Developing Story Writing in the Infant Classroom
In an Early Years context, and throughout the Infants, a great deal of the fundamental understanding of what a story is, is gained through hearing a broad range of stories read. Many of these will be formulaic and will assist in introducing book-language and structure. A range of activities can be used to augment the central role of story reading in developing narrative awareness. The approaches outlined in this article are helpful in easing the transition from reading to writing.
One method of helping Infant aged pupils to grasp the linear nature of a typical story is ‘The Story From Boxes’ game. In order to play this narrative game with pupils seven boxes are needed. These are labelled as follows:
- Where next?
- Things that go wrong (problems)
- Who helps?
- Where last?
The boxes contain pictures (and also text) which relate to the external labels e.g. Pictures of people and animals – magazine cuttings pasted to card are effective.
- Pictures of a wide range of buildings / locations
- Further pictures of buildings / locations
- Illustrations of problems that the characters in a story could typically face such as natural phenomena – floods, lightning, avalanche, fire etc. Other useful illustrations include people with injuries such as a broken leg etc.
- Illustrations of members of the fire service, members of the police force and other services; also pictures of everyday people and animals such as a St. Bernard dog.
- Even more pictures of buildings / locations.
- Illustrations of people smiling, crying, laughing etc.
When the boxes and their contents have been completed they should be set out in a row after which discussion of the labels can be used to introduce them. Pupils are then invited to pick 2 pictures from the first box and one picture from each of the remaining six boxes. These are then displayed above the boxes in a line. When all have been chosen the teacher models the story orally, using the illustrations as a guide.
If the pupils had chosen an old man and a young boy from box 1; a cottage from box 2; a castle from box 3; a storm from box 4; a member of the fire service from box 5; a mansion from box 6 and a smiling face from box 7 then the story, told orally, might be something like this…
Once upon a time there was an old man with long grey hair and a young boy with a very thin face.*1 They lived in a cottage in the middle of the woods and around them there grew the tallest trees. You could hear the crows high up in the branches and when you came near you could smell the wood smoke from the fire inside the cottage. The young boy was the man’s grandson and they were going to go to the big castle at the far end of the woods to sell a cow.
They set off early one morning and all was fine, but as they walked further they noticed that the rain clouds were filling up the sky until it became as dark as night. Just then the rain began to fall and soon the forest floor was like a giant, raging river. Well, to escape, the old man and his grandson had to climb a great old oak tree where they hid as the rains fell and fell. But, as you all know, cows can’t climb trees and so their fine cow floated off and was never seen again.
The rain stopped but by then the old man and the young boy was so afraid that they wouldn’t climb down. They shouted for help and eventually a fireman came and helped them down from the tree with a strong ladder.
‘Thanks’ they both said to the fireman and then they were on their way again, but there was no point going to the castle now as they had no cow to sell and so instead they made up their minds to go and see the old man’s brother who was very rich. When they got to his house the young boy couldn’t believe his eyes; it was the biggest house he’d ever seen.
Soon the old man’s brother came out and made them both a huge meal. When they told him their story he gave them his finest cow. They were very, very happy and told him that he could come to drink their fresh milk at any time. The old man and his brother saw much more of each other after that and became the greatest of friends.
*1 details such as this can be added according to the picture.
The teacher should point to each illustration and develop the story whilst pointing to it. The sequence is important and helps very young pupils to understand the sequential elements of the story which, once modeled, become familiar. The sequence of boxes allows for a preferred structural model of a story to be told and internalised. The sequence is as follows:
- Who? = Introduction of characters
- Where? = Description of setting / location
- Where next? = A device to give the story some dynamic and momentum.
- Problem = Central to story writing is the concept of problem. In terms of the structure of a story it should be emphasized whenever possible.
- Who helps? Resolution of conflict / problem is the next sequential step in a story
- Where last? This allows the story to have a conclusion.
- Feelings? This helps to instill a higher order story telling skill from the earliest stages of story writing development e.g. the description not only of incidents, but also of feelings
Once the teacher has modeled story telling from the pictures then the pupils can help to tell aspects of the story until the responsibility for telling it becomes their own. Whilst this is occurring the teacher should model how the story can be written down beneath the chosen pictures. Responsibility for the writing is then (in the same way as in the oral telling) handed over gradually to the pupils. The interactive nature of these activities helps to speed up pupil acquisition of the main elements of narrative.
However, the most exciting aspect of the Story from Boxes game is that it does not constrain either content or imagination (note the addition of selling the cow to the transcribed story) but rather it acts as a structural scaffold for the pupils. The intention should always be to wean the pupils off the scaffold at the soonest possible opportunity (once they have internalised the structural sequence). In this sense it functions as an aid toward independent narrative writing rather than as a dependency model.
The contents of each box can be added to by the pupils thereby making the process dynamic rather than static. As the pupils progress through the Infants the amount of text can be increased, though typically, at Year2, a balance of text-only and illustrations + text will allow for differentiation and can be used to help pupils who become ‘stuck’ when independently writing a story.
In addition to the shoe box story game the ‘talk to self’ method can be used to emphasise the central importance of ‘problem’ within a story. It is better to label the ‘middle’ of a story as ‘the part where problems occur’. When reading a story the ‘talk to self’ method would allow the teacher to say something along the lines of,
Oh, we’re coming to the middle of the story now so something bad will happen, something will go wrong. I wonder what it could be?
This kind of ‘talk to self’ methodology can be successfully used in Shared reading sessions and when pupils are writing their own stories it should be explicitly asked for…
Don’t forget to make some problems happen when you get to the middle of your story.
Developing a sound ‘story sense’ in the Infants demands more than just the reading of a range of stories. The methods outlined above will help to develop this ‘sense’. Other games that will help to embed it include retelling with opposites e.g. ‘The Lovely Wolf and the three Bad Pigs’ / ‘Nasty Red Riding Hood and the Friendly Wolf’ etc. AND
Role-taking. After reading a story the teacher takes on the role of a character and the pupils have to ask questions of him / her. The hot seat is then transferred to pupils. From personal experience I have found it better to model this process with two adults (one in role and one as the question asker) in the first instance.
Alongside a holistic understanding of what a story is, specific elements should be unpicked and can be focused upon intensely. Suggestions for explicit attention are usefully highlighted in the National literacy framework; for example in Year 2 Term 1 we are asked to focus on the ‘language of time’ (T11). When an objective such as this is specified every possible opportunity to increase pupil understanding of the concept should be grasped. Within the literacy hour this would include the use of related visual learning referents. In the instance given a display of time related words such as ‘Suddenly; after that; then; finally; at last etc’ would be useful. Teacher modeled examples of the use of these words in context can also provide a powerful stimulus for the pupils’ own writing. If the concept / objective can be visited in a curricular area other than literacy this will also prove most beneficial. It should also be noted that all pupils should experience a good balance of ‘directed’ writing activities and ‘have a go’ opportunities. These should also be displayed to demonstrate that their own attempts are valued.
Finally it should be noted that almost all locational writing by Infants is purely visual in nature unless the inclusion of other senses is explicitly taught. Pupils will describe only what they see unless we encourage them to include what they hear and smell as well. In the oral transcription included in this article all three senses were alluded to in the description of the setting. Simply by pointing this out we can increase pupils understanding of this aspect of narrative genre.
All of the methods of developing narrative awareness which are discussed in this article have been tested in a range of Infant classrooms in the author’s own Authority. There is clear evidence that by balancing a holistic structural understanding of story writing with a series of intensive – focus sessions on aspects of narrative (such as characterisation; setting etc) that we help pupils to grasp the essential components of story far quicker than we do by merely focusing on the elements in isolation whilst leaving the whole to chance.