‘Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form’
– Jean Luc Godard, film director, screen writer, film critic
Can we help students perform more effectively in the Narrative Writing exam? I think we can.
Many people have identified different approaches, excellent model structures for students to use with narrative writing, and Jamie Thom has collated these helpfully here: Jamie Thom’s summary of narrative writing tips When we teach the module in the first instance and recap it later, we will, of course, utilise many of these principles to guide the construction of an effective story, but this year we’re going to approach the exam itself a bit differently.
Let me give you an anecdote from my top set this year. It took 3 drafts for two thirds of the class to achieve a clear, logical, effective narrative that abided by the conflict/development/peak/resolution basic structure. Many top set students were unable to construct (without support) anything resembling an effective narrative. This was after 6 weeks of lessons / many years of doing story writing. My learning? This is going to be a damn tough ask in timed conditions, and one they shouldn’t have a blank slate going into.
I know examiners have warned against pre-prepared narratives, but ultimately, if a student is able to adapt their story to the frankly, rather generic titles the exam board provide, for me, it makes sense to use a piece which students are already pretty familiar with.
It works too.
The title I gave my class to work their narrative around was ‘A tough decision‘ -one from this year’s paper. 3 drafts later, they were happy and I was happy with their stories. I set them 4 new titles, and asked them to take 5 minutes with each (exam conditions) to consider how they would adapt their story to ‘fit’ the title. The titles were ‘A victory‘ , ‘Start with the line ‘There’s no way you’re doing that’ said Mum/Dad’ , ‘A time where you forgot something’, and ‘A dream come true‘. I asked them to evaluate how convincingly they had managed to adapt to the titles each time. The results were interesting. For each choice, roughly half the class said ‘no problem -could do that’, and the other half admitted ‘it would not be convincing’. BUT when I asked if you had ALL FOUR of those options to pick one from (same as in the exam) could you use at least one to adapt your story towards? All said yes, they could.
Of course, we will need to continue to test this hypothesis, and lower attaining students may find the adapting a tougher challenge so will need practice, but one thing I’m sure of is that it would not be as tough as inventing a whole complete piece of narrative fiction in 45 minutes.
One might argue it isn’t ethical. I would argue writing a story in timed condition isn’t ethical – no writer does this. Narratives are drafted and refined, not rushed. Also – a pre-prepared narrative that the whole class uses is not what I’m advocating. I’m simply encouraging every student to construct their own imaginative, original, individual story that we know, works, and will not be subject to marks tumbling in the content/structure section.
The three tiered plan for our students this year going into this exam is as follows:
Use your pre-planned narrative and adapt to one of the titles
Failing that, use one of your 3 pre-prepared structure plans and adapt to one of the titles
Failing 1 or 2 being an option, devise a brand new narrative to suit one of the titles.
The freeing up of working memory via a pre-prepared narrative also surely can’t be ignored. A student will know where the story’s going, what the different stages are and what needs to be mentioned when.They can then relax a little, not feel the pressure of inventing a story during one of the most pressured times of their lives (something no author would do, and few teachers, if pressed, would enjoy) – and focus on all the touches that will up the marks quota: punctuation, vocabulary choices, spelling, sentence variety, etc.
Unless the story they use is horribly different to the exam title, I really don’t think it matters and I think the informal agreement around the group of examiners I worked with is they might lose a few marks for ‘forcing it to fit’ but they’ll lose a lot more marks for being unable to produce any kind of narrative structure.
It contributes 20% of a student’s English Language grade. It matters a lot they get this right.
Let’s look at the mark scheme for Eduqas.
For the middle band 3 (likely to lead to the all important level 4 or 5) , the narrative must have ‘shape and direction’. It must have ‘control’. ‘Cohesion’ is necessary. These elements all require conscious crafting, and tough editorial decisions being taken that many students going into this exam will struggle with, primarily due to their lack of exposure to an array of good narratives over their lifetime, but also due to the way that things like cohesive links, and threads are something added in after several drafts and not in the spur of the moment.
Of course, as teachers, we will show as many good narrative examples as we can to guide and inspire, and I may be throwing my hands up here, but the reality that I saw as an examiner reading 500 of them last year, was that many students retained zero awareness of how to structure a story, and many otherwise good writers rambled around the title with no plot direction whatsoever. I’m determined this won’t happen to a single one of our students this year.
I previously shared general tips here -and alongside Jamie’s summary blog at the top, students have many skills to get right in their story BEFORE they take it into the exam:
I know this may be controversial, but we’re going to trial it this year, and see whether it has a positive impact on results.
Thanks for reading and I would welcome feedback.