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‘Primary writing should be about creativity, not Spag’

Worried about primary writing becoming increasingly ‘formulaic’, this retired head came up with an inspirational plan

Primary writing

Worried about primary writing becoming increasingly ‘formulaic’, this retired head came up with an inspirational plan

Imagine a gleaming Cadillac with four enormous teddy bears as its passengers. This is a sight that you certainly wouldn’t see every day – but what might be the story here?

This a question that one retired headteacher is putting to Year 6 pupils around the world, as part of a project called 100 Word Challenge.

Children are provided with writing prompts and asked to respond creatively. Their work is then uploaded to an online platform to be read and commented on by people from all over the world.

So far, pupils’ stories have received constructive and encouraging feedback from as far afield as Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Serbia. But there’s a catch: the finished stories can only be 100 words long.

The 100 Word Challenge was started by former headteacher Julia Skinner who, after 20 years of working in education, found herself bored with retirement. She turned to blogging as a way to stay connected to the world of education, but decided that instead of writing the posts herself, pupils should write them.

From this, the 100 Word Challenge was born. Skinner now receives 2,000 hits from all over the world, every single week.

More motivation

So how exactly does the challenge work? And how can teachers get their classes involved? It’s quite straightforward, says Skinner.

“I have three different types of prompts teachers can choose from: picture prompts, parts of a sentence or five individual words. The idea is that the young writers have to engage with the prompts and produce a piece of writing that’s around 100 words,” she explains.

“Once they’ve produced that piece of writing, it’s published on their class blog – or if they don’t have a class blog, I have others they can use. After that, it’s linked to the 100 Word Challenge website.”

Once stories are posted on the website, a team of volunteers from across the world (sourced by Skinner) read the posts and leave encouraging comments for the pupils to read.

“It’s these comments that make such a difference,” she says. "These pupils’ audience is the world, and this really motivates them – especially the reluctant ones. They see the idea of some bloke in Australia replying to their work as absolutely astonishing."

Eleven-year-old Zac from Mil Lel Primary School in Australia says it makes his day when he reads a comment on his work.

“It feels really nice and when you get a compliment on something it makes you feel really amazing, and it brightens up your day so much when it happens,” he says.

His classmate, Ashley, agrees and says the comments make her want to work harder.

“I like to receive the feedback in ways that it helps me improve,” she says. "Like, if somebody says that it doesn’t make sense in one of my sentences, then I know not to do that next time. I like receiving comments saying that my story is amazing, or that they hope there is a part two.

“I also like writing my best to try to get showcased because it’s like a bar I’m trying to jump over and it also makes me write to my best every time."

The showcasing that Ashley is referring to is reserved for the pieces that really wow the readers, explains Skinner.

“The showcase is a marvellous list of pieces I publish on the blog each week, which volunteers have identified as being really brilliant. If you’re on that list, your teacher can get in touch with me and I send off certificates. I’ve been in classrooms where there’s a huge drive for getting on to that list each week,” she says.

Writing is not a 'chore'

Emmanuelle Pratt, Zac and Ashley’s classroom teacher, says that she’s seen a real improvement in the way the children engage with writing since introducing the 100 Word Challenge.

“The impact I have seen is in their motivation to produce an impactful piece [and] in their enjoyment of writing; it is not a chore anymore. They need to capture the reader quickly so their writing becomes more targeted and interesting. They love receiving feedback and most take it on board rather seriously,” she says.

“One-hundred words is not very many, which is motivating and fun for the kids. It helps with cutting out the irrelevant, boring parts of their writing. I use it not only in the way it comes (with a prompt), but I also add whatever writing technique we have been focusing on at the time, for example, an interesting start, show don’t tell, dialogue, etc.”

In his country, Pratt finds the challenge manageable to fit into her everyday teaching. But with Spag and Sats ruling primaries in the UK, is there the space on the curriculum for the challenge?

Yes, says primary teacher Liam Murphy: “It is a quick, standalone task that can be slotted in anywhere in the week. The prompt is written for you. You need access to an internet-enabled device per child and off you go. They can write what they want. They often amaze me! I'm not asking for a poem, a non-chronological report or type of narrative. I just want them to write and make it interesting.”

Getting pupils to complete challenges regularly helps Murphy to see what individuals need to work on – something that could ultimately support their performance in Sats.

“This year, for one pupil, it was story openings,” he says. “I realised he'd started more than 20 blog posts in exactly the same way.”

Meanwhile, Skinner believes that it is essential to allow pupils the time to write creatively without the pressures of making spelling, punctuation and grammar perfect.

“I feel quite passionately that writing in the UK is almost becoming formulaic, as maths is," she says. "Spag [spelling, punctuation and grammar] is all well and good, but there’s no time for the youngsters to just write creatively.

“I want to say to the education minister, what is the point of them doing Spag if they are never going to use it in creative writing? The 100 Word Challenge is my rant against authority, as it were. I say to staff: when you are doing your Spag, use the 100 Word Challenge as the practice. Because it’s only 100 words, when it’s put into the timetable, pupils find that it's light relief against this formulaic approach we have in schools at the moment."

If you want to be involved in the 100 Word Challenge as a volunteer, or want to take part with your class, visit 100wc.net for more information

Kate Parker is online and social media writer for Tes

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