The Conversation: Children's writing

14th December 2007 at 00:00
A new project is aiming to fire pupils' enthusiasm for the written word by first igniting passion in their teachers. Its creator, Pie Corbett, tells Huw Thomas how the scheme works.Q: Some of my teachers went on your Sheffield Writing Project course and, when they came back, changed their planning. Are you fomenting revolution?

A: We are trying to find out what helps children develop as writers. My feeling is that many teachers lack confidence in shared writing and many children do not enjoy it. So in the first session, we focused on short-burst poetic writing, based on the poetry progression that accompanies the new framework.

I asked the teachers to concentrate on developing pleasure in language-play and acute observation skills. The roots of creative writing lie in the ability to generate ideas and select words, creating inventive and truthful combinations. We used writing journals to develop a sense of excitement about creativity.

Teachers should feel free to bring their own imagination to planning, combined with using what happened in lesson one to help drive what happens in lesson two.

Q: And what are you looking for as an "end product"?

A: The Sheffield project is a collaboration between the local authority, 40 schools and myself. I also work with schools in other authorities, such as Gloucestershire. Our aim is to improve writing standards. I believe we will achieve this by developing teachers' own confidence as writers. Each school has at least one writing coach. Our focus is to develop communities of writers, with the children as poetry performers, storytellers and communicators.

Q: You've titled the course "Igniting Boys' Writing". Why boys?

A: Well, in common with many places round the world, statistics show that boys are lagging behind. We began by surveying the children about their reading and writing, which highlighted key points for development - for instance, the majority are not read to at home regularly. How can you write beautifully if you never read beautiful language? So, we established a daily reading aloud programme.

Many boys don't enjoy writing. Too many find transcriptional skills difficult, which hinders their ability to compose. I started with short-burst writing because boys are minimalists, and to generate a sense of success. My experience is that boys are good at poetic invention.

Q: I'm definitely seeing that with some of our boys, who have written some really moving poetry. How did you get that out of them?

A: Yes, one Year 5 boy wrote an outstanding poem based on Kit Wright's Magic Box, packed with stunning imagery and emotion. But his narrative is a scruffy level 2. In poetic writing he has a touch of creative genius, while in narrative he is a contender for special needs.

The most proficient writers are greedy readers. Passionate, avid reading helps us to internalise language and possibilities - it strengthens imagination. It's why Ted Hughes read a Shakespeare play every day, and why TS Eliot suggested we read great writers aloud - so the words enter the linguistic and emotional world of the writer.

Young writers should begin with handling words, then sentences - overall control of structure comes last. Perhaps all the frames, grammar checklists and reminders make writing more difficult.

Q: There - got you! Now be honest, you've been an Ofsted inspector and literacy consultant, yet here you are questioning those frames. Gamekeeper turned poacher?

A: If teachers can't experiment, we'll never move forwards. We're trying to discover how to unlock creativity, how to develop confidence as a writer, how to draw on reading to enhance writing, how to think like a writer, bring ideas into being, then shape them powerfully and purposefully. It's a lot to orchestrate.

Progress is related to the quality of teaching. I've been lucky to see some breathtaking teaching - and I'd like everyone to reach the stars. No one should be blamed for trying to help children write. It seems to me better to try and fail than to sit on the sidelines sniping.

Pie Corbett is a literacy consultant.

Huw Thomas is headteacher of Emmaus Catholic and CofE Primary School in Sheffield.

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