How to get them writing...

Hello everyone, it's advent! By the time you read this, I will be on my second chocolate and Mariah Carey will have been played in my house no less than a thousand times.  Yes, I'm one of those people.  I love Christmas.

But I am not here to wax lyrical about that magical time of year - there are still a couple weeks of term left after all.  No, today I want to share some tips I've gathered through the years on how to get those little angels to write independently.

Use repetition to make the writing more familiar

I'm going to focus on a particular Year 2 boy I know but these techniques should work with anyone - feel free to adapt to suit your situation.  You might also want to check out some of my other writing-focussed posts (HERE AND HERE).

There are the old classics - tell a traditional tale backwards; rewrite a traditional tale in a modern setting; write a traditional tale in a different genre... they're great and they work because children are (hopefully) familiar enough with traditional tales that they don't have to do too much original thinking.  That's not a criticism.  We need to make the writing process as enjoyable as possible, especially for our reluctant writers, so starting with something familiar is key... besides, they'll make adaptations along the way quite naturally.

I have another spin on familiarity though.  Instead of using well-known characters, take a well-known style and adapt that.  The technique I've been using recently is repetitive progression.  For examples see pretty much any Julia Donaldson book, particularly The Gruffalo (again, not a dig - I love The Gruffalo but I think it reads more interestingly backwards, more on that, and The Tiger Who Came Tea for Year 6 and beyond in another post).  

In The Gruffalo a mouse walks through a forest and meets various animals only to outwit them by lying and then when his lies turn out to be prophetic, he retraces his steps cunningly manipulating a potentially dangerous situation to his advantage and, essentially, faking it 'til he makes it as king of the forest.  I'm paraphrasing.  The important thing for me is the format of the book.  Every time the mouse meets an animal, the animal says how they want to eat him and the mouse replies that he is being followed by a monster.  This repeats, with very minor changes, until the mouse meets the monster.  Then, the same kind of repetition happens in reverse.  It's genius.

So, how does this help up with writers who don't want to write?  Here's what I did:

The child in question is an able mathematician but hates to write.  When asked to describe anything, he simply lists facts.  So I first got him to pick a card (he didn't know it but he only had a choice of 6-9)  You can slip this bit but it adds some interaction and agency for the child.  

He picked a seven.  Great.  He then had to name seven animals (he likes animals - you could pick anything but children generally like animals so it's usually a safe bet).  This done, he had to think of an adjective of manner for each animal.  Sometimes he needed to see a picture of the animal, that's fine.  Sometimes I questioned his adjective choice (can we do better than 'sad'?  What's another word that means 'sad'?  Is he really sad or just a bit sad?  Let's be specific) other times I just went with it.  

Next up, I had him pick an adjective of size, shape or colour.  This could be skipped but it's a good introduction to the accepted order of adjectives in sentences without requiring a stand-alone lesson.  

With this menagerie complete, he had to pick his favourite animal from his list.  He chose the tall, grumpy, white giraffe (the kid does not usually describe anything, so this is already progress).   The giraffe needed to have something that it wanted to have - i.e. it really likes toys and it has a toy car.  This child decided, quite unexpectedly, that the giraffe was looking forward to eating a red, leaf-flavoured ice-lolly.  Again, the adjectives were added afterwards.

Now the giraffe had something to lose, we were almost ready to begin writing our epic.  Each animal on the list was going to steal the ice-lolly from the giraffe (before he eventually gets it back or some other animal comes along with ice-lollies for everyone, depends how moral you want your ending to be).  For this happen, we had to think of different ways to say 'took' - one for each animal.  We ended up with 'snatched', 'stole', 'swiped', 'whipped', 'knocked out of ___'s paws' and 'grabbed'.  These from a child who said they couldn't think of any words that meant the same as 'took'.  Some of them required a bit of drama; a bit of acting out; a bit of me taking their pencil away and them describing how I did it.  That's fine.  Yes, it will take time but this is planning and planning should take some time.

Moving on, we now had to decide which animals would perform which verb and in what order.  Then we discussed why the animals would want the ide-lolly.  There were rules for this.  No two animals could want it for the same reason (only one can want to eat it etc...) and it had to be a fairly believable reason.  They couldn't want it to build a lolly-car for example.  The kid managed to come up with some very good reasons, all of which were written on the planning sheet next to the relevant animal.  

This done, it was time to start writing.

We began with a simple introduction to the giraffe (Once there was a tall, grumpy, white giraffe who had a red, leaf-flavoured ice-lolly). This is already one of the most descriptive sentences the child has written in, like, ever.  They are very pleased with themselves; they are a young Dostoyevski.   A quick discussion about a linking adverb for each animal, which happily, the child insisted on writing on their planning sheet - we ended up with: suddenly, all of a sudden, quick as a flash, from out of nowhere, just then, at that moment - and we could continue our odyssey.

    The giraffe was just about to eat his lolly when [insert first adverb] [insert animal one and their adjectives] [insert synonym of took] it from him/her.

    "Hey!" said the giraffe, "that's mine!"

    "I don't care," said [animal one], "I want it to [insert reason]."

    The [first animal] was just about to [do their chosen action] when [insert second adjective] [insert second animal and their adjectives] [insert synonym of took] from him/her.

    "Hey!" [insert reporting verb] the [first animal], "that's mine!"

    "I don't care," said the [the second animal], "I want it to [insert their reason]...

And so it goes on.  The reporting verbs wasn't intended but it was something the child insisted on and I was happy to go with it.  

The end result is a complete story that the child can write independently (following the pattern and the plan).  It will sound like a book they have read before because of the repetitive progression and they will be proud of it.  It will also make for a killer display and some lovely artwork can come out of it.  The best thing is that you can read one a day for storytime - you are sorted for months!

Obviously, it doesn't have to be animals.  I had the luxury of doing this one-to-one.  You could theme it to whatever your current topic is.  It could be aliens, Tudor wives, fish, Arctic or desert animals, people 'stealing' rooms from Mary and Joseph at various inns... the important thing is the format.  

This link will take you to a plan - feel free to take it and copy as many as you need.  If you use this, please send me some pictures of the final products - I would love to see them!

Thanks for reading, as always comments are appreciated.  Questions and suggestions are also encouraged.  Feel free to share this with someone you think might like it.  I'm always happy to see that people have read my musings!

Until next time, have a wonderful two weeks and make sure you give yourself time to relax and just be you.  The world is still crazy and you are doing a wonderful job just by being there for the children - an all-to-rare constant in a world of new-normals.  Go easy on them; their parents; and yourself.  We're all doing the best we can.

Carl Headley-Morris        @Mr_M_Musings