Prue Goodwin on her concern about the effects of the national curriculum’s assessment criteria on creative writing in schools.
In my first year of teaching, a little girl gave me a piece of writing that moved me to tears. Jackie was a ‘struggler’ in class, which made the short account of the loss her pet even more poignant. In a few lines she had simply but profoundly expressed her sorrow in the most effective way she could. Her piece ended with the words: ‘I held my goose and I kissed my goose goodbye’. In the same class of eight-year-olds was Charles Hart, a future lyricist of Phantom of the Opera. His writing, presented fluently in carefully written chapters, was delightfully imaginative. Also in that class were thirty other young authors whose achievements indicated their varying abilities and stages of development. Most of the children, aged between seven and eight, were eagerly demonstrating the ‘and then …’ stage of story writing (sometimes managing up to nine sides with little punctuation). It was in that classroom that I became convinced that the best way to teach writing is to let children write.
I loved teaching writing. Specific time was given every week to learning about the linguistic systems that underpin written language and we would regularly explore words, both to extend vocabularies and for the fun that playing with words and word puzzles can bring. We were, in effect, working with what is currently referred to so eloquently as SPaG: spelling, punctuation and grammar. However, acquiring SPaG skills does not make a child a writer any more than knowing how to use a paint box and brushes will make him or her an artist. These are merely tools of the trade and, in my class, the emphasis was on developing the expressive quality of each child’s writing voice. When it came to independent writing, everyone just wrote producing individual pieces in as many different voices as there were pupils.
Nowadays I do not have many opportunities to work alongside pupils in schools. However, I am often invited to judge writing competitions. Recently I read a collection of stories by teenagers, mostly from Years 7 and 8. These stories, written voluntarily, in their own time and without adult intervention, had been submitted independently by the youngsters.
In most cases skills in spelling, punctuation and grammar were well exemplified; the authors also employed impressive vocabularies (or at least excellent use of thesauri). Many teachers would be delighted to receive such work from their Key Stage 3 students. So why did I have a problem evaluating these ‘stories’? Here are some of the challenges that faced me.
What happened next?
The stories lacked narrative drive. As a reader I want my expectations about the direction a story is taking to be aroused. I want to anticipate the ‘what happens next’ of a story. However, with many of these stories I often found myself having to read through a series of descriptive passages that, though rich with fascinating phraseology, often caused me to lose interest:
His head was full of raw confusion; all the questions raced through his mind like a storm swallowing the skies above a tempestuous ocean. He was lost in a labyrinthine maze with walls made of the strongest stone with nothing on the inside or outside to help him.
Why so many words to say so little?
Overworked figurative language and straining for literary effect was another feature of the submissions. It seemed that much effort had gone into using as many adverbs, adjectives, similes and metaphors as possible. Overuse of ‘powerful’ language and ‘wow’ words can lead to confusion so that meaning becomes eclipsed behind the flow of an author’s somewhat indulgent ‘reverie’.
It was a façade. Like a painting depicting a cheerful scene with the gilded sun and at night the picturesque moon stark against the dark sky scattered with stars – that’s why she’d never liked painters. (Aside: What? All painters?)
Adverbs or adverbial phrases at the beginning of sentences. There is a time and place for sentences to begin with an adverb. The problem for a reader comes when authors employ such a device relentlessly and in rapid succession.
Rapidly, she got the remote and turned the TV on. Randomly she pressed a button. Suddenly, words appeared, they read: ‘One more drink and maybe the pain will leave me, just one more’. Without hesitance she pushed the record button.
What is wrong with using ‘said’?
There was a marked preference for young writers to use many words other than ‘said’ to report dialogue. Characters in conversation must have become exhausted by all the exclaiming and interjecting that was going on in the scripts I read. Being inventive and using a range of vocabulary in a story is commendable but not if its use becomes forced and unnatural.
I won’t go on. The most worrying aspect of my experience was that there was a consistency in these style choices made by young writers from across the UK. Although their enthusiasm for writing was clearly evident and there was much to praise, the problem for me was that nearly all the scripts conformed to the same form of presentation. One can only assume that such uniformity of writing style finds its roots and reason in the fact that schools are following, unquestioningly, the demands of:
- the current curriculum
- current assessment processes
- packaged writing ‘schemes’ sold to schools.
That said, I also found pieces amongst the competition entries that engaged, amused and delighted me. The winning authors, though very different in their chosen themes, had produced stories that were gripping from start to finish and were conveyed in the distinctive, personal writing voices that, all those years ago, my former pupils were beginning to exercise and develop.
* From early years onwards, the national curriculum for English encourages pupils to search for and use ‘powerful’ words for descriptions (e.g. instead of writing ‘the old man’ use ancient or decrepit) and to select a range of synonyms to replace words which are ‘used too often’ (i.e. instead of said use uttered, exclaimed or ejaculated). These vocabulary choices are sometimes referred to as ‘wow-words’.
** All the quotes are based on genuine scripts but have been adapted sufficiently to avoid identification of the writers.
Prue Goodwin is a freelance lecturer in literacy and children’s books. Her work includes running courses, speaking at conferences, consultancy to publishers of children’s books, and researching literacy development in schools. She spent over thirty years teaching in schools and colleges. She can be contacted on email@example.com.