Frames can be too tight;Reviews;Literacy

19th March 1999 at 00:00
COLLINS PRIMARY WRITING: Teacher's Guide. Introductory Book. Books 1-4 By John Jackman and Wendy Wren. Collins. Teacher's guide. pound;34.99. Introductory book. pound;3.99. Books 1-4 pound;4.50.

Writing frames, providing structured prompts for children's writing, are an example of "scaffolding": the scaffolding of adult help provides external structure and support, while the child builds the conceptual structure within.

Prompts for writing have been around for ever. What is different about the present blooming of "writing frames" is the emphasis on system and structure. Fine, for the various forms of functional writing. Less fine, perhaps, for imaginative writing, because the prompts tend to be cliche-ridden. It's boring to start planning stories in terms of settings and characters. Where's the action?

What we know about real novelists and poets is that they rarely start with a plan, and that the writing is itself a journey of discovery. By the time a child has filled in "my story plan", "where, when and who" and "what will happen at the beginning, the middle and the end", what is the point of writing the story? It is already a dead duck.

Scaffolds and frames can be liberating, but they can work like prison bars, constraining and limiting freedom of development. We have to know when to take them away.

Collins Primary Writing, claiming to be a complete course for six to 11-year-olds, not only uses writing frames, but is itself a frame for the teaching of writing. It has both the positive and negative aspects of its kind: it is structured and supportive, providing succinct pointers to teaching, and spelling out its links with the National Literacy Strategy. However, though systematic and comprehensive, the materials are stereotyped (after all, frames are stereotypes). Just as writing frames are most valuable to children of average and below average abilities, so the scaffolding here will be most valuable to teachers who are inexperienced or insecure.

Of its kind, Collins Primary Writing is sound and supportive, but to claim completeness is excessive.

Nicholas Bielby

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