Real Writers, by James Ross Troughton – This article originally appeared in Issue 49 of the UKEd Magazine. Click here to view.
Teaching writing is tough. Really tough.
Not the mechanics of the process – although this is tricky in its own right – the construction of quality writing that is both purposeful and effective in achieving its goal… that’s the really tricky bit. The use of the individual writing components that have been pushed to the forefront in the current national curriculum is important in the development of writing skill (though being able to name the past progressive tense when you see it is quite another matter) yet reducing writing to ticklists of mechanical skills is about as progressive and fun to teach as a student made of brickwork and sawdust.
One of the issues with teaching a real love for narrative writing in school – and developing a culture about writing for pleasure in school as a whole – is that so few teachers actually practise the art themselves. The vast majority of teachers read for pleasure, depending on when they can find the time, but how many in the classroom actually write for pleasure? In developing a class of enthusiastic authors-to-be, I suggest a large focus should be placed on helping children to develop authorial habits that allow them to become increasingly independent in writing high-quality prose. To do this, it’s important we do not just give them the practice to follow, but we teachers engage in it as well and go on an authorial journey with our classes too.
Jotters (or magpie books) are a fantastic way to get children beginning to think like real writers. There’s an old saying that there are only seven basic plots in a story and that every story – every story – is a variant or combination of the seven. Introducing children to basic story archetypes and how these are structured is one thing – Giving them the tools to go away and use them independently is another. With a magpie book, children can be taught a structure and then given their own template to take away with them. Over their time in school, they must revisit these and gradually internalise a variety of story structures. For those children who do not devour books away from school (and build a strong internal understanding of story beats through this), being given these tools can work wonders in helping them to start to confidently and competently write stories independently
It is crucial that the use of the jotter becomes habitual. This means referring to it both often and clearly, early on in the year, model to the children how it might be used. Come across a particularly wonderful adjective in your reading? Add it to your notebook. Encounter a metaphor that made your heart shiver with pleasure? Add it to your jotter. The idea is not to simply ‘steal’ these ideas and re-use them continually, but to pick when to use them and when to innovate and expand on them. Something we as teachers must model incessantly and with fervour.
Take the delightful novel ‘The Explorer’ by Katherine Rundell, and this delightful description of the main character – ‘Inside, Fred was hunger, hope, and wire.’ It’s a fantastic piece of writing and provokes great discussion in class. What does it mean? What does it tell us about this character in just a few short words? It’s also ripe for innovation – How could we describe another character in such a fashion and create such a powerful effect? What if we were describing, for example, a cruel witch in a short story? ‘Inside, she was anger, ambition and thorns’ or ‘On the inside, she was nothing but coal and spite.’
This is incredibly easy to innovate on after some discussion and helps to create a wholly new effect with some genuine quality writing. As we model this process with children – picking out language and sentence structures we like during guided reading, class novels, and from model texts – it a) develops a love of language and b) gradually builds up a bank of ‘good’ work they can draw from independently. And from little seeds, great independent writers grow – After reminding themselves of phrases that *work* a few times, these language patterns become increasingly embedded and children will start using them, and innovated versions of them, without reference to the original in their jotter.
Fundamental to all this is showing the children how it’s done and that a great idea can come from anywhere. Magpie great lines from great stories, from model texts and class readers, but don’t be afraid to take them from the children’s own writing and add it to your own jotter. Nothing will make a reluctant writer shine brighter than seeing their teacher drawing on the child’s own writing when modelling writing with the class.
For this approach to work, none of this can happen in a vacuum. Reading together in the classroom is already common practice across the country; teachers regularly discuss books with children in our school and can relate to the children as readers and purveyors of literature. By modelling and sharing how writers – real writers – magpie, borrow, steal and manipulate, we all become authors together as well. All of this, combined with daily conversations about books, language, and writing, is how we can develop children with a thirst not only for books, but for writing, and a real understanding of what it’s all actually for.
And if you don’t write yourself… why not trying going on a journey like this with your class? Because even if you aren’t inspired to write yourself, with an approach like this, the children surely will be.
James Ross Troughton @JRTroughton is a Senior Leader, teacher and English co-ordinator based in Essex. He has taught in both the South Korean and the UK Primary system.