The Polar Express

Using The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg for primary school literacy

Primary English The Polar Express

The Polar Express. Image: Primary English Education Consultancy Limited.

Creating a really worthwhile unit of work, whilst still marking Christmas, is one of my favourite activities of the festive season. In this short article I look at a few ways to use a high quality Christmas picture book as a vehicle for good literacy teaching and learning. The book I’ve chosen is ‘The Polar Express’ by Chris Van Allsburg. I haven’t added age groups to the activities as many are generic but I hope there are sufficient to meet the specific needs of children from across the school.

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I’ve been on a journey…

I’ve been on a journey,” has to be one of the most well-worn phrases of the 21st century. Every week it trips off the tongues of T.V. reality show contestants and, I hasten to add, mere mortals busying themselves in schools and offices the length and breadth of the nation.

There was a time in the past when the weekly T.V. journey consisted of watching a heroic German Shepherd  (Hobo) trekking his way across North America solving crimes and doing good deeds on his way. Now that, as The Jam said, is entertainment. It also leads very nicely into a consideration of stories that use the plot of a journey to structure their narrative.

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Write on! Using visual writing prompts

write on

With the half term holiday drawing to a close we know that teachers everywhere are reaching for their lesson planning materials and racking their brains for active and creative ways of teaching their classes. This blog post demonstrates the use of visual writing prompts and offers a few tips and ideas about how to get the most out of young writers.

I was recently asked to model some writing lessons in one of our local schools. Seizing the opportunity, I set to work planning lessons that the teachers would be able to replicate. Lessons in which the children would be actively writing from beginning to end. Here is a brief resume of one of those lessons.

I started with an image. Finding images can be time-consuming which is why we’ve been collating Visual Story Starters over on Pinterest. I asked the children to look at the image and write five things, on their mini-whiteboards, that they could see and they’d like to write about. I took suggestions from the children and recorded them on the flip chart. Once I had plenty of suggestions I chose five and wrote them as a vertical list in the middle of the flip chart.






Now, using some of the vocabulary suggested by the children I worked on the first line, making sure that I modelled putting vocabulary both before and after the word ‘lanterns’.

E.g. Golden, glowing lanterns lead the way.

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Voyage and Return: To boldly go and come back again

If I were to say that in my opinion Star Trek and Alice in Wonderland tell the same story, what would you say? Would you protest that with one being a mid 20th century science fiction T.V. serial and the other being a 19th century children’s fantasy novel I must have lost my marbles? To a point I would agree with you. They’re different genres and they use different media to tell their tales. However, the underlying structure of both stories is, in my opinion, the same. In both stories our heroes start in familiar settings, they take a voyage into an unknown world and then return.

Let’s start with Star Trek. Every week Captain Kirk and his intrepid crew course through one of the lesser-known galaxies of the universe from their inter-galactic home – the SS Enterprise. They come across a planet and, through the use of teleportation, make a journey across space to investigate this new land. Whilst there, they encounter other life-forms, make friends and enemies, face peril and in the nick of time transport back to the safety of their spaceship. Once back in the familiar setting of the SS Enterprise the episode ends, ready for a repeat-run next week.

The familiarity of this structure pervades many of the stories that we know. Christopher Booker calls it Voyage and Return. Its use in children’s stories is widespread and offers a useful base on which young writers can structure their own work. First though, they need a few examples from stories they may know…

Maurice Sedak’s picture book ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ is a modern classic which introduces the youngest of readers to the idea of Voyage and Return. The action begins at home, where naughty Max is sent to bed without any supper. Overnight his room transforms into a forest and Max makes a voyage across time to the land of the Wild Things. Here he tames the monsters, becomes their king and has lots of fun. He begins to miss home and smells some good food, so travels back home and eats his supper.

In a similar way the 1970’s children’s animated series Mr Benn (animated by David McKee) saw the eponymous Mr Benn take a weekly trip down Festive Road to the costume shop. Once there he would choose a costume, try it on in the fitting room and step into a fantasy world where he made friends, faced peril and was whisked back to the safety of the costume shop when ‘the shop keeper appeared’. Just like Captain Kirk, Mr Benn would return to the costume shop week after week for another journey from the familiar into the unknown.

In his book The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker, lists the children’s classics of: The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe as examples of Voyage and Return stories. If we take Alice as an example, the story begins in the familiar setting of a family afternoon by the river. Alice then sees the White Rabbit and follows him down his burrow. At the bottom she opens a door which takes her on a voyage into the strange world of Wonderland. Here she makes friends and enemies and narrowly escapes peril – this time in the shape of the Queen of Hearts to return to the warmth of her family.

Familiarity with the structure of Voyage and Return provides comfort for young readers. If well-loved characters venture into dangerous new lands, somewhere at the back of the readers’ mind is the reassuring grain of knowledge that no matter what threat they face, they will overcome it to return to their original setting. Building on this familiarity to create their own stories though has potential for the development of their personal writing.

The great Pie Corbett urges teachers to teach their pupils to become literary magpies; collectors of literary features, vocabulary and ideas. By using his ‘boxing-up’ technique children can very easily create their own Voyage and Return stories where a character starts in a familiar setting, takes a voyage to a new world, encounters some people in the new place before returning to their own setting.

One final characteristic of many of these Voyage and Return stories is the role of a portal in shifting the narrative from the familiar world to the new setting. In Star Trek the new world is accessed via the Transporter; in The Wizard of Oz it is the tornado; Alice enters Wonderland through the door and the Pevensy children enter Narnia through a wardrobe. Doors are the most pervasive means of shifting the setting in a Voyage and Return story and so should be repeatedly explored as a narrative technique with children. Images of doors, supported by shared and modelled writing, provide children with experience of describing what may lie behind them and ultimately build their confidence in creating stories where characters voyage into a new world.

Other Voyage and Return Stories:

The Tunnel – Anthony Browne

The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Subtle Knife –  Phillip Pullman

The Phoenix and the Carpet – E Nesbitt

The Polar Express – Chris Van Allsburg


The Goonies

I’d have been unable to write this blog post without reading Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots and thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in stories and the role they play in our world.

KS3 and KS4 teachers interested in the application of Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots should visit Bill Boyd: The Literacy Adviser’s Blog

Rachel Clarke,  Director: Primary English Education Consultancy Limited

Rachel has written a further story structure post about Journeys and Quests, which can be found here.

Orginally published on LoveToReadToMyClass.Wordpress.Com 29th October, 2012.