Developing literacy through active learning approaches

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Highland Literacy Project





L Sim Feb 09

Highland Literacy Project


What is it?

Storyline is a way of working which was developed in Scotland by teacher-trainers at Jordanhill College of Education, together with active teachers. It started in 1965 when a new curriculum was introduced - a curriculum that demanded interdisciplinary studies.

Over the following years a particular methodology gradually emerged and since then Storyline has been spread all over the world.
Storyline differs from traditional ‘topic’ work in that students learn by creating a story together with their teachers. The story makes up the context and by entering into different characters the students can easily get emotionally involved and interested in both difficult and complex matters such as sustainable development. Storyline is a flexible way of working and it can be adapted to all kinds of education both for children and adults.

Why use storyline?

Storyline is a powerful and flexible methodology which fosters all aspects of language [reading, writing, listening & talking] in relevant and meaningful contexts. It also allows for various degrees of curriculum integration as the chapters of the story are unfolded.

Taking part in a Storyline topic is a way of encouraging the development of the four capacities specified in a Curriculum for Excellence; effective contributors, successful learners, confident individuals and responsible citizens. 

Storyline, with its emphasis on ‘good’ key questions,also provides an ideal structure for engaging children’s interest while also giving them the practice and repetition which they need to consolidate their learning.

Using Storyline

The Storyline approach to topic planning is based on the three key aspects of story, setting, characterisation and plot. Incidents or key questions are used to frame the classroom activities which follow a planned series of episodes. The key questions are used in a sequence that creates a context or setting within the framework of a story. Together, learner and teacher create a scenario through visualisation – the making of collages, friezes and pictures employing a variety of art/craft techniques. These provide a visual stimulus for the skill practice planned by the teacher. It seems a kind of paradox. The teacher has planned a sequence of activities through the designing of key questions. The teacher has the story but does not know the detail of the content.

The Storyline framework has been developed to streamline the planning process and design an outline for classroom work in which the teacher plans the ‘line’ in such a way that the children have the opportunity to tell the ‘story’.

The topic is set out in a series of logical episodes which set the scene, introduce characters and introduce issues, problems or incidents (the ‘plot’ of the story).

The topic should reach a high point with a ‘culminating event’ and the final episode is always the review of learning.

Key questions are designed to access pupils’ prior knowledge and lead on to meaningful discussion of issues, problems and events. 

Activities are listed. They arise naturally from the key questions and may include problem solving, designing and making, research and reference work, and recording in pictures, diagrams and writing. Activities may be differentiated to meet the needs of various pupil groups.

Organisation notes the deployment of pupils as a class, in groups or as individuals.

Resources lists any special items which are needed for the activities.

Curricular area/learning outcomes specifies which parts of the curriculum are being covered and may include targets.

It is possible to highlight assessment points within the planning sheet.

Target dates and actual dates of completion may be added.

An additional column for evaluation may be added. This is completed at the end of each episode.

Storyline topics for younger children

Developing a Storyline topic with pupils in the early years of the primary school grows naturally from the story telling and story reading which is a central part of the early years' curriculum.

As the Storyline approach is firmly founded on the principle of experience -> reflection -> theory, it fits well with activity methods and learning through play. Pupils engage with the Storyline through role play in which they themselves become the characters in the story.

At this stage the teacher is an active participant in the Storyline and s/he plays a central role in driving the story forward. This may involve the use of carefully structured input material which is designed to capture the pupils' attention and imagination.

Taking part in a Storyline topic helps to unite children as a class but it also allows each child to feel that he or she can make an individual contribution. The focus at first will be on developing oral skills and effective communication, and creating visualisations through drawing, painting and modelling to record ideas and feelings. Involvement in the Storyline provides a focus and a purpose for writing and reading activities in the context of the story. Themes and topics from the environment suggest possibilities for investigation while other aspects of the curriculum may be integrated as the chapters of the story unfold.

Assessment in storyline topics

Taking part in a Storyline topic should involve pupils in collaborative group work, discussion, designing and making, and a wide range of written tasks as well as presenting information and ideas orally. Throughout the various purposeful activities of the Storyline teachers and pupils discuss the success criteria which will be used to evaluate their work. These provide a framework in which self assessment and peer assessment are possible.
Examples of Storyline

The Storyline structure with its emphasis on setting, characters and plot (incidents) can be applied to any topic. However, no matter what the topic is there will be opportunities to develop and practise language skills.

The Enchanted Forest – A Storyline Topic which demonstrates an imaginative contextual approach to developing literacy in the early years.
The Enchanted Forest’

LT Scotland has made a series of visits to Aberfoyle Primary to gather Storyline material for the Literacy website. You can follow the progress of the Storyline in Primary 1 from the early planning stage and implementation to review and evaluation. There is information on how pupil learning is assessed in the context, as well as suggestions for adapting the sample material for use in other schools.

Using ‘the Enchanted Forest’ as a model, pupils could explore ‘the Enchanted Park’ or ‘the Enchanted Garden’ and still extend their knowledge and understanding of plants, animals, conservation and interdependence.

The Enchanted Forest Storyline was particularly appropriate for young pupils and the ‘fairy’ element caught their imagination.

BP Technology Box

Look out for this in your school’s resource room – It’s a black box! All schools in Highland were sent this about 15 years ago. It is a fantastic resource for P1 –P7. It contains about 15 storylines combining literacy and technology. Well worth a look.

Foundations of writing P2 Box eg ‘A cat for P2’

Do you still have this is in your school?? Great source of storylines.

Jordanhill College Storylines

Some of you may be old enough to still have copies of these from the 70s and 80s. They may need to be updated but they are well worth sharing.
Storylines you can purchase

For infants -‘Fairyland’; middle – The unsinkable Ship, The Magic Castle; Upper – The Very Important Bear from [Joyning the learning] About £40 each.

Websites to explore See examples at the back of this booklet.

The Park

In this literacy rich unit, children create an imaginary park considering the design of the park, conduct experiments to learn how plants grow and then must tackle the problems of graffiti and bullying.

This storyline can be downloaded from

n American/Australian adaptation can be found at

Example of rough draft a possible P2 storyline [based on an idea from Jordanhill College]



  • Visit/show photographs of individual shops. Discuss what each shop might sell. Discuss what each frontage looks like & materials used eg big windows - glass

  • In groups of 2 or 3, choose type of shop and make frontage. Add items to ‘window’

  • Pupils are now the owners. Decide name and make sign for shop.

  • Shop fronts are displayed on wall to make frieze – row of shops.

  • Class discusses and adds road name sign to ‘street’

  • Shop interiors are discussed, plans drawn and made using boxes eg crisp box

  • Groups discuss what they sell and make ‘stock lists’

  • Groups make stock for shop

  • Shop fronts are removed from wall and stuck on front of boxes. ‘Street’ moved onto table/unit top to make 3D street. Interior plans (see above) displayed

  • Black/grey paper added to make road and pavement

  • Writing – ‘how we made our shop’ using template – first, then, after that, finally


  • Job adverts for staff – discuss suitable traits, look at real adverts and write job adverts

  • Write physical description of staff chosen (1 per member of group) & name them.

  • Swap descriptions and make staff from (1 per member of group) from card & ‘dress’ with cloth.

  • Free design – make your character stand up and put in shop

  • As owners, pupils ‘tell’ staff what their duties are


Incident one: No Customers

  • Discuss what to do – pupils will lead what happens next.

Possible outcome – Pupils make adverts to persuade customers: look at adverts first eg magazines, flyers, TV, newspapers. Discuss language used. One group could use ‘box’ TV to ‘perform’ advert. Tape radio advert

  • Pupils make customers and add to display.

Incident two: Shop keeper spills ketchup over clothes. (tch puts ketchup down a shopkeeper)

  • Discuss what might have happened and what to do – pupils will lead what happens next.

Possible outcome – Shopkeeper couldn’t reach high shelf, design and make step/ladder from lego/junk. Design apron. Make large apron for wall and small one for shop keeper.

Incident three: Run out of stock (tch takes out stock from one shop- hopefully pupils will notice)

  • Discuss what has happened and what to do – pupils will lead what happens next.

Possible outcome – Discuss where goods come from, how they are transported etc. Pupils Phone/write new order. Lorries/vans designed and made (use cereal boxes) and added to street.

Incident four: A Customer is run over and injured (teacher puts customer under lorry)
  • Discuss what happened and what to do – pupils will lead what happens next.

Possible outcome – Discuss road safety. Make a pedestrian crossing, make speed signs, make other road signs and add to street {visit local street to look at signs?}

Incident Five: Graffiti (teacher writes over shop front)

  • Discuss what happened and what to do – pupils will lead what happens next.

Possible outcome – Owner to share how they feel about this. Other shop keepers to share how they feel – worried it may happen to them? Write thought bubbles. Discuss when it happened. Is the street too dark? Make street lights and a policeman. Help group to mend their shop.

Incident six: Rubbish all over the street (tch puts rubbish on street)

  • Discuss what has happened and what to do – pupils will lead what happens next.

Possible outcome – Discuss/research disposal of waste. Make street/lamppost bins and shop wheelie bins. [One group to make dustbin lorry, one group dustbin men]

Discuss/research recycling. Make recycling containers for street.

Incident seven: Customer drops shopping all over street (tch spills goods on pavement)

  • Discuss what has happened and what to do – pupils will lead what happens next.

Possible outcome – Discuss shopping bag use – good or bad thing? [debate/survey others]

Design and make re-usable bags.

Culminating Event The ‘Take Over’

Day 1. Teacher reads article from ‘newspaper’ about a supermarket [Tch to make up name eg ‘Big Spend’] building in the area. Pupils list advantages/disadvantages of supermarket. Pupils discuss what may happen to their customers.

  • Discuss what to do – pupils will lead what happens next.

Day 2. Teacher reads new article from newspaper. ‘Big Spend’ wants to buy the street from the council and demolish the shops to build supermarket and car park.

  • Discuss what to do – pupils will lead what happens next.

Possible outcome – letters to the council/newspaper, posters ‘Save our Shops’
Possible Final outcomes – Pupils decide!

  1. Pupils are successful and supermarket built in area but they lose some of their customers. Remove about half of the customers. Groups to design supermarket- add labels to show areas eg bakery department. Use very large paper.

  2. Pupils agree to sell their shops and a supermarket built. Do their shop keepers get a new job? [new uniforms, job titles]Shops removed by teacher (and hidden) and very large box put in its place. Groups to design supermarket (as above) and make outside and inside.

  3. Another outcome decided by pupils ???

L Sim updated Feb 09

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