2. Talk for writing

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What is Talk for writing? Good writers

  • enjoy writing and find the process creative, enriching and fulfilling;
  • read widely, recognise good writing, and understand what makes it good;
  • are aware of the key features of different genres and text types;
  • learn about the skills of writing from their reading and draw (consciously or unconsciously) upon its models in their own work;
  • have ‘something to say’ (a purpose and audience);
  • know how to develop their ideas;
  • know how to plan and prepare for writing;
  • make informed choices about what they are writing, as they write (for example, about vocabulary, grammar, text structure, etc.);
  • understand how to reflect upon, refine and improve their own work;
  • can respond to the constructive criticism of others.

For experienced writers, many of these processes are internal and automatic. For example, they can hold an internal dialogue with themselves about the language choices available and consider how effective a particular word or phrase will be or how well it reads.

However, for developing writers it is very helpful for these processes to be explored through talk in a supportive learning context. This involves externalising and sharing the thinking involved in the writing process so that ultimately it can be internalised and individualised again. It is this developmental exploration, through talk, of the thinking and creative processes involved in being a writer that we are calling Talk for Writing.

To be productive, Talk for Writing needs to be extensively embedded in every phase of the teaching sequence for Language and Literacy, that is:

  • During reading: When familiarising with the genre/text type and its key features; when responding to, exploring and drawing on models.
  • Before writing: When generating ideas, preparing for and planning writing.
  • During all stages of writing (teacher’s demonstration and scribing, and children’s supported, guided and independent writing): When making the choices involved in creating, developing and improving texts.
  • After writing: When reflecting on and learning from a writing experience. In this it will need to be structured at the following three levels.
  • Teacher talk: The verbalisation of the reader’s or writer’s thought processes as the teacher is demonstrating, modeling and discussing.
  • Supported pupil talk: Structured and scaffolded opportunities for children to develop and practise Talk for Writing through class and group conversations and activities.
  • Independent pupil talk: Opportunities for children to develop and practise Talk for Writing in pairs and small groups, independent of the teacher.

All of this needs to be applied in whole-class learning and teaching and in guided writing.

The precise nature of what is planned as Talk for Writing in any particular unit of work will obviously need to take into careful account:

  • the purpose and audience of the writing;
  • the key features of genre text/type;
  • the learning objectives of the unit;
  • the needs of particular children and groups

1 The teaching sequence for writing

The basis for the teaching sequence for writing was set out in the joint UKLA and Primary National Strategy publication Raising boys’ achievements in writing (2004). Based on the work of Bearne (2002), the research recommended a structured sequence to planning where the children and teachers began by familiarising themselves with a text type, capturing ideas for their own writing followed by scaffolded writing experiences resulting in independent written outcomes.


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2 What does Talk for writing look like? Talk strategies

2.1 Book-talk

‘Book-talk’ is the extended opportunity to use talk to explore children’s personal and collective responses to a text as readers and uses open-ended questions to elicit and develop response.

After careful reading of a shared text, the teacher often best initiates ‘book-talk’ with open invitations such as,

  • ‘Tell me what you thought/felt about...’,
  • ‘What came into your mind when you read… ’,
  • or ‘Have you come across anything like this before?’

and then focuses on extending the children’s responses with prompts such as,

  • ‘Tell me more about…’,
  • ‘What led you to think that?’
  • or ‘Can you extend that idea a bit for us?’.

Frequently, groups of children can be supported and encouraged to feed off each other’s thinking and talking, with prompts such as

  • ‘Do you agree or did anyone have a different response to that story/paragraph/sentence/word?’
  • In this way rich exchanges often occur, helping children to develop and extend their own responses.


2.2 Writer-talk

‘Writer-talk’ is the articulation of the thinking and creative processes involved in all stages of the act of writing; talk that helps children to think and behave like a writer (and indeed consider themselves to be one). It involves externalising and making explicit, through talk, the thinking involved in both ‘reading as a writer’ (understanding what response the writer wishes to elicit in the reader and how he/she achieves this) and ‘writing as a reader’ (applying the same understanding when making the choices involved in planning, creating and improving one’s own writing).

‘Writer-talk’ is most helpful when focused on the purpose and audience of a piece of writing (that is, its intended effect on the reader). Although it will often rightly and importantly consider choices made at word and sentence level, these always need to be seen in this text-level context. It is a useful way of following up and reinforcing direct teaching of the features of a particular genre/text type.


2.3 Storytelling and story-making

This involves the learning and repeating of oral stories, building children’s confidence to develop them through telling and then extending that development into writing; later creating ‘new’ stories orally as a preparation and rehearsal for writing. The learning and development of stories through oral retelling builds up in children enormously valuable banks of language and narrative patterning that can be incorporated into later writing. It can also build towards a confidence to create ‘original’ stories (although even these often draw on or ‘magpie’ previously learned/read ideas) and to rehearse them orally. In this way, the development of storytelling is built through a sequence involving first imitation (the straight retelling of learned stories) then innovation (developing, extending and changing elements of a story) and finally invention (creating a ‘new’ story).

To build confidence, storytelling and story-making are often more effective if initially carried out communally, gradually working towards greater independence through group, paired and finally individual approaches.


2.4 Word and language games

Talk games and activities can be used to:

  • stimulate and develop vocabulary (for example, word associations);
  • ‘warm up’ the imagination and tune children in to more creative thinking (‘Crossing the river’; ‘Box of stars’);
  • orally develop a character (‘Tell me more about…’);
  • orally develop a setting (‘Painting the picture’).


2.4.1 Word association

Say a word e.g. storm, fire, summer. The children have one minute to write down as many words as possible that they associate with the word. Ask some to share then repeat the game and see if they can add more words. This game could be done with a picture or object as a stimulus too.


2.4.2 Crossing the river

Invent creative ways to cross a river, e.g. make friends with a frost giant and ask it to breathe onto the river, freezing it so that you can walk across.


2.4.3 The Box of Stars.

Split the class in two. One half makes a list of places, e.g. room, town, city, village, mountain, river, star, sun, kitchen, alleyway, box, etc. The other half has to make a list of nouns and abstract nouns, e.g. memories, love, doom, sparklers, curtains, sunsets, wisdom, jealousy, disasters, grass, stars, etc. Then put children into pairs and they match the words listed exactly in the order they wrote them down, e.g.

  • The room of memories.
  • The town of love.
  • The city of doom.
  • The village of sparklers.
  • The mountain of curtains.
  • The river of sunsets.
  • The star of wisdom.
  • The sun of jealousy.
  • The kitchen of disasters.
  • The alleyway of grass.
  • The box of stars


2.4.4 Role-play and drama

Drama activities can be used effectively across the curriculum to promote high-quality thinking, discussion and written outcomes. Here are some examples of strategies.

2.4.5 Freeze-frame

Working in small groups or a whole class, the children create a moment that shows the action in a narrative frozen in time, as if the pause button has been pressed. This allows them to think about what is going on for each of the characters in the frame, or to consider what is happening from different points of view. The moment itself may be the interesting thing, or they may be asked to think about what has just happened or is about to happen. Make sure children have sufficient background knowledge of the context for the freeze-frame to understand their own role in the action or to discuss it.

Sequential frames can be used to represent key moments in a narrative with different groups representing different parts of the narrative.


2.4.6 Thought tapping

When the freeze-frame has been created, the teacher moves quietly and slowly between the characters in the scene. At the teacher’s given signal to an individual child, that child – in character – voices their thoughts aloud in a few words. This allows all the children to hear what some or all of the characters are thinking at that very moment. It gives clues about the role each child has chosen and can raise issues about different viewpoints. It also deepens children’s engagement with the learning context being established.


2.4.7 Thought tracking

Similar to thought tapping, this approach allows the class to follow one character’s train of thought through the action for longer. For example, one or two children move through the freeze-frame in slow motion, speaking their thoughts aloud as they continue to reveal their feelings, viewpoints and/or motivation. Alternatively, other children track the freeze-frame players’ thinking by speaking their thoughts aloud for them.


2.4.8 Slow motion

Select one of the characters in the freeze-frame and ask the child to begin the action again, showing what happened next for that person, but moving slowly so that the rest of the class, still ‘frozen’, has time to think not only about what is happening but why. Another option is for the teacher or a child to narrate the slow-motion action that is taking place for one character.


2.4.9 From drama to writing

These drama and talk activities support preparation and planning for writing by helping to establish the links between characters and their settings. They also help children to manage the interweaving of description (setting and minor characters), action (including background action) and dialogue (or ‘thoughts’). Children can use the drama as a source of ideas for writing.


2.4.10 Overheard conversations

The children hear a conversation that they would not usually have access to and can use this extra information to consider its impact on a narrative or a situation. For example, they have been using conscience alley to explore two different sides of an argument. The teacher introduces two or more characters who are in some way connected with whatever the situation is, and the class is able to listen to a conversation they have. For example, when the main character reaches the end of the conscience alley, the children all sit down and ‘accidentally overhear’ the conversation between two people walking along the road. An overheard conversation often needs to include specific information that impacts on the situation. The teacher can ensure that the right information is included, by taking part in the dialogue. Conversations can also be overheard to provide a range of different viewpoints about the same issue.


2.4.11 From drama to writing

Activities that allow children to rehearse two different sides of an argument or explore different viewpoints are useful preparation for discursive writing and persuasion texts.


2.4.12 Collective voice

The class sits in a circle and the teacher takes on the role of one speaker in a conversation. The whole class takes on the role of a single, second speaker. The teacher begins the conversation, talking to the ‘other person’ (the class) and any child can speak to continue the dialogue. A common purpose is for the children to find out some information from the first speaker or for them to give advice. This sounds complicated but is a powerful teaching convention and most children quickly adopt the strategy to take turns at speaking. If more than one child speaks at once, the teacher decides how to answer one or both. Children usually manage the ‘corporate role’ well because they are focused on what the first character (the teacher) has to say and they want to find out more. Once children are familiar with this convention, the class can take on the more responsible role of the character with information to pass on.


2.4.13 Character on the wall

A character is depicted and developed in a visual way using a large format note-making

strategy. The teacher can use a flipchart, whiteboard, large screen or a big piece of paper displayed ‘on the wall’. A simple character shape such as a stick person is drawn.

The character may already be partly developed, for example through reading the first chapter of a class novel (What do we already know about this person?), or the children may be creating the character from scratch (What do we want this character to be like?). As children contribute their own ideas, the teacher adds brief notes to the visual in an appropriate position. Encourage children to talk and think about different dimensions of the character. For example, if they focus on physical description ask them what kind of person this might be.


2.4.14 From drama to writing

Such drama or talk activities can support children in creating and developing characters when writing fiction. They demonstrate that characters are sometimes complex and have a history, a background, views and opinions, interests, hopes and fears. Activities such as ‘hot seating’ and ‘character on the wall’ allow children to ‘meet’ a character in role and to gather information about them in a drama context before writing. Children can use the information they collect as a resource to help them create a vivid and interesting character when they write.

3 Acknowledgement

The Interactive teaching in literacy and language resource on http://http://oer.educ.cam.ac.uk/ was developed by adapting the National Strategies document Talk for Writing.pdf (info), available from [1] under OGL [2]. The Talk for Writing approach was originally created and developed by Pie Corbett; further information about the approach, along with free resources and training info can be found at the website www.talk4writing.co.uk.