Book reviews are a regular feature of pupils’ work at Key Stage 2, with many examples of finished reviews being displayed in class library areas. The quality of the reviewing can vary, however, and at worst they function as little more than a straightforward retelling of the text that was read. And yet book reviews can be used to help readers focus on aspects of texts with a view to transferring these features into their own writing. In this sense they form a bridge between what has been read and what pupils are themselves about to write. Because of this, it is crucial that critical reading skills be maximised.
A more structured approach to the reviewing process will undoubtedly improve levels of critical understanding, and one method of achieving this is through the use of ‘retrospective storyboards’. A retrospective storyboard begins with a series of questions which encourage the pupils to consider crucial aspects of the text. It is retrospective in the sense that it is used after reading the text. When used in a classroom situation, though, the questions should be shared prior to reading so that the pupils have a focus for their listening. Active reading (or listening) skills can be facilitated by using the storyboard in this manner.
With regard to narrative texts the following questions encourage pupils to comment on a broad range of features of the genre.
Initially, responses may need modelling by the teacher; and devices that the author can use should be explicitly taught. These can include the use of sentence length variation in order to create tension (short sentences) or for the purpose of description (long sentences). They could also include information regarding the way the author handles time or builds suspense. The range of devices is broad, with some being genre-specific.
By Year 6 pupils are required to ‘compare and evaluate a novel…and the film/T.V. version’ (term 1 text level work). One way of structuring this is by the use of a comparison grid. The grid is used before writing comparison and contrast reports, and is an adaptation of the approach illustrated by Maureen Lewis and David Wray (1996). Pupils’ attention should be drawn to the very different way mood is handled in a film through both lighting effects and the use of music. Time is also handled differently in many instances, although cinematic techniques such as flashback and ‘flash forward’ can be found in novels.
Critical evaluation of narrative texts helps pupils to make informed personal responses. The ‘personal response’ aspect of the literacy framework and specifically, the Year 6 objective ‘to use a reading journal effectively to raise and refine personal responses to a text and prepare for discussion’ (term 3) – need attention if we are to maximise pupil learning in relation to response. Three specific methods of improving pupils’ personal responses to narrative texts are explored below.
The 'because' game. Pupils are asked to write a personal response to a story and are told that they must include the word because at least 10 times in their writing. This simple strategy ensures that they justify and explain their ideas. For ease of marking, ask the pupils to highlight or underline the word because in a different colour to the rest of their text.
Personal response phrasebanking. Lack of ideas is not generally a problem at Key Stage 2 – but what may be a stumbling block is a lack of clear understanding as to how to express these ideas. ‘Phrasebanking’ gives pupils a range of sentence starters and modifiers to use in their writing. It should be stressed that using a variety of these will help to make the final piece of writing more interesting. See figure 1 for examples. The phrases included could be augmented or adapted by the class teacher, focusing on a particular aspect of the text such as characterisation.
|Figure 1: Examples of phrasebanking
|In my opinion, ___________ because ___________.
I think that ___________ because ___________.
Aspects of the story that the writer handles well include ___________,
___________ and ___________.
My favourite part of the story is ___________.
There are a range of reasons why I find this aspect effective, such as ___________.
Personal response frames. The personal response frame given in figure 3 lists a range of aspects of the text to ensure that the response covers a broad range of features. It also requires the pupil to make a numerical judgement regarding the effectiveness of each aspect. Finally it asks the pupil to add supporting evidence for this in the ‘Reasons’ column. The use of quotes from the text should be encouraged, and by linking this frame to the phrasebanking activity pupils can be encouraged to transform their draft (in the form of a completed response frame) into a finished piece of writing.
The personal response frame can also be used when focusing on the Year 6 term 3 NLS objective ‘to look at connections and contrasts in the work of different writers’. By completing a form for each writer’s work the pupils can compare and contrast using a standardised format, which improves the coherence of their finished essays.
A final feature of personal response writing worth teaching explicitly is the need for a variety of connectives (beyond ‘and then’). It is worth displaying a range of connectives and demonstrating how these work within the context of a sentence so that pupils are initially reminded of the breadth available to them. Such a list might include: admittedly; clearly, then; consequently; furthermore; finally; in addition; in fact; likewise; moreover; nevertheless; obviously; on the other hand; similarly; therefore.
To conclude, if we are to improve pupils’ critical reading of narrative texts then we need help them break down stories into their elements. Here we have looked at a range of practical strategies that can help teachers to make explicit the links between the critical reading of other writers’ texts and the composition of one’s own.
Lewis, M; Wray, D (1996), Writing Frames: Scaffolding children’s non-fiction writing in a range of genres, Reading and Language Information Centre