29 OCTOBER 2014
One of the most useful activities for the English classroom is the writing of mini-sagas, i.e., complete narratives in exactly 50 words. They make for an enjoyable and productive lesson for any age and ability level from upper primary to upper secondary, with a different emphasis and objective according to need. For example, year 8 could study narrative features; year 9 could be introduced to irony in literature; year 10 could practise writing concisely.
Mini-sagas are especially useful when working with reluctant writers, who will attempt a story of only 50 words when they would be daunted by a request to write a longer narrative; the next time you could ask for 100 words and so on. (Or you can make the task harder and reduce the word limit to 10 or even 6 words, e.g. 'No problem about Dallas, Mr President'.) Mini-sagas are a stepping stone to writing short stories, required in the Checkpoint test and also an option for Cambridge (I)GCSE.
Any number of the following lesson objectives are relevant to this task, and can be selected according to the skills focus required:
narrative style; narrative structure; use of dialogue; punctuation of dialogue; writing concisely/keeping to a word limit; precise vocabulary choices (perhaps tied to dictionary and thesaurus use); hyphen rules; summarising; selecting key words; grammar competence; use of humour; use of irony; giving titles; creating powerful endings; drafting; editing.
Mini-sagas lend themselves to paired, individual, group and whole class tasks, and include reading, speaking and listening as well as writing. This is an activity which can be attempted successfully by second as well as first language students, and one in which differentiation can be applied.
Allow a double lesson. The stages are as follows:
1. Listen to / read and evaluate some examples of mini-sagas (see CUP Checkpoint English Coursebook Stage 7 pp.19/20). Ask students to define a mini-saga.
2. Draft three (two for less able) sagas of 60 and 70 words. (Titles could be provided, e.g. 'The Lie' or 'Never Again'; or a proverb could be the stimulus; or a picture prompt, e.g. a famous narrative painting. Less able students could be asked to turn a film synopsis or urban legend into a mini-saga.)
3. Exchange them with a partner to judge the best.
4. Reduce to exactly 50 words the selected saga by applying some of these methods (listed on board):
- eliminating redundant words (especially adjectives and adverbs);
- using shorter synonyms (e.g. single instead of phrasal verbs);
- using active not passive verbs;
- using hyphens (correctly!) to form single words;
- using subject pronouns (e.g. 'they' instead of 'the family';
- using elisions/abbreviations (e.g. would've);
- creating one complex sentence to replace several simple sentences;
- using semi-colons instead of connectives (there is no need for 'and').
5. Improve structure / word order of the final sentence to enhance tension and give power to the ending (aim to use an ironic twist.)
6. Add a title, of up to 10 words, to intrigue but not reveal (perhaps using a pun.)
7. Read out mini-sagas to the class (possibly voting on the best).
8. Copy / print the edited final draft for display, with illustration.
Marian Cox is an experienced teacher and author of First Language English and Literature. She is also an examiner with experience of writing English exam papers.
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