In this step kids will be considering how to spice up their writing- make it more effective, interesting and meaningful by intentional use of Vocabulary, Connectives, sentence Openers, and Punctuation, in short VCOP.
This is Step 5 of my Seven Steps to Story Success – A step-by-step guide to teaching children how to write stories.
If you missed the previous four steps, follow the links below:
VCOP, which stands for Vocabulary, Connectives, Openers, and Punctuation is a teaching framework that aims to enhance students’ writing skills.
It was developed by Ros Wilson, who also developed Big Write, a program for schools to use to foster a writing culture by focusing on four core elements: talk, connectives, sentence structure, and vocabulary. Essentially, VCOP is the explicit way vocabulary, connectives, openers, and punctuation is taught, and Big Write is the process where children can apply and practice the skills taught through VCOP.
I don’t want to digress from the focus on VCOP in this post, but if you wanted to find out more about this way of teaching writing, check out this website – https://www.andrelleducation.com/big-writing/.
I first became aware of VCOP when I was observing a colleague teach a creative writing unit. Immediately before children start an extended piece of writing, there is a session where kids focus on the vocabulary, connectives, openers, and punctuation they would use in their upcoming writing. Having this dedicated time to play with these elements of writing made it more likely that these elements were used in their writing.
Vocabulary, conjunctions, openings, and punctuation marks are a great and easy way to progress writing from the basics to a more sophisticated level.
Helping our kids to expand their writing vocabulary and expand their word choice is an obvious step to make writing more engaging and descriptive. Using a diverse vocabulary will really allow them to develop the picture they have for readers to see.
Conjunctions will bring extra flow to the story and help children build sentences in creative ways. Using a range of connectives will enable kids to express relationships between sentences and paragraphs, and to create coherent and cohesive texts.
Varying sentence openers make writing more interesting and avoid repetitive structures.
Finally, it is the punctuation that holds the whole story together and allows the reader to understand the text. Proper punctuation is essential for clarity and understanding in writing. But more than that, punctuation can be used in different ways to make writing have more impact.
As you might expect, one of my end goals in teaching writing in our homeschool is to develop appropriate and effective genre-specific writing skills such as writing letters, articles, and reviews, informative, discursive and persuasive writing.
However, before I even attempt to introduce these elements formally, we have two stages that precede this.
The first stage is an obvious stage: I concentrate on developing the mechanics of writing, namely the basics of sentence structure and grammar. In this stage we read a lot of different genres and use copywork to gain writing fluency and (in theory) to internalise what proper sentences look like in context of a real piece of literature. You can read more about the products I use in this stage of developing my children’s writing.
In the second stage, our goal is to develop a writing voice. In this stage, which starts coinciding with the fist stage after my kids are able to write a few sentences fluently, confidently and independently, we start analysing lines from books we read for elements that make those sentences pop. If you read my post on products that develop children’s writing, you will know that it is the Brave Writer Arrow book guides where I learnt this technique.
What I didn’t know then, was that this is the same thing a focus on VCOP tries to do, but in a more structured intentional manner, usually in isolation from sentences in the context of literature.
Do I prefer teaching these aspects using examples from real books as we come across them- where we chose an amazing paragraph of writing, discuss what makes it great, use copywork to internalise it, and then try and make our own great example sentences modelled from it?
Yes absolutely. I would not give up that practice for anything.
But, on the other hand do I think there is a place for specifically focusing on vocabulary, connectives, openers, and punctuation, and really zooming in on these elements for the purpose of enhancing a piece of writing my kids are currently working on?
This is because writing is a skill that requires many elements to come together.
For kids to gain an intuitive understanding of these elements, they need to have a lot of exposure through examples in real writing and examples that have been explicitly explained.
For kids to be able to use vocabulary and punctuation with flair and in a way that contributes to great writing and doesn’t sound off, they need to be experimented with again and again and again.
This can be done working backwards by de-constructing great examples of VCOP elements when we come across them in our reading.
It can also be done by working on each of the elements of vocabulary, connectives, sentence openers and punctuation in dedicated sessions.
But how to do this?
When I first wanted to learn a bit more about how to implement the VCOP strategy with my kids, a search on the internet did throw up a multitude of results, most of which were images of (admittedly very handy) the pyramid of VCOP elements.
I have used the VCOP pyramid with my kids, and in the classroom. They are a great short-cut to getting kids to target higher level ‘VCOP’ in their writing which does make their writing technically better. Through repeated use, kids do start automatically incorporating varied vocabulary, connectives, openers and punctuation in their writing.
The VCOP pyramid starts off reminding kids of the basics of VCOP and gets more sophisticated the further down the pyramid they go. The nature of the pyramid, having the elements grouped by difficulty, serves as a great way to differentiate, so essentially I can use the same pyramid for my 15 year old, 13 year old and my 10 year old. Kids can choose their comfort level and the pyramid works as a reminder during the writing process of what to include to add variety to writing.
They are intended to be used numerous times, so definitely don’t try to get your kids to incorporate everything their first time, unless off course, your child is already adept at using these devices in their writing.
I have made my own child-friendly versions that you can download and use with your children for this step of the story writing process that will get your children to consider how they can spice up their writing using vocabulary, connectives, openers and punctuation.
Just a note for the vocabulary list I have included, I had to limit my self to only 150 of my favourite words. I love these words either because they sound beautiful or they are evocative. I have purposeful screened out any words that are obscure and unnecessarily flowery. They are mostly standard vocabulary that once your kids learn, they will notice everywhere. This is my wish list for my own kids to eventually use in their writing.
Of course, you can always make your own vocabulary lists to work from and aim for.
I will be going through, in a later post, how I incorporate vocabulary building in our homeschool.
If this is the first time that you are going through the story writing process with your child, or it has been a while since it has been done, the whole of this Step 5 can be skipped if you think it is going to cause your child to lose momentum and interest for their story.
Also, if doing all of the activities for vocabulary, connectives, openers and punctuation is just going to take too much time, just pick one or two elements, and do the others the next time – or don’t. It is totally up to you.
Nobody learns to fluently incorporate great writing techniques in one session, or even in one year. It is a skill that has to grow and develop and mature. These skills need time.
While the VCOP pyramid that is found on the internet is handy as a quick reminder of what to incorporate into writing, what I couldn’t find on the web was a detailed description explaining how to choose words, connectives, openers and punctuation which give more power and meaning to writing.
Moreover, I couldn’t find a detailed description of how to teach children to wield that power in their own writing.
While us homeschoolers have the freedom to teach and learn how ever we want, looking at the learning objectives, writing criteria and mark schemes from primary to secondary stages of school right up to GCSE English, it seems they place a high emphasis on using ambitious vocabulary, and varied connectives, sentence openers and punctuation in writing. And with good reason. It is truly difficult to have an engaging story, no matter how great the plot and character, if the story has basic vocabulary and simple sentence structures and limited use of punctuation.
This is why, after finishing this series on “Seven steps to Story Writing Success”, I am going to take a deep dive into how vocabulary, connectives, openers and punctuation affect the quality of a piece of writing, and strategies to employ to help children expand their use of varied vocabulary, connectives, sentence openers, and punctuation and naturally incorporate them in their stories and writing in general.
I hope this helps some of you out!