Writing workshops for primary students (60–75 minutes)

Deborah Abela

Even a 60-minute workshop should involve students writing. There is not generally time to write a whole story so exercises can be used to build skills (see other suggestions in Notes on writing workshops).

For 60-minute workshops, I try to explore a few different exercises.

  1. Teacher introduces author with a few personal details and list of books (2–3 minutes)
  2. Author introductory comments (5–7 minutes)
  3. How I write: the writing process (you can relate this to one or more of your books) (5 minutes) a)  Where and when I write b)  I get ideas from …
  4. Writing exercise related to getting started, for example, use memories, family stories, images. (15 minutes) Give an example of when you have used this technique. Ask the students to use this technique to think of an idea for a story. Students write down a story idea in three or four sentences (synopsis only, not the whole story). Students share story idea with a partner. Select two or three ideas to read out.
  5. How I write (continued) (5 minutes) a) Developing/planning a story or b) The most important thing(s) about writing for you.
  6. Related writing exercise. (15 minutes) This could involve students performing a scene to show real dialogue, writing exercises to improve language skills or character play. Students describe character/write dialogue/use language. This can be related to their story idea from the first exercise or a new story. Students share writing with partner. You select two or three to read their work to the group.
  7. Final comments and questions (15 minutes).

Writing exercises for workshops

Rather than asking students to write a story in a writing workshop it is often better to use writing exercises to show them some techniques they can use to improve their writing. These exercises are an opportunity to provide students with a scaffold on which to build their writing skills.

Do the exercise with the group, modelling what you want the students to do, then let them try the exercise for themselves. Encourage them to share their writing with a partner or with the group.

Getting ideas

‘I don’t know what to write about’ is a common cry from students. This exercise shows that ideas are everywhere and demonstrates one of the ways that authors get ideas.

Collect postcards or pictures from magazines and newspapers (laminate them or put them in plastic sleeves). Choose an image and brainstorm ideas for a story based on the image with the group. Distribute the picture around the class and ask students to choose one to write a story idea about. They can write an opening paragraph or a story summary. Share writing with partner or in a group.

Improving dialogue

The dialogue students write is often very stilted and not at all how people speak.

Create some simple two-person scenarios, for example, explaining to the teacher why you haven’t done your homework; asking a parent if you can stay overnight at a friend’s house instead of visiting grandma; returning a faulty item to a shop.

Select students to act out the scene. Students should use actions to show feelings of the characters. Discuss the words and body language used. Write the dialogue using correct punctuation. Discuss alternatives to ‘said’ and ‘asked’. Share.

Alliteration exercise

Improve the students writing by introducing them to alliteration. Read some examples of alliteration. Students write down the numbers one to ten down the page. Nominate a category such as animals or food. Students use the number and the category to make a list, for example, one wild walrus, two tired tortoises.

Similes or metaphors

Read some examples of similes or metaphors.

Read some examples of clichés. Choose a category such as food. Ask students to create a fresh simile using only food, for example, the sun was as pale as mango ice-cream.

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Using memory

What is it like to be scared or cold or hungry? Authors use their past experience to help them make their stories ‘real’. How did you feel on your first day at school? How does it feel to kick a winning goal or win a race? How does it feel to be stuck up a tree or lost at the supermarket?

Talk about how you felt and how you showed these emotions. Write a scene showing emotion without using the abstract word. Include character, setting, action and dialogue. Write for five minutes. Share stories with a small group.

Using all the senses

Most people only use sight when describing a place. Good writers use all or several senses to describe place. Choose a place familiar to the group — the school disco, the swimming pool, the kindergarten classroom. Use all the senses to describe the scene.

Each student chooses a place to describe — the change room at the oval, camping in a tent, grandma’s house, their bedroom.

Ask the group to close their eyes while you talk about each sense. The group writes for 3–5 minutes using all or most of their senses to describe the place they chose. Share with a partner.

Describing characters

Collect photos of people of all ages. Select a photo and develop a character for that person – physical description, name, personality, where they live, what they like to do, what is their favourite food. Put the character you have developed into a place or event and describe how they behave — tell as much as you can about them without listing their physical appearance or characteristics.

Learn to write by writing (also called speed or marathon writing)

Many students find getting started the hardest thing. They can only write a couple of lines. Ask students to write non-stop for three minutes. They can write about anything that comes into their heads. They should not worry about spelling or punctuation. Ask for volunteers to read part of what they wrote.