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Six sexy skeletons

magazine article | Published in TES Newspaper on 23 February, 2001 | By: Sue Palmer

Sue Palmer introduces a simple system of structures to help pupils put meat on the bones of their writing

So now you can all write what you've found out about the Aztecs," I said, innocently. I was new to teaching. A few days later, leafing through the miserable offerings, I realised what a mammoth task I'd taken on. The work of one pupil, Paul, springs to mind: "The Aztecs were pepol, they had big hats and drincking choclat and they stand in the road and tork." This had taken him two days to write. He actually knew a lot about the Aztecs, but there was a yawning gulf between the understanding in his head and the composition of a piece of writing.

All this was long before the National Literacy Strategy, with its word and sentence levels and six non-fiction text-types. Now, in literacy hour, Paul would learn about spelling strategies, sentence construction, and non-chronological reports. He'd investigate this sort of text during shared reading and his teacher would demonstrate how to do it in shared writing. Then he'd try it himself, perhaps using a writing frame to help with paragraphing and sentence openings.

But all this still doesn't address the problem of how you start from scratch to turn raw knowledge into a piece of prose. How does a writer know which text type to choose? Where should Paul start, when he wants to turn a lot of higgledy-piggledy thoughts into neat lines of writing?

Skeletons for writing The answer may lie with "skeletons" - simple visual representations of the structures underlying written text. Six simple skeletons, starting points for different types of writing, are given in the box on the right. There are, of course, many ways to represent each text type. A recount could be represented by a storyboard, flow chart or numbered list. We've chosen a time line because it's the simplest and clearest indicator of chronological order.

The simplest way to represent a report is a spider diagram - a basic central concept, with radiating categories of information (in the case of the Aztecs, perhaps, details of homes, clothing, religion, food, farming, and so on). Some reports are comparative, in which case a grid might be better.

Flow charts seems appropriate for instruction and explanation. Their level of complexity will vary, especially in the case of explanation (sometimes with multiple cause-effect boxes, or multiple choices of outcome; sometimes a cyclical process).

Persuasion and discussion are different again: we used asterisks to represent the different points in an argument, and lines to indicate elaboration. The difference between one-sided persuasion and even-handed discussion is immediately obvious from the skeletons. In both cases different subject matter might lead to a different visual representation.

I've given these ideas to teachers on in-service courses, as a potential link between literacy hour writing and children's work across the curriculum. Some offered to try them out and, since teachers are infinitely inventive, their reports have yielded many possible uses: lTo help organise knowledge, making it more memorable, such as when giving a talk on an aspect of topic work; lAs a research tool and notetaking device; lAs a visual (and final) means of recording what has been learned; lAs a way of "carrying" knowledge between areas (for example, from history lesson to literacy hour, to be used as content for a piece of non-fiction writing).

This final use represents a means of saving time - you learn about something in history, geography or science; you write about it in the literacy hour. It also opens up time for more active and varied ways of learning and recording outside literacy lessons - art, design technology, drama and speaking and listening activities.

THE ISX NON-FICTION TEXT TYPES

Recount - chronological retelling of events ("true stories, in time order") Instructions - sequenced instructions ("how to do something") Non-chronological report - description of the characteristics of something ('how things are") Explanation - sequential technical explanation ("how/why things work or happen") Persuasion - opinion or argument ("why you should think this") Discussion - reasoned argument ("the case for and against") BLOWING HOT AND COLD

Caroline Andrews, Year 6 teacher at Roskear Primary School in Camborne, Cornwall, used an explanation skeleton as part of her science revision.

"In Year 6 we briefly revise all the science topics we've covered during key stage 2. Flow charts, diagrams, etc, are a good way of helping children revisit and memorise the information. When we were revising solids, liquids and gases, I made a flow chart on the board to sum up the main points - it included colour-coding (red for heat, blue for cold), simple pictures and brief notes.

"We didn't repeat the practical science work (freezing and boiling water to watch the effects), but we did do some drama to remind the children how water molecules react to being cooled or heated. They had to act the parts of the molecules: bunching up tight together when they were frozen solid; moving more freely (like water in a container) when they were liquid, and zapping about all over the place when they were heated to a gas! I think this sort of drama activity combined with a clear flow chart really aids understanding of scientific ideas.

"The dramatised revision lesson and the flow chart both came in handy when we had to cover explanation writing in the literacy hour. Mind you, I'm not sure whether written text is the best way to deal with explanations like this.

"I think children need to learn to make flow charts and diagrams of their own, so that writing can be kept to a minimum. Clear visual representations are often much clearer."

SOUND ADVICE

Jan Orman, who has a Year 5 class at Hoyland Market Street Primary School in Barnsley, used an instruction skeleton to cover teaching objectives in four different curricular areas.

"We were investigating 'Change in Sound', so it seemed a good idea to use what they'd learned to design and make simple musical instruments. I demonstrated how to draw a flow chart as a planning device, using brief notes and simple diagrams of what I intended to do. The children produced flow chart plans, and we photocopied them as a record of their starting point. Then they made the instruments, annotating and changing the flow chart in a different colour as they adjusted their plans. After all this experience, they were pretty expert on making the instruments, and ready to write instructions on how to do it. We brought our flow charts to the literacy hour, and I used mine to demonstrate how to write up the stages as instructions, focusing on clear language and the use of the imperative. They then wrote their own instructions, thus polishing off three different learning objectives with one activity. In fact, we were able to include a fourth - using clip art on the computer to illustrate their writing!"

A DAY OUT

Sam Leir of The Russell School in Richmond, Surrey, asked her Year 6 class to use the recount skeleton to record details of an educational visit.

"We'd been to Ham House, which dates from the time Charles II was laying out Richmond Park, and the children were given a tour of the house, followed by art, poetry and music workshops.

"When we got back we talked about the day and they devised a general skeleton with five sections: one for the tour, one for each of the workshops, and one for the presentation they put together at the end. Then each child completed the time-line independently, depending on which workshops they'd done, and used it as a framework for writing. They added an introductory paragraph at the beginning and a concluding paragraph (what they thought about the day) at the end.

"Making the skeleton definitely improved their organisation - because of the sections, they had the material sorted into paragraphs before they even thought about writing. It also helped them recognise the chronology and remember all the different events, which some children find pretty difficult! Less able writers found the whole process particularly helpful."

INTERGALACTIC NOTES

Della Williams, of Oaklands Junior School, Bromley, used the report skeleton as a research tool with her Year 6 class.

"I gave them some information to read about the Earth, and asked them to imagine they were aliens writing a newspaper report on this new planet they'd discovered. They had to make notes on a spidergram, based on what aliens would need to know - atmospheric conditions, information about the terrain and so on - then use them to write an article for the Alpha Centauri Gazette.

"They did a pretty good job, and I'm sure making the skeleton helped them internalise the information. Some of them read their articles out in assembly, and answered questions about them, and the headteacher was very impressed! It was interesting that another class who'd done same task without a skeleton were less successful - they'd relied a lot on copying from the original text and hadn't remembered as much."

TAKE ME HOME!

Lorraine Bell, English and drama adviser in Sutton, Surrey, linked persuasion writing to a series of drama workshops on the Second World War.

"We were using drama to develop the children's powers of empathy and expression. The story of the evacuees is an obvious vehicle, and there's plenty of original evidence available to bring the historical facts to life. An official letter urging parents to send their children away, and a photograph of a group of people reading it, provided insights into the life-style of the time and a stimulus for role-play. Children took the parts of characters in the photo, arguing different viewpoints, especially those of the prospective evacuees.

"We found a 'packing list', detailing what evacuees should take, which led to discussion about the clothing of the time (Liberty bodices, for example) and further role-play. Pairs of pupils became parent and child, working through the list and pondering on what was going to happen. Many children identified strongly with the evacuees and their anxiety.

"In the next session we studied photographs of children being waved off at the station, or sitting on the train. We created living tableaux of the pictures with opportunities for 'characters' to voice their feelings. I also read some extracts about children's experiences on arrival - waiting to be 'chosen' or, even worse, not being chosen at all. By this time, the class was immersed in what it was like to be an evacuee, so we asked them to do more role-play - arguing the case for staying in the country or going back home.

"After all this first-hand experience, it was easy to make notes on a persuasion skeleton for a letter to the officials who'd sent them to the country - either pleading to go home or commending the evacuation programme. They later wrote up the letters to put in their project folders."

FUELLING DISCUSSION

Amanda Hulme of St Bede's CE Primary in Bolton is an enthusiastic and innovative skeleton-user. Her Year 4 class had formed a human time-line in preparation for writing on the Tudors, and used a spidergram to record findings in geography, so she was ready to exploit this opportunity for discussion.

"We got talking about the fuel protesters during an "In the News" session, and the children had quite strong feelings on one side or the other. Since they were pretty used to skeletons by this time, I quickly gave out a 'For and Against' grid and asked them to note - very briefly - some of the main arguments on each side.

"In literacy hour we looked at examples of balanced discussions, and created a simple writing frame about our topic. Most of the class were able to draft their writing on the frame while I helped the poorest group. Then they read samples of their drafts and we talked about the phrasing and whether it sounded formal enough, like a news broadcast.

"I really like the skeletons, because - quite apart from helping the children organise their writing - they help me make connections between the text-types and what I'm doing in the rest of the curriculum. Now I'm used to them, I can see straight away whether a particular topic will make a report, recount, explanation or whatever. I think they're much more than a writing tool - over time they'll develop the children's thinking skills as well."



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