Student writing: Making a real difference

May 24, 2010

The following is the script of a video sequence I shot for Education Queensland, the state’s education authority. The video is currently being used as a part of their literacy training for Middle School teachers throughout the state. For more information, email lindsay@wordsmartconsulting.com.au.

Script: There’s been some really interesting research done into what makes a difference in writing that gains a mid or a high range grade in the Queensland Core Skills Test Writing Task for year 12.  Commonsense might suggest that accuracy in spelling, punctuation and grammar would be the distinguishing feature. In fact, the work of students receiving high and mid-range grades showed no significant difference in these so-called basics. However, other features of the work  did appear to make a difference. Students with high grades

  • Made an effective and appropriate match among the chosen genre, the register and language. Moreover, this was done at a macro-level (i.e. the best language for the genre and audience) and at a micro-level (i.e. the best language for both stages of the piece, and phases – the mini stages within each big stage).
  • They wrote in depth, elaborating their writing through the use of extended noun groups and embedded clauses.
  • They wrote authoritatively, taking a strongly positive or negative point of view.
  • They made careful selections in their choice of evaluative words. For example, the use of ‘exquisite’ instead of ‘very beautiful’ or the use of ‘slunk’ or ‘strode’ instead of ‘walked’.
  • They used figurative language, including similes and metaphors.

In addition, students receiving high grades generally avoided first person – under test conditions, if you use first person there’s probably a greater chance of slipping into everyday, colloquial language that isn’t highly regarded in demand writing tasks. Moreover, work with a high grade tended to draw on ‘exotic’ knowledge – that is, knowledge about the world that went beyond the students’ immediate, adolescent experience.

What is particularly striking, though, is that similar features can also be found in sample work published in the report on the 2008 NAPLAN writing task, albeit at a less sophisticated level. It is interesting to note, also, that although the high achieving younger students did tend to use first person, their subject matter went beyond everyday lives and allowed these students to demonstrate a broad vocabulary and quite sophisticated grammatical features.

A couple of other features have also struck me as I’ve read through both the Year 12 Writing Task and NAPLAN examples. Firstly, students who wrote narratives and achieved high grades tended to write stories that were very compressed – the whole story jumped straight into the action at a crisis moment in a character’s life, that is ‘in media res’ – and the problem was one that could unfold and resolve itself in a short period of time, probably 5 to 10 minutes of real time.

In students achieving high grades, there was also evidence of grammatical metaphor (especially nominalization – turning verbs into nouns) in even younger students, and in both narratives and expository pieces. This supports a finding by Bev Derewianka and Fran Christie that grammatical metaphor should be emerging between the ages of 9-12. Where this doesn’t occur, students continue to struggle with the demands of academic writing throughout their schooling.

By immersing students in the language features outlined, through explicit modelling, joint construction and guided practice, teachers can help students not just ‘fall over the line’, but also add significant value to their writing – for both demand writing tasks and for writing more generally.

The sky is everywhere by Jandy Nelson

May 20, 2010

the-sky-is-everywhere(Walker Books; ISBN 978 1 4063 2630 7)

Who is for? The publishers say 12-15 year olds, but some of the content may make it more suitable for 15-16 year olds if being used as a class reading book

What’s it about? After the sudden death of Bailey her older sister, seventeen-year-old Lennie Walker is left struggling with her grief. She refuses to pack up her sister’s belongings and spends many hours alone and writing poems about Bailey, poems which she leaves scattered around her home town. In the midst of her grief, Lennie is smitten by good-looking new boy, Joe Fontaine. Their developing relationship is complicated by Lennie’s seemingly inexplicable attraction to her dead sister’s boyfriend, Toby – an attraction that seems to be returned. Along the way, Lennie makes some moving discoveries about her absent mother and Bailey.

Is it any good? It’s hard to summarise the story without it making it sound somewhat sordid or silly. In fact, with a few minor reservations, this is one of the best and most moving teen books I’ve read in quite a while. For a start, it’s physically pleasing to read: the flexiback cover with blue elastic gives it the feel of a journal; the inside font is blue; and there are colour plates and poems throughout the book. More than that, it is well written. Although a first person narrative from the point of view of Lennie, the language is a nice balance of authentic-sounding colloquial teen and more poetic passages with some lovely use of imagery, including metaphor and simile. Like Shark Girl reviewed previously,  this is a novel with a hopeful and realistic, but not overbearingly positive ending. My reservations? While the book is generally nicely paced, there are a couple of chapters where the love-triangle sub-plot becomes a tad annoying. However, more aggravating is the character of Joe – he’s just too damned good to be true. Okay, I don’t want to deny anyone the right to fantasise a bit, but how high are we setting expectations when the perfect guy is not only a gifted musician and is stunningly handsome, but his father makes guitars, he has two equally good looking brothers, and he’s French! Pleeaase, give us a break. Finally, there is some coarse language used in the book and Lennie’s sexual awakening is dealt with fairly frankly (e.g. there’s talk about boys’ boners), although this is done with sensitivity. Teachers should certainly preview the novel carefully.

What can I do with it? The sky is everywhere would be a welcome addition to units exploring the way teenagers are represented or for issues-based units (e.g. relationships education or dealing with grief). Like many books reviewed on this blog, extracts could be used as models of effective, literary writing. This is also an interesting example of an author (and publisher) pushing the bounds of the book with its use of multimodality. Finally, the book includes references to a range of classic literature and, in particular, very interesting use is made of Wuthering Heights. So, the novel could be used as a gentle introduction to the ‘classics’ and a critique of traditional romantic fiction such as and Pride and Prejudice. Overall, this book is highly recommended.

The secret adventures of Charlotte Bronte

May 14, 2010

the-secret-adventures-of-charlotte-bronte-by-laura-joh-rowland1The secret life of Charlotte Bronte by Laura Joh Rowland (Pier 9; ISBN 978 1741969139)

Who is it for? Well read teens

What’s it about? After success with the publication of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte is accused of breach of contract and travels to London with her sister Anne to clear her name. On the train, she meets a governess, Isabel White, who is subsequently murdered brutally (of course!). Against her will, Charlotte is drawn into events that could change the course of English history, and brings danger to her beloved family in Haworth.

Is it any good? This was a really enjoyable tale set in Victorian England. Although completely fictional, Rowland does draw on knowledge of the times and the life of the Brontes in a way that adds authenticity and believability to a suitably melodramatic plot. One of the best features of the book is its tight editing – so rare in much contemporary fiction. Consequently, the story moves along at a brisk pace that rarely flags. While the writing attempts to capture Charlotte’s style, it is a bit clunky at times. This is more than made up for by the rich picture painted of Victorian life, with its sense of both promise and hypocrisy. A particularly admirable aspect of the novel is the way that it ties together the history of Europe at the time into events transpiring far away in China. A writer of Korean and Chinese descent, Rowland manages to keep the reader well entertained while encouraging them to reflect critically on English history. Like most books in the espionage and adventure genres, credibility is stretched at times, but for readers willing to suspend disbelief, this is a really enjoyable novel.

How might it be used? There is a growing number of novels in the market that take the classics and have fun with them. This is more serious than most and explores issues of gender, class and race. The Secret Adventures would serve well as an accompaniment to Charlotte Bronte’s work, and could even be used a way into the works of all three Bronte sisters. The multi-generic storytelling technique used may be worthwhile as a model for students’ own writing. Overall, a worthwhile book to use with students – although certainly not to everyone’s taste. Check out Rowland’s website: www.laurajohrowland.com/charlotte.

Shark Girl by Kelly Bingham

May 9, 2010

sharkgirlPublished by Candlewick Press; ISBN 978 0 7636 4627 1

Who is it for? Teenagers (12 years and up)

What’s it about? Jane Arrowood is fifteen years old when she loses her arm to a shark attack. The incident receives nationwide media attention thanks to video of the attack shot by a by-stander. The public is swept up in the dramatic events and, while recovering in hospital, Jane begins to receive (unwanted) mail from strangers offering their sympathy, support and prayers. Overhwhelmed and grieving the loss of her arm, a promising artistic talent and her previous life, Jane eventually returns home and begins school again, continuing the journey towards recovery; frustratingly, she has to relearn even simple tasks such as doing up shoe laces and buttering toast. Even more, with her dreams of artistic success seemingly shattered, she must search deep inside herself to discover who “Shark Girl” really is.

Is it any good? This is a novel that deals in the psychology of loss and, in one sense, there is not a lot of ‘action’. However, the novels moves briskly, helped in part by the choice of Bingham to write in prose poetry. I’m not a big fan of the genre, but it works very effectively here, focussing as the story does on the innerworld of Jane. Moreover, Jane’s first person reflections are interpolated with news articles and letters from concerned strangers, giving the reader public and private perspectives on Jane’s brush with death. In fact, one of the strengths of the novel is to encourage the reader  to see the way that intense public interest in private tragedies can affect victims – for better and worse. Finally, while the novel moves towards a hopeful ending, it is, all the same, an uncertain future that Jane faces when the story finishes; Bingham avoids a happy-ever-after ending and opts, instead, for nuance and an air of authenticity. This was, apparently, an Oprah’s Book Club Kids Reading List Selection – and who would argue with Oprah?

How could it be used? This is an easy to read, but well-written novel likely to appeal to many teens. The horrible events of the shark attack are never described explicitly, but that starting point is a great hook. As well as being used as a text that explores grief of a particular kind, the novel can also be used to demonstrate the use of prose poetry for narrative and the use of multiple genres to provide different perspectives. Overall, this is a good book with positive, realistic messages  – recommended.

The Night Fairy

May 2, 2010

the-night-fairy

Who’s it for? Children (particularly girls) aged 8-12

What’s it about? Flory, the Night Fairy, is attacked by a bat when she is only a few days old and her wings are badly damaged. As a result, she must take shelter in the garden of a kindly old lady who never learns of her existence. Very quickly, Flory must learn to fend for herself against all sorts of dangers that await a creature such such as herself who is only the size of an acorn. Along the way, she must forge some unlikely alliances with a silly squirrel an unfriendly hummingbird.

Is it any good? This is a beautifully illustrated, well written tale that will appeal to younger readers, especially girls. After only a brief introduction to fairy lore, Newberry Award winning author, Laura Schlitz, moves quickly to the crisis in the young fairy’s life, the damage to her delicate wings. The story moves along briskly, with little time for the reader to get bored before Flory is entangled in another adventure. Angela Barret’s exquisitely detailed illustrations help bring Flory and her miniature world to life. At 117 pages, this is a brisk, delightful and at times humorous read. My only quibble is that the main character, Flory, is fairly self-centred and bossy – even at the end – and the other characters are not all that likeable. Nevertheless, the story has a happy ending (although not entirely predictable) and Flory learns valuable lessons about respecting others and the importance of friendship and reconciliation.

How can it be used? This would certainly be a welcome addition to any school library or class reading collection. It is also a book that would work well read aloud. For all students, extracts can be used to model effective literary writing techniques. Schlitz shows what can be achieved with carefully chosen, but simple vocabulary, for example ‘Spring drew closer to summer. The tulips dropped their petals, and the peonies bloomed, fat matresses of milky petals and rich smells.’ Finally, there is an excellent website: www.thenightfairy.com. This is also worth studying for its use of visuals. All in all, a highly recommended resource.