'Miss, we're writing to change the world today!'
To hear these words spoken by a nine-year-old child at the start of a writing exercise is a primary school teacher's dream. To then see the children write with passion, enthusiasm and precision, knowing their words had a real purpose and believing that they could effect change was a moment of immense satisfaction. How had we got to this point?
Lavender Primary School, in Enfield, was invited to participate in the Exeter University 'Grammar for Writing' project alongside our local comprehensive school Chace Community School in a cross phase project. For Lavender, this meant adapting schemes of work intended for Year 8 pupils to make them suitable for the year groups participating in the project: Years 4 and 5. Simultaneously, we wanted to synthesise the 'new' from the Grammar for Writing schemes whilst retaining what we knew to be excellent practice: analysis of text structure, teacher modelled writing, joint composition and supporting learning through the use of a working wall.
The focus of this article will mainly be on Year 4 and their persuasive writing about the impact of palm oil production on orangutans, as this is the class I taught; however the successes detailed later relate to both year groups.
Initially, a skeleton plan was created for both Years 4 and 5 to work from. This was to be literacy in hourly sessions taught over five days per week. From the skeleton Years 4 and 5 went their separate ways so that the content was targeted more appropriately towards each year group. The teaching sequence was to include:
* Immersion in the text type (including film, games, provocative texts)
* Exploration of text structure
* Exploration of grammatical features of text type--through talk, short writing activities and text analysis
* Use of writer talk to analyse writer choices and the impact on the reader
* Short writing exercises to experiment with grammatical features of the genre
* Joint construction and evaluation
* Independent construction
* Review of success--self and peer evaluation
* Context and audience for final writing
* Oral rehearsal in preparation for writing debate
* Independent construction
For Year 5, their great success was starting the unit with Haroon's father's speech from the summer 2011 riots in which he asked people to stay at home to prevent further loss of life. People responded to this heartfelt request and the riots came to an end. This text tapped into their own experience as Enfield had been a site of the riots. The children were enthralled by the speech as it was a real life situation, it had a direct impact and it demonstrated the power of language. The crafting of this speech became a reference point throughout the unit.
'I lost my son. Blacks, Asians, whites--we all live in the same community. Why do we have to kill one another? Why are we doing this?'
Children were able to recall these examples of blunt simple sentence, pattern of three and rhetorical questions throughout the unit.
Persuasive writing in Year 4:
For Year 4, this was the first time they had been introduced to persuasive writing, so initial texts were chosen to reflect the language features of the text type but to also tap into their own age-appropriate personal experience: Playtimes Should Be Banned, Schools Should Have Playstation, advertising aimed at children. The idea was to begin with texts which were relevant to their own direct experience and then broaden out the texts to include 'bigger' ideas. Once familiarity with the text type was established we proceeded to analyse the use of persuasive devices.
Clear text deconstruction was one of the most successful strategies used. It supported the children to both understand the range of persuasive devices which could be used at sentence level (rhetorical questions, blunt simple sentences, repetition, pattern of three, etc) and to begin conversations about creativity and flexibility. Throughout the unit it was emphasised that the persuasive devices 'toolkit' was not a formula to be applied to achieve level 4 writing, but a series of options and possibilities to be used creatively and for effect. An early exercise was to provide pairs with cards to sort: children were first required to match the type of persuasive device with the sentence from the persuasive paragraph.
Once the sentence variety cards had been matched these were then removed and the children were left with the sentences from the paragraph. They were invited to place the sentences from the paragraph in the order that they thought to be most persuasive. This generated a large amount of high quality discussion. No two pairs had the same order. We proceeded to discuss their decisions.
* We placed the blunt simple sentence at the end for impact. We felt it summed up the point the author was making.'
* 'That's interesting, we chose to place the pattern of three sentence at the end because we felt it ended the text with the idea that people can change--three ways they could change. That people can do something about racism.'
* 'We felt that way about the complex sentence because it even gave people who had been racist the chance to change. It contrasted their past with their future.'
Within the same session, children went on to construct their own persuasive text about bullying. The use of persuasive devices cards as a prompt resulted in children composing texts with ease. Building this activity into day 3 of the unit set the tone for future discussions. The children embraced the idea of possibilities and the potential they had individually to craft persuasive devices into texts.
In future writing sessions, children were presented with persuasive devices cards as a planning prompt. This simple planning aide took away the awkward 'getting started' moment that so many children experience. Due to the presence of a simple prompt, the ideas began to flow. Their decision making and choices were then supported through active discussion about language choices and the appropriateness of the vocabulary in context.
Over time, the children began to lead these critical discussions and as class teacher I took on more of a facilitator role. Learning to craft persuasive writing is a highly empowering turning point in every child's writing journey. Early writing skills involve learning to entertain, to instruct, to inform, to report but the power of persuasion is a thrilling new tool. It is the potential to change someone's point of view or influence their actions.
Now came the real fun! Once the year group were confident with the purpose, text structure, language and structural features of the genre, it was time to write independently. Having a number of joint composition and independent writing tasks under their belts, they were ready to write independently. So what should the context be? How would we get them fired up and writing with real purpose for a real audience? Our class topic was 'The Environment', so we were keen to make a link. Born to be Wild was the perfect choice (a stunning and highly emotive 3D documentary detailing the work of Birute Galdikas and Daphne Sheldrick with orphaned orangutans and elephants respectively). The threat experienced by orangutans struck a cord with the children and suddenly we had a purpose for our writing --persuading people to buy sustainable palm oil in order to help prevent further destruction of orangutans' habitat. The motivation to write created an authenticity to their work which is not inherent in many classroom writing exercises.
Following the film, we spent two lessons researching the facts around palm oil production, destruction of the rainforest and the impact on orangutan populations in Borneo. During our third lesson, we held a debate exploring the issue from different points of view--conservationist, supermarket owner, local resident, business owner, supermarket customer and orangutan. Throughout the debate, we referred children to the persuasive devices toolkit so the session gave children the opportunity to explore the issues in depth, orally experiment with persuasive devices and rehearse some of the language and grammatical features they would be using in their writing.
The words 'Miss, we're writing to change the world today!' were spoken just as the children began to write--a perfect affirmation. In fact, after writing their first persuasive piece about orangutans, the children decided that they needed to rewrite their persuasive texts into letters to send to supermarket chains to persuade them to only use sustainable palm oil for their own brand products. The quality of the writing that the children produced far exceeded expectations and was a significant improvement on the previous year (see Figure 1).
This particular piece demonstrates: a clear thesis in the introduction, use of pronouns to connect with and persuade the reader, a pattern of three, a rhetorical question, blunt simple sentences, emotive language, a complex sentence, modal verbs and use of repetition. The structure is clear and also supports the development of the argument. There is clear thesis in the introduction, clear arguments one and two, increased persuasion in the conclusion and referring back to arguments one and two. An improvement to the structure would be to ensure a clear restating of the thesis, however the passion for the subject matter is clear!
The unit empowered the children as writers and as individuals. By the end of the unit, all children were able to use an increased range of grammatical meta-language confidently and accurately and then apply this vocabulary to their reading and writing. This led to an improvement in children's analytical reading and the precision with which they discussed and evaluated their own writing.
84% of children improved by one sublevel or more in their writing during the term when the unit was taught. One child, who had previously had intermittent schooling, improved by three sublevels during the term as she was cognitively able to write but had not previously been given the opportunity.
Teacher questionnaires were completed at the beginning and end of the project. There was increased confidence in subject knowledge, especially about clauses and discourse structure. There was also a shift of attitude, from feeling that grammar was about rules and accuracy to seeing how a range of grammatical devices can be used creatively.
The challenge, currently underway, is to explore how the strategies and principles can be applied to any literacy scheme of learning. How will we try to change the world next?
Lavender Primary School, Enfield…