Save pupils from the purple prose monster

22nd May 2009 at 01:00
A novelist fears primary schools have gone too far in encouraging children to use formulaic `wowtastic' words

Have you had a wonderful, amazing, exciting week? Perhaps you visited an excellent, terrific, marvellous, fantastic friend, then watched a terrifying, horrible, menacing movie? Did you wear your lovely, incredible, fabulous trousers?

For years, there's been a purple blizzard whirling through primary creative writing. It's hailing down "wow words", battering everything ordinary into - well, often something utterly bewildering.

As a novelist living in Birmingham, I teach creative writing regularly in the city and around the country. I visit schools as part of schemes such as those run by Creative Partnerships, Everybody Writes and Write On. According to many teachers, children - especially boys - now find writing hard and dull, and the hope is that a real writer in the classroom will reinvigorate a child's enthusiasm.

This aim of allowing children to work with writers "in and beyond the classroom" was reinforced last month by Sir Jim Rose's primary review. The relationship between writer and child is full of exciting possibilities, and yet I'm increasingly aware of an odd paradox: what we as professional writers actually do - looking, imagining and risking - and the tightly structured way children explore writing within the literacy framework. Consequently, the children I meet are quirky and weird and wonderful as ever, but their writing swings wildly between the flat and formulaic and the overblown and manic.

What's happened?

In most primary classrooms, the first thing you see is the VCOP pyramid - vocabulary, connectives, openings, punctuation. This monster usually has a wall to itself and looks like something you might see in an accountancy firm, with its layers and targets, squiggles and symbols.

It seems to work, though. Certainly, by Year 3 many of the stories I read start with "suddenly".

Every sentence by Year 4 has at least three adjectives, and there are many furrowed brows as six-year-olds try to change the first word that comes to mind for a better one. One teacher recently explained why her Year 2 class speak so hesitantly - they are trying to remember to squeeze in their adjectives and connectives.

The more able - usually girls - soon learn that writing in class must first and foremost glitter and sparkle and then, to ensure extra marks in Sats, sparkle some more. The least able - often boys - just give up.

It makes me want to shout some very wowish expletives. Not least because real writers don't write this way. It's not possible. When I studied for my MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, our tutor, Andrew Motion, spoke of prose as being like a clear pane of glass through which we see the world simply and clearly.

He reminded us that good writing looks like water but tastes like gin. We were trying to do the opposite of "wowtastic" writing.

In primary literacy, what matters to the real writer - the true, the funny, the revealing, the touching - has been dangerously distorted.

The emotional purpose of creative writing, to communicate one individual's unique experience to another, has been sidelined. The aim is not to treasure and strengthen a child's unique voice, to distinguish and celebrate their personal experience - it is to get them to push on, with grim determination, up the blasted VCOP pyramid.

When did we stop trying to use creative writing to get to the heart of what a child wants and needs to say? It doesn't help that emotional communication has been spliced off into the mysterious curriculum for Seal (social and emotional aspects of learning). Once upon a time, creative writing was the SEAL curriculum. When it works, it still is.

I suspect a contributing factor to the decline in the confidence of school writing is a fear of failure within education. Every artist knows that you have to risk failure in order to create significant work, but in many schools this is just too dangerous. In schools with the highest reputation, there is less reliance on these dreary literacy techniques. But in failing schools, where the pupils and teachers are already condemned in so many ways, teachers can't be creatively daring because they can't afford to fail again. The one advantage of VCOP writing is that it is very markable.

Thankfully, many brilliant teachers have got wise to this, and I was heartened by the renewed emphasis in Sir Jim's review on drama, role-play and imagining. The suggestions for using film and digital technology are potentially inspiring. The children I work with love devising radio plays, writing scripts and recording themselves on video.

Many primary teachers are already returning to drama, sensory perception and original personal writing to coax from a child work that is poignant and tender and affecting. Often there is not a wow word in sight. Sometimes experiences are even allowed to be just nice or boring. These teachers, like professional writers, understand that looking and listening are at the heart of creative writing. Like fine poets, the best teachers start their children's writing journey with careful observing and thinking and playing, and the words come later, and stronger.

For an old example of this, look back 40 years to Ken Loach's 1969 film Kes. Remember the scene in which the English teacher (Colin Welland) encourages Billy to speak about his kestrel. The teacher is gently interested in the grubby kid, the disaffected boy wants to communicate his passion, and through this connection the class is spellbound by words. Perhaps Sir Jim could video-clip this scene to the "understanding English and communication" section of the review.

Writing can be a truly transformative art. When delivered in a fresh, artistic way, children will seize on writing as they do art and drawing and dancing, because it allows them to become more fully themselves, more original and stylish and daring. Let's hope the primary review means we are at last choosing this for them - above the fantastic, amazing and incredible.

Spilt Milk, Black Coffee is published this month by Bloomsbury.

Helen Cross, Author of the novels `My Summer of Love' and `Spilt Milk, Black Coffee'.

Related content:

Creative Writing Imaginative Stories


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