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Blog post

Waxing lyrically: a way into books and reading

05 Jul 2021

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Mark Johnson is Assistant Head and Literacy Lead at Staples Road Primary School who attended Improving Writing in KS2 CPD, delivered by the National Literacy Trust, and discussed his application of IPEELL at the inaugural primary conference, Everyone back to school: Literacy by stealth. Read his story below.

You can attend Improving Writing in KS2 (IPEELL), online, from 18 November. This forms part of our Education Recovery toolkit, designed to support teachers following the disruption to learning caused by school closures.

How I got into reading

“No one would have believed, in the last years of the 19th century that human affairs were being watched from the timeless worlds of space…”

I can still vividly recall the first time that I heard these words (‘heard’ being the operative word as will become clear shortly). It was an evening at home, just after Christmas, probably 1982 or 1983, Mum was busying herself around the house, my little brother was playing with some new toy that Santa had brought him and Dad and I were making a Messerschmitt BF109E model from a large Airfix kit that my Aunty Anne had bought me. See – I did mention ‘vivid’ detail. At some point, Dad decided to play a record that he’d been lent by a mate at the darts club for us all to listen too – it was ‘War of the Worlds’, a double album, prog-rock, space opera by Jeff Wayne.

From the moment I heard that opening line (delivered in the sombre, gravelly tones of Welsh acting legend, Richard Burton) and the initial refrain of deafening strings from Jeff’s orchestra, to the haunting epilogue with its deliciously teasing hint at a second Martian invasion, I was utterly captivated. Terrified too – most definitely, certainly didn’t sleep that night, I’m sure - but captivated nonetheless and I wanted more of it. Especially because, at some point during that debut playback, I had also found the album’s gatefold cover with its creepily evocative artwork and a full set of the accompanying song lyrics and narrations - and I wanted to read them.

This early audio adventure also awakened in me an appetite for reading, which until this point I hadn’t had. I had a library card and I was a ‘good’ reader at school but nothing much grabbed my attention beyond a much-loved collection of dinosaur fact books, a Ladybird version of ‘Theseus & the Minotaur’ and a box of assorted comics. At the weekend, I probably only ‘read’ the classified football check at 5pm on BBC1. However, there was something magical about Wayne’s version of the HG Wells’ story that just opened a doorway for me into the land of fiction. My formative experiences of having my appetite for the written word whetted by my love of music became a key factor, years later, when I became a teacher.

Implementing IPEELL

My pupils – though generally able – were underperforming in writing. I attended Improving Writing in Key Stage 2 CPD, delivered by the National Literacy Trust, and felt that if we implemented IPEELL across the school, it would save the teachers a lot of time due to the clear structure.

I was also inspired to implement IPEELL due to the importance of self-regulation and, most importantly, by the prospect of my pupils becoming critical writers.

I felt that to write expertly, to become critical writers, the children needed to become experts in their fields. So, we started a project on Egyptology. COVID-19 made me rethink the idea of ‘memorable’ experiences that were central to the IPEELL strategy as during lockdown we were not able to book trips/visits or arrange for visitors to come in. What could we provide instead to stimulate writing and reading?

Around this time of the first lockdown, we were due to visit the British Museum as part of our topic work on Ancient Egypt. With the trip cancelled, I looked for imaginative alternatives to help immerse the children in the idea of being Egyptologists able to write expertly on the subject. I achieved this by recreating an embalming/mummification ceremony (complete with realistic pharaoh’s offal) on a fellow year 6 teacher and by turning our PE shed into a lost pharaoh’s tomb that had ‘real’ tunnels and ante-chambers to explore just like Howard Carter did.

Then came my “wow” moment: the children knew exactly what to write. Once we’d looked at what to write, then we could look at how to write. This is where IPEELL came in as it provided a clear structure, which was a perfect complement to the children’s newfound sense of purpose.

When the second lockdown loomed, I began to think of additional ways to stimulate writing that didn’t require as much effort or acting. This is when I drew upon my ‘memorable literacy experience’ – the one that got me interested in reading - which was listening to War of the Worlds. Eventually, this led me to consider the potential of music and lyrics as a stimulus to writing – hence I duly arrived at Space Oddity by David Bowie with its fantastic storyline of a space mission gone wrong.

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Speaking and listening

The children were initially given a snippet of the song, which sounded like a rocket taking off, and they were asked to think about what this might be. I then broke the lyrics into three chunks, and the children were able to extract some amazing reading work from them as they are so rich in inference, vocabulary and prediction. The children immersed themselves in the world of Space Oddity using a combination of shoe-box dioramas and comic strips.

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The children produced a writing project based on the song. This consisted of letters written by the song’s protagonist, Major Tom, to his wife, who he fears he will never see again. The project was a fantastic way of encouraging empathy for the characters in the song, as well as providing some great new writing material. The song is, in fact, so rich in potential that a whole range of writing genre work is possible - newspaper articles, discursive texts about space travel, sci-fi stories, explanation texts about rockets and mars rovers etc. and I’m now trawling through my prog-rock CD collection to find other songs and albums that might offer similar promise!

Since lockdown, my pupils have continued to develop as writers and I am constantly thinking about new ways to stimulate writing and create memorable experiences beyond the standard ‘day trip’ idea.

What I advocate, especially at a time when many children are struggling to catch up, is to arm them with new and exciting experiences whenever possible.

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