchange with, “That can’t be right…” – after all, time is precious in a classroom. Instead, I choose a different tack.

“Go on….” I say.

“Maybe a spell went wrong and he feels bad, like in the story you told us, when we did the Romans, about Boudicca poisoning herself. She might have felt she had let the Celts down and so she killed herself and perhaps Ariel is doing the same thing for something bad he’s done.”

Silence. I am dumbfounded. The child in question struggles with her spelling and handwriting, and with our relentless focus on grammar and spelling, has found the new curriculum demands particularly difficult – along with countless other children across the country.

“I would never have thought of that. What a thoughtful answer,” I say, still slightly bemused.

A smile spreads across my face and the child giggles nervously. The class clap. This is perhaps one of the most defining moments of my career, which I have based on a love of stories and teaching English. It is only later in the day that I have time to reflect.

This is an example of when an answer reminds you of why you began teaching – something entirely unquantifiable. Something that you can’t assess or level. An answer that could only come from a child. An answer that shows she has made connections with other areas of the curriculum studied, with other stories we’ve shared and with other periods of time.

It got me thinking. I knew the answer – Ariel was in the tree, bound by Sycorax’s magic. It concerns me that, had the child in question not continued with her line of enquiry and had I not, begrudgingly, allowed her to explore her idea further, she would never have been able to formulate her own response to the text. I would have, skilfully through questions and probing as all good teachers do, led the children to the conclusion I expected. I may have limited that child’s creativity and confidence to freely respond.

It made me wonder how often I had dismissed an idea or response from a child because it didn’t fit with my own adult interpretation? In the past when I modelled then asked the class to write a good example of a newspaper article or persuasive advert, was I asking them to write with an adult’s voice? Having taught in Year 6 for many years, I have been guilty of giving children a pre-prepared list of Success Criteria with the implication that if they tick everything off the list – full stops, capital letters, a fronted adverbial, a range of conjunctions – their writing will suddenly be great. But it doesn’t work like that.

Over the last year, I have begun to rethink and redesign my teaching of writing. I am only too aware of the New Curriculum requirements and the focus on learning a host of complex terminology and spelling patterns, which promote a superficial, closed, ‘right or wrong’ understanding of English. The suggestion being that writing can be only interpreted in one way. Children may be able to tell you fluently and, in my experience, rather manically by the time SATs lurch around, what a ‘determiner’ is, but is this really what writing is about?

Our role as teachers and educators is surely to help children develop their own voice and allow them to write for a range of real, age-appropriate purposes. I believe it is important that children learn the correct terminology and the structure of the English language. But is this all there is to it? Or do they need to know about subordinate clauses and be able to explain why they have used one – what has it added to their text and how it influenced their reader – and then choose when they use it?

In my experience, there are a number of ways we can navigate the new curriculum and develop our children’s passion for writing, helping them understand the impact of their writing.

1. Read, read, read

Read everything with your class. Adverts, newspaper articles, different versions of the same story, poems, instructions – anything can be enjoyed and shared. Very often when I read with a class, we have periods when we ‘just’ read. That’s to say we get swept along by a narrative and engrossed by what is happening. We also take time to look at the language an author has used and discuss the impact it has had on them, as a reader. This is vital in helping children understand that everyone writes for a reason.

2. Now explain yourself!

The most powerful questions I now ask when my children are writing are, “Can you tell me why you’ve used that particular word?” or “What were you trying to get the reader to feel here?” What follows is always an interesting discussion where the children are allowed to explain and justify their vocabulary choices and discuss the impact of their sentence structures.

3. Less marking, more feedback

My own feedback to children’s writing has changed. I no longer write lengthy responses such as, “Well done, you’ve used lots of good adjectives, similes and adverbs!”. I talk to the children, using the correct terminology, about their writing and the image they are trying to create. What did they imagine the reader would be doing whilst reading their story? This means less time marking and being able to give immediate and thorough feedback, such as: “This short sentence made me jump!” or “How can you increase the tension and excitement in this paragraph?” If they want, the children then use a purple pencil to edit and improve their text.

4. Hand control to pupils

When peer marking, my children now have the freedom to choose whether they change their writing in the light of feedback from their response partner. They are in control. Sometimes I’ve heard children say, “No, I wanted to use that word because I think…” Sometimes they may go with their partner’s ideas. Children shouldn’t be pressured into writing what or how we want.

5. Read it out

The occasional mini-plenary throughout the lesson is great for getting children to read their writing and to give them feedback. I do lots of my marking in this time too, as I talk to children about how their writing sounds and the impact it’s had on me as a reader. I simply write ‘Verbal Feedback’ (VF) in the margin. Sometimes I ask children to read out a sentence they’d like some advice about – or of which they are particularly proud. This should be a relaxed, enjoyable session where children can share their writing and celebrate what they have achieved. Hearing their work read aloud and the musicality of language encourages other children to listen more carefully than if the work is placed under a visualiser. It helps promote a love of language, rhyme and pattern.

6. Let children choose success criteria

When I model writing, I talk continuously about why I have chosen a certain word or why I feel a particular sentence construct works well and how I want my reader to feel. What I’ve changed, however, is that I now give the children the option of using my work as a scaffold or of creating their own success criteria. However, they need to explain to me what they are trying to achieve and make their reader feel through the particular style they have chosen. For example, they may not wish to begin the introduction of their report with a question. Children should be allowed to take their reader on the journey of their choosing.

7. Have a sense of purpose

Children at my school are publishing articles for the school’s newsletter, performing scripts and poems to each other, taking part in debates, writing letters to NASA, creating their own eBooks. They are writing persuasive adverts for apps they’ve created, using technology to plan and record their ideas, taking notes in school council meetings, taking part in children and parent writing workshops and running our book fairs. These are all opportunities that are very real and important to them. They are writing at greater length, across a wider range of topics and are thinking about how they can motivate and inspire a reader through their own personal word choices. More importantly, they are starting to tell me why they have chosen a certain adjective, adverb or felt a subordinate clause was needed.

Children need to be aware of their reader and how they can create a living, breathing world of characters to enjoy. They need to know their words have value and are listened to; given time to talk and explore language so that the sun’s rays can be as long as spaghetti and that water can be as dazzling as the stars. Children need to know that their words have impact. They need to know how to write, why they write and to whom they are writing. This is how we develop the voice of a child.

Ian Eagleton has been teaching for 10 years and is currently a Year 4 teacher and phase leader at Elmwood Primary School, South Woodham Ferrers. He also an English consultant working with Just Imagine (justimaginestorycentre.co.uk). He can be contacted at: ian@justimaginestorycentre.co.uk

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