"The dragon's wings stretched out wide, revealing the argent and tawny outline. His charcoal claws gripped into the grassy banks. His flames were lava-hot and auburn in colour, and his mouth was slate inside. He knew every battle he fought was about life and death and so he launched himself at the knight. But death had come upon him and this was his end."
Can you believe this was written by a Grade 4 boy! Kade's wonderful writing is testament to Highbury's new C-POW English programme developed by Mrs Jolene Goveia, which has already been delivering outstanding results since its implementation this year.
According to a National Literacy poll completed in the UK by 35,000 pupils aged 8 to 16, boys are more than twice as likely as girls to say they hate writing and find it embarrassing. Over a fifth (20.9%) of boys surveyed said that they did not enjoy writing at all compared with 8.9% of girls. There is clearly a need to find new ways to make creative writing boy-centric and Highbury is excited to be pioneering new tools and techniques.
C-POW is an abbreviation of the four building blocks of creative writing: 'Clever Conjunctions', 'Precise Punctuation', 'Outstanding Openers' and 'Wow Words'. Highbury has introduced big C-POW posters in the classroom as well as a small individual C-POW 'mat' for each boy, which were compiled by our team of English teachers in Senior Primary, together with Jolene. There is a simpler version of the mat for Grade 4 and 5, and a more advanced type for Grade 6 and 7 with more challenging words and ambitious vocabulary. Depending on whether the boy is left or right handed, the mat can be placed on either side of the workbook. It is a vital complement to the posters as it is easier to refer to the mats by looking sideways, than it is to peer above the workbook, which was the initial idea.
'Clever Conjunctions' are the glue that hold sentences together. Conjunctions also allow learners to add to a sentence, in order to make it more complex and also more interesting. The conjunctions in C-POW are taught in levels, starting with 'and' in Level 1, moving on to 'but', 'so', 'because' in Level 2 and finally moving on to 'nevertheless', 'contrary to', 'however' and 'despite' in Levels 4 and 5. By teaching these conjunctions in levels, the boys are able to begin at their own starting point, move at their own pace and then observe their progress as they become familiar and confident with the variety of joining words. 'The dog barked loudly' can be improved and made more interesting simply by adding a conjunction and allowing the learner to create more detail in the sentence. 'The dog barked loudly because he saw an intruder scaling the wall of the house.' Because of the addition of a conjunction and further details, the sentence now holds the reader's attention.
'Precise Punctuation' is the most concrete of the four building blocks of C-POW and also teaches the use of punctuation of writing in levels. Level 1 starts with full stops and capital letters, moving on to question marks in Level 2. In Levels 4 and 5, the boys are taught how to use speech marks, ellipses, colons, semicolons and brackets. The joy of this method is that these pieces of punctuation can be taught incidentally, in creative writing lessons, far earlier than at the 'grade appropriate' time. The reason for this is that when learners are actively involved in improving the standard of their creative writing, by owning their writing progress, improvement is natural and inevitable - not because the teacher says that the pupil must do it, but because the pupil wants to do it!
'Outstanding Openers' or sentence openers are categorized into five groups: (1) pronouns, nouns, (2) time indicators, (3) adverbs, verbs, prepositions, (4) nouns, metaphor and similes, (5) oppositional and contextual phrases. It is astonishing how a sentence can be improved by simply changing the sentence opener, e.g. 'The boy walked to the police station', can be upgraded to, 'Hastily, the boy walked to the police station.' Sentence 1 begins with a Level 1 sentence opener, while sentence 2 begins with a Level 3 sentence opener. With a little bit of practice, the children quickly learn that a sentence can be improved by simply beginning with an adverb, verb or preposition.
'Wow Words' are a variety of ambitious vocabulary shown in a table that lists the core/common word first and then builds into levels of more complex words from Level 1 to 5. Examples of these words and the progression from simple to elaborate is another building block that most learners embrace. Words used to describe colours are the easiest place to start. The sentence, 'The girl's red lips stood out starkly from her white skin', can be upgraded by focusing on improving the adjectives of colour. 'The girl's crimson lips stood out starkly from her alabaster skin.' Pupils thoroughly enjoy editing and improving their use of vocabulary, by using the 'Wow' words on the C-POW mats. The result is always impressive and boosts the child’s writing confidence.
Teachers are encouraged to structure their lessons around proven principles of how to best engage boys with creative writing, for example:
- Keep writing projects short. A two to three day project is maximum duration for boys to keep them engaged.
- Focus on quality not quantity of sentences. Often eight sentences is ample at Grade 4 level and it is better to then spend time improving the quality of these sentences.
- Provide a planning framework for the writing topic: e.g. setting, build-up, main event and ending, consisting of two to three sentences each.
- Choose boy-centric topics: 'My sporting experience', 'The Dragon and the Knight', 'My Space Adventure' and 'Time Travel'. Broadcaster and children’s author, Simon Mayo, says the key to getting boys to pick up a pen "is to find a topic that interests them".
- Encourage boys to think about what part of the story they are going to write about, keeping the audience in mind. For example, it is much more exciting to write about the last try of a rugby game than to try to summarize the full 80 minutes.
- Deliberate editing: spend time praising boys as well as looking for ways you can teach them to improve. Using an anonymous example of a piece of writing, and editing this piece as a class is hugely beneficial. The boys love having their writing used as an example, and the other boys relate to this, as it is written at their level.
One of the many advantages of the C-POW system of teaching creative writing is that is creates consistent building blocks of learning across Grades and even across languages. Highbury's Afrikaans and Zulu teachers are now working on adapting C-POW to these second languages too.
Mrs Jolene Goveia says, "What we have realized through this creative journey, is that to get boys not only to write, but to enjoy writing, requires giving them handgrips, in the form of levelled conjunctions, punctuation, sentence openers and wow words. Choosing topics that they love is another draw card. Finally, celebrating their successes, regardless of how small or big they may be, motivates boys to keep trying and to enjoy writing."