From The Editor - With words, children can power the universe

22nd February 2013 at 00:00

It's easy to forget amid the current panic over grammar that the study of English is not just about the proper place of the semi-colon or the avoidance of a dangling participle. It is, at its core, the study of power: the power of words to provoke, inspire, amuse and damn.

Potent language properly deployed lands jobs, conquers hearts and wards off traffic wardens. Those denied it are left, literally, impotent. The only known bit of humanity impervious to perfectly formed words precisely targeted is the call centre. All other forms of organisation quail before them; save perhaps tyrannies, and even they tremble at the right assortment. "We the people. " had a certain impact.

As teachers know, the easiest way to introduce children to the power of words is to acquaint them with authors who have already mastered the art. As teachers also know, forests will be felled to no effect to prove exactly who should be read. Arguments run without resolution over who gets to sit alongside Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Dickinson and Austen in canonical splendour.

Whatever the exact membership, Roald Dahl had it nailed: "So Matilda's strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone."

Equipped with sufficient grammar and well-nourished by the magic spun by others, our young Matildas should be able to parse and critique and be uplifted with the best of them. But what about creativity? Surely appreciating the brilliance of others isn't all that's required? Are we sufficiently good at helping children spin their own tales?

The Central Foundation Boys' School in London doesn't think so. A growing number of its pupils, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, gather every Monday after school to learn the art of creative writing from established authors.

Creative writing has something of an image problem. Some regard it as the mad woman in the English attic. When AQA introduced an A level in the subject recently, critics were dubious. Even though some teachers are clearly tempted by it, the difficulties of offering a course that isn't as straightforward as the regular meat-and-two-veg variety deter many others.

It generally seems to be easier to think of reasons not to run creative courses than to put them on. They don't fit neatly into our tick-box systems. They are dismissed as too unwieldy, too costly or, bizarrely, as a fraud because creative writing cannot be taught. Why one form of human achievement uniquely defies attempts at learning it, at least by some, is never explained. But the mantra is relentless: it's just too difficult.

That's not good enough. Fostering creativity isn't easy. But surely we shouldn't shy away from it because it's challenging to teach and assess? In the past few weeks a president has embarrassed a gun lobby with well- crafted words; a novelist's scything prose has exposed the rickety scaffolding underpinning our childish obsession with princesses. Nobody doubts the power of words. Children should be encouraged to take them for a test drive. Because they will never truly appreciate their power if they don't learn to own them.


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