I think half of the problem lies in the idea that there is often a set list of common features for a type of text. I don’t know who invents these lists but they pervade all aspects of English teaching. Here’s a list of features for a blog. Here’s a list of features for newspaper article. Therefore, the starting point for writing texts tend to be spotting the features. I know let’s jazz it up for a change and come up with own list of features. I know, for instance, that in primary schools one approach was, or is, to dissect a text for its features and then create a text using the spotted features. Spot and write.
If there is a list of common features for text types, why don’t students produce better work? If it is a simple case of using said features, why aren’t students producing some outstanding film reviews, news stories and blogs? It is because there is something else. A story isn’t just a story because it has a setting, plot and characters. It is because there is something else that holds those ingredients together. Some might call it magic. Others might call it glue. But, there is something else. When I am guiding students to write a story, I am always open-ended with my suggestions. You could use this? You could use that? Yet, with other texts, it is always, ‘You must use this?’ Again, it boils down to this insistence of a set list of features. Is the format of a newspaper article really so rigid? No it isn’t. In fact it is far more complex than we let students know. Look at a newspaper. There are far more differences than similarities between articles. Yes, they are written in columns, but how they are written and structured can vary so much.
We have all been there, writing an exemplar text because we can’t find an example that doesn’t have the key features of the genre. Because we can’t find an example, we create one to suit this rigid version of the genre. It must that this feature, so I will create an example that has it. I am reminded by the common ‘some / most / all objectives’. Our insistence that texts must have all features of the text undermines the complexity of the original genre. It is the ‘some’ and ‘most’ that we should not concentrate. Look at how people mark and use their lovely tick lists and you see how we are reinforcing this ‘all’ model of a genre. Find me a news article today that has all the features of a newspaper story and I will find you one that doesn’t have any or at least only one or two.
From a primary school perspective, I think it is important for students to have a basic understanding of what makes these texts different from other texts. But, then, I think, secondary schools should then build on this and teach the idea that some and most follow these rules; however, and that’s is a very big-listen-to-this-now-however, not everybody follows the rules and the effect the text is trying to achieve dictates the use of these features and not the genre.
So, how do I go about teaching students to write newspaper articles? Well, here’s a brief overview of something I have recently done with a Year 7 class.
 To start off with, I introduced the story thanks to some old footage and an eyewitness account of the infamous account. There are some good bits on Youtube.
Then, I gave students the following example news story.The Siege of Sidney Street
There was a siege in Sidney Street yesterday as police fought against a gang of criminals. The gang had stolen jewels and were hiding in the house.
The police were informed the gang were hiding in the house so they started firing at it. A policeman died as a result of it.
After the siege, the gang burnt the house down. All the gang were killed as a result of the gunfire or the smoke.
The police will increase the number of policemen on streets to ward off anymore criminal gangs.
As a class, we agreed that this wasn’t dramatic enough. It wouldn’t, as a tabloid, persuade us to part with our money. Problem some felt was the choice of words.
 We then decided to look at the nouns and how we could vary the use of nouns.
gang = thugs, thieves, crooks
police = officers, heroes, defenders
e explored which noun would be best describe the people watching the event.
• Men and women
 Next, we looked at how we could develop the noun phrase.
gang = notorious crooks
police = brave defenders
This simple approach produced some effective efforts. The class then rewrote the article making it dramatic. Here’s one example:
Thugs Strike Again
There was disaster on Sidney Street yesterday as the cops battled against a gang of thugs. The crooks had stolen the priciest gems ever. The gang decided they would hide in the house.
The defenders were informed that the thugs were hiding in the building so they started firing at the building. A bobby was lost as result of the incident.
After the disaster the gang of criminals burnt the building down. All the thugs were killed as a result of the painful shots and the horrific smoke. The crowd were devastated and worried as the house burnt into ashes.
As the crowd walked home slowly, the house started tipping and it fell to the ground. Luckily no one was injured as a result of this. The police went into the house afterwards and discovered four of the five members of the game. Mysteriously, one of the gang had disappeared.
The number of bobbies will increase on the streets to frighten the other gang of thugs away.
It was interesting to note that the student used the word ‘bobbies’ and we discussed if it’s choice fitted with the overall tone of the writing. The class agreed it did not. Then, we explored the additions the student made to make it more dramatic, as, after all, that’s the desire effect of a newspaper article.
· Dramatic verbs – battled, devastated
· A sense of greater danger – the house collapsing
· Mystery though the disappearance of a body
· A sense of fear – one of the criminals is loose
It is interesting to note that this improving a skeleton text work so much better with some genres, because the basics are there and when students are improving the writing they are looking at the subtleties of the genre. Get a student to write a news report and it will be a simple narrative.
 After highlighting these improvements, we looked at how we suggest things are even worse than they are. Here’s some of the suggestions:
· Explain there is a disaster but don’t say what it is until the last sentence.
· Talk about how there is a death. One person suggested the following headline: ‘Death Strikes in a Street’.
· Hint that there are more criminals and that this is a sign of an increase in crime nationally.
 I discussed with the class how we could use eyewitness accounts. We explored the difference between direct and indirect speech.
Then students added one line of each. One example of direct speech. One example of indirect speech. It had to be very dramatic.
A neighbour said: ‘I feared for my life.’
Officers reported sounds of screams and choking inside the building.
I had to ignore one student’s suggestion of....
One bystander said: ‘Ahhhhhhhhhh!’
 Listening to eyewitnesses, we looked at the writer’s view of things. I gave students the follow set of words. I explained to the class that the following words or phrases help to express the writer’s opinions. What opinion does it help to show?
• Apparently, …. Allegedly, …. According to sources, ….
• Luckily….. Surprisingly…. Fortunately….
• Sadly…. Shockingly…. Unfortunately….
Students then had a go at adding one of each to their article.
And that, dear readers, is where I got to. Next week, I am going to focus on turning the article into a broadsheet story. We will look at:
· Making the text formal
· The use of passive and active sentences
· Extending sentences to develop ideas
· Embedding clauses
For me, this developing and building a text has been far more productive when teaching newspapers than a reductive list of generic features. Together, the class and I have been building up the writing from the bottom. Rather than try to do everything at once, we have built the text one brick at a time. The new curriculum has placed more emphasis on drafting and this approach to teaching text types has certainly helped students. They are using things for purpose rather than following a set list. They will know how each aspect affects the writing, yet they know that they don’t have to use all of them. Only the ones that will work best.
Maybe, we have to rethink our approach to this held view of genres. The new English GCSE builds in the comparison of texts over time, but, maybe from the start of how we teach we insist that some and most follow the rules. We have to actively teach that not everybody does it. Drafting is where we experiment and explore and discover. Are we more likely to draft a story in lessons than a piece of non-fiction because we are more comfortable with shaping and moulding a story and our understanding of newspaper articles is fixed and rigid?
Thanks for reading,