'Editing kills primary pupils' love of writing'

We try to build up pupils' enthusiasm for writing in primary – and then destroy it by demanding multiple rewrites, says Jo Brighouse

Primary teacher Jo Brighouse says she rarely goes a day without reading poetry with her class

“What are we doing this lesson, Miss?” asked Archie, hopping excitedly next to me. “Can we carry on with our adventure stories?"

“Yes,” I said. “But first you’re going to edit the start of your stories from yesterday."

The hopping was immediately switched off and replaced with slumped shoulders and a groan.

I sympathised. Editing, for children, is the least attractive part of the writing process; it is the most difficult to get them on board with. Believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve modelled under a visualiser, played point-scoring games to find missing punctuation, given them Post-its, editing flaps and pens of every hue.  

But edit they must. Draft, edit, redraft, edit – it’s the only way. Or is it? If you are a child who is still learning how to write, is poring over your writing looking for mistakes you didn’t know you’ve made actually going to make you a better writer?

Why not just read it aloud to an audience? Children love this. They’re so desperate to do it I sometimes have to limit them to a paragraph each so we can get to lunch on time. It also helps them to spot mistakes they’d never notice if you just handed them the book and asked them to edit away.

Editing is miserable for pupils

Beyond proofreading, are all the ticklists and highlighters and peer-editing sessions really improving the writing skills of most children? Can children honestly rewrite a piece of work to improve its tone and make it “flow” without intensive adult support?

I once worked in a school where no piece of key stage 2 writing could be pronounced finished with fewer than four redrafts and a final copy. Nothing (and I mean nothing) kills a love of writing like this. Even our keenest wordsmiths were wrinkling their noses at the stench of four-day-old balanced arguments.

For a start, the medium is all wrong. Editing on a laptop, where you can rewrite the same sentence seven times, is pretty satisfying. Doing the same on a crammed page of already-marked work is plain miserable. It’s no wonder children who pride themselves on their neatness recoil at the prospect of all that crossing out and insertion.

And I haven’t even touched on the emotional cost. Editing can feel like an act of betrayal. I still remember being handed back my carefully constructed "Diary from the Trenches" by my Year 9 teacher who had angrily crossed out the sentence “the French were shelling us again” and written in triple underlined red pen “We were fighting the Germans not the French!”. She had completely missed the fact I was writing as a German soldier. This was nearly 30 years ago and I still haven’t recovered.

Writing is personal. Children invest in it. Many of them find it incredibly hard to do and when you’ve put a lot of effort into something, it’s disheartening to have that effort scrawled over with different coloured pens and comments for improvement. If they haven’t put the effort in, then asking them to throw in some expanded noun phrases is unlikely to improve matters.

Getting children to edit before they’re ready is counterproductive – a bit like trying to teach an emergent swimmer more advanced techniques while they’re spluttering in the deep end. As all good swimming teachers know, you don’t look back. You keep on swimming and improve your technique as you go.

Sometimes children’s creative-writing efforts should be celebrated for what they are – with a round of applause and a sticker. Because editing your own writing is never easy. If it was, I wouldn’t be emailing this off to a lovely Tes sub-editor who will work their magic on it until it’s fit for your eyes.

Jo Brighouse is a pseudonym for a primary teacher in the West Midlands

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