Focusing Fiction: How Grammar Can Be Used as a Tool for Shaping Narrative Writing

Article excerpt

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With funding from the ESRC, a research team from the University of Exeter carried out a study in 32 secondary schools to see what impact contextualized grammar teaching might have on the quality of Year 8 students' writing. This meant that grammatical constructions and terminology were introduced at a point which was directly relevant to the focus of learning. Grammar was closely linked to effects and meaning-making, with the aim being to open up a repertoire of possibilities, not to teach about 'correct' ways of writing. Three writing genres were taught, one a term, with three-week schemes of learning including explicit teaching of sentence-level objectives. This article presents some of the teaching ideas used in the fictional narrative scheme of work and reflects on successes and challenges of using grammar to focus the teaching of narrative writing.

Nearly all the Year 8 students we interviewed in our study cited fiction writing as their favourite activity in English lessons. However, teachers know all too well what can go wrong with students' story writing: lengthy passages of dialogue; unplanned switches from first to third person or past to present tense; over-the-top action-packed plots; endings that just fizzle out. In using sentence-level objectives to focus teaching in the scheme, the intention was for students to learn how to consciously control, shape and craft their writing, specifically to:

* understand how writers create and develop a character's viewpoint and voice;

* understand how writers vary vocabulary and sentences for impact;

* experiment with linguistic and literary techniques in their own writing.

To encourage deliberate crafting, students were asked to produce a plan for a whole story (using a narrative structure template) but to write only one section, not necessarily the opening. A broad 'adventure' genre was chosen and a bank of still images linked to the genre was provided on Power Point to support the generation of ideas and vocabulary and to prompt discussion of setting, character and plot. Teachers were invited to make links between photography and writing, for example by encouraging students to experiment with 'close-up' or 'wide angle' descriptions or to think of narrative viewpoint in terms of who is 'looking through the lens'. Many students are highly visually literate and may profit from linking the concepts of image construction and writing design.

Voice and viewpoint

Activities in the first week of the scheme encouraged recognition that writers deliberately choose a viewpoint--the 'eyes' through which we see events--and create a distinctive 'voice' that we hear in our heads as we read. A vocabulary for discussing narrative choices (e.g. first/third person; dual narrative; flashback) was introduced by matching up terms and definitions, and the concepts were illustrated through short text extracts showing a variety of narrative techniques. For each extract, discussion was prompted by the questions: Whose eyes do we see through? What does their voice sound like? How do you react? Students then worked in pairs to change a text and evaluate effects, for example:

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Teacher modelling of short pieces of writing was encouraged and lesson notes included examples that teachers could use or adapt, related to specific images. For example Jean Guichard's famous image from his series of photographs of Breton lighthouses (see www.jean-guichard. com) was used to illustrate two possible vantage points. An onlooker's view of the lighthouse keeper (as if through the camera lens) produced a third-person narrative:

Standing in the doorway, hands in pockets, he looked surprisingly relaxed. The storm raged around him but he hardly seemed to notice. A warm orange light spilled from one of the windows.

In contrast, the imagined vantage point of the lighthouse keeper himself produced a first-person narrative:

I watched the helicopter whirl away, buffeted by the storm. …