Why fiction is a different story

26th May 2000 at 01:00
"So," I found myself saying to the in-service audience, "to improve their story-endings, get children to work out their last line first." Everyone nodded and wrote it down - another little trick to add to the class's SAT-writing repertoire.

As 2002 - when David Blunkett has pledged that 80 per cent of 11-year-olds will have achieved level 4 in English - looms ever nearer, the trade in such tricks grows.

A profession which until a couple of years ago recoiled in horror at the idea of "teaching to the tests" is now galvanised by targets, particularly writing targets. Children spend hours practising story- writing - working out five-point plans, refining beginnings and endings, learning how to develop character and move on the plot through dialogue. People like me churn out articles on "How to write a super SAT story" reducing the whole process to a formula. I keep wishing I could wake up and find it was all a dream...

This is not a SAT-knocking article. Literacy is an essential tool, upon which the rest of education depends, and we must do everything possible to ensure a high level of competence for all our 11-year-olds. SATs have made the profession more focused and less complacent, and helped us raise standards which in the mid-90s were often disgracefully low.

Nor do I wish to knock the Government's commitment to improved literacy standards - Blunkett's 2002 vow may be a gimmick, but it's led to an unprecedented level of interest in (and funding for) primary literacy, which has benefited children and teachers alike.

What I'm knocking is SAT story-writing. This particular element of literacy assessment not only leads to reductionist approaches to the teaching of writing but is also singularly pointless. Teachers now devote hours to providing tricks and formulae to help children write a well-rounded short story in 45 minutes. And the great question is "Why?" Short stories are notoriously difficult to write. A good short story i 45 minutes is probably impossible. And once they've left primary school, most children will never ever need to write a short story like that again. They will have to write non-fiction.

At secondary school, there will be science experiments, geography reports, technical explanations and historical accounts to write. Throughout their lives they will be at an advantage if they can express their opinions clearly in writing and frame a carefully-reasoned argument. So why don't we concentrate on non-fiction writing tasks for SATs? Non-fiction tricks are actually useful.

As for fiction writing, I'd drop it from SATs altogether - but without undermining its place and significance in the curriculum. Instead of those dratted formulaic story-writing lessons, we should provide time for good old-fashioned creative writing - opportunities for children to use writing to express their thoughts and emotions, make sense of their experiences, explore ideas and experiment with words.

Somehow, in the drive for literacy we've forgotten that language is not merely a practical tool. Like paint, music and movement, it's also a creative medium - one which children need a chance to explore. Human beings all have heads full of stuff that needs to be expressed and understood - writing is often a sort of salvation.

You can't test creative writing, but that doesn't make it any less important. Nor does commitment to it as part of the primary curriculum mean any less commitment to the teaching of spelling, punctuation, grammar and writing technique. Children can and should have both. But at the moment, there isn't time. They're too busy jumping through silly story-writing hoops, and working out their last line first.

Sue Palmer is an author and freelance in-service provider. Addit- ional copies of her book, A Little Alphabet Book, which is free with this month's TES Primary, are available from Oxford University Press for pound;4.99 (Tel:01865 556 767)

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