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Learning to Write through Pictures and Experiences

05 Jun 2012

Yu Neng Primary School MLEA Two+

MLEA 2+ is a teaching approach that eases Pri 2 pupils into writing narrative compositions.

"Write what you know", goes an old adage for aspiring authors. For pupils at Yu Neng Primary School, this has taken the form of a learning experience that equips them with the sights, sensations and verbal tools to put their thoughts on paper. From visiting a butterfly farm to a session of bubble-blowing in school, every Primary 2 class gets to savour a learning journey or hands-on activity that provides ideas and inspiration for stories of their own.

What is more, using a supported learning strategy called the Modified Language Experience Approach (MLEA), pupils learn to write not in isolation but as part of a group. Pupils share ideas, help each other and receive useful pointers and phrases from the teacher. The resulting narrative is a group effort that gives pupils the skills and confidence to pen their own individual compositions.

MLEA is one of the recommended approaches to promoting language and reading skills under MOE's Strategies for English Language Learning And Reading (STELLAR) programme. Small group writing is an integral feature of the MLEA 2 method (MLEA 1 covers class writing while MLEA 3 focuses on individually written pieces).

Yu Neng Primary School has taken MLEA 2 further by developing a series of lessons with 'scaffolds' that help pupils, including those with weaker language skills, hone their writing techniques, both as a group and as individuals. Dubbed MLEA 2+, this method fosters effective story-telling skills with the aid of visual "Anchor" cards that guide the pupils as they work together to write short essays based on a shared experience and a set of pictures.

Yu Neng Primary School MLEA Two+

A bubble-blowing session helped prepare the pupils for an MLEA 2+ exercise dubbed "Bubble Trouble", in which a boy who uses too much detergent to do his laundry causes a mess in the house.

Writing stories, step by step

Teacher Mrs Ignatia Leng devised the method in 2009 and later shared it with her colleagues. She explains that MLEA 2+ came about from her realisation that many Pri 2 pupils had difficulty coming up with a coherent story of three paragraphs (80 to 100 words). "In Pri 1 they only have to write five to eight sentences based on an individual picture," she elaborates. "But in Pri 2 they have to write a composition with a storyline based on four pictures." This transition was tough for many of her pupils, so Mrs Leng adapted MLEA 2 to make the classroom exercise more structured for the pupils.

A typical MLEA 2+ session might begin with a learning journey to, for example, a butterfly farm, where pupils observe the insects' life cycle and feeding habits. In regular MLEA 2 classes, pupils would work in groups to write about a specific topic based on their trip or class activity. But in Mrs Leng's MLEA 2+, pupils are introduced to a series of four pictures related to the shared experience. Before the pupils embark on the group writing exercise, the teacher gives an overview of the pictures and puts up Anchor cards that serve as memory aids. This gives pupils a visual reminder that they are to use common characters, names and settings in their sentences, and ensures that the resulting story will be coherent.

Also, instead of tackling four pictures at a time, each group of pupils is assigned only one picture and asked to write three to five sentences about the image. "It's more bite-sized and easier for pupils to digest the content and express themselves," explains Mrs Leng. To get the discussion started, the teacher provides verbal scaffolds in the form of vocabulary sets and phrases, while other groups of pupils brainstorm suitable adjectives and adverbs that their classmates can use in their writing.

Yu Neng Primary School MLEA Two+

(From left) Mr Mohd Bashir, Mr Roonie Chew Lye Hock and Ms Zuhaila Md Jizan use Anchor cards to remind pupils that their writing must share common characters and be coherent with those of other groups.

Teacher, Ms Zuhaila Md Jizan, worked closely with Mrs Leng to develop the MLEA 2+ lesson plans. After the groups have finished writing their sentences, she says, "the teacher will read out the whole story based on the different groups' ideas and check for coherence." The teacher then points out discrepancies and common errors, and offers suggestions for improvement to the pupils for their individual writing exercises. "The pupils learn from these authentic mistakes and the teacher guides them in correcting the mistakes," explains Ms Zuhaila.

Another lesson feature unique to MLEA 2+ is the different method of generating model compositions. "The teacher collates all the ideas from the different groups and comes up with a story, a model for the pupils. It's based on the class's ideas rather than the teacher's," says Ms Zuhaila.

Cooperating, collaborating, creating

Mrs Leng points out that MLEA 2+ has integrated cooperative learning as well as collaborative learning. The former occurs when pupils of different abilities work together. Some might be strong in spelling and vocabulary, while others might chip in with interesting ideas and twists. "We want pupils to learn from their peers," adds Ms Zuhaila. "They love the group work and enjoy working together."

Yu Neng Primary School MLEA Two+

Pupils take ownership of their learning by correcting the mistakes in their writing and end up with a work they are jointly proud of.

Indeed, pupils have found MLEA 2+ rewarding. Pri 2 pupil Charlotte Kong says, "We learned how to write a beginning, a body and an ending to a story. We learned useful phrases and that helped us write better sentences." Referring to the pre-writing discussion and Anchor cards given by the teacher, her classmate, Aniket Tejpal, says these steps "helped us to understand the whole story, although each group concentrates on just one picture". As a result, he felt he was able to produce a good composition.

Teacher Mr Mohd Bashir comments, "Right from the start, before they go on to group writing, the pupils are equipped with the necessary vocabulary and Anchors. This is to help them enrich their content and provide ideas which they can use, and the writing would become more encompassing and descriptive." Adds Mrs Leng, "I think the pupils have emerged as more confident writers who will not say, 'I am unable to write a single sentence about the story.'"

After successfully piloting MLEA 2+, Mrs Leng and her team now plan to further adapt the approach for Pri 3 classes. As Mr Bashir puts it, pupils exposed to MLEA 2+ have picked up the skills to systematically express their ideas. "When they reach upper primary, they will be more conscious of these tools and integrate them into their writing." What remains to be done, concludes Mrs Leng, is the building up of language skills. "It doesn't stop there," she says, "it is a learning process with every child."