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Documentary making as a context for developing writing

Tags: English | Teacher inquiry | Technology | Writing | Multimedia – video | Primary |

Can students improve their writing using digital/visual formats instead of written text? This was the focus of Renee Strawbridge's teacher inquiry.

Using documentary making as a context for learning, her class of year 6-8 students successfully developed their writing skills. Students were highly engaged, developed new understandings of presenting through film making, and built digital fluency.

Focusing the teacher inquiry

1. Identifying student needs

Within the class, there were students who experienced challenges engaging with the physical task of writing and faced barriers to learning, including dyslexia and dysgraphia.

Pre-assessment data was gathered to identify specific needs and strengths to inform planning.

2. Researching

Renee used the Transactional writing: Matrix of progress indicators – deeper features to plan the outcomes she was hoping to achieve, and as her assessment tool.

She identified the benefit of having an authentic audience for her students' writing and researched how e-tools can be used to:

  • assist students in the writing process
  • record learning progress. 

Part of her research included looking at the positive impact of using digital tools on:

  • boys' writing
  • learners with dyslexia.

Improving writing through the viewing and presenting aspect of the English curriculum  – Renee's professional learning blog documents the skills her students already have, the needs or barriers to learning some students face, and the specific aspects of writing she wanted to focus on developing with the students.

3. Developing the inquiry question

"The use of e-learning and digital tools is already well embedded in all the learning we do in my class, but this year I am curious to investigate ways to enhance my writing through the use of these tools."

Renee posed the question, "Can my students improve their writing skills using digital/visual formats?"

She planned for her students to make video documentaries to develop their writing skills within the genre of informative text.

4. Developing the context for learning and student outcomes

Renee identified the specific skills students needed for planning, scripting, and filming a documentary. Using the MADE Awards criteria, she planned to work with the students to identify their specific learning goals and indicators of success.

The teaching process

In shifting the focus from teaching to learning, it’s important to think about how we’re designing opportunities for students to develop skills and achieve specific goals. 

The excitement phase

Use technology to pique student interest

To build student interest in developing their own documentaries, Renee introduced her students to the MADE Awards website where they watched previous winners videos and began to think about what they would like to create.

  • Documentary learning progress  – This blog post documents the learning progress, introducing the topic, developing marking criteria, and understanding film techniques by looking at examples.
Learning film techniques

Students watched documentaries to identify technical features and the impact they had on conveying meaning. They developed filming techniques through a variety of short focused activities, which included:

  • taking photos to show understanding of different shot types
  • creating a PicCollage to tell a story using photos
  • creating short video clips
  • identifying the effect of music.

Renee explains the process she worked through with students to build technical skills and knowledge of how to make a video.

Integrating reading to support the writing process

Students read a lot of information reports, to identify and analyse their structure. This included identifying topic sentences and understanding their role in a paragraph. They looked at how to use sentences to expand on the information within each paragraph.

Working in small groups, students identified the topic of their documentary. Renee shared a planning template along with a model of a completed template via Google drive. Students chose whether to use the template provided or develop their own. Using storyboard exemplars and templates, they began planning their documentaries. The documentaries were shaped like an information report, using the format:

  • introduction
  • three main points
  • conclusion. 

Students research and gather information 

Student-driven, inquiry learning occurs when students are encouraged to develop their own questions, and lead their own investigations

Students decided on the best way to research and gather information. This included:

  • using the internet to search for information. AI Reader is a Chrome extension to declutter webpages and support students to read and identify key information.
  • using library resources
  • interviewing experts, which included:
    • planning questions and writing interview scripts 
    • writing emails to outside experts with questions
    • filming interviews.

Supporting and monitoring the writing process 

Each day, Renee reviewed the students writing on their Google docs. She had ongoing conversations with each group to help them think about what information they wanted to put into their storyboard and how they might do it. During these learning conversations, students were connected back with the information report framework. Renee helped them to reflect on the film techniques they were using to convey meaning and refine their writing by asking:

  • "Have you got an introduction, three main points, and a conclusion?" 
  • "When your audience finish watching your documentary, what is it that you want them to think, know, or feel? What techniques are you going to use to do that?"

While developing storyboards, students decided on how they would convey information to their audience. Depending on their topic students chose to film re-enactments, interviews, or narrate visuals. They then developed scripts for the interviewers, actors, or narrators of their documentaries.

Renee and students describe their process for developing the documentaries. Students were able to work at their own pace over the term. They regularly connected with Renee and explained some of their challenges and successes.

Parents were informed of the new approach to developing informative writing through creating a documentary via a class newsletter. They were regularly updated via Seesaw, the students' digital portfolio. Feedback from parents was positive. Renee describes one parent's feedback, "she was just amazed by the standard of the filming and how professional it looked."

Designing and developing digital outcomes: Progress outcome 2 (Level 4 of the curriculum)

While developing students' informative writing skills was the main learning focus in Renee's inquiry, the learning context could also be used to develop designing for digital outcomes. The learning the students did creating videos supports the progress outcomes in the technological area designing and developing digital outcomes.

Through the process of writing their script, filming, editing, and exporting their film, in an authentic context and taking account of end-users, students can:

  • make decisions about creating, manipulating, storing, retrieving, sharing, and testing digital content for a specific purpose, given particular parameters, tools, and techniques
  • understand that digital devices impact humans and society and that both the devices and their impact change over time
  • identify the specific role of components in a simple input-process-output system and how they work together, and recognise the "control role” that humans have in the system
  • select from a range of applications and file types to develop outcomes for particular purposes.

Progress outcome 2: Exemplar 5, Video of a system


Making videos to do with writing is a really fun activity and you learn a whole bunch of new stuff

Engagement was high throughout the documentary making process. Students were proud of their finished products.

Using video as a medium for developing informative writing skills:

  • created high student engagement
  • removed the barrier of physically writing to a large extent, which was a support for students with dyslexia
  • supported a collaborative approach to planning and developing content
  • provided an authentic learning context where students could research a topic that interested them to share with an audience
  • enabled integration with other curriculum areas including technology.

In these videos, students describe their learning process and the outcomes for them personally through the documentary making process.