Tomorrow's treasures

27th April 2007 at 01:00
Pie Corbett, who is giving The TES keynote speech at the Early Years Primary Teaching show, reveals some of his methods for inspiring pupils

Children write best about what they know and what matters to them. But over the past 10 years, teachers have used starting points for writing the "model" text. Too often this has led to writing that lacks depth and originality. Of course, children's writing is influenced by what they read.

When I was 10, my stories were distinctly Enid Blyton-esque, with characters on holiday by the sea with dogs called Scamp, discovering treasure in caves.

However, the tyranny of the writing model has led us to a situation where non-fiction writing is cloned across the country. All the writing follows the same pattern, uses the same language features and has little sense of the child's voice or originality. We now write to a formula, like painting by numbers, and I wonder if following rules may be making writing harder rather than easier.

The vein of reading needs to be deep and rich. Class novels, picture books, poem of the day, stimulating non-fiction, theatre visits and using films as a source for interpretation, writing in role and drama - all act as a powerful bank of language and possibilities. Readers internalise a sense of what is elegantly constructed and powerfully written.

Are children avidly reading in our schools? Are they tussling with worthwhile stories and poems that will resonate in their minds forever? Or are teachers hopping from one thing to another like rocks in a shallow stream, as we dip and weave through an overloaded curriculum?

I recently ran a day-long gifted and talented workshop for able writers from primary schools. We had been looking at photographs of bees on the interactive whiteboard. They were taken close up so that the eyes bulged.

Reid, a 10-year-old boy from Northleach C of E Primary, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, began his poem like this: "Cloudy petals lie, drowsy, sleeping Pollen rests, conscious of its fragile beauty".

How is it that Reid, probably unconsciously, selected the words "cloudy"

and "drowsy", creating an internal echo where the slow, soft vowel sounds pillow the sentence? And then he followed this with "sleeping" where the "ee" slows the line further. Not surprisingly, Reid reads. Perhaps this has helped him acquire a sensitive ear so he can hear whether a line works or not.

He can make judgments. Of course, if you haven't read beautiful writing then it is impossible to write beautifully. And what are we to make of a 10-year-old who writes: "Pollen rests, conscious of its fragile beauty"? Or who rounds off his poem with an extended metaphor, saying: "The bee is a master of disguise hiding in the autumn brown of a fragile leaf camouflaging himself in the gold of the sleeping pollen secretly lying in the cover of blossoming flowers."

It made me wonder how a boy like Reid will fare when presented with Sats or the new idea of testing when children are ready. Surely writing of this order suggests a sensitivity towards language, the ability to observe, feel and celebrate the essence of experience. It is a far stretch from being asked to write a police report about an accident that never happened.

Igniting writing involves children becoming writers. They should keep a journal and get into the habit of collecting words and noticing ideas, jotting down phrases and lines that might prove useful. They need to become word searchers as well as being observers of the world. Writers are good at looking. They notice the details that suggest something deeper, the details that illuminate.

Providing interesting writing tasks is essential to motivate children. The interactive whiteboard is ideal for capturing attention and staging writing. Video clips, images and voices can be drawn together to create miniature sequences that fire the imagination. They need sharks that glide, buried treasure to find, a Loch Ness monster to discuss and Atlantis to visit.

I wonder, too, if many boys ignore writing because the tasks are lifeless and the writing leads nowhere. It stays trapped inside an exercise book with the teacher spitting from the margins. Strange, because modern technology has made it so easy to publish posters, booklets, anthologies - let alone blogs, websites or creating multi-media texts with sound, video, images and writing.

The new Primary Framework is an invitation for teachers to use their creativity and imagination to make the classroom an exciting place. Go create Pie Corbett is a literacy consultant. He is speaking on primary writing today and tomorrow at the Early Years Primary Teaching show, G-Mex Centre, Manchester, April 27-28

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