This blog, much like my last post on picturebook biographies, is another complement to a blog I wrote for my employers @HertsEnglish. In that blog I explore statutory writing assessment but will also refer to some ideas for writing in the primary classroom. The blogs on this site serve to go into greater detail around the books and resources that we might use to inspire our young reader-writers.
I want to keep this blog relatively short. Certainly short by my standards. I will let the Herts blog explain quite why I am preoccupied with recounts at the moment. Or rather, why I have been focused on recounts as a vehicle for developing the knowledge/skills (you decide) that underpin a fluency in sequencing series of related sentences. Not to mention recounts as a vehicle for developing the instincts/inclinations that tell the writer just when to break out of the narrative drive, to offer up thoughts, reflections, digressions, metaphysical hiccups – whatever. Those breaks in plot that are not simply stylistic aspects of voice, but more the unique expressions, insights and feelings of the writer themselves.
In the last blog I looked at biographies – one form of recount. Here, we turn to personal recounts, a first person version of events. Rather than delve into what a personal recount is – once again there will be some coverage of that on the Herts site – this document serves as a general guide to the form
The recount I have in mind here is quite simple really – a journey: from A to B with some curious milestones along the way. It could be formed in the past tense. This might allow for greater variety of verb forms – the simple past placing your reader back in time, and then some use of present participles and other forms to comment on what is happening around the protagonist. It might, though, have greater urgency and immediacy if written in the present tense, perhaps in a breathless, sweaty voice as the quest unfolds. It might be a diary entry. It might be the feverish commentary of our anxious hero. Ideally, we’ll leave these choices to the author, assuming they have been sufficiently primed. Informed choice and all that.
Although I am moving swiftly towards the books – always towards the books – I just need to gather myself and offer up a measure of caution. Have the children been primed to write with confidence and healthy abandon? They will have written recounts of one form or another throughout their primary schooling, but some revision, modelling and practising of key features will make all the difference.
So let’s take a shortcut through some handily spooky woods, and I will just offer up a trio of texts (one less conventional in form than the others) to light the path for us. The Errand is the main driver for this blog. A graphic novel by Leo LaFleur and Adam Oehlers, I chanced upon when browsing fairly aimlessly in Foyles on Tottenham Court Road. I am so glad I did. It’s a great book. It’s a dark book.
Our first port of call is a well-loved classic: Neil Gaiman’s Instructions. This is a book I might use to support recount writing from year 2 upwards. In younger year groups, it would also, of course, support a more interesting set of instructions than the classic “How to make a sandwich.” Share the book, in your very best storyteller voice – it screams out for a killer pause and a slowly raised finger of warning. Take note of the sentence forms and the supporting detail that guides and clarifies each step. Then, drawing upon the children’s imaginations, or perhaps maps from other books, our young quest imagineers can fashion either a set of instructions or a recounted journey as you see fit.
In upper Key Stage 2, I would share Instructions with a view to gathering ideas for our own writing, to establish a feeling for mood and to get some literary phrasing under our belts. We would also be refreshing our memories of some of the codes and conventions of the world of fairies, fables and fantasy. This next page is close to perfect as a bridge into our second text.
Spooky stuff. Spooky enough.
Let’s drift further.
Here’s The Errand – beautiful cover, and blurb.
You can’t remember how you became the errand boy of a suspected witch.
You can only remember being desperate.
Run swiftly, as fast as you can.
We are no longer in Puss in Boots territory. It is darker than Instructions. Darker, but not so dark as to be unsuitable for upper key Stage 2, I think. Like Instructions, the book takes us on a journey, here through the Whispering Woods and on to the witch’s shack. Once again the text is written in the second person, urging us on, issuing barely reassuring guidance. The language is rich. Whole sentences combine with fragments to give us an equal sense of state of play and state of mind.
As you might expect, and much like the biographies shared in my previous blog, adverbs and prepositions sequence and link the journey. Descriptive elements bring the sense of foreboding and nervous wonder. There is plenty of scope here for the children to draw upon the language features in their own writing, but also a simplicity in terms of actual task so that they are freed to create their own images, their own twisting, turning landmarks and pathways.
I’m pleased to say that a sequel to The Errand is on the horizon. Just beyond the witch’s shack. It is something to look forward to.
Earlier, I mentioned that one of the trio of texts was less conventional than the others. I was referring to a storytelling card came, The Hollow Woods (kindly introduced to me by Maddy Barnes and Dawn Robertson). This is another of my new-ish favourite things. Just look at this beauty:
Now look at it.
Oh the places we will go. It’s a work of deceptively simple genius – careful alignment allowing for a ridiculously large number of potential combinations. You could extend the picture beyond a 3 card deal. You could allow children to start with three cards, then swap, seen or unseen, to encourage agility in adapting writing to changing circumstances. They could represent a start point, an end point, a sequel, a dream sequence – the list could go on.
I’ve included it with two particular types of novice writer demands in mind: those who don’t know where to start; those who know only too well how to start, and have the whole blessed piece mapped out in under five minutes. Writing that is perfectly competent but maybe a little safe, maybe a bit too much in the comfort zone of cruising: “Okay, that sounds good – now I want you to see if you could incorporate one of these scenes and weave it in seamlessly.” A little bit of an editor’s input. A deliberate slowing down of the thinking process before drafting.
That’s a sketch of a sequence that might deliver some lovely- somewhat disconcerting – descriptive recount writing. Do get in touch if I have been less than clear or you’d like further guidance.
To wrap up, I have some other books in mind to extend recount writing skills further in very different directions.
Town is by the Sea is a profoundly good picturebook by Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith would offer a wonderful model of autobiographical writing that looks at the small moments and symbols of everyday life that lodge in among the more significant memories of childhood. It might well complement some work on memoir. I would urge you to take a look at Literacy4pleasure’s excellent blog on memoir writing. All children have something powerful to write about. We just might need to help them see, then shape it.
From the (achingly beautiful) mundane of the masterful Town is by the Sea, we could move to the deceptively ordinary day set out in Professional Crocodile by Giovanna Zoboli and Mariachiara Di Giorgio. This would bring a fresh, not to mention surreal, spin to the usual writing about animals and zoos. (With thanks to Mat Tobin for urging me to buy both of those books.)
Whatever you choose to use, I wish you somewhat happy journeying.
Beware of all those creatures of the Whispering Woods.
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