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

Article excerpt


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:


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. My ears rushed with the roar of water. I felt alone and afraid: how would I survive?

Students were prompted to give opinions about which voice and viewpoint they found most effective.

Role play and storytelling encouraged students to explore narrative choices. Using the following image and role play instructions, students created a story told from multiple viewpoints:


You are the person in the picture. Tell us the story of how you came to be here.

You work as an inspector for the RSPCA. Tell us what you found when you arrived at the scene and what you decided to do.

You work in a shop nearby and often see this pair when you leave work. Tell us what you think about them.

You are the dog. Tell us about your life with your owner.

Students used a cut-up extract from Peter Benchley's Jaws to re-sequence the viewpoints of the boy afloat on his lilo and the circling shark, before inventing a third viewpoint and choosing where in the story to insert their additional paragraph.

Sentence building

The second week of the scheme focused on creating varied and interesting sentences. Many students think that a 'simple' sentence is a 'short' sentence and either overdo these, in the belief that short sentences automatically create tension, or avoid them as the mark of an unsophisticated writer. Again using an image to prompt vocabulary, a PowerPoint resource was used which aimed to show that simple (i.e. one-clause) sentences can be short or long, spare or richly detailed, and that interesting descriptive detail can be created by making small changes--strengthening nouns and verbs and adding adverbial phrases--rather than piling on adjectives, as weaker writers tend to do. A later lesson used sentence combining to create a variety of simple, compound and complex sentences, while a simple cut-up resource encouraged students to explore the subtle changes of emphasis and effect created by moving subordinate clauses into different positions within a sentence. This offered a chance to show how punctuation is used to mark off clauses.


In the final week of the scheme, closer attention was paid to a range of punctuation: groups of students rehearsed and read aloud a short extract from a novel, using the writer's punctuation to guide the tone of voice used and to emphasise meaning, before experimenting with effects for themselves (see Figure 1).

Evaluating impact

The research project was a randomised controlled trial: half the schools (the intervention group) taught from detailed lesson plans in which grammar instruction was embedded; the other half (the comparison group) had the same learning objectives and outcomes but devised their own plans. The students in the intervention group improved their writing scores by 20% over the year, compared with 11% in the comparison group. Interestingly, the embedded grammar appeared to be most supportive for able writers: they improved more strongly than weaker writers and were better able to transfer learning into independent writing.

Our interviews and observations highlighted significant factors in the teaching schemes which may explain the positive result:

* The explicit teaching of grammatical constructions: many of the teachers noted that the schemes encouraged them to teach grammar points which they had never taught before;

* The value of discussion about how language works: the observations and student interviews showed that the teaching schemes were encouraging genuine discussion about the effectiveness of different ways of expressing ideas and justifying different choices;

* The teacher's grammar knowledge: teachers who were less confident about grammar struggled with the sentence-building activities in the schemes, sometimes giving incorrect explanations, and often anxious about handling students' questions. In contrast, more confident teachers were able to take students' responses and develop and extend their thinking.

The use of visual images was universally popular--they engaged students' attention and were an accessible, empowering medium--as this teacher explained:

'They're bombarded with images all the time, so they can actually read them very, very quickly, whereas sometimes they're intimidated by text.'

They triggered discussion about possible storylines:

'Like with the picture of the man and the dog you can see that he was really upset and you want to know why he was upset,' (student, school 3)

and helped develop vocabulary:

'You find descriptive words for what it looks like and it's helpful, it's good,' (student, school 23).

However, while there was a strong recognition of the importance of being able to vary sentences for effect:

'If they've got the tools and they understand what a subordinate clause is, then they've got the ability to create something themselves rather than stick to what someone has told them is right,' (teacher, school 7)

not every student saw the point:

'Variety of sentences, they repeat it so many times it's unbelievable. Right when you start primary school, Year 2, they tell you it then, then the next year they tell you it again, and then when you get here it's all you learn, in the same ... so oh God, here it is again!' (student, school 16)



The cold ocean spray lashed against his shivering legs. He waded through the ice cold water, his surf board tucked securely under his arm. The boys on the shore were shouting to him; he didn't turn around. He spotted a wave in the distance and clambered clumsily onto his board. Paddling hard against the wake, he could hear the wave creeping up on him like a gust of wind. Before he knew it the wave shoved him forward. He stood up. Only then did he realise what he was doing, but it was too late now. What he didn't realise was that the wave behind him was growing taller by the second. Just as he thought he was going to be safe, the towering wave fell forward, creating a tunnel with him trapped inside. He felt isolated in this peaceful world. That was the last thought he had before plunging deep into the water... Steise Hodgson, Great Torrington School

Starter activity: Display punctuation hierarchy triangle: .,


:;() - ...

Display two clauses:

smoking is harmful it can kill you

Ask students to use as many of the punctuation marks as they can to join the clauses. Read sentences aloud, using punctuation to guide tone of voice, e.g. Smoking is 'harmful'? It can kill you!

Grammar & Writing resources

Early in 2012, the teaching resources developed by the University of Exeter research team will become available to NATE members, free to download from

Helen Lines and Debra Myhill

University of Exeter

Combine the main clauses and subordinate clauses in as many different
ways as you can. Which version sounds the scariest?

Main clauses        Subordinate clauses                 Punctuation

the cottage was     slowly decaying                     ...
ancient             its thatched roof covered by ivy    ...
                    lit by eerie shadows                ...

a woman stood in    beckoning me to follow her
the doorway         holding a candle in front of her


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