Off to a SIZZLING START … or not!

BANG! KAPOW! The visiting author punched her way through the dreaded Sizzling Start. ‘Who will rid me of this bothersome writing term,’ she screamed, valiantly, desperately.

BANG

Sorry, no offence meant to all those teachers (valiantly) trying to teach kids short story writing to fulfill the dreaded NAPLAN testing requirements. Teachers have SO much to deal with, it’s difficult to focus on one aspect … like learning how to write short stories. Nor am I bagging private writing programs schools may purchase to ensure their kids have good NAPLAN scores in narrative writing. It’s great to let teachers experience the joys of writing in a PD session, but so much harder to train kids into thinking like storytellers. There is no quick fix!

I was a primary teacher before I began writing fulltime. Teaching is a hard-yakka job! It does not finish at 3pm, nor on Friday arvo. I admire these valiant teachers so much. And now they and their charges face NAPLAN testing. (Thank the Muse I left teaching and began writing full-time before all this NAPLAN craziness hit the fan!)

To be able to write in narrative form require children to have the pre-requisites … like being able to speak in narrative form (i.e. telling stories); to grow up in a secure environment where books are valued and parents read to their young. For many families this does not happen. How then can teachers hope to help their classes fulfill the NAPLAN Narrative Writing test?

This is what they face. You be the judge… ‘The writing task for this test is a narrative. It is the same task for all students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. The administration of the writing tasks employs closely scripted scaffolding. The teacher reads the directions on the writing prompt aloud to all students. The prompt includes images which can support students in crafting their response. Students have 5 minutes to plan, 30 minutes to write and 5 minutes to edit.’

How comfortable would you be writing a short story with only 5 minutes to plan it?

I write short stories, as well as 50,000-word novels, school plays and, chapter books. I adore the short story genre. (Check out my blog post on How to Write Winning Flash Fiction.I’m addicted to writing Flash Fiction’s very short stories. Reading a superb short story is a thing of joy. So yeah, I know about short stories … and I know it takes time and thought and instinct to come up with an idea that ‘has legs’; that will work as a short story. NOT 5 minutes!!! 

The NAPLAN’s requirements for children writing narrative pieces cover all aspects of writing stories … * see list below. You may or may not agree…but I reckon teaching to this list would send busy teachers running for the hills, and kids deciding writing short stories suck, big time! Which brings me to Sizzling Starts.

teaching short story writing

SIZZLING STARTS
If a child picks up the message they must write a Sizzling Start before they actually write the first draft of the whole story, you will end up with young kids who write, Bang! Crash! The boy opened the door and sat at the table. First he had dinner. Then he went out to play. And then, he fell over, then he went to bed.’ (Sorry … feeble attempt, but you get the picture.)

This is happening in classrooms. I imagine it won’t take long before NAPLAN examiners start cringing at the recurring pattern – a sizzling start that falls apart because there is no story ‘with legs’.

And why the limit of three paragraphs? Come on! I’ve known four year olds who can tell a successful story in more than three paragraphs. And six year olds who can draw a comic strip with beginning, middle and end.  

Of course, good short stories don’t have boring starts either. Story beginnings must capture the readers’ attention and curiosity. The first sentence/paragraph must have a ‘reason for being’. It can be description, dialogue, action or thought. It could start smack bang in the middle of the plot too.

If I was teaching kids (and adults) to write short stories (and I do), I would want them to spend much more time reading good short stories; working up great ideas for stories; discussing and planning those stories, before they write their first drafts. And I’d do it many times, not just once. Then, I would get them to check out that first sentence again; to improve, to adjust, to grab a reader’s attention.

Teachers don’t have a lot of teaching time left in a day’s required curriculum, sadly – but if Curriculum Departments and schools want kids to become adept at writing it has to be a natural part of every day, not just dribs and drabs to pass NAPLAN tests. 

Some children are natural story-tellers. Some find it much harder. Do you think it’s important for children to be able to write narratives? Why? What can we do to help kids not lose the ability to tell stories? How can we encourage it?

Think of all those Year 9 students who are required to write their forced 1000 word narrative. How many will ever write another story? How many will think it’s the stupidest task they’ve ever had to do?

What if in Years 3-8 narrative writing was a part of every day, as natural as having a good friend? As natural as story-telling? It’s in our genetic make-up.

I would love to hear your opinion on this topic … whether you’re an author, teacher, parent, librarian, or whatever.
Thank you for reading my ravings, if you got this far. 

* 10 NAPLAN Criteria for the Narrative Writing Task:   

  1. Audience – The writer’s capacity to orient, engage and affect the reader
  2. Text structure – The organisation of narrative features including orientation, complication and resolution into an appropriate and effective text structure
  3. Ideas – The creation, selection and crafting of ideas for a narrative
  4. Character and setting – Character: The portrayal and development of character Setting: The development of a sense of place, time and atmosphere
  5. Vocabulary – The range and precision of language choices
  6. Cohesion – The control of multiple threads and relationships over the whole text, achieved through the use of referring words, substitutions, word associations and text connectives
  7. Paragraphing – The segmenting of text into paragraphs that assists the reader to negotiate the narrative
  8. Sentence structure – The production of grammatically correct, structurally sound and meaningful sentences
  9. Punctuation – The use of correct and appropriate punctuation to aid reading of the text
  10. Spelling – The accuracy of spelling and the difficulty of the words used. The following table shows criteria and the range of score points for the writing task. (Check out the web link for the Scoring Points).
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12 thoughts on “Off to a SIZZLING START … or not!

  1. I was saddened to read all that. I knew NAPLAN was a dirty word. I just didn’t know what it meant. Excellent insights. (Although I have to admit I’m partial to beginning a story with a noise – especially if it’s an onomatopoeia I made up). The schools you visit are the lucky ones.

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  2. Indeed Sheryl. And I thought your comments well researched and considered. The rigidity of it all almost makes me want to back away as author (visiting schools) but as you said, we serve a different if not higher purpose; we are proof positive that the alchemy of being an author involves the artful composition of techniques and rules with the creativity within; that more intangible visceral aspect of writing that can not be measured by NAPLAN styled tests. At least it wasn’t on your list above!

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  3. I do hope so, Dimity. I feel so sorry for teachers having to deal with NAPLAN and its leadup. How frustrating it probably is for them to see we authors swan in, have fun with the kids, impart our knowledge about the wonders of reading and writing, then swan out again with no assessment and all that rot. I try to do the very best I can (seeing as I was once a teacher)>
    You know exactly what I mean! 🙂

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  4. You said it Bert! Ah the difficulty of preparing ones child for ‘getting through’ NAPLAN as a mother and author! I can only hope with genuine insight, experience and passion like yours (ours), Sheryl and the ability to impart it, that some of those children will live want to write again.

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  5. NAPLAN – the best way to kill a love of reading and writing, and teaching. Your strategies for teaching story writing are great. It certainly can’t be done without exposure to stories. Many teachers, even early childhood teachers, moan that there is no longer time in the curriculum for reading stories. How can that be an acceptable educational position! I’d love to go into a school every week just to read and write stories with the children. That would be magic. For me and the children!

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  6. You’ve made some excellent points in this post, Sheryl. Fulfilling the NAPLAN testing requirements sounds like a nightmare. I’ve been writing stories all my life and that list would have me running for the hills. The way you teach story writing makes more sense: reading great stories, coming up with ideas that will work, discussion, planning, writing and rewriting. We need to excite kids about writing and sharing stories, show them they can do it, not make it so hard they don’t want to try.

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  7. This is why I love going into schools as a visiting author – I have the time, the skills and the enthusiasm to help teachers face this dilemma (in a small way). How great it would be to have an author come in once a week to work with all the kids over a year.
    I’ve never yet met a teacher who didn’t want to do the very best for her/his charges, but it is so difficult!
    Thanks for your comment, Rachel.

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  8. I agree wholeheartedly!! I’m part of a non- profit organisation who recognise that being able to tell your story is crucial to becoming an active member of society… We try to work alongside schools and offer creative writing opportunities that schools sadly don’t have time to offer. If there was more consistent focus on narrative in schools then this wouldn’t be so needed, and a wider range of a community’s youth would be exposed to the skill of storytelling than what small organisations like mine can ever dream of.

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