On crafting and drafting

26th May 2000 at 01:00
Martin Tibbetts of NATE argues that extended writing is at risk in the dash to achieve results.

Sir, can I finish my writing tomorrow?" asks a pupil. "No! You should have done that in the independent group work. Today's learning objective is to analyse how individual paragraphs are structured in writing (National Literacy Strategy, Year 6, term two, text level 2) and tomorrow we are going to 'recognise how poets manipulate words' (TL3). That is after we have looked at and explained the meanings and origins of proverbs (word level 6) and revised work on complex sentences (sentence level 3)."

"But I haven't finished the story, sir!" "What do you mean? You've had 20 minutes like everybody else. I'm just wondering how to make meaningful to you the connections between the proverbs, complex sentences and manipulation of words in poems." Do poets manipulate? I thought poetry was a craft.

Also, how is it that literacy strategy columns 1 and 2, particularly for Year 6, seem to be detached from the text level column? Eighteen months on and the weaknesses of the strategy are becoming apparent. It has done wonders to address range and genre, and there is clear evidence that reading has moved forward. The concern revolves around extended writing.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority would argue that extended writing is still part of the entitlement curriculum as laid down in the new Order. But by which curriculum are schools judged? It is not the extended piece of writing that makes the league table. In Year 6, term three, 20 minutes becomes an hour (15 minutes of planning and 45 minutes of frantic SAT writing to generate the all-important level 4). There is a danger that the notion that writing is a 20-minute activity will become part of the mindset of KS2 pupils.

The National Association for the Teaching of English's millennium conference at Swanwick focused on the art of writing, with two authors demonstrating thir craft. The audience was taken through the creative and at times tortuous process of a writer perfecting his craft for his audience. Quality writing is not the result of a "20-minute literacy hour culture". As teachers of English we knew that, but needed reminding that drafting, redrafting, and making time to step back from the canvas is all part of the writer's art.

I was privileged to be included in the panel which judged KS23 entries to the 2000 Write Away competition, which is jointly sponsored by NATE, The TES and McDonald's. I was looking forward to the KS2 entries but could not conceal my disappointment with the majority of the scripts. Something has gone desperately wrong with extended writing.

There is a real danger that, in our manic dash to achieve level 4 and above at the end of KS2, the pupils are losing touch with the notions of purpose and audience and that a piece of text is designed to make a difference to the reader. Her Majesty's Inspectorate is ringing similar alarm bells.

The strategy is set to move into KS3. A fourth column has been added to include speaking and listening with a sub-set called drama. Summer schools will have identified the level 3 pupils who will have their writing skills targeted in Year 7. But remember, the KS2 results are an amalgamation of spelling, reading, writing and handwriting. Some of the safe level 4s may not be that secure. A good reading grade could disguise a level 3 in writing.

Above all, we need to use the literacy strategy flexibly. Let us not "manipulate" but give pupils time to "dwell on the ball" and experiment creatively while remembering that the best quality writing is witnessed when the real purpose and audience are clear to the student.

Martin Tibbetts is head of Cheslyn Hay primary school, Staffs, and chair of NATE, 50 Broadfield Road, Sheffield, South Yorkshire S8 0XJ. Tel: 0114 255 5419. E-mail: natehq@btconnect.comwww.nate.org.uk

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