Are books the best impetus for Creative Writing?
Books, used as a text impetus, dominate the teaching of writing in English in KS2 and KS3. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it is worth considering that the popularity of storytelling in print form is largely a late 19th-century and 20th-century phenomenon. Prior to that oral storytelling traditions and dramatic performances were much more commonplace and accessible than the printed word. Also, before the advent of cheap mass-market paperback production, ‘books’ often reached the reader in the form of serialisations in broadsheets or early newspapers. Neither was the single author’s work necessarily common – for example, Alexandre Dumas reputedly employed teams of editors and story writers for his novels, in a way not dissimilar to network TV screenwriting today. Arguably, only since the advent of public libraries and the Education Act have books been the first choice medium for the delivery of storytelling in education. For most of the twentieth century, the use of literature in teaching writing reflected the preeminence of literature as a storytelling form. But is that still the case now, or will it be in the future?
Can the teaching of film make reading books more appealing?
Which is the chicken and which is the egg? Is it more useful to be able to appreciate, create and tell a story, or is it more useful to be able to read books and write a range of similar narrative genres? Surely the ability to create a narrative in a range of forms using a variety of media is more useful than relying on one form?
If printed literature is seen as a brief period in the historical synthesis of storytelling, it isn’t surprising that technology will deliver a succession of new forms for the delivery of stories. Whether film will last longer than print as a form is debatable, but film is currently more accessible and more engaging to young learners than books. How many pupils have seen the film but not read the book? Is that a good thing – I don’t know – but it’s certainly worth taking advantage of when considering how to improve the teaching of writing.
At the simplest level, reading the book and watching the film increases the pupil’s understanding and appreciation of the story. The story is ‘king’ – not the form in which it is told. Instead of simply reading a story; hearing it, seeing it, experiencing it, retelling it, feeling it and acting it are key to the pupil then being able to create their own imaginative stories. ‘Getting lost’ in a book is one way of achieving this, which will appeal to some pupils. Experiencing film-making, dramatic performance, mime, dance, music, audiobooks, animation, oral retelling, improvisation and imagination journeys – in tandem with the printed text – will increase the teacher’s chances of appealing to and engaging all of the pupils and not just those who are already interested in books.
In short, encouraging pupils to enjoy stories (in whatever form) is more likely to result in pupils reading books than relying on encouraging pupils to read books in order to enjoy stories. Some children are more likely to read the book after seeing the film or listening to the audiobook.
Children learn to understand pictures before words
Children learn to understand pictures before words and they enjoy enacting their imaginations. Yet by KS2, creative writing tasks are almost always derived from literature as an impetus. Using the visual and kinaesthetic elements to watching films, making films, acting and performing as an impetus for writing will help ensure all learning styles are catered for.
None of this should infer that children no longer read, either as much as they should, or as much as their parents did. From my teaching experiences, I’d argue that children today do read as much, if not more, than previous generations. It’s just that there is a perception that children do not read as much fiction. Nonfiction writing skills are better now than when I started teaching. Is this due to an increase in using the internet to source information? Grammar pedantry and spelling superiority complexes turn up in the classroom -,, particularly in peer review sessions. Is this due to similar trends on social networking websites?
Let’s examine what we really ask the children to produce in terms of creative writing. Very generally, a KS2 story writing task might expect a complete plot, with characters and descriptions. Similarly, a KS3 task might also expect the same, with more development, better use of figurative language and a sense of style suited to the genre. KS2 writers might hope to achieve the equivalent of 1-2 sides of A4 for an extended task, and KS3 might reach 4 sides for a complete story under timed conditions.
Quality over quantity apart, what is it that we are asking them to produce? It isn’t a short story – typically this form might range from 2000-20000 words – onerous even for an A-level student. It’s not a chapter – these can range typically from 1000-10000 words even in children’s literature; and besides as teachers, we ask the pupils to write a completed plot, not an episode.
The point is this – can you find an example of a KS2 or KS3 ‘story’ written by a published writer? It’s very hard to do so. A story in 300-800 words is a form that doesn’t really exist in published literature. As teachers, we ask the pupils to write a form, in terms of length and expectation, which no professional writer would attempt. Using the pupils’ time and word length requirement, it isn’t possible to develop a complete plot with problems, climax, resolution and ending; developed characters with dialogue and convincing settings and descriptions – not in a way that would satisfy the reader. It’s a written form that is inherently unlikely to achieve the aims and expectations of the pupils and teachers, regardless of the effort or ability of the writer.
A much more limited story form is required. Only a few characters, perhaps only two or three settings, one key problem which requires a resolution and lots of opportunities to show off a good use of description, a change of pace, the use of figurative language and turn of phrase are all strategies which work well. But finding a real-world example of such a self-contained 300-800 word story in published literature is still difficult.
However, it’s very easy to find such examples in film. 6-12 minute short films, or ‘shorts’, are very common. They often fit the peculiar 300-800 word short story format in which we ask pupils to compose perfectly. Settings and characters are limited. The story is distilled down to key elements. The atmosphere and setting play an important part. The story must be self-contained and achieve a satisfying ending. An award-winning short film is likely to display far more of the narrative requirements for KS2 and KS3 creative writing than any modelled excerpt of children’s literature. There are lots of examples of short film portfolios and festivals on the internet.
Consider this – despite advising on suitable settings, limiting characters and writing about a subject or in a style which best utilizes the pupil’s knowledge and abilities – how many times do you find yourself marking stories involving car chases, yes/no dialogue. or a constant stream of events with no developed setting or description? Can all the pupils see what they’re being asked to write? Are they able to do the planning – in terms of mental sequencing? Is there evidence of this in the written work you mark?
If instead the same written task is planned as a short film the limitations and restrictions the teacher places on the exercise suddenly become more visual and kinaesthetic – less reading and writing based, and more an exercise in recorded oral storytelling. Settings, for example, become limited to what is immediately available – no car chases for example – there aren’t any cars or streets available. What is available in terms of a setting or props? In terms of writing, it forces the pupil to consider: ‘What familiar settings can I use effectively for my story? Or, how can I use characters to tell my story effectively?’ Drawing the scenes using a storyboard template will force the pupil to consider what the viewer sees, imagines, and in terms of writing, what needs to be described. For kinaesthetic story planning, try cutting up the storyboard scenes – deleting some, adding others and arranging for the best effect. Explaining the benefits of ‘in media res’ openings are better demonstrated by moving a few storyboard panels rather than drawing a red line through half a written composition. Of course, fantastic events can still be described, but indirectly, by characters using imagination and narrative dialogue. Once a story has been planned as a film, ie visually and kinaesthetically, many pupils will find writing an effective story more straightforward.
Shorts films can provide an excellent form of impetus for specific creative writing tasks. For example, to focus the pupils on using description and show rather than tell (non-dialogue) forms of characterization, using a silent film as an impetus can be very effective. This is one example. Similarly, when focusing on specific genres – a matching short film genre can help the students visualize the effect of the required style of writing.
Autobiographical and biographical writing
Autobiographies – an example: create a movie from scanned or digital still images by creating movement with a ‘Ken Burns‘ effect. Set the soundtrack to the music in the week the person born. Selecting the pictures reveals what the subject considers important or pivotal to their life. What words would you use for the voiceover? Would a biography using the same pictures be the same? How do we gauge what defines us as a person? Are our own views more important than anyone else’s? Comparing an autobiography and a biography created with the same raw media can be interesting. The resulting plans then form the scaffold not for a film, but a piece of autobiographical writing. This could also form a longer-term homework project, where the pupils write a biography of a family member. Grandparents often work very well.
Ideas for using film as the primary impetus for writing
Case study: describing places and scenes
Typically the impetus would be text from a book on a related topic or genre. Structure and modelling might be suggested by the teacher – for example, top to bottom and side to side descriptions of rooms or near to middle distance to far distance and back to near distance for landscapes and places. In film, the parallels are there. Distance and drawing the eye can be defined by the ‘z-axis‘ or moving to and from wide angles shots. Interior scenes might focus on one particular aspect of the room or an object, or the camera might follow what the eye might look at. Once pointed out these aspects of filmmaking are easy to spot. There is a plethora of further examples here. Framing the description is often the biggest challenge for pupils in KS2 and KS3. Framing what you might look at, what you think is most important for someone to see, or how you might film a scene may seem easier for a lot of pupils than drafting ideas in an exercise book – and the same visual framing and planning can be utilised for writing as effectively as any scaffold on paper.
For example – in Harry Potter 1 – the description of the street and shops in the ‘Diagon Alley’ chapter can provide a good impetus for descriptive writing in Year 5 or Year 6. One lesson involved reading the text and discussing it, modelling some possible structures and scaffolds for visual and physical descriptions and helping explore the pupils’ imaginative ideas. Any activity of this sort will result in some amount of imitation, and in this case, using the book text as an impetus led to instances of similar visual chronologies, content, phrases, and constructions. Almost all ended up focusing on brooms, owls and overheard conversations.
With another group, I used the same scene from the first film (http://youtu.be/zhWoqobDZXQ) as the impetus. Interestingly although some content was imitated, almost all the planning, structures and constructions used were unique. Using the film resulted in a batch of more varied and ‘creative’ writing.
Swapping the accounts of the two groups and rereading and watching the book and the film improved the second drafts further. Perhaps exploring this further with ‘imagination journeys’ or ‘creative visualizations’ either in the classroom or acted out through mime or drama could provide an alternative or extension.
Film clips are a useful way of exploring:
- Character viewpoints in writing
- Use of the narrator when telling the story
- Use of weather, light, and sound as metaphors
- Describing a character by showing rather than telling – especially with title sequences and establishing shots
- Interior monologue – as a voiceover or a dream sequence
- Telling stories or creating descriptions using no dialogue at all
Ideas to try with a class:
- Characterisation – film (or act out) someone walking across the room in five different ways – each perhaps with a different emotion, or a different motivation (for example: to distract and steal, to scare, to encourage, to irritate, to make laugh), or simply a different physical characteristic. Ask the pupils to use powerful verbs and interesting nouns to describe the walking. Extend to using metaphors and similes, and other forms of figurative language. See if the pupils can build up a character sketch that defines the motivation and emotion of the character by describing little more than the way they walk.
- Suspense – film (or act out) an indication of tension and suspense limited to just sound, movement, and facial expressions. Imagine a situation where the characters cannot speak. For example, a KS3 class might write about Anne Frank and her family in the annex when there are burglars in the warehouse below.
- Open-ended creative writing questions: for example: ‘Write about a time you experienced disappointment,’ or ‘Write about a moment of exhilaration.’ This short film is collated from 60 clips submitted by users who were asked to provide one second of video on the theme of “bliss”. (There’s more about the project here and here.) Collated, this makes a one-minute film. When faced with an open-ended question such as ‘Write about a moment of exhilaration’, some pupils might struggle to formulate ideas. But if every pupil across a year group creates just one second of video, and then all the collated clips are played back, most pupils, if not all, will have some creative ideas to focus on for writing. It doesn’t require a great camera to create one second of video.
Software and apps for computers and mobile devices
Free screenwriting software – to allow your pupils to draft and print professional-looking screenplays. (An alternative to writing playscripts in KS2 and KS3)
Many of these applications will also support the development of plot ideas in creative writing, and not just film-making.
- ScriptBuddy – free web browser-based screenplay writing application. Will output to PDF for printing.
- Celtx – Online collaborative writing, screenplay production, organisation, and output software. Web-based. A little more complicated.
Examples of real TV and Radio screenplays – to allow pupils to see how the story translates to the screenplay and onto the screen.
- BBC Writers’ room – a collection of broadcast TV scripts.
- Tracy Beaker – Tracy’s Fantasy – BBC Screenplay | Compare the screenplay to the TV broadcast and the original books by Jacqueline Wilson.
- MI High – The cold war – BBC Screenplay. The TV broadcast is here and here. As an example of how this could be used in KS3 English, this school developed a halt term drama and English unit where the pupils watched the TV episode, read and studied the screenplay and then worked on converting the screenplay into a 20-minute play script. 4 teams then competed in an end-of-term drama competition based on the playscript.
Free or low-cost movie making software and applications
- Windows Live Movie Maker – free download from Microsoft as part of the Live Essentials suite. For MACs and PCs. Will output to Youtube and Vimeo and formats suitable for school websites and VLEs.
- Microsoft Photostory – free download which turns still photographs into a movie. Music and titles can be added. Will output to Youtube and Vimeo and formats suitable for school websites and VLEs.
- VideoPad video editor – low cost fully featured video editing software for PCs.
- Sony Vegas family – more expensive but capable of producing professional results. Easy to learn interface.
- Blufftitler – a low-cost motion graphics, lower third, and titling application. Ideal for BBC School Report and creating short film titles. It works well on older machines. It’s even possible to use RSS feeds as a text source.
- Pivot – free stick animation software. Good for creating title sequences.
- Artrage – free/low-cost realistic painting software.
- Toonboom – excellent cartoon-style animation software. There are free and trial versions here.
- Comic Life – great for creating and planning dialogue-based stories.
Stop motion animation and time-lapse photo movies are often taught in KS and KS3 ICT. However, they don’t have to be limited to plasticine figures and packs such as those produced by RM. Stop motion animations are created by taking a lot of photos with a digital camera. By a lot – a 500-1000 a minute is a good guide. It doesn’t require an expensive camera. The images need to be small in file size, so even a good mobile phone can be used. Stop motion animations don’t require expensive software to assemble the film. Free software, such as Microsoft Movie Maker can be used to good effect, as described here.
This idea from the University of York, which serves as a visual virtual tour, could be achieved in a school. Similar school examples can be found here and here, where the tour acts as an autobiographical piece about sports and hobbies – suitable for Y7 English.
Instead of a tour, the ‘journey’ might tell a more narrative story – such as this example which uses still pictures, Lego, and a voiceover. Effectively this is story writing, using dialogue, planned with storyboards instead of more traditional writing frames or scaffolds. Other possibilities might include a nonfiction documentary or non-chronological report, or a visual mystery train or quest story.
Other ideas for short films in the English curriculum:
- Filming events and recording documentaries as a comparison or impetus for writing non-chronological reports. BBC School Report, World Book Day or Red Nose day are good opportunities. Here’s an example that includes voiceovers and vox-pops.
- Sports match reports – use BBC news day stuff
- Telling stories with no dialogue at all – the spin movie
- No dialogue forces the writer or filmmaker to focus on description, imagery, and imagination, to tell the story. Creating scripts, short play scripts or films in this manner transfers to pupils’ writing skills in the form of improved descriptive and imaginative writing. It reduces the reliance on dialogue and action in stories and improves the standard of descriptive writing, particularly in KS2. Here’s an example of a compelling short narrative film with no dialogue.
- Turning video into animation – if you have a large class or want a year group or whole school project, this is one possibility. This explains how it was achieved.
- Tasked with running a verse recital competition, to tick a box in the news KS2 National Curriculum for learning poems off by heart? Why not take the stress out of it by filming the performances, and putting together a short film? The pupils can have as many takes as they need to perfect a recital. Green screens help and offer the possibility of more exciting backgrounds and effects. Here’s a primary school example.
- Poetry writing – instead of displaying it on the wall, why not record it as an audio file so that it can go home and be shared with families and friends? This primary school example combines cross-curricular photography with poetry writing in year 6.
- Use the pupils’ knowledge of a class reading book, together with lego, to create animations – either slideshow or stop motion – backed by narrative stories covering KS2 writing objectives. Here’s an upper KS2 example.
- Put a new spin on the ubiquitous PowerPoint presentation. Instead of still slides, why not try 1-2 second long film clips taken with a digital camera? These can be strung together as a slideshow which moves – back with audio and voiceovers evidence writing for assessment. Here’s a year 5 example for a John Muir Award.
- Write jingles and create idents and stingers for sporting events such as sports days or team events. These can be played with an audio ‘cart’ or the podcasting software below.
- Podproducer – free podcasting software
Free music and sound effects for schools.
- Free Music Archive – free-to-use music suitable for video and movie soundtracks. Great search function and lots of genres.
- Creative Commons (Attribution license) music suitable for film and short video soundtracks from audionautix. High-quality audio.
- SmartSound’s royalty-free music program for schools.
Free online training and film resources for education
- Vimeo Video School | A great free online training resource.
- After Effects Training | Learn how to create animated titles, special effects, transitions and more. Free training.
- BBC News Day and School Report Teacher resources
- Film course for English teachers | Free teacher inset course accredited as CPD and run by NAACE
- Introduction to screenwriting for teachers | Free teacher inset course accredited as CPD and run by NAACE
- Explore Animation Course for Teachers | Free teacher inset course accredited as CPD and run by NAACE
- Training resources for teachers and students are provided by Film Education.
- Resources suitable for teachers – training in filmmaking from the BBC.
- Guides on how to produce a video from the BBC.
- A filmmaking guide by the BBC.
- Resources for young filmmakers from the young film academy.
Displaying films on a school website:
- WordPress TubePress Plugin | Great add-on for WordPress-hosted sites to display youtube or Vimeo movies.
Resources and lesson plans
- Sample screenplays and scripts from CBBC
- Downloadable resources packs from Pilot Theatre – all productions feature packs
- Royal Photographic Society education resource pack.
- FilmClub resources
- Classroom video website – a vast collection of videos for use in curriculum teaching.
- RSC Shakespeare drama and video resources.
- Screen online teaching resources.
- BFI education and teaching resources. And more here.
Competitions for schools and pupils to enter
- Competitions run by Film Education.
- Be Creative Film competitions.
- Primary and secondary school animation competition run by Manchester University.
Resources for running school-based film festivals
If your pupils prefer a visual stimulus, consider magazines! Magazines for children and teens are a great way to encourage pressure and expectation-free reading for pleasure and improved comprehension.
Disclaimer – None of the videos or resources referenced is hosted on this site. All references to videos are links to external public domain sources such as Vimeo and Youtube. This website: thomastolkien.co.uk cannot be held responsible for the content of any external site linked to from within this site.