Alison Wilcox has extensive experience in working as a primary school teacher, both in a full-time capacity and as a supply teacher, in private and state schools in England and Scotland. Alison gave up full-time teaching to work on the Descriptosaurus project, and now balances writing, research, in-service education and periods of freelance supply teaching.
A Law and Economics graduate from University College Cardiff, after leaving university, Alison worked in the City of London as an insurance broker.
Alison’s passion for education, and her decision to re-train as a teacher arose as a result of using her knowledge of business and finance to undertake the role of treasurer for a local branch of the Pre-School Learning Alliance. She also assisted in the setting up of a local nursery, during which time she became involved in providing support for a severely autistic pupil.
Alison has extensive experience in working as a primary school teacher, both in a full-time capacity and as a supply teacher, in private and state schools, both in England and Scotland. Whilst teaching, she worked closely with pupils who struggled with creative writing to assess what additional resources would benefit them in improving their descriptive writing, and, as a result, developed the Descriptosaurus model. Alison gave up full-time teaching to complete the project, and now balances writing, research, in-service education and periods of freelance supply teaching.
In 2013, she collaborated with the National Literacy Trust on one of their most successful writing competitions.
Descriptosaurus: Action & Adventure builds on the vocabulary and descriptive phrases introduced in the original bestselling Descriptosaurus and, within the context of adventure stories, develops the structure and use of the words and phrases to promote colourful cinematic writing. This essential guide will enable children to take their writing to the next level, combine their descriptions of setting and character and show how the two interact. Children can then experiment with their own adventure stories, armed with the skills, techniques and vocabulary necessary to describe their action scenes in a way that allows the reader to feel the characters’ fear and excitement, and visualise the action within the setting.
Descriptosaurus: Ghost Stories build on the vocabulary and descriptive phrases introduced in the original bestselling Descriptosaurus, and within the context of ghost stories develops the structure and use of the words and phrases to promote colourful, cinematic writing. This essential guide will enable children to take their writing to the next level, to combine their descriptions of setting and character, and show how they interact, so that the reader can feel the character’s fear and visualise the source of their terror within the setting.
This new system also provides a contextualised alternative to textbook grammar and will assist children in acquiring, understanding and applying the grammar required to improve their writing, both creative and technical.
Why did you decide to write these books?
When I first decided to write Descriptosaurus it was because my experience of teaching creative writing to pupils had revealed that many had great imaginations and lots of ideas, but did not have the descriptive vocabulary to communicate these effectively. As a parent and a teacher, I found that, although a dictionary was useful to find the meaning of a new word and a thesaurus to find an alternative, there was no thematic resource that gave the pupils the specific vocabulary to use in their descriptive writing. They were totally reliant on their reading or on an input from the teacher or parent.
Working with groups of reluctant writers, I developed a bank of vocabulary, be it words, phrases or sentences that they could use as a starting point to overcome their fear of the ‘blank page syndrome,’ or as ready made structures to incorporate in their writing. The improvement in the enthusiasm for tackling a creative writing task, and the quality of the work produced encouraged me to develop the system and write, Descriptosaurus, a thematic expansion of a dictionary and a thesaurus, which provides a comprehensive resource to help expand descriptive vocabulary and experiment with language and sentence structure.
To ensure that pupils are engaged and enthused with creative writing, it is vital that they are, where possible, given a choice. As part of the descriptive writing competition in 2013, the National Literacy Trust analysed the genres pupils chose in their descriptive pieces. Adventure and ghost stories proved to be an extremely popular choice amongst the entrants.
One of the problems I and other teachers have encountered over the years is trying not to dampen enthusiasm to a creative writing task where action scenes are included, or where, as in a ghost story, the requirement is to create a sense of mystery and suspense. This can be challenging where the action scenes prove disappointing, with the action ending up with a brief act of violence, and the mystery and suspense is created using ‘gore’ as opposed to atmosphere and tension. The pupils can visualise the scene, but don’t have the vocabulary or the depth of reading to commit their visions to paper. Descriptosaurus: Action & Adventure, and Descriptosaurus: Ghost Stories aim to provide pupils with a resource that embraces their interests, helps them to expand their vocabulary and provides them with a knowledge and understanding of the techniques that will enable them to commit their visions to paper, and to prevent the initial enthusiasm for the task dwindling due to a frustration as they struggle to find the words to do justice to their imaginations.
My research over the last few years has revealed a tendency for pupils to write action scenes that are merely a list of various actions, with no description of the setting, other characters or emotions. On other occasions, I have seen excellent descriptions of settings, but the character(s) does not move (interact) through the setting. They are disjointed pieces of description. When the idea to write an additional Descriptosaurus relating to a specific genre arose, I took the opportunity to incorporate a new system with which I been experimenting that I have called S(C)IR. The resulting work has described the setting(S), moved the character(I) through the setting, and described their reactions(R) to what they see or the events in which they are involved, and has resulted in cinematic writing of an exceptional standard.
What's the one thing you hope readers take away from your books?
To be successful at a task there has to be an element of enjoyment and engagement. A narrow, prescriptive focus on driving up specific standards can strip away creativity and choice. Creative writing is an opportunity to use the written word to explore ideas. It is the vehicle for using language skills in a real context.
I hope by using the genres with which pupils are most engaged, by providing vocabulary and techniques for the popular ‘action and suspense scenes,’ that these books will help to engage and assist pupils with a creative writing task, and encourage them to experiment with the language skills they have acquired to create a text of which they are proud and is a true reflection of the wonderful, imaginative ideas they are capable of verbalising. Pupils are more motivated, inspired and challenged when they create something of value - when they have a personal involvement and emotional investment in their writing.
Is there anything you'd like to highlight about this topic or your books in particular?
We all remember those inspirational teachers whose enthusiasm and creativity fostered our interest in their subject. I had an English teacher who used his passion for the creativity and expression of literature to fully engage us with the texts and tasks, rather than merely the mechanics of the language. He showed us how to tap into our imagination, sketch the outline, add colour by evaluating and experimenting with vocabulary and figurative language, and then frame it by examining the elements of grammar and punctuation. Studying and creating a text was an holistic approach, rather than a functional, technique-gathering exercise - creative, contextualised teaching at its best!
I wanted to provide a resource that was capable of scaffolding such an holistic approach and provide a contextualised alternative to the prescriptive, repetitive focus on textbook grammar that has been the result of the introduction of the SPAG tests.
Taking a number of sentences or phrases for setting, interaction and reaction, combining them into a descriptive paragraph of an action scene, and then experimenting with different ways of constructing and combining the sentences, openers and length is a very engaging way of teaching and learning about grammar and its impact on the flow, sense and expression. The discussions that occur can also have a dramatic impact on the quality of the responses to comprehension tasks.
What's a common misconception about this topic that you'd like to clear up?
The government wants an emphasis to be placed on reading for enjoyment. With the ‘daily reader’ gradually being squeezed out of classrooms in KS2, this focus could not have come soon enough. To develop their writing pupils need to experience good literature. They need the opportunity to discuss how a writer engages the reader; to identify passages that create a cinematic image in their mind; to use a well-crafted text to develop their imagination so that they begin to understand how characters might feel, react to a situation or predict what might happen next.
The best writers are avid readers who read for enjoyment and develop a ‘reading habit.’ In an ideal world, every child would have experienced the joy of sharing stories and reading from a young age. In an ideal world, every pupil would return to school having read and discussed their texts. In an ideal world, every pupil would view reading as a form of entertainment and not just a “school chore” that gets in the way of “electronic consumption.”
We live in a multicultural society where English is not always the first language spoken at home; we live in a society dominated by the moving image and electronic entertainment; a society obsessed with reality television and “celebrity.” A quick look at the bestsellers list is an eye-opener, and a real insight into what sort of reading environment is experienced at many homes, if at all.
As a teacher, I have encountered the problems reluctant or struggling readers face when challenged to write creatively. I encountered situations where pupils who were enthusiastic readers were unable to translate their reading experience into producing high quality writing. I, therefore, searched for another way to enrich their vocabulary and offer them ready-made structures to incorporate into their writing. It attempts to address the problem of how to achieve higher levels of writing with pupils who are not active or avid readers.
Pupils who do not read widely find it impossible to imagine what they have not experienced. Using the vocabulary and phrases from Descriptosaurus, the class can develop images of places and people. If they choose to describe, for example, a secret passage, they have a bank of ideas and vocabulary to draw from.
Interestingly, this process had a number of benefits. Those who were already avid readers started to take more note of descriptive language and literary techniques in their books, and achieved a high level in their writing. Those reluctant readers experienced success in their writing and became interested in reading. The cycle was complete, but the original stimulus was the writing rather than the reading.