when teaching writing I am aware of several factors


My teaching background is teaching literacy to children aged 6-18 as a Special Education Teacher, High School English Teacher and Specialist Literacy Teacher over a period of twenty years. In that time I have seen the methods for teaching literacy change, but the way children learn has not. My background in Special Education has given me valuable insights into how children learn to read and write. Each child has an individual style of learning and this particular style has a huge impact on the following:

  • how they personally interact with text
  • whether they enjoy reading
  • how they perceive the process of writing 
  • whether they enjoy writing  
  • how these elements contribute to their reluctance or enthusiasm for reading and writing

So what are the styles of learning?
Simply put, each of us has strengths in the following areas:
  1. visualisation
  2. auditory
  3. kinesthetic

1.         Strong visualisers are able to create a picture in their head of something they have seen, such as a spelling list and re-create it later in recall. They can also generate fresh images from imagination.
2.         A child with a strong auditory learning style can hear something once and never forget it. Sounds trigger memories and help them remember. Formulas stick. They can recall conversations in detail. They remember stories clearly.
3.         A child with a kinesthetic or multi-modal learning style cannot learn effectively by sitting still and listening. They have to physically move their bodies and physically manipulate objects in order to process stimuli/input. In childhood these children present as distractible and fidgety, always on the go. They may have poor reading comprehension skills. As a teacher you know they are capable of more. They just can’t seem to focus.

So, what does this have to do with creative writing?
I have found, through years of observation and more recently, interacting with students in workshops in schools, that a child who is not a strong visualiser does not interact with text the same way that a strong visualiser does. A visualiser has the picture in their head and it’s easy to engage with the text. They ‘see’ in clear pictures or a sort of movie, the action, characters, the plot, the dialogue. They can, in effect, place themselves within the story.

A child who is not a strong visualiser, whose strengths lie in other areas, will find it difficult to engage with the text in the same way. When reading, they experience difficulty imagining themselves there, in the story. Similarly, they may also find it difficult to generate their own text. It’s hard for them to imagine what’s going to happen next. It’s hard for them imagine the situation they have created even when they’ve written it down. I find this especially true in the recent workshops I conducted when I asked a student the following:
‘what is it like there?’ (In reply, they gave me a blank look)
‘What does your character look like?’ (The response: ‘I don’t know.’)
‘What would you like it to look like?’ (‘I don’t know.’)

These sorts of responses tell me that the student is not a strong visualiser and therefore finds the process of writing and reading difficult. Very little enjoyment can be had when you’re not engaging completely, when you’re not immersed in the story. From their perspective, you would have to question the point of engaging with an activity which had little enjoyment and no real purpose. Boys, particularly, seem to present this argument. Most are very physical learners and tend to prefer more structured ways of operating. In those cases I find it helpful to focus on writing this way:

  • story has basic elements that never change – beginning, middle, complication, ending.
  • story progresses in steps
  • more of a problem solving exercise rather than a wildly imaginative journey. What would a character most likely do, based upon what we know about them?
  • use the senses to help flesh out the ‘feel’ of the story by describing the sights, sounds, smells etc present.

The idea of free and uninhibited imagination scares some children, who do not think in such free, creative ways. Sometimes a student can’t even answer a simple question such as: ‘what do you think is funny? what makes you laugh?’ They can’t imagine themselves in a situation where they would laugh. Their method of recall appears to be different.
These are the students who shy away from writing.

So, what’s a solution?

The random card method I developed generates characters who are wildly different to what students would or could themselves normally create. It eliminates a lot of boundaries, emotional and cognitive and it means that whatever the learning style of the child, whatever their level of academic achievement, they can create two unique characters and then think of a way in which they might meet or interact. For those students who are not strongly visual, I remove the ‘scary imaginative bit’ by allowing them to use their strengths - a process of logical reasoning, to figure out why a ‘lazy, hairy pilot’ would meet a ‘sarcastic, evil snowman.’

So, how is it made and implemented?
It consists of two packs of cards. One pack has characters, the other has adjectives. It’s that simple. The character cards include occupations, such as dentist, pastry cook, pilot etc. Some occupations will be unfamiliar to children. That is intentional! I want to expand their knowledge of the world and the types of jobs people have, and their vocabulary also. This impacts positively upon their spoken & written language as well as their reading comprehension. I also include animals and inorganic things such as a robot. The adjective cards can be tailored to the age group, but there must be twice as many adjectives as characters if possible, so that each child receives 2 character cards and 4 adjective cards in total.

I usually choose some volunteers to come up the front and demonstrate how it’s done. The class can use the characters generated by that group, which I write up on the board or get their own from the cards. (or their own heads!)

In teaching writing, I also focus upon what is familiar to them – books. I talk about
  • the three people involved in producing books – writer, illustrator, editor/publisher
  • their aims
  • How these three work together.

A successful book has a cover and title that’s interesting, eye catching so you pick the book up. When you like the cover you turn it over you read the blurb. Then you open it and read the first chapter title, then the first line, (the ‘HOOK’) and then the first page. And if you want to read more you turn the page etc.

With writing a story it’s not just about generating characters, setting and plot, it’s about creating something someone would want to read. We can encourage children to move beyond the format ‘once upon a time’.

I believe story is character driven. Plot may be mapped out roughly, but it’s the characters and the choices they make which drive the action. A child can begin a story by describing the thoughts of this character on this particular day:
‘the tiny whiney elf was sitting alone in the garden and feeling sorry for himself.’

With the random card method writing becomes interactive for the mulit-modal learners. You can tie it in with acting out the scenes created to make it ‘real.’ It helps break down the emotional barriers some children have to writing, and to reading. It’s simple, easy to use and above all, fun!

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