Thursday, 7 June 2012
My latest for Guardian Teach
A lot has changed in literacy teaching since I was at primary school 25 years ago; most of it for the better. I'm not quite sure what our Friday morning "lesson" which involved copying from the blackboard was supposed to achieve, but I dare say it didn't achieve it!
We've come a long way in understanding how to teach reading, how to enthuse children over the written word, how to help children comprehend story components.
What I do think our literacy teaching, in general, lacks though is creative writing. By this I mean giving children the opportunities to write (and write and write) a story on something, anything, to let them decide chapter names, develop characters, draw a front cover, illustrate each page should their hearts desire.
OK we might have the odd lesson on story starts, on developing plot, on interesting words to use, but how often do we allow children the freedom to let their imaginations wander off into other lands, to write out adventures which may take days or weeks on end to complete?
Of course, the problem is we're left feeling that we simply don't have the time in these high pressured, target-driven times. There's so much we need to cover – so much we want to get through. When I was at school I'd never heard of phonics, I dare say neither had my teachers! There weren't any "big books" that we analysed as a class, no plenaries where we'd discuss learning achieved, a mere glance at an electronic whiteboard would have been shocking beyond belief. There wasn't the time consuming assessments that today's teachers do either; undoubtedly there was more time.
Whereas I understand the pressures teachers are under, particularly at times when SATs or Ofsted are looming, in my view creative writing isn't (just!) a treat you're giving them – it's a valuable learning experience and one in which their writing skills (and levels) can be improved upon.
Firstly there's the whole thought process involved in the considering of "what makes up a story"? Of course this can be discussed as a whole class or in small groups prior to beginning writing.
Secondly the children can be asked to think of interesting words and phrases they'd like to use in their stories; this encourages them to think about the reader and ask what will keep them reading. Also they will be thinking about format, hand-writing and presentation – they'll want to take pride in their story and should be encouraged to make it look visually appealing.
These different components mean that far from the un-structured story writing I did as a child, this creative writing can be a more structured mix up of teacher-led whole class work and child-led creativity.
In order to make the time for this incredibly valuable activity, schools and teachers should consider having specific workshops (which might be a whole morning or day) or weeks (where each literacy lesson for a week is them continuing with the story writing). Bulking it into such a specific time frame means that the children are more likely to get fully absorbed in the story writing process, feeling like mini-authors, developing plot and character. And from a time point of view it gets it done in a neat block of sessions; forget about phonics and other literacy aspects for that very short time frame and let their brains and minds focus solely on their story.
This is a particular obsession of mine right now as I'm getting the chance to read Roald Dahl's glorious books once more as my daughter has become quite rightly devoted to his stories! I think it's fabulous when teachers can instil in children a love of words and phrases – to let them enjoy the rhythms written by authors and, as the librarian says in Matilda,"let them wash over you like music"!
When teaching creative writing give them time to think of words and phrases even before they begin to write. In some schools they display exciting, interesting words in order to offer inspiration for when "writer's block" hits!
So often our literacy teaching can involve teaching something and then quickly moving onwards; if we're not careful we can become driven only by narrowing the goal posts instead of giving time for re-adjustments and nurturing.
Letting children have time to draft, to change their minds and make mistakes is a crucial part of the writing process; if they aren't encouraged to make changes – to be told that changing your mind can be a good thing, they won't be experiencing the full writing experience and may furthermore be left disappointed with the end result.
What good is a story if it isn't going to be shared? As a whole school arrange when the stories can be read in assembly and where they can be displayed so that visitors, children and staff can all have a read. Designate time for feedback and perhaps do a story swap with another class and let the children do book reviews of eachother's stories.
• Phoebe Doyle is a former primary teacher who now writes on education, parenting and health issues. She's a parent of two young children and blogs and tweets @tremendously2
Read on the Guardian site.... http://www.guardian.co.uk/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2012/jun/07/creative-writing