Pupils' 'ear for writing' as important as grammar, says expert

Academic who analysed great poets and novelists concludes that good writing is about noticing and appreciating language, as well as understanding the rules

Adi Bloom

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Developing an "ear for writing" is as important for pupils as learning the rules of grammar, a leading academic has said.

Dominic Wyse, professor of early childhood and primary education at the UCL Institute of Education, said that writing well is about learning to notice and appreciate language in use. This ear for writing is similar to the ear that musicians have for music.

“Teachers need to develop a set of understandings about how writing really works, and not base their teaching on skills and drills, to the exclusion of everything else,” he told Tes.

“Writing is a process that needs time for pupils to think and reflect, not just to be drilled.”

'Musical inevitability'

Professor Wyse, who has more than 20 years’ experience researching the teaching of reading, writing and creativity in schools, analysed the key influences of great poets and novelists of the past century.

His findings are published in a new book, How Writing Works, which he will be discussing today, at the annual British Educational Research Association conference.

He said: “I think effective writers have a strongly developed ear, which is about noticing how language is used in lots of different ways. It’s about noticing that language varies in different settings, and noticing the ways that newspapers and books lay out text.”

He found that Ted Hughes, Jack Kerouac, Haruki Murakami and William Faulkner were among the writers who mentioned links between music and their writing.

For example, beat writer Jack Kerouac compared his written sentences to the way that jazz saxophonists play: keeping going until they run out of breath.

Poet Ted Hughes, meanwhile, used music to discuss the way that TS Eliot wrote poetry: “The music of those words, the musical inevitability of the pitch, the pacing, the combination of inflections.”

How a writer constructs text

And horror writer Stephen King listened to pop music as a means to stimulate the pace of the plots in his writing.

Professor Wyse believes that this kind of ear for language can be taught. “When you’re reading, you sometimes read for sheer pleasure,” he said. “But, if you’re going to get better as a writer, you’re not just luxuriating in the experience – you’re looking at how the writer constructs text.”

“While you’re teaching, you can engage the pupils in the ways that make them think about this.”

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Adi Bloom

Adi Bloom is Tes comment editor

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