KS1 Book topic: Meerkat Mail

  • KS1 Book topic: Meerkat Mail

Irritated by his family, Emily Gravett’s restless meerkat goes in search of greener pastures. By tracking his global adventure, children will discover new creatures and countries to explore in their writing, says Carol Satterthwaite...

In the words of a certain car insurance obsessed meerkat, a book project using Meerkat Mailby Emily Gravett is ‘simples!’, especially if you use the Talk for Writing process. As a core story for a half term it is perfect for KS1 – with plenty of text types to focus on, captivating illustrations, quirky characters and lots of humour. It’s also a fabulous way to develop geography, PSHE, art and history through a theme such as ‘amazing animals’.

1 There’s no place like home?

This is a story of selfexploration, of believing that the grass is greener, of leaving home and coming back again. Our hero, Sunny the meerkat, lives with his extended family in the Kalahari Desert and he is fed up with two things – the place where he lives and the people (or meerkats) he lives with. It’s time to move on, so he packs his suitcase, writes a note and starts his search for a better place to eat his ice-creams. We join him on his search, along with a hungry jackal who is always close behind him, as he travels from one global family member to another. Needless to say, each place seems to have its own set of problems and Sunny finally arrives at a common conclusion ‘there is no place like home’.

There are endless possibilities for using this text, but if you are the kind of person who likes a bit of a sequence, read on…

2 Starting the journey

Using the book as part of a project on ‘amazing animals’, precede the actual reading of it with a week of experiences and research focusing on animals, including some or all of the following.

  • Launch your topic with a visit from a wild animal sanctuary (meerkats included, if possible). Discuss and record what the children know about these particular animals and support them in preparing their questions for the visit. Immerse the children in visual images and film clips if there is no animal sanctuary near to you and then role-play a wild animal expert for the children to ‘hot-seat’.
  • Focus on reading a range of printed and multi-modal information texts, then provide umpteen opportunities for the children to gather facts about wild animals across the world, but not meerkats, as you will need this animal later. Model how to record information using a spidergram in notes and drawings, and provide other methods that pupils can use to record their research, e.g. a Flip camera or audio recorder.
  • Watch DVD clips of the chosen animals; read texts; play games such as ‘True or False’; and create information sorting, sharing and matching activities.
  • Model a short oral presentation using images, David Attenborough style, e.g. “Polar bears live in one of the coldest parts of our planet – the North Pole. They have extremely thick fur to protect them from the cold. They usually eat seals but also catch fish.” This is an excellent way of introducing new vocabulary and learning language structures. The children can then work in pairs or small groups to prepare an oral mini-presentation using their own animal facts.
  • An excellent writing outcome for this week could be a Top Trump card for the animal of choice.

3 A suggested route

Introduce Sunny – either through an image or a meerkat stuffed toy, it will be a good investment! Read the whole text using a visualiser to amplify the images on your IWB. The illustrations convey as much as the text, and children can be helped to understand events, feelings, character details and motivations by close reading of both.

Re-read and talk about the postcards Sunny sends from each location – layout, language, text conventions (e.g. brackets) and discuss the information they give about where he is and what his current relative is like. Collect information under headings such as: Where he is? What does he eat? What the weather is like? What does he do? What does he like / dislike?

Take photos of Sunny at the local park, eating something, in different weather, etc. Share these images with the children, explaining they where taken on Sunny’s latest adventure. Model writing a postcard from Sunny to his family, using the information headings to structure the content. The children can then conduct a guided tour of the school with Sunny, taking photos of him in different places, answering any questions he may have and ‘helping’ him join in activities. The children can then write their own postcard from Sunny about his trip to their school.

4 Did you know?

Read examples of nonchronological reports about animals and start to develop a bank of common features. Use role-play and games such as ‘Professor Know it All’* to develop the language and sentence constructions of reports.

Use Pie Corbett’s Talk for Writing sequence (Imitation- Innovation-Invention), with a final outcome of a mini-leaflet or Wikipedia page. Start with teaching an oral report on meerkats to the class, using a text map to support the process. An example text could start: ‘Meerkats are a type of mongoose. They live in the desert in Africa. Usually they live in family groups. This protects them from predators.’

Once the children have learnt the text, then innovate with another animal, using facts gathered in the first week. Create a whole class report together orally and practise it, then allow the children to make up their own oral versions about the animal they researched in week one.

Model writing a report based on the oral version created by the whole class and then support the children in writing their own. Collate and publish these reports in a laminated booklet, folder or on the school’s website. Read aloud to other classes, parents or as part of a presentation during assembly.

5 Tell me a story

This is a great example of a journey story, with Sunny travelling the world and then returning back home, hopefully a more contented meerkat. Write an oral version of the story in the past tense, including more story connectives, e.g. After that, Eventually, etc. and learn it.

An innovated version might involve Sunny trying to find a home at the seaside, in the supermarket, at an indoor play area – choose a place that will be familiar to the children. Or, if you would like to provide a little more challenge, you could also change the main character to another animal. This would mean that children’s versions could draw on information gained in their research. The written stories could then be made into a whole class book and included in the book area, read aloud in a story-share or recorded as a podcast.

6 Develop context & understanding

Create an eye-catching display of the story, including scanned and enlarged images (remember the five percent rule) and samples of the children’s writing which are large enough to be read easily, e.g. postcards and labels. Include the map of Sunny’s journey and the school guided tour photos with labels. Another display could be created for ‘amazing animals’, which might include the mini-leaflets, photos, Top Trumps cards etc.

Exciting provocations can often result in more enthusiastic written work – for instance: Who did it?: The Sunny Kidnap scenario. ‘Trash’ the classroom the night before (it doesn’t have to be too realistic!), then establish the culprit the next morning with the children by looking for clues. Find a ransom note from the jackal, demanding a safe home away from the annoying meerkats and an endless supply of food, in return for Sunny. Write a note back to him with the children and begin a written dialogue, negotiating terms.

Recommended reads

  • Talk for Writing across the Curriculum, Pie Corbett and Julia Strong (OUP, 2011) *includes Professor Know it All game
  • The Bumper Book of Storytelling into Writing, Pie Corbett (Clown Publishing, 2006)
  • Stories for Writing, Pie Corbett (OUP)
Pie Corbett