2B or not 2B?

5th July 1996 at 01:00
Infants write in an uninhibited way about a world which is at the same time mystifying and simple. They perform amazing acts of bravery, go on adventures with their favourite characters from books and films, travel to other galaxies and still come home in time to have supper and go to bed.

In the past few weeks I've collected 32 stories from the six and seven-year-olds I teach. But instead of entering their world and appreciating their insight and creativity I found myself trapped in a different mode. I scanned their work for full stops and capital letters in the right places. I looked, often in vain, for sentence connectives. Has Tim managed to avoid putting a capital letter in the middle of a word? Can I find some "descriptive phrases" in Katherine's story? Can I honestly say that there is sufficient variation in her sentence structures and word choices?

I had to be so demanding about these aspects because these were not my usual batch of stories, but the products of my class grappling with the national curriculum key stage 1 writing "task". Usually I consider whether their writing matches up to their potential and whether they are progressing. This time I had to ask myself: how does it match up to the "Performance Descriptions" drawn up by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority for each level?

It is assumed that a majority of children will find themselves within level 2, with budding Shakespeares at level 3 and perennial strugglers at level 1. To help teachers differentiate the all right, quite all right and very all right, we are given three grades to award: level 2A, level 2B and level 2C. And that is how I found myself pondering 2B or not 2B?

Working through their tales of dinosaurs and teddy bears, space travel and football, romance and war, I alighted on Edwina's in which she is arguing vehemently with her mum that she doesn't want to go and visit granddad. "Communicates meaning in a way which is lively," asserts level 2A. "No, no, no," replies Level 2C, "it draws more on the characteristics of spoken language than on written language." Before it is resolved, level 2B chips in: "I want to see some sentences extended and linked through connectives other than 'and'. "

Some of the most engaging writing my class has produced this year was unashamedly in "spoken language" style - punchy, lively, sharp, funny, natural language, recalling real, everyday experiences and reactions. To discourage that in the name of good or proper language education is nonsense.

In a class where children value the written word and where 40 per cent achieved level 3 in the reading test, I found a very different story when it came to assessing the writing test. Children were prevented from achieving the levels that their efforts and enthusiasm deserved by heavy-handed, prescriptive, class-biased notions of literacy achievement.

Every piece of creative writing combines the originality of composition with accepted norms of transcription. To encourage infants to express themselves through writing, many teachers emphasise composition, knowing that they can teach the more complicated conventions of the language gradually and methodically over several years. Some children, and not necessarily the most imaginative, will assimilate these conventions more quickly than others.

SCAA presents its assessment criteria as fostering a balance between the compositional and transcriptional elements. In reality, every statement assessing the composition seems deliberately vague. For example, "communicating meaning beyond a simple statement", or "sufficient detail is given to engage the reader". Meanwhile, every statement about transcription is unambiguous: "ascenders and descenders distinguished" and "capital letters and full stops to mark correctly structured sentences".

Colleagues in other schools agree that the "Performance Descriptions" for writing seem designed to downgrade the achievement of children rather than acknowledge their burgeoning ideas and talents. Through the assessment criteria SCAA is engineering a set of "poor" results that will be seized on by tabloid editors and politicians who will then use that most effective of modern language conventions - the soundbite - to damn teachers and pupils alike.

We ought to be cherishing the written efforts of six and seven-year-olds, not burdening them with rigid judgments. We should give them the tools they need to improve and enrich their writing and show them how language conventions can help them in this process, but not in a way that will stifle their creativity and dampen their enthusiasm. Yesterday some of my children came to the front of the class to read their stories. The others listened in silence then buzzed with questions: "Why did he do that?" "What happened when the police came?" "What's a blueprint?" I chimed in with them, but should I instead have been saying: "Hang on, where are your sentence connectives?" David Rosenberg is Year 2 teacher and language post-holder at Hanover Primary School, Islington, north London

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