Greater Depth Writing - through your Thank You notes

The Greater Depth standard in writing (though there isn’t one for reading or maths) has only four requirements:

that children write effectively for a range of purposes and audiences,

distinguish between the language of speech and writing,

exercise an assured and conscious control through manipulating grammar and vocabulary,

and correctly use the range of punctuation taught.

To achieve the third of these I think we need to use both Thesaurus and Dictionary in the process of composition. Typically, our pupils already have a rich and broad lexicon at their disposal, but we still need to get them to select more accurately and purposefully.

It amuses me now, when I have to challenge a child about a behaviour incident, how well they select language to present themselves in a better light. A subconscious cognitive process kicks in and whole sentences are instantly constructed to shift blame, deny an event or to include others and share the responsibility with an inevitable ‘it’s not fair’. I have, too many times, had a child deny they had ‘hit’ someone – because in their heads they have only ‘knocked’ or ‘bumped’ or ‘accidentally caught’ them. Ask why they punched the other child and they will say they didn’t (because they ‘hit’, or ‘pushed’ or ‘struck’.

This may be an innocent use of semantics, but it does reveal an innate ability to ‘exercise control through manipulating vocabulary’.

There’s a scene in Friends, more intelligent at times than it might seem, where Joey (Baby Kangaroo Tribbiani) is shown the Thesaurus by Ross, and then uses it to make his adoption recommendation for Monica and Chandler ‘smarter’ by changing every word. His warm, big hearted, friends become ‘humid, pre-possessing homosapiens with full-sized aortic pumps’.

Just letting a child loose with a Thesaurus is not going to do the job of editing and improving their writing. If we ask them to extend a noun by adding an adjective, it may be lacking purpose or point. If we want a variety of verb (often to replace the overused ‘said’) we may not get characterisation developed if the alternative is not well chosen. Going for the power of three (a short list of adjectives promoted as a technique by some schemes) does not work if they are tautological – dirty, filthy, grime is still just grime.

To do it well the writer has to have both the breadth of words readily available, and a deep understanding of their shades of meaning. Mud, dirt, grime, filth, muck and sludge are all nasty things to walk through barefoot, but each is lightly different in texture, location, cause and discomfort (I assume). The skilled writer will choose for effect.

It appears that few children practiced much writing during the summer term (when most were not attending school) and it is in this area that we seem to have lost most ground. To recover the previous position and ensure our pupils make the writing progress they are capable of they need to practice with conscious control (and lots of fun).

My mum insisted we wrote our Thank You cards as soon after Christmas as possible. If you do the same, perhaps you can try to coax a bit of conscious control over vocabulary and grammar. ‘Dear Grandma, thank you for all the presents’ is okay, but could be varied, more detailed and more heart-felt, while stopping short of being Joey-esque and saying, ‘Beloved Female Ancestor, gratitude towards yourself because of your benevolence’.

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