The summer holidays are here, and children have lots of time on their hands. What to do? One obvious solution is to visit the local library – no cost involved – and sign up for the Summer Reading Challenge. The challenge is to read six books (or more) on the theme of ‘record breakers’. Children collect a sticker for each book read and once they’ve read at least six they receive a certificate.
Reading widely like this exposes children to varied writing styles, which is important to their own writing. A recent article in the Guardian raised the concerns of a number of children’s authors over the way children are taught to write creatively in schools. Spearheaded by C J Busby, the authors claim children are encouraged to choose long, multi-syllabled words over the short direct ones. So ‘wonderful’ is preferred to ‘good’ for instance. They say that elaborate, over-complex language is required to meet assessment criteria and the result, as Busby says, is ‘awful flowery language’. The situation has led Busby to write a letter to the education secretary, signed by other authors including Tanya Landman, Tim Bowler and Mary Hoffman, to highlight her concern.
In contrast, MA courses for writers advocate simplicity and avoiding adjectives and adverbs; one does wonder how Dickens would have fared on a current writing course. While I deplore the idea that the use of long or unusual words is the best way to achieve good grades, I recently attended a Carnegie shadowing event and was told by the young readers that they’d dismissed one book because it contained too many words they didn’t know; a puzzle since the text in question wasn’t difficult, just rich in vocabulary and imaginative images. Perhaps, too great an emphasis on stripped down prose can also have dangers and can be as boring (and tiring) as too many adjectives.
Surely the aim is an effective and appropriate use of vocabulary. As John Dougherty, author and poet and another signatory of Busby’s letter, points out, good writing ‘is about communication and will vary depending on what you are trying to communicate’. It requires imagination, but a prescriptive approach does not encourage this.
The authors who have signed Busby’s letter are clear that all school assessment should be designed to reward ‘good clear and fluent style’. They themselves are masters of their craft having honed their styles over many years. They all write in very different ways adapting how they write to achieve the best effect.
Good style is not a straitjacket as suggested by the current SATS approach, but a question of real choice. Clearly, teachers need good guidance to help them assess children’s writing, and it is really to them that the authors have directed their very timely criticism. Just as children need to be exposed to rich and varied writing styles, so too do teachers. Perhaps more needs to be done to encourage teachers to encounter language. A Summer Reading Challenge for teachers? That’s a thought.