Winners united by a love of stories
We all know that the sort of children who win the TES Write Away competition are not those who struggle to reach level 4 in the Sats. They all would have learned to read, however they were taught.
Nevertheless, in these overheated days of yet another phonics debate, I thought it would be interesting to ask some of them, just before they received their awards from celebrity judges poet Michael Rosen and the new Children's Laureate Jacqueline Wilson, what they could remember about learning to read.
Overwhelmingly, and unsurprisingly, they all loved stories from the youngest ages, and were enthusiastically read to by their parents. Lucy Coward, 13, of the Lady Eleanor Holles school in Middlesex, said her dad (also in attendance) read her Beatrix Potter every night when she was small, and (looking at him slyly) probably still would if she let him.
"What I like best about Beatrix Potter is that it has very sophisticated language but stories children can understand," she said.
"It's actual proper language, not just 'the cat saw the mouse'."
So, a vote for real books, then, rather than reading schemes? Not quite. "I have an early memory of my first kindergarten teacher," said Lucy. "We used to sit on the floor and she would hold up flash cards. I remember looking at them and thinking 'I know what this says'.
"We had displays on the wall and they put words with similar sounds together, like hat, sat, cat or look and cook. You had to remember where the letter was with which sound. I think I benefited a lot from that," she said.
Rupert Cebbell-Manners, 14, of Gresham's school in Norfolk, recalls the conflicting influences of a wonderful teacher and the attitudes of other boys: "Reading is very frowned-upon by your peers when you're seven."
Lauren Pigott, 13, of Oxford high school, said: "I remember exactly how I learned to read."
She is the sort of learner who inspired Frank Smith, the guru of the 1970s and 1980s, who believed children learned to read naturally, the way they learn to speak.
"When I first went to school I couldn't really read. It didn't occur to me," she said. Then Lauren's mum bought her the Oxford Reading Tree's Biff and Chip series of stories. "They go up in stages to teach kids to read," said Lauren. "I took it home. At first I was really slow. But after two days I got to the end."
Her mum added: "There was no phonics at all." But Lauren's brother had needed much more input to learn to read.
"I never learned any rules," said Lauren, whose story, Flight of Fancy, appeared in last week's TES Friday magazine as the secondary runner-up.
Even more exasperatingly, she has never had any trouble with spelling, despite the lack of phonics teaching. "I learned to spell from reading," she says.
But overt teaching of the structure of words could also be fun, according to some of the winners. Several, from private schools, spoke of "word tins", containing words and parts of words relating to the books they were reading, which they took home and used as flash cards.
"I quite enjoyed reading," said Marilyn Wilkinson, 13, of Queen Elizabeth grammar school, Lincolnshire. "It was fun to have my little word box."
And when the box was too full she had to have a folder. "I was proud of all the words I knew."
And as for experts who think that mastery of the mechanics of reading, without exciting content at the same time, is reward enough for a five-year-old, Emily Harbach, eight, of Beechwood Park school, St Albans, disagrees.
The reading books she had in reception were "really uninteresting books.
There was no point to them."
"She had those awful Roger Red Hat books," said her mum.
What really matters to these children in reading and writing is imagination, and that creative thinking was saluted by Michael Rosen in his presentation.
The original, evocative phrase (such as "I exploded into a series of gurgling giggles that bubbled up inside me like the bubbles in an Aero" to describe a first fireworks night) and the twists in the comedy: in a dangerous expedition to eradicate slugs "we attacked without mercy, leaping on to the advancing droves".
And finally, the free and wild life of the imagination, which can turn an ordinary back garden into anything you want.
All the 20 finalists' stories can be read at www.tes.co.uk; four winners and two runners-up were published in last week's Friday magazine. Write Away 2006, The TES autobiographical writing competition for seven to11-year- olds and 11 to 14-year-olds, will be launched on September 30 in Teacher magazine Write to email@example.com