It's been a busy January for exams, with a lovely slew of results. This past year I have had several students who were already very strong in maths, so instead we worked on bringing their English up to speed. The development of two of these students has been particularly striking, and they have successful applications to two of the most selective schools in London to show for it.

After getting their permission, I thought I would show-case the evolution of their creative writing over the course of the year.

Student A

Year 5 - preparing for 10+ exams

Initial assessment - March 2016

Task: write a story using the title 'The Maze'. You have 30 minutes. (This is from the 10+ City of London School for Boys exam from 2013; students were given the choice of five titles.)

You can see a few promising aspects to this piece. There's some attempt to create atmosphere ('dark and gloomy stairs') and effort to entertain the reader (e.g. writing BANG! in capitals). Overall, however, the piece is far too short and lacking in advanced vocabulary, sufficient linguistic devices, and a fully formed plot. It scored 42%.

November 2016

Task: Write a story that begins with the sentence "It was as I was a few paces from the door that I began to have the sensation of being watched through the darkness."

You can see clear progress here. The piece is far longer, for one thing, and it frequently makes use of the vocabulary we had been practising (e.g. "inky", "ventured", "verdant"). Direct speech is correctly punctuated, and a range of sentence types is used to good effect. Overall mark: 78%

December 2016

Task: write a short story / description which features an unreliable narrator of any kind.

Unreliable narrator.jpg

This is one of my personal favourites. It manages to give enough detail that you can work out the identity of the speaker, without being totally obvious (for anyone left confused: the speaker is a teddy bear). Interesting vocabulary is used effectively (e.g. 'fluffy viscera') and the student draws on sound and smell to complement sight. The piece is also remarkably concise, fitting in a great deal of content and imagery into a short space, which is a useful skill for exams.  Overall mark: 87%

Student B

Year 6 - preparing for 11+ exams

Initial Assessment - March 2016

Task: Explain why you enjoy a sport or activity (Oundle 2013).

Again, this is not terrible for a first assessment, but it does have some serious issues. For one thing, the student has not bothered to structure their work with paragraphs so the examiner is looking at a solid block of text. There is a notable lack of interesting vocabulary, and quite a repetitive sentence structure.

Unfortunately it was scanned in black and white, but hopefully you can see the darker colour at the beginning of some sentences. This was where the student was corrected - originally they had missed out those full stops and just continued on with some extremely long sentences. Commas have also been added by me, the original piece had nearly no punctuation at all.

Overall mark: 35%

 

November 2016

Task: describe the picture below. (20 minutes)

 
 
The misty clouds look like a tornado of swirling black smoke which casts a menacing shadow on the trees and hills below. The dark clouds become crimson as the bright, burnt-orange lightning makes it seem as though the clouds are being set alight.  Thunderous sound makes the whole ground tremble. The lightning bolts erupt from the clouds as if they were exploding, tearing holes into the tower of smoke. 

A lovely piece, with some lovely imagery being used to good effect. Grammar is correct, with sentences varying in length and structure. The student has also clearly drawn on his vocabulary bank, which has worked very well.

Overall mark: 71%

December 2016

Task: Continue the story from the comprehension. The passage had been about some children playing hide-and-seek.

Jayesh had run ahead of everybody else and had climbed up an ancient-looking oak tree. After a few moments of clambering up the sticky oak branches, he finally reached the top and looked out on the world outside. There were rows of hills, all with patches of different shades of green, blanketed with chestnut and oak trees. Around the perimeter the dark green hedges formed a kind of barrier. He could see all the other children running away in the distance, some hiding behind bushes and some of them hiding behind rocks. A small boy even hid in a tree like him but fell out and quickly scrambled away through the hedge. He put his head back into the branches and thought of how Raghu was never going to find him here. Suddenly his face went pale as he heard a crunch and  the whole word was turned upside down as the branch gave way and Jayesh plummeted towards the ground. 

Luckily he landed on a bush and not on a rock but he was still hurt when he fell. It took him a minute to get back up and he manged to get behind a bush just as he heard Raghu’s heavy footsteps trampling bushes and flowers. A second later he emerged from one of the bushes. He looked at the fallen branch with interest before turning around to see if there was anyone. When he couldn’t find any one he turned around and ran the way he had come. As he was leaving he accidently knocked over a spade that made a clangorous noise  which made Jayesh jump.

After a minute, when he was sure that Raghu was gone, Jayesh left his hiding place and started to walk in search of a better hiding place. He finally found a small hole just big enough for him to fit in with a rock covering the top. He got into the hole and waited. As more time passed he heard Raghu saying, “Found you Mira!” or, “Found you Manu!” until he had found everybody apart from Jayesh. After a while when the game started to get boring Jayesh decided to come out and find another hiding place. But as soon as he emerged he saw Raghu vaulting over one of the hedges and shouting “Found you Jayesh, it’s Mira’s turn to count” and then the whole game began all over again.

Full disclosure: the original piece that the student submitted still retained some errors, such as carelessly forgetting to capitalise some names and some more spelling mistakes. I had him fix these for homework after pointing them out, so this is a second draft. In addition, we had planned this story together during the session. 

Nevertheless, this is still an excellent improvement when compared with the initial assessment. A great deal more has been written, and a wide range of vocabulary and grammatical constructions have been used. A couple of spelling errors have persisted despite corrections. 

Overall mark: 74%

Summary

A combination of hard work and proper guidance can yield some very impressive results. Aside from the successful school applications and the tangible improvements to their writing, one of the best outcomes was that both students gained a huge amount of confidence. Student A even went from hating story-writing, and getting 'writer's block' every time he tried to sit down and write, to actually enjoying penning a good piece.

A note of caution is needed: not every student is going to be capable of making such dramatic strides in such a short time. These pupils worked hard, but their parents made sure they still led balanced lives. If you're tutoring your child, make sure they aren't crumbling under the pressure. More than a few hours a week of work, on top of all their school-work, clubs, and other activities, might end up doing more harm than good. Focused, interesting, short practice is far more effective than endless churning through Bond Papers and the like.

How do you get similar results?

1. Get reading. Both students were reading 30 minutes daily. You can get some ideas for books from my reading list.

2. Get to work on a vocabulary bank. Remember that digesting the word properly is key. Just throwing a lot difficult words at a ten-year-old will probably result in some terrible word salads.

3. Practise! If you want to be good at writing stories, you need to write a lot of stories. You can take a look at 11+ exam papers to get an idea of the kind of stories they expect to be written.

There are plenty of English resources to be found in the articles section on this website. Rather than linking to them all individually, I invite you to have a browse.

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