Writing with depth

Updated: May 16, 2021

This is a very quick blog about how I get my classes to plan for depth in their writing. I know this isn't philosophy and I don't claim these ideas as mine (I have a feeling they come from somewhere else but perhaps I'm just having a Platonic moment of recognition!)

It's like they're talking over a film

In my English classes over the years I have noticed that children tend to write in a certain way. I have noticed that children tend to describe the images in their heads as if you are both watching them together. It's like they're talking over a film that you are both watching, up there on the screen in front of you. Unfortunately of course, this isn't the case and I used to spend months convincing them that if it's not on paper I won't see it. This of course led to some ultra detailed writing akin to hyper realism. This is not what was needed either.

Breathing in, breathing out

I decided to look at some great writers and after years of teaching Guided Reading, SPAG and 'Literacy' as separate lessons I found that I had to break from this compartmentalised approach so that these skills could all come together. My school introduced us all to the excellent Power of Reading programme and now literacy really flows. 'Reading is like breathing in. Writing is like breathing out' as the saying goes and I must say that this is so utterly obvious that I couldn't see it for years. We began, as a class, to examine what writers were doing. What are we shown? What are we told? This is very much in the vein of 'Show, Don't Tell'.

We noticed that there is a mixture of the obvious: 'she walked over to the barn door', the hidden: 'she sniffed and blew her nose', (she might be crying) and the imaginative: 'it had been a long and hard day'. There are things that we are told - explicitly, things that we are shown - implicitly and things that happened earlier or are internal, these I call imaginative as the reader isn't 'watching' them in the moment. One child described this as 'imagination within imagination' so I am going to run with that. I hear you cry: 'So far so good...but how do we get these ideas into the children's work?

Explicit, implicit, imaginative

As a school we have always used pictures as stimuli for writing. This has become more common over the various lockdowns this year thanks to remote learning tasks. There are some wonderful resources out there and I highly recommend this site: Once Upon A Picture - Image prompts to inspire reading and writing. We began to look at these pictures in detail. I asked the children to note what they could see...what are the obvious things that jump out at you? These need to be part of any description or moment in a story. We then looked at the hidden aspects, what are the things you really have to look for? The emotions, the tiny clues, the hints and the inferences? Finally, we use our imaginations and think how the moment in this picture came to be. What the character's voice is like. Where they are going and what their life is like.

By doing this the children slow down and use the skills they learn from reading in their writing. Breathing in and breathing out. The plan format for this is pictured below and there is a link to a template at the bottom on this post. In the three circle plan we start from the centre with the 'obvious', moving out to the 'not so obvious' and finally over to 'conjecture land' where the children are asked to use their imaginations.

Use and scope

This planning model has been used to plan a single paragraph where the child describes something on these three levels: Obvious, Not so obvious, Conjecture land.

The otter sits in the lifeboat with his fellow sailors. The storm tosses them this way and that as the wind howls around them. He can hear the sound of the lamp as it clangs against the mast. Sitting in this watery world he asks himself: 'Will we be able to save the passengers of the sinking ship?' and then, as his body stiffens, not just against the cold : 'Was she onboard?'

It can also be used to plan an entire story by linking these three levels throughout the plan. We do this by connecting ideas from each level/circle with a line or by numbering them. The concentric circles mean that related ideas can also be placed next to each other. This approach has been used so far to describe pictures in KS2 English lessons and plan an additional adventure for Odysseus. I have also used it to help focus investigative writing in History lessons by ensuring that the details, the obscure details and then the theories are intertwined when discussing what an object might be. It has helped reluctant writers focus on their paragraphing structures but it also helps children become better writers, mixing details with action and experimenting with tenses. I will write about this again soon with some examples from children's work.

Three Circle Template

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