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‘It is impossible to write any text without being familiar with the language rhythms and patterns that it involves. Indeed, it is impossible to write a sentence pattern without being able to say it – and you cannot say it, if you haven’t heard it. The language required for success at any writing task must become part of the children’s linguistic repertoire. To achieve this we have to structure units of work to provide the appropriate language patterns enabling the children to hear them and say them, read them and explore them so they really know the patterns well. It’s like teaching a new language. Language is primarily learned through interactive ‘hearing’ and ‘saying’ and the richer and more varied the language patterns, the better the writing will be. This is particularly important if children do not come from linguistically rich homes and they are not read to. It’s all about building up a bank of text types in their head so that the language patterns are familiar to them and become part of their linguistic competency. This awareness of the need to provide through imitation a language template on which the child can build an independent voice lies at the hear to the ‘Talk for Writing’ approach.’

(from ‘Talk for Writing Across the Curriculum’ by Pie Corbett and Julia Strong)

Warming Up the Word

Warming up the word consists of four main areas

  • Generating vocabulary – activating dormant vocabulary
  • Putting usual words in unusual combinations – this is about putting words together to create something new
  • Expanding ideas
  • Developing the imagination and imaging – being able to ‘see’ and image in your head and ‘look’ at it really carefully to explore it and find words to describe it

(with thanks to for this definition)

Included on this page are some documents containing ideas for ‘warming up the word’. These ideas can be used to start a literacy session off. They ‘warm up’ the brain, and are an excellent way to help tune the children’s minds into thinking and concentrating.

Warming up the Word Games

Warming up the word games work on the same principle as the practise that musicians or sports people put in daily in order to play at their peak.

These games can be used as part of literacy sessions or can be played in a spare 5 minutes are specifically developed to make some of the skills of writing explicit. The essential idea is to play the game again and again so that the children become ‘fluent’ at it and really develop the skills that lie behind it.

We divide warming up the word into four categories:

  • Developing vocabulary: Usually tapping into dormant vocabulary. We use only a small proportion of the words that we know daily. In order to tap into the words that children know but don’t use we need games that help them to do this.
  • Usual words in unusual combinations: Great writing is not about the most unusual, biggest words being used but putting usual words together in unusual combinations. These games help children to combine words in different ways.
  • Expanding an idea: This is one of the key skills of a writer. To take the seed of an idea and to expand it. So often children find this challenging and write what is basically a list of events with a few details added in. These games help children to build upon an idea.
  • Developing imagination and imaging: It is frequently said that if children haven’t had any experience of something that they can’t write about it. Although children do need first-hand experiences, they also need to learn how to imagine how something might be drawing on what they do know. It also helps if they can see images in their head and describe these.

Developing Vocabulary

Name it!

This game is based upon the idea that one way to improve writing is to use precise nouns rather than general ones, e.g. poodle rather than dog. Give the children a category such as dogs, cars, shops, flowers and ask them to list as many types as they can - there is no need to record them unless you specifically want to. As an extension choose some of the suggestions and discuss what characteristics they have, e.g. poodle: trimmed, neat, tippy-toed, Labrador: bouncy, energetic, enthusiastic.

Found Poetry

Literacy Resources are one of the best ways to magpie words and phrases, allowing children to roll other's language across their tongues and make it their own.

Word Associations

I heard the presenters on Heart Radio playing a version of word association today (10/01/11) as part of a competition. However you play it, it is a great way to develop quick access to words without thinking and you may just get some unusual combinations which is what we are looking for in writing. The game is played in pairs. You set the first word and then let children offer other words, try not to think but just say the first word that comes into your head taking it in turns. You may need to model how to play this first.

Chain Link

This game is based around vocabulary generation and using the vocabulary. It is a game that can be found in What Rhymes with Secret by Sandy Brownjohn (printed in 1982). Start the children off with a statement such as:

  • The birds swooping in the clear blue sky.
  • Sky like an azure gem.
  • Gem of an idea in the air

Here, the children must take the last word and start off the next line/statement with it. It demands that children think and use words flexibly. If this is played with young children, the lines do not have to follow on making sense but can stand on their own.

Usual Words in Unusual Combinations

Questions and Answers

You and the class will need to generate a set of questions being as inventive as possible. You or they will need to record these so that they can be dipped into anytime you want to play this game. The last time I played this the children asked things such as 'how does a computer work? , where is the sun? What is gravel?

When you want to play the game, dip in and choose a question and then try to answer it in the most imaginative way that you can. Partner talk may be necessary here to generate answers before sharing with the class.

I had the following answers to ‘How does a computer work?’

  • with the sweat and tears of my brother
  • using a bolt of lightning and friction from my fingers
  • it doesn't
  • with worms and viruses infesting your words

Three Columns and a Picture

This game is focused on usual words in unusual combinations and is based around an image from a book you are using as your text that teaches or that the children are going to write about.

Word Orchestra

This is a usual words in unusual combinations game. Using a picture from the text, ask children to generate words. Focus on what can be seen in the picture and collect as many as possible. Write each one on a card for a child to hold and is big enough for others to see. Put a group of children in a line and act as a conductor. When you point to a child they say their word. Point to two or three children in reasonably quick succession. If it doesn't sound right try other combinations. If it sounds good, say it again and ask someone to jot it down. The children can play this in groups and you can have a whole class orchestra, taking it in turn to conduct.

Thriller Whizz Cool

This is a game based on the idea that good writers use usual words in unusual combinations. It works using an online word generator and is great fun.

How does it go together?

With the children generate a list of nouns and then a separate list of verbs and to put a noun and verb together in an unusual way. Looking out of my window I can see tree, grasses, street light, road sign and a randomly selected list of verbs rushed, slithered, dreamed, sat, wheeled.

Now I can start to put them together. The streetlight dreamed, the grasses rushed etc. The children can then go on to create sentences choosing the ones that most appeal to them. The sentences could be collected and made into poems. You could play the same game with adjectives and nouns.

Expanding an Idea

Fortunately, Unfortunately

The children will need to work in pairs. Give them a statement to start off with, e.g. Mrs Simpson walked across the playground. They then take it in turn to give another statement starting with fortunately or unfortunately. So it might go something like this:

  • fortunately she was going in the right direction
  • unfortunately she tripped over
  • fortunately she had skateboard pads on her knees
  • unfortunately she didn't have them on her elbows
  • fortunately ...

Tall Stories

The class are asked to imagine something has happened but they are not told what it is. They must write down a couple of sentences beginning with 'It was so funny I.......', 'It was so awful I.......'

Organise the class so that they are in two teams and stand in a long line facing each other. One team becomes the funny team and the other the awful team. Move down the line with each person saying their funny or awful statement. The children need to add the correct expression, body language and intonation.

Tell Me More

In non-fiction this is a great game to play around with the content that you want to write about. Start off with an opening gambit such as 'Ancient Egyptians built the pyramids.' and then someone says 'tell me more about how the pyramids are built or tell me more about the pyramids.' You must then answer. If you can't then you need to make a note of this and go and look up more information. It really helps in this game if you let your partner know the title of your writing or purpose as that can often focus the aspects that you tell me more about. In fiction this is even easier as you just make it up as you go along. 'Tell me more about the character John.' Or the setting etc. This is a very high value game where children start to run the language of their text over their tongues to make it their own.

What if…..?

Give the children a situation, e.g. Spiderman has landed in school and then ask them to generate lots of what ifs.

  • What if he went up onto the highest part of the building?
  • What if he wore his pants inside his tights?
  • What if he lost his powers?
  • What if he picked up a child and flew off with them?

The idea at first is just to generate lots of what ifs. Once the children can do this, then you can start to work on some of the ideas and how they might evolve.

Groups of children could take ideas they are particularly keen on and three using freeze frames show what happens as a result of the what if. If you have been on our blueprints course, these ideas could then be fixed to a blueprint and a story developed.

Imaging and Developing the Imagination

See the Picture

This is an imaging game, designed to help children use the images in their own minds and attach words to them. Ask all children to create an image in their heads. This might be a setting in a story they are writing, something that they are writing a poem about or an experience that the whole class have had on a trip. Ask them to hold the image in their head and then ask:

  • What can you see?
  • What colours stand out most?
  • How does it feel?
  • Walk around your image. What other things do you see?

Children then share with a partner their image and things that they noticed. Finally jot down a list of words and phrases form their image. When children start this keep the walk around the image short and build up what they do over time.