In Australia, children sit standardised NAPLAN tests in years 3, 5, 7 and 9. These tests include writing and students have to construct either a narrative or persuasive response to a banal prompt. The prompt is banal for a reason: every student in Australia needs to be able to access it. A persuasive topic might be to debate if homework should be banned. A narrative prompt might be something like ‘A day out’.
What do you do to prepare students for this? An obvious strategy is to teach a structure for persuasive and for narrative writing, give students lots of banal prompts to respond to and then provide them with feedback. It is probably worth practising the form of the test beforehand but relying too much on this strategy is flawed.
The driving range
Writing is a complex performance and, like any other complex performance, it needs to be broken down into its component parts so that students can practise those components.
If you are a golfer who wants to improve your putting you will go to a putting green. If you want to improve the use of one of your irons you will go to the driving range. You won’t play whole games of golf because you might use that particular iron only once in a entire round.
Similarly, imagine a student who has trouble in punctuating complex sentences. The teacher writes at the bottom of one of her pieces ‘you need to improve your complex sentence punctuation’.
This feedback might be accurate but it doesn’t explain to the student how to punctuate properly. And by the time she gets to the first complex sentence in her next piece of writing her mind will be elsewhere; her attention focused on the topic or paragraphing or myriad other things.
Instead, we need to isolate this skill and practice it. Students could be asked to correct the punctuation in a passage or write a complex sentence to describe what is happening in a picture. This is the writing equivalent of the driving range.
Rising above the banal
Now let’s take a look at the narrative prompt, ‘A day out.’ It invites a banal response but we shouldn’t even take this for granted. I once taught in the London suburb of Hanwell. I remember being surprised to find that most of the kids I taught had never been to London. Days out were not their thing.
Setting this aside, what would a really good response look like. A wide vocabulary will certainly help. And a great response is probably going to be creative and rise above an obvious interpretation of the prompt.
For instance, we could imagine a story about a prisoner on day release. Or perhaps we could write about a teenager from a conservative suburb visiting the city for the day to meet up with his boyfriend. Maybe our protagonist lives in a base on Mars and needs to make the risky move of going outside to fix the communication antennae. Or maybe she is a girl in tenth century Italy who wanders off through the fields when she should have been doing her chores, only to witness her village raided by slavers.
All of these responses involve using knowledge of the world and literature; knowledge that students won’t gain by simply writing to banal prompts.