Using Voices on the Page in an adult literacy class
The Voices on the Page online storybank contains more than 900 pieces of writing produced by learners in basic skills classes in England in the last two years. Here, Georgie Carrington describes how she used one of these to inspire her own learners to plan a piece of descriptive writing.
I teach literacy to a group of adult learners working at Entry 3 to Level 1 in a further education college in London. The learners come from a wide range of ethnic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, including one deaf learner who uses British Sign Language through a communicator.
I wanted a lesson that would revise and develop a range of literacy skills that would enable learners to plan a description of a person they know well. They had been working on descriptive writing techniques in previous sessions, including extending their use of adjectives, using the senses, and making comparisons using simile. Most members of the group had completed at least one piece of descriptive writing, but some had found the planning process difficult, particularly using paragraphs to denote change of subject.
I decided to use an authentic piece of learner writing to encourage my learners to think of themselves as writers and also to consider allowing their own work to be read by others; this might be in the group, or by submitting it to the next Voices on the Page competition. I chose 'Mandy in a Village' as it provided a clear description of Mandy's appearance, personality and lifestyle, which I felt really brought her to life on the page.
First, we read the passage aloud, using a modelled reading approach; I read a few lines aloud and asked learners to repeat so that they could practise pronunciation, intonation and decoding skills using the teacher as a 'model'. The group then discussed whether they thought the description was effective and why or why not. They all seemed to find it very effective; the discussion revolved around the clarity of the writing and how adjectives and imagery are used to create a vivid impression.
Next, we analysed the passage in more depth, starting by comparing the author's use of paragraphs with the learners' ideas about how they might organise the writing into paragraphs. This led to an interesting discussion on the conventions for using paragraphs and to what extent they are helpful to the reader. I asked the learners to highlight adjectives in the text, and learners who were familiar with their meaning gave definitions of key vocabulary.
Learners also discussed the juxtaposition of the two similes used in the last paragraph to describe Mandy and the impression that they create. I introduced the use of different planning methods by discussing the reasons for planning writing and the different planning methods that learners already used. Learners worked in small groups to trial three planning frameworks: flow charts, spidergrams, and sticky notes, using BBC Skillswise material.
I asked each group to use the framework to plan a generic description of a person by deciding on the main features to be included; each group fed back their findings to the whole class, followed by discussion and comparison of the effectiveness of each framework. Through this process the learners were able to choose a planning framework that they found helpful and use it to structure their writing by applying the key features of a description to describe someone they knew well.
The learners' descriptions from this session were coherent and wellstructured with a wider descriptive vocabulary than they had used before. Not all the learners wished to submit their work to Voices on the Page, but I am encouraging them to share their work with others by using it as the focus for more activities.
Georgie Carrington is a literacy tutor at the College of North East London
Mandy in a village
Ha Pan Tang
There is a small village in northern China where there grows a lot of tea trees. It is a very nice place where tea trees grow on the cliff, waterfalls and the river goes around the mountain. Mandy lives here.
She is a very traditional Chinese lady. She always wears dark traditional cloth and always wears a bun on her head with a little red flower. She doesn't speak much but she likes to talk to herself a lot. She is very independent with a strong opinion and also very stubborn, she doesn't like people's help. She lives in a small stone bungalow which is next to her son's house. She refuses to live with her son. She prefers to live on her own because she wants more freedom to do whatever she likes in her own house. Although she is bossy and stubborn she is also a kind and very caring person. She looks after her grandson and does some housework for her son. She cooks her own dinner and after dinner she always takes a chair and sits in front of the house. She puts her feet up on a stool with a pipe in her hand, watching people passing by and chatting with them. She enjoys this moment very much. The villagers respect her because she is always there when someone needs help.
I think she is just like an evergreen flower, cutting when leaves are green and sharp, but very beautiful when it is blooming. She never sits down doing nothing, although she is seventy-six years old. She is like a bicycle. A bicycle runs slow, but is reliable and active. I will always remember her.
The learners were enthusiastic about the use of authentic learner writing as a way of developing reading and writing skills. 'It was useful, it gave me lots of different ideas.' (Jalaruban)
'It is a good idea to read other students' work because you learn about how other people feel, what their thoughts are and you can read into it about the writer's psychology.' (Sara)
'Students learn how to write amazing or real things by looking at other people's work. In this way students are encouraged and motivated to write something and they write more.' (Kazi)
Kazi attended the Voices on the Page celebration in May and particularly enjoyed the discussion with the competition winners about their writing. One of the winners talked about jotting down observations as they occur and using these in descriptive writing. Kazi was impressed by this suggestion and has started to use this approach to stimulate new ideas: 'This way I observe different people, doing different things which I can use in my writing.'
As a result of attending classes and taking part in the competition, Kazi now feels more confident in her writing: 'Before the course I didn't think about writing, now I know how to write. If I think something is interesting, I can write it down quickly.'
Winning entries to Voices on the Page in 2007 and 2008 appeared as inserts in reflect 8 and 11. See also Voices on the Page, edited by David Mallows and Samantha Duncan, New Leaf Books
Above: Tony Benn, former cabinet minister and Labour MP, talking at the event
Above left: Winners of the Voices on the Page competition receiving certificates Voices on the Page celebratory event, May 2008