Where to begin...

Rhona Dick
This article first appeared in MAPE Focus on Literacy Autumn 1998


Have you ever been faced with the...

I have just been looking at...

We have all come across this problem before. A blank sheet of paper in front of us, a writing task to complete, a limited time in which to do it, and the Muse is off on a tea-break. If it is hard for us as adults to produce a page or more of intelligent, coherent written language how much harder is it for children? I can still remember that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when told to write a story about... It didn't matter what it was I was asked to do it never seemed to have any relevance to my life, and my imagination at a tender age was unequal to the task. I never found it quite so daunting when given a shove in the right direction. A little like overcoming friction, once the writing was underway, figurative language, adverbial clauses, in fact the whole range of literary features simply dripped off the end of my regulation Osmiroid medium-italic fountain pen.

Sutton-on-Sea School has come up with the hypertext version of this shove in the right direction by creating a series of 'story-starts'. What is innovative about these is that although the framework is set up, children can individualise their stories by selecting from a list of options on screen. Once the selections have been made the story start can be printed out for children to work on away from the computer.

The Adventure Story begins thus:

An Adventure Story

Choose what you think are the best words from each list!

The arrived just as was slipping on jacket. It was the news had been waiting for.  Without a second thought headed straight for the .

The first menu gives the choice of:
telephone call

Let's have a more careful look at the page; the possibilities go beyond the immediately obvious.
It is possible to treat this as a cloze procedure.
How many different words can children come up with which will make sense in the context of the rest of the story?

Menu One 'The telephone call'

Once you have exhausted the list look in more detail at the words themselves.

Q  What parts of speech are they?
A  They are all nouns or noun phrases.

Q  Would any other part of speech make sense, for example an adjective?
A  No.

Q  Why not?

What would be the effect of changing this option to 'the telephone'?
Look next at the choice of verb following this short menu. How many other verbs could be substituted which would make sense for all the options?

Menu Three 'his'

His, a possessive pronoun, why is it not her or theirs, or our? Compare this with the pronoun that appears in menus five and six.
Here children are learning about the singular/plural and gender agreement between nouns, in this case Martin, and pronouns, his. Teaching and learning about some of the different types of pronouns appears in the National Literacy Strategy framework in Year 3

Menu Four 'striped'

How many alternatives can you come up with that make sense?
Can you categorise them by:

Read on in the story and make further choices.
Considering these do you have to modify any of your previous options?
If the subsequent events were to take place at the Pyramids are there any options that would not be appropriate?

As settled down for the long journey ahead thought of the contents of the the had said.  wasn't sure what lay ahead for when arrived at .  The next would be critical.

Look at 'Come at once. Great Danger.' How much grammar there is contained in those five words.

  1. It is a command, a simple imperative, the verb as at the beginning of the sentence. What would be the effect of prefacing this with 'Please'?
  2. If you were to change this into a question or a statement what words would you need to add?
  3. Direct speech is employed. Can you change it into indirect speech? What effect does that have?
  4. 'Great Danger.' This is not a sentence. How do we know? So what is it?
  5. What part of speech is 'Danger'?
  6. Why does 'Danger' have a capital D?
  7. What is the effect of making these 'sentences' short? Add some other words and see what happens?
  8. What punctuation might be added to this speech?
  9. How many powerful verbs could you substitute for 'said'?
  10. Which ones would be inappropriate in the context of the story?

Look at the different connectives used within this writing frame. What would have been the effect if a narrower range of connectives had been used?
The possibilities are almost endless.

Story Starts can be found in The Learning Zone at http://www.sutton.lincs.sch.uk

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