A recent report by the National Literacy Trust into child attitudes towards writing indicates that the number of children who write for pleasure is on the increase. This is undoubtedly a cause for celebration for those of us who write for joy, work or for any number of assorted reasons. However, for many pupils aged 8-18 years – almost half of those surveyed in fact – writing is still an activity that fails to capture the imagination and for some remains an unenjoyable slog. I can empathise with both the joyful and the joyless.
I often wonder how my former teachers who cajoled, bullied and dragged me by the pencil tip to produce writing of any quality might now feel if they knew that I enjoy writing as an adult. The laying down of words is no longer a chore, the need to write comes often. An author of articles and a book, I could even go as far as to call myself a writer.
I wonder how different it might have been for them and for me if I had been more willing to let those teachers fill me with relish for penning adventures of harvest mice in freshly-cut fields (I don’t like mice) or for dreaming up the recollections of a London child during the Blitz (I wasn’t there). It may certainly have been a more enjoyable experience for both parties.
For me now as a primary teacher and someone who specialises in the teaching of writing, enthusing a child to put pen to paper for the simple pleasure of being a storyteller is like hitting the professional jackpot. The memory of a young girl coming into class clutching a collection of stories that she’d written for her younger brother has stuck in my mind long after the details of her end of year assessments faded.
It is also not a surprise to realise that children who enjoy being creative with language outside of the classroom are generally better when writing in it. Indeed, the National Literacy Trust’s report found that children who write at home are seven times more likely to be above the age-related expectations in that subject. While the report recognises a rise in the number of children who write for fun, large numbers of children – notably boys of white British background – still have low levels of enjoyment and achievement when it comes to writing. These findings shouldn’t come as a surprise to teachers, and the National Literacy Trust deserves praise for highlighting the need for this gradually growing trend to continue. After all, writing is a ubiquitous and essential skill of adult life, one that ultimately allows access to society.
The aim now is for schools and practitioners to recognise the part they can play in developing children’s writing: one that will have benefits for the child in later life but will undoubtedly also improve children’s performance in school. But how can this happen when teachers’ desks are already groaning with the burdens of planning, marking and paperwork? How can classroom teaching most effectively guide children’s lives as writers?
To achieve this, a subtle shift needs to occur in classrooms, one that is achievable without great demands on school budgets and timetables. The teaching of writing – creative and otherwise – needs to evolve to allow children to recognise themselves as authors. Not just storytelling but someone with the skill to write for a real audience. The focus of teaching needs to shift from a pedagogy centred on form to one designed around purpose.
Writing form means, of course, the treadmill of writing staples that punctuate a child’s year in a classroom: a letter, a diary, a factual report, a story, a recount and so on. The first aspect of this pedagogical shift is for practitioners to judge whether this is still a relevant approach. The purposes for writing – to inform, to entertain, to instruct, to remember – if put first, frame writing in a context and give it a sense of direction. Discussing with our classes about whether a letter or a story is the more appropriate response to a text gives ownership of writing to pupils. When working with children, I often describe them as my publishing team – they are the writers and I am their editor – and our writing is always going somewhere: a script for a film; a story that will be recorded as an audiobook; a printed book for our school library; a parcel of stories sent to a pen-pal school in another country.
To build a classroom where writing is seen as an enjoyable exercise is to present it as relevant and useful. Producing writing that won’t be read by anyone other than a teacher, robbing it of purpose, is the first step to disengagement. For writers, seeing your work in print ready to be read still retains a certain magic, even for those with many years’ experience. As the traditional focus of writing in classrooms is the form rather than the purpose, is it any wonder that so many children still don’t find writing enjoyable?
This is not only a pedagogical shift but a mental shift, too. Many of the children I have worked with have already stumbled down the path to disengagement: turning to the dark side, if you will. For them writing is boring, a waste of time, not for them. “It doesn’t mean anything though does it?” one child said to me of writing as we met for the first time. I had a hard time convincing him that the stories we were writing were not for me but would be printed in a book for his school library so his classmates could read his suspenseful adventure of a man lost at sea. He still didn’t quite believe it until he was holding the book in his hands and the look on his face was unmistakable. His name inside the cover was proof: he was now an author.
The clincher for this shift towards seeing children as authors is that the revised national curriculum, much maligned for the premium placed on grammar and spelling, is actually well suited to supporting this approach. In the later years of primary education, children are expected to learn sophisticated tools of authorship to manipulate or influence a reader - the passive voice, using a range of punctuation, a flowing narrative and so on. Only children who see themselves as authors, as part of the process, can genuinely apply these skills.
So when you’re thinking of ways to get your class writing, let go of the traditional dynamic and try seeing yourself as the editor in front of your team of writers. By putting purpose first, sense and experience should tell us that engagement and enjoyment will follow, with independence not far behind.
Stefan Kucharczyk is a primary school teacher and a creative writing consultant based in Leeds