Thursday, July 22, 2021

Why Planning is important in GCSE English Creative Writing

The great composer Leonard Bernstein once said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.” 
I can’t think of a better way to start this post as that’s exactly how I feel about Paper 1 Question 5 of GCSE English Language!  Planning is vital to success on this question but my goodness, 45 minutes is something of a constraint. “Not quite enough time” is something I hear from my students all the time – but expressed in a manner not quite so polite!

Planning is also the subject of one of the multimedia lessons on the VLE and something I want to expand on a little here in a way I couldn’t in the lesson which is almost purely instructive.  Here I want to scratch my head a little about the psychology of planning – or to put it more precisely, I want to start by wondering out loud why so many of my students begin their GCSE course with me considering planning as inessential to their success in both creative and functional writing, but especially the former.

I work in a FE college. Most of these students are “resits”, which Is a nice way of saying that they didn’t do very well the first time (for any number of reasons, bone-idleness being at the forefront but still one of many reasons why students do poorly in English Language). Those who are new to the qualification are usually those who have been through the ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) pathway and these “newbies” tend to be quite receptive to planning texts.

Just as people do poorly at GCSE English for one of many reasons, there may be just as many explanations why so many students are unreceptive to the idea of planning a piece of creative writing.  However, do you know why I think that students can be less than keen to plan?  It’s because they don’t know how – and they’re just too embarrassed to admit it and ask in front of their peers (being at that peculiar time of life known as "teen").  Somewhere along the line, they didn’t quite get what the point of it was – and again the reasons for this can be many (and is almost leading to a “chicken and the egg” situation here). Regardless of the reason, this lack of knowledge around how to plan can lead to many a student refusing to attempt it.  They know they should know how to plan, they know they don’t – they decide not to bother.

So, it’s often a case of back to the drawing board – and that is exactly what the lesson on the VLE is all about, using the WAGOLL technique.  I’m generally averse to acronyms but What A Good One Looks Like is a favourite as it reminds me that being able to look at the finished product first can often make learning how to make one so much easier.  Before I ask students to write anything creative, I show them how to plan it first.  For GCSE English this involves considering what the examiner is looking for – and that means taking a look at the assessment objectives that cover the writing skills.

This may sound boring but again I am often surprised that students (in whatever previous educational setting) have not retained knowledge of the skills that they need to demonstrate when writing a creative text whether narrative or descriptive.  I hope I don’t sound like I’m pointing a finger, but it is comparable to telling someone to build a house but not letting them know how many rooms you want, what type of rooms you want – and where to put the windows and doors!

So, although it sounds dry as a bone, one of the first things I will show students is a list of the skills needed for both AO5 and A06.  That’s the content of their text and how it’s organised (aka structured) for AO5 and the technical accuracy (spelling, grammar, punctuation) of the text for AO6. This might involve revision or re-evaluation for the learners – you might be surprised how many blank faces I get when I ask for someone to tell me what they think “sentence demarcation” is.  Yet this is essential information.  I’ve heard some say it’s like building a cage for the students; I prefer to think of it as giving them a frame.  Focusing on what is to be assessed is never a constraint on creativity, indeed it can be a spur.

Plus, assessment objectives don’t need to be boring – a good Kahoot on them will get the attention of the class and lead on to a discussion about their importance.  When students know what they are going to be assessed on, they begin to focus on these skills.

The next step is to show students how to plan.  Again, along the lines of WAGOLL, it’s no good just giving a creative writing task and saying “spend five minutes planning before you start writing” if they don’t know what a good plan looks like or even how to plan a story at all.

So, I show them what a good plan looks like and how to plan is built in to this.  I do a little live modelling – not the Naomi Campbell type – starting with a question and then going through the steps I would take to plan it.  I ask for tips from the students as I go along (and encourage them to laugh at as well as with me) but try very much to bring the plan in to a specific format (which you can see on the VLE).  My approach is that I ask my students to think about structure first.  My mantra is “if you have good structure, then good language follows like a puppy wagging its tail.   Structure is the house, language the home furnishings.  Again – and this is an opinion I hold strongly – giving students a format is not a constraint when it is done properly.  Why? Once something (in this case the format of story telling for GCSE English) is acquired then experimentation upon it can begin.  If no format is acquired there will never be any experimentation only floudering.

Creating the structure of a text gives the students a sense of excitement – they have the finished product essentially planned in about eight quick lines.  It’s also great “unconscious revision” for Paper 1 Question 3. Many can’t wait to start writing but I haven’t quite finished. I then ask them to consider the language they could use in each part of their plan.  You can see an example on the left here.  I have used this method for quite a while now – it gives a sense of immediate success, and first attempts can sometimes be startlingly good.

Perhaps give it a try.  The comprehensive version of this method – and how I follow on from the introduction to creative writing – is all on the Pass GCSE English VLE.

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