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Ministerial egos beget sloppy writers

Here's a quiz question for you. Who said the following and about whom did they say it? "Their syntax and grammar are sloppy; they have sentences that draggle all over the place, you can see whole pages without paragraphs, and as for speech punctuation - I don't know what's happened to that!"

No, it wasn't written by the usual antediluvian suspects who love sniping at teachers, but by respected children's author Yvonne Coppard, and she was describing university students. All over the country, teachers are voicing the same concerns. Why are so many of our youngsters struggling to express themselves clearly?

The quotes come from the "Writing Matters" report. The students Coppard and other authors worked with are the products of recent educational practice.

Never has the curriculum been more prescriptive, never have teachers worked so hard, and yet rarely has children's ability to express themselves clearly in extended composition appeared weaker.

Let's make one thing clear. Teachers aren't to blame. They've jumped through a thousand hoops in recent years, many of them blazing with the fires of ministerial egos. A huge amount of the stuff teachers are forced to do is muddle-headed and pointless.

Let's start at the beginning. What makes you a literate individual? I think it goes like this. As a child, family members introduce you to songs, rhymes and poems. This teaches you how language works. Changes in the way we live (pace of life, electronic media, diet), expertly set out in Sue Palmer's book Toxic Childhood, have resulted in a record number of children starting school with expressive language difficulties.

How can we make up the deficit? We could start by getting them listening carefully and speaking clearly. That means providing experiences that may have been neglected. Children need a varied and engaging diet of conversations, rhymes, traditional tales, songs, poems, jokes and riddles.

Whisper it, English has to be fun. Yet for years we have subjected children to a stale diet of literacy hours, premature targets and inappropriate tests. Indispensable story times were put under pressure in the pursuit of those ubiquitous standards. Next, we could get them reading. Three things make you a good writer: reading, reading and reading. Astonishingly, in the lifetime of the National Literacy Strategy school spending on books has fallen 15 per cent in real terms. Ring-bound document folders do not teach children to read. Clear, agreed reading strategies, allied to a feast of great stories and poems, do.

Once we have them reading, let's keep them reading. Let's stop a minority of misguided secondary headteachers shutting down school libraries or sneakily allowing them to wither before replacing them with ICT suites.

Don't they know that books are twice as effective at raising standards as computers? Don't they know you have to be able to read to use a computer? Don't they know that reading for pleasure is the single biggest guarantor of academic success?

Finally, we could allow teachers the freedom to teach children how to write. Why not just give teachers a brief, achievable list of what children have to know to be literate, no more than a couple of pages of A4 setting out the nuts and bolts of effective writing and say, go on, you're free, achieve it by any means necessary? Create a diet of imaginative writing activities. Demonstrate grammar and syntax in the context of enjoyable lessons, based on a rich diet of reading. Sometimes, who knows, you could let the children choose what to write about. Remember when we did that? I'm sure that, offered such a regime in exchange for rigorous inspection of the quality of the children's learning, teachers would leap at it.

The evidence appears to show that creative writing has declined, mainly because of the changes in modern living. The misnamed drive for standards has failed to rectify the situation. Surely it's time to change direction? We have nothing to lose but our incoherence.

Alan Gibbons' latest novel Rise of the Blood Moon is published by Orion Children's Books

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