Writing at greater depth (1) : a model of formality

    Published: 21 February 2017

    Penny Slater is Deputy Lead Adviser for Primary English at Herts for Learning

    There are many moments in my working day when I stop and consider how lucky I am to be working amongst such committed, enthusiastic and inspirational people. When I was classroom-based, this inspirational often stemmed from the children whom I taught. Now, as an advisor, I find that I am inspired on a daily basis by the creativity of the teachers whom I have the joy of supporting.

    One such encounter occurred last week, when I had the pleasure of working with the Y6 teacher at Leavesden Green Primary School. By the end of the session, through collaborative hard work and joint effort, we had developed a lesson or two that we were both really excited about. I have to begin however by giving full credit to the class teacher for the text selection that generated the initial excitement. For a week or so, the teacher had been exploring Helen Ward’s surreal and haunting text, Varmints, with her class. This teacher knew the power of a great book and she had already brought a contagious enthusiasm to the exploration of this thought-provoking text. Needless to say, the children were easily swept along by her passion for the text and, a day or two in, they were captivated! I was thrilled with this text choice. I regret to say that this book has for a long time been occupying a space on my over-crowded bookshelf. On many occasions I have flicked through the pages, mesmerized by the strange creatures, and troubled by the unsettling theme, but I had, as yet, not managed to think of how I could ‘use’ the text with a class (apologies for the crudeness of the term ‘use’! I know that a great book is sometimes simply worth sharing, rather than being ‘used’ for a teaching purpose. However, with this text, I knew that it had potential to be more than just a read-aloud – I simply hadn’t yet hit upon how to tap into its potential). Thankfully, the teacher whom I was supporting had had no such brain-block in deciding how to present and engage the children with this text. After reading just the first few pages, she set them of researching about bees – what would happen if all the bees disappeared? By page 3, they were unpicking the atmosphere in the text and noticing subtleties in font choice, and so much more. Like I said, they were captivated.

    I happened to be supporting the teacher that day to look at how her children were progressing in working towards the statements identified on the ITAF document – a rather dry task you might imagine! In cross referencing the children’s writing with the ITAFs, we quickly realised that many of the children were showing potential to be working at GDS. However, in order to be judged at working at this standard, they needed to demonstrate their ability to:

    • write for a range of purposes and audiences:
    • managing shifts between levels of formality through selecting vocabulary precisely and by manipulating grammatical structures

    And this is where a deep understanding of the standards, alongside a passion for great literature, teemed with a desire to make grammar teaching as meaningful, engaging and contextualized as possible, all worked together to create a rather exciting learning opportunity.

    Together, we looked at the text that the children were clearly enjoying so much and tried to find a true, meaningful opportunity to showcase some formal writing. This was our thinking: take a close look at the page where the ‘invaders’ are crowded round a door which is slightly ajar. We considered, as did the children, how at this point the ‘invaders’ (we decided on a better proper noun for these creatures later – just wait!) look as if they are on the verge of a change of heart. Through the doors, we catch a glimpse of the nature that they are trying so hard to banish. Are they noticing its beauty for the first time? Are they reflecting on their actions and questioning whether destruction of nature is the right path after all? We discussed how we would want to create a situation where the children could discuss these possibilities. Perhaps they could imagine what the facial expressions of these strange creatures would be as their eyes fall upon the wonders behind the door. We talked about creating a sense of calm, quiet reverie at this point in the classroom as the children mimic the creature’s mesmerised gaze….

    And then that reverie would be smashed..destroyed!  An announcement in a sharp, clinical voice – presented as if it were being broadcast through an intercom – would shatter the silence. Together, the teacher and I worked to create a script for the announcement that would be made. We decided on the following, which the teacher then intended on recording ready for the lesson:

    Greetings fellow Drudglings. The message you are about to receive comes directly from Lord Bleakstone, Director of the Ministry for Greater Good…

    Thus far, our mission to quell nature has resulted in some impressive developments for our society: hay fever has all but been eradicated; the risk of bee sting-related incidents has been dramatically reduced; the time required for tasks related to environment management (for example, grass cutting, hedge trimming; pruning; harvesting) has been significantly diminished. All of these successes are no doubt due to our collective endeavour. For this, we should congratulate ourselves. As a sign of the ministry’s sincere gratitude, the decision has been taken to issue every citizen with a black-out blind which will enable each and every one of us to eliminate unwanted natural light from our sleeping quarters. These will be issued at great cost to the ministry. However, this cost is miniscule in relation to the high regard in which we hold each and every one you.

    However, it has come to my attention that a number of you are deviating in your minds from our agreed goals. May I remind you that as a Drudgling, you took an oath, within which you agreed upon the following:

    It is essential that a Drudgling:

    • forego all self-centred thoughts and emotions pertaining to only themselves
    • prioritise the needs of the ministry above their own personal wants and wishes
    • strive to gain control over nature and its random disorder
    • promote the welfare of the Drudgling civilisation
    • disseminate our values in order to support others to overcome nature

    In order to continue in our righteous quest to defeat nature, it is essential that all Drudglings be mindful of their collective responsibilities at all times. I remind you of our Drudgling motto: in unity we find strength to override nature.

    It saddens me to have to remind you that if any Drudgling were found to be contravening these agreed laws, they would face unspeakable consequences.  Let this be the first and final warning to any Drudgling who is considering deviating from our common goals and beliefs.

    Through this experience, we wanted to give the children the opportunity to hear a model of formal language, albeit enticing wrapped up in a meaningful context. We imagined that due to their engagement with the text, and their empathy with the ‘invaders’ (whom we decided on calling Drudglings – a lot to discuss and explore within this word alone), that they would be primed to really listen to and hear the content of the announcement and therefore be more susceptible to remembering and retaining the language of the model. Much more engaging, I think you will agree, than introducing the lesson by explaining to the children in stark terms that today they will be learning about formal language constructions! Of course, we also wanted them to react? Would they be indignant? How would they feel about having their rights and responsibilities dictated to them in such an oppressive manner? We wondered if this would lead to some insightful discussions about freedom of choice. We hoped so!

    Following on from this, we discussed how the children could be supported to recall and embed some of the language through role play. Lord Thunderstrom might summon them to an official meeting which would begin with a  recital of  the Drudgling code of conduct (much like they might be expected to recite a brownie, or cub scout promise) thus giving an opportunity for further internalisation of the tone of the formal language structures. Maybe they would enjoy adding a few more statements to the code of conduct? Perhaps they could role play the induction of a new Drudgling into the clan. What questions might they ask a potential Drudgling? What answers would they expect a dutiful Drudgling to give to those questions?

    While partaking in these activities, all the while, they would be attuning their ear to the sound of formal language. When the children were readily speaking in a formal tone, and the teacher was confident that the formal language structures had been internalised,  naming of the grammatical features used in the model would begin. Specifically, the teacher wanted the children to note the use of the following features which contributed to the formal tone:

    • Use of the subjunctive form
    • Reliance on passive constructions
    • Formal word choice
    • Impersonal tone and style

    By this point, we agreed that the children would be well on the way to gaining confidence in adopting a formal register in their spoken and written language. In order then to meet the ITAF criteria fully, in other words, to ensure that the children are able to show shifts in formality within a text (as we are prompted to do through the DFE exemplification documents), we considered an opportunity for a writing task that allowed the children to legitimately move from an informal tone to a more formal one. And so, our next model for writing was conceived:

    I am a Drudgling. I am a Drudgling. Maybe if I keep repeating it to myself, I will start to feel more like a Drudgling.

    However, I just can’t get that image of those ethereal, luminous globes out of my head. Their beauty…their  fragility…I have never seen anything like them before. But what am I thinking? I must remember the Drudgling code:

    • All nature is a sign of chaos overcoming order

     Lord Thunderstrom would be furious if he even had the slightest idea that I was thinking this way. In fact, she would more than furious – she would be livid! I would surely be expelled from the Drudgling collective, and what would become of me then? I can just imagine her summoning me to her boardroom up on the 198th floor of Thunderstrom Towers and reprimanding me: ‘Drudgling number 4683, it has come to me attention that….’ Etc etc

    In this scenario, a Drudgling is battling with his conflicting emotions in response to the ‘nature’ that he glimpsed through the open doors. A diary entry – we decided –  was the perfect vehicle to allow the children to express these conflicting thoughts and feelings. And of course, in doing so, the children would have to draw on both formal and informal registers and structures: informal for when the Drudgling is reflecting honestly on his personal fears and thoughts; and formal for when he is recalling the Drudgling code and mimicking Lord Thunderstrom’s tone.

    As I type, I imagine that the teacher is thoroughly enjoying looking through some of the imaginative writing that the children have produced as a result of the exciting learning opportunity that we created for the class. Whilst doing so, she can be happy in the knowledge that the children have been given as creative a writing prompt as we could muster (not bad going me’ thinks for a cold Friday afternoon in Jan) – and – lesser important in the big scheme of things, but important in terms of the accountability system within which we currently operate-  that they have built up a little more evidence to go towards a working at greater depth judgement. Who says that working towards the ITAF statements needs to be dull and restrictive!

    An afternoon well spent, I think! Thank you for the inspiration, Kelly. Thank you too to Andrew Budd, writing lead and assistant head at the school. I can’t wait to see what the children produce.

    Please note that places are still available at our Reading on the Rise – Raising Standards Conference, 27 March 2017, Hertfordshire Development Centre, Stevenage organised by the Herts for Learning primary English team. To find out more and to book a place please visit Reading on the Rise – Raising Standards Conference

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