This blog further explores the requirement for children to demonstrate shifts in levels of formality in their writing in order to be awarded the “working at greater depth” standard.  Here, Teaching and Learning adviser Martin Galway shares a road-tested lesson plan that may support the achievement of this particular element.

It’s SATs week.  The English papers have been sat by most of those children entered for the tests and here I am posting about writing assessment.  There is guilt on my part, but also a keen understanding of what it is to be in a year 6 teacher’s shoes at this point of the year.  Thoughts turn to “post-SATs” and this includes the home stretch of forming judgements for teacher assessments of year 6 writing.  In my last blog, I looked at recent updates from the STA and sought to provide further clarification around the requirement for shifts in levels of formality at the “greater depth” standard.  I promised a further blog with practical ideas.  So here we go.

I want to start with a lesson plan.  The tick-list nature of the Interim Teacher Assessment Framework  too often/predictably/understandably leads us to jump to its tune and look more for opportunities to demonstrate a bullet point rather than think of genuinely meaningful ways in which to teach/practise/apply some of the knowledge and skills that sit in and around these privileged statements of academic achievement in English.    The plan that I share below was developed in collaboration with the wonderful Year 5 teachers at Hare Street Community Primary School and Nursery in Harlow, Essex.  Hare Street has been a dream to work with.  Here we have developed a programme of collaborative support and professional development  that has led to a kind of lesson study approach taking place in every KS1 and KS2 class.  Our main focus has been to lift the level of challenge in writing lessons and to explore the most effective ways to meet expectations for grammar within lessons focused on high quality texts and high quality writing outcomes.   Without further ado, here’s the lesson. I’ve written a detailed account in order to be as clear as possible.  If, on reading it, you would like a more succinct lesson plan, get in touch via our twitter account and I will forward it on to you.

Text: Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman 

Key learning:

Reading – Inferring about characters based on what they say and do.

GPS – Opportunities to revisit the use of modal verbs

Reading into Writing – Identify language contrasts between characters and                                                   consider the possible reasons for these differences.

Situating the children in the text  

Introduce the text “Odd and the Frost Giants” – ideally this will have been read to the class beforehand. It’s a wonderful book, a great and swift read aloud, and the recent edition illustrated by Chris Riddell is worth every penny and more.

Given the time of writing for this blog, you may want to provide a precis of Odd’s quest up to the point of the text that this lesson focuses on: Chapter 6 The Gates of Asgard. In this chapter, Odd finally reaches the city of Asgard. In the extract that we are about to focus on, 12 year old Odd – tired and sporting a broken leg – confronts a mighty Frost Giant for the first time.

Read from the paragraph that begins “The snow had blown clear of the path…”  Encourage children to close their eyes and really try to conjure up a vision of the setting.  Ask them to place themselves in Odd’s Shoes.  As you describe Odd’s approach to the walls of Asgard, are they craning their necks to look up at the the colossal wall and statue described in the book?   When we first delivered this lesson, we gave the children the option of closing their eyes; those that did generally gave stronger responses earlier on than those that kept their eyes open. Throughout, encourage visualisation and sensory  connections through guiding prompts (Can you feel that temperature dropping?  Can you still feel your hands or are they numb?  Have you ever been so cold before? ).

When you reach “And then the statue moved, and Odd knew?” Ask the children to open their eyes and briefly discuss Odd’s situation:

How is he feeling?  How do you know?  What can he see?

Exploring initial character dynamics.

What immediately follows is interesting in terms of the contrast in (quite simple) dialogue in terms of how it is presented graphically.  It looks something like this:


The voice tumbled across the plain like an avalanche.

‘I’m called Odd’ shouted Odd, and he smiled.

At this point, we’re going to briefly act out the exchange so that the children have no choice but to see the power imbalance that is conjured up.  They need to appreciate that the Giant has a far more powerful voice that requires little exertion on his part (it tumbles).   Ask for a volunteer to do justice to the  Giant’s line of dialogue – can they ask the question in a big, booming voice without shouting?  Don’t forget expression, posture, and body language.

Then ask another volunteer to deliver Odd’s line.  They can shout (the text says so) and we now have a competition.  If Odd sounds as loud as, or louder than, the Giant, the Giant needs reinforcements.   Ask for more volunteers so that the  Giant is bolstered by a choral blast of “Who are you?” from a group of children.  It’s key that the children appreciate that in terms of might, the Giant effortlessly has the upper hand.

Continue to read aloud the next brief section of dialogue.  Now we can explore some further clues as to the sheer strength of the Giant:

It is a strange sensation, talking to a being who could crush you like a man could crush a baby mouse.

 Here we have a lovely sentence that gives us an opportunity to see whether the children are developing an ear for the text.  We could ask them to mimic this sentence on their whiteboards/in their draft books  – here keeping the  “…could X you like Y could Z” .  Are the children choosing similes that fit the tone of the book?  Briefly discuss choices and how they fit (or not) with the tone.

Moving on we encounter some further use of modals:

 ‘If Odd had not smiled, the Giant would simply have picked him up and crushed the life from him, or squashed him against the boulder or bitten his head off and kept him to snack on later.

We could use this for further sentence practice, this time innovating on the use of ‘would’ – describe a sequence of what the Giant would do…  If  time allows, it might be worth unpicking what would happen if we changed ‘would ‘ to another modal verb e.g. might or should – how would that shift the meaning?

It’s also worth picking up on that final clause.  What does this further tell us about the relationship?  How does the Giant view Odd?  I have taught this lesson in 4 counties now and in a London borough and in every instance the answer has been one word: ‘food’.  Will that suffice?  No.  This is a subtle clue but it might be beneficial to have our readers challenged to actively read this  smaller detail.  Is Odd a  banquet?  A feast? No, he is not that significant.  He’s not even a ready meal.  He’s a funsize Mars Bar.  He’s half a KitKat.  Poor Odd, he may even just be a bourbon biscuit.  Once again, the odds are shown to be  stacked against Odd.

 Exploring the shift

As we move on, it becomes more and more apparent that Odd’s nonchalance is rattling the Giant.  What might a rattled Giant do in a moment of confused panic? Boast of his achievements?  And here we have the Giant at his most formal:

‘I outwitted Loki,’ said the Frost Giant portentuously.  I bested Thor.  I banished Odin.  All of Asgard is pacified and under my rule.  Even now my brothers march from Jotunheim as reinforcements.’  He darted a look towards the horizon, to the north. ‘The Gods are my slaves.  I am betrothed to the lovely Freya.  And you honestly think you can go up against me?’

There are several things we can do here and a couple of things that we should.  We could read this aloud to the children, modelling the sort of tone that might be used for such grand claims.  I would urge – really urge – you to pause and shoot a concerned glance when reading  the line: ” He darted a look towards the horizon…”  We can discuss briefly what this tells us about the Giant.  Someone’s worried and he’s hoping that his brothers will be along soon just in case this whipper-snapper gets a little bit handy.

We certainly need to unpick some of that more complex vocabulary and perhaps make a note for future use.  We might also ask the children to have a go themselves at reading this excerpt to each other in pairs.  Following our model should aid fluency, and it’s an ideal chance for some amateur dramatics: who can properly capture that unnerved pomposity?

A final quick writing task might see the children re-write, and then extend the passage,  replacing the high-level vocabulary and inventing fresh boasts.   This will allow them to adopt the now formal voice of the Giant. Share some examples out loud.  Then ask them to predict the the punchline response from Odd.  Let it sink in.  What has been going on in this passage?  Have you noticed something that kept coming up – Odd’s smile or rather “his broadest, most irritating smile…”  What does that give us?  Cohesion.  This has been his core strategy throughout the extract. So yes, cohesion, but in a very clever way and a way that really gives us great clues about the character. Challenge the children to explain what Odd’s strategy is and whether it is effective.  They may need to draw upon a time they have deployed their own “annoying” smiles in real life.

In order to take this into independent writing, and in support of securing some evidence for the standard, you can ask the children to plan their own epic encounter that covers similar territory.  Alternatively, you may wish to speak about the different ways in which characters (fictional and real life) might use formal language to assert authority, intimidate, belittle others.    Looking at how language can be used in social positioning should help children to generate ideas for a piece that innovates on the work done in the Frost Giant lesson.  It will also mean that we have a legitimate foundation on which to base some convincing formality shifts.

If you have any queries about the lesson plan – or want the more succinct version, please get in touch via Twitter : @HertsEnglish or @galwaymr

Final thoughts

I really hope it is evident why I’ve chosen to share a lesson idea rather than a list of text ideas for demonstrating shifts in formality.   Teach it well and we are more likely to see well-managed shifts – that ‘well-managed’ qualification has been reiterated by the STA.

I do have a list with ideas for other opportunities for demonstrating shifts of formality in ways that make sense and that are meaningful.    This blog is long enough for now and hopefully serves as post-SATs kick starter.  I’ll follow up with a final blog on formality that shares that list in the very  (very) near future.  Then we’ll revist  verb forms (and once again, if you haven’t seen it, there is this from last year).

You may also be interested to know that my colleague Claire Hodgson (from the Herts assessment team) and  I  have developed some CPD on Assessing and Securing GDS in writing.  We trialled a half day version earlier this term.  It’s fair to say we were quite nervous asking year 6 teachers to come out of class at this point of the year – hence our keeping it to half a day.  The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and the course will expand to a full day in the autumn.  Follow this link for booking details.  Alternatively, if you would like us to come to you – for in-school CPD, or a cluster session, do get in touch via twitter.

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