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Read Write Imagine Part II

February 28, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, schools, young people

For older students something would have to change. They were unlikely to be impressed with creating small picture books yet the task had to fit the skills they already had. I recently spoke to some young offenders to encourage them to take part in the excellent PEN writing competition but they were intimidated by the quality of what other prisoners had produced. They switched off. The gap was too great.

Working with young people in Pupil Referral Units, I needed to find a structure that would engage students – and these were often profoundly disengaged young people who would walk in and out of my workshop declaring “this is shit, this is shit” before finally settling. They needed a quality result. Most were wary of their lack of skills in the tasks I was setting them. They’re not stupid; they know where their skills are in deficit.

An earlier project in HMYOI Reading had encouraged students to create their own superheroes. It was fun but I have no particular drawing skills and so, even though we had some excellent support from comic artist, Ilya, we were all a little embarrassed by the results. This all took place before comics got their own laureate in 2014.

A better way, which we used in the PRUs, was to work up the students’ ideas into a script, and then commission Ilya to draw up a page. Some teachers were wary of this. They wanted the young people to draw the comics themselves. I managed to persuade them that commissioning would be a better approach. In a short project it just isn’t possible to get students’ drawing skills up to the level that they would be comfortable with. Using Ilya again gave the students the chance to focus on reading other comics, and honing their stories, some of which were done in groups, and some by single students, depending on the particular PRU. The results were great both in terms of the students’ engagement and in the quality of the results.


comics at PRU


“This is the best! I can’t believe he [the artist] did our story!”   PRU student


“I didn’t think that the students would like someone else realising their ideas. I was wrong, they loved it.” Teacher at Guildford PRU


“This is good. I’ve never seen them so keen.”   PRU teacher


“[the students gained] collaborative writing skills, and how to develop a coherent story line. [also] speaking and LISTENING to each other’s ideas.” PRU teacher


It wasn’t always plain sailing. Students in some groups could immediately spot a good idea and accept it was better than theirs – others found this more challenging… but all loved the end results. Quality wins every time. Read Write Imagine.


comics at PRU


There were other benefits. Mr Bomb  was unique as it was a complete story on one page. Afterwards the teacher told he was delighted as this student was usually impossible to engage in anything. He was someone who would store up his anger and then go off somewhere and create havoc – exactly as in his story. Having the finished work signed by the artist gave the teacher and the student an opportunity to talk about his anger, and how it could be managed better. Plus he was a star. Everyone in the PRU loved Mr Bomb.

Read Write Imagine Part I

February 27, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, Reading, schools, young people


I stole the title for this post from an essay by Phillip Pullman.


We writers ought to make it clear too that the arts – not just learning about them, but doing them, actually writing and painting and playing music – have a vital part to play in the lives of our children. They have to do with enlarging and clarifying experience, in opening new worlds of possibility and delight and understanding and emotion.


Pullman talks eloquently about the need to keep books and the arts around children because you don’t really know when their imagination, as opposed to their skill level, will take off.


In workshops I aim for100% participation, and so I often need a structure to coax in the more reluctant students. With disaffected students, they’re generally bored, and the longer I take before we get to the actual content the less chance I have of getting anything out of them. Sure, I can go into my groups of able and willing students, run a few ice-breakers, riff on what they’re currently reading and off we go. Some will produce excellent writing, some middling, and some very little but what to do with the less able, the less willing?


When I was at school we would be given a choice of titles and then told to get on with writing a story. The creativity was in pulling an innocuous looking title around to what you wanted it to be. But you had to want to write in the first place. The structure has to offer scaffolding, but also an invitation to play and experiment within/on/outside the given boundaries. I look at my son’s planning notes for his stories written at school; the mind maps, the drilling on punctuation, the push for complex sentences etc. All of which are useful but I wonder how he summons up the energy to write anything in the tiny bit of time left.



I find that the structure of making a book works well with primary school age students. The book is a simple folded construction but on every page there was a different shaped flap cut into the paper. The challenge was for the young people to incorporate those shapes into their stories.   The books shown come from a class of years 3-6 of differing abilities but all managed to complete the exercise. Planning was 5 minutes explaining the idea and showing an example I’d prepared earlier. The ideal structure is one that all can use. They only have to Read Write Imagine.




“They loved this. Really got into it. I let them carry on through afternoon so they could finish their books to show you.” Richard Langford, Head teacher.


But what would work with older students?