Telling tales and making up stories

6th October 2000 at 01:00
Antony Lishak explains why he advises young authors to tell a few lies...

One teacher I know described trying to get her normally bright 10-year-olds to write a story as like setting fire to a pile of ashes. Why is story writing such a problem? Why are children so keen to spin a yarn in the playground, and so reluctant to do it on pape? Why do so many teachers tell me that when it comes to marking they are likely to pour themselves a stiff drink before embarking on a pile of 30 stories?

I was a primary teacher for 15 years before I left to pursue a career as a children's author. NowI have returned to school as a visiting author invited in to talk to primary children about the process of writing and inspire them to try for themselves. In the past three-and-a-half years I have visited more than 450 schools and have been amazed by the enthusiasm and expertise children can show.

Why do we ask children to write stories? I have often posed this question in staff-rooms. More and more I get asked into schools because "we've got to work on our level 3s" or "OFSTED has identified writing in key stage 2 as a major weakness", or "because they need to do it for SATs". No wonder the results are so uninspiring.

People tell stories because they want others to listen. The purpose of writing a story is the knowledge that someone is going to read it. That is, not just to cast a tired eye over it and litter it with red ticks; I mean react to it, as children are expected to react to the chosen texts in literacy hour.

If you want your pupils to be enthusiastic writers then you must respond to their writing as an enthusiastic reader. Laugh if they have tried to be funny, gasp if they have tried to be shocking, be appalled if they have tried to be revolting. Children have to see that their words can illicit a reaction in their reader. This is even more apparent when a friend reads their work. The approval or constructive criticism of a trusted classmate carries more weight than the response of a teacher.

"Why do you write stories?" I have asked numerous children. "Because we get told to!" they reply. How depressing: "write a story" s code for "fill a page with ink, keep it neat, check your spellings and sprinkle in lots of impressive punctuation". A canny Year 4 child once confided: "I never write more than a page. She always makes you write it out again - it takes ages."

Children should be encouraged to draw on their own experiences when writing stories, as authors do. We take familiar events and expand on them. We try to make sense of the world by taking what is normal and distorting it until it becomes remarkable in some way. This is the approach I use in schools.

"Think of the things you know about. The things you see or hear every day. The things that get you worked up. The argument you had with your brother, the time your sister hid the remote control. The time you got the blame for something you did not do. Or the time you did something wrong and someone else got the blame." If you want children to write you have to give them confidence to delve into their own lives for ideas.

But (and this is the crucial ingredient) encourage them not to be afraid to make it up. Start from something that has happened to you and then exaggerate, fabricate, invent new outcomes. "They used to call me a tell-tale when I was a child," I say. "What do I do now? I tell tales, I put them in books and they pay me for it." There is nothing more liberating for a child then to be encouraged to lie!

Does it really matter that children are losing the ability to write stories? Yes, it does. Children who are given the time and encouragement to explore their own experiences in their writing start to develop a distinct voice on paper. They become able to express themselves in writing in a far more lucid way than they could verbally. They realise that the voice they have on paper is a more considered voice. Writing can be redrafted and revised; it is not restricted by the need to be immediately understood, as speech is. And, used regularly, it becomes a powerful tool of communication. To deny children the opportunity to find their own voice on paper is tantamount to gagging them.

To contact Antony Lishak, tel: 0208 441 6953. E-mail:

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