You don't inspire good writing by chasing full stops

27th March 2009 at 00:00

I am a headteacher who writes children's books. I like writing, and it comes quite naturally. One thing I've discovered since my writing career began is how a book develops. If you want to get published these days, it's a good idea to get an agent. You can try sending your manuscript directly to a publisher, but it probably won't be read. If you send it to an agent, it still might not be read but it stands a greater chance. Once an agent reads what you do - and likes it - he or she may ask you to make a few changes. Those "few changes" may take a year; an agent is always very busy. Mine asked me to redraft my work three or four times before she was prepared to present my book to a publisher. Even after it was accepted, I had to redraft it six or seven more times. And then it had to be edited.

Now think about what happens in class. A child may write a story in 30 minutes. I know plenty who can turn one out in less than that. But we ask for a redraft and the child moans. We look for ways of improving that piece of writing: What about capital letters? And what about a full stop? Could we have one of those, too, please? And we get a snort.

The pressure for children to write at length, especially towards the end of key stage 2, is partly a hangover from Sats testing when we marshalled children into producing three pages of A4 in less than an hour. But the pressure also comes from less obvious sources. At the end of a term, parents expect to see children's books full - not with notes and jottings, but with carefully constructed prose. Anything less means their child is probably not being taught well enough. Of course, what most parents complain about is their child's handwriting. I always nod when I hear this: "I know," I'll say, "I can't read a word of it." Or "You should see mine!"

Writing is a craft - it can't be rushed. It takes years to understand how to write, and then decades to get close to getting it right. Perfection takes many lifetimes.

The other day I asked a class to describe a scene from Dick King-Smith's The Sheep-Pig in which Farmer Hogget reluctantly has to shoot his beloved pig. I asked the children to write a few paragraphs from the perspective of the disconsolate farmer.

One Year 6 child, not normally noted for his prose, described Hogget's ordeal with great feeling. It was an astonishing and moving account. He read it aloud to the class and the child almost sobbed. As he sat down, he said: "I knew how to do that - I felt that way when my dog died."

His punctuation isn't too good, and - sorry, mum and dad - his handwriting is shocking. His spelling is a bit flimsy too. But what emotion and insight!

If I were cornered into giving it a level, he would be lucky to scrape a four. But I'm not cornered, so someone else can do the dirty work. Me? I'm in the enviable position of being able to say: "Extraordinary writing, exceptional, excellent!" and just leave it at that. You should have seen the smile on his face.

But I can hear the whispers: I know the Assembly government is concerned that teachers aren't taking "levelling" seriously. The government scrapped Sats, now they do a back flip and ask for more rigour in assessments. We could just tell them something like: "We're doing great, thanks, now sod off." But I don't think that would wash.

My point is this: when a piece of writing is good, it's often because a child has found a way of expressing something of themselves, and their spirits have been raised a little too. It isn't about remembering to use a capital letter at the start of a sentence, a full stop at the end and all that stuff. That will come, in time.

The recently published Children's Society report, A Good Childhood, is damning of this country's selfish, greedy and competitive culture. As a result, children in the UK are the unhappiest of any of the world's richest nations. There are many reasons for this, of course, but the report points a rather large finger at a relentless system of school testing and assessment. We all know that, in the past few years, the teacher's role has been far less that of nurturer and more that of assessor. And, to assess with rigour, the parameters have to be strict, which means that the true quality of a piece of work, particularly writing, gets squeezed out. The arid husk of a pupil's work is all we can assess; the rich seeds of feeling that gave rise to it are cast aside.

What's good about a piece of writing is often ineffable, not always measurable. I know what it is, but you might not agree. This makes the assessment of writing extremely difficult. Which is why the powers that be would rather we count the full stops and spelling mistakes than look for writing of true quality.

But teachers shouldn't be there to fuss over details. We should offer encouragement, celebrate and share in success - no matter how small - and feed the confidence of a young writer beginning to blossom. As teachers, we can give a child a good feeling to take home - a feeling that he or she may carry around for the rest of their lives.

Andrew Strong, head of Llanbister Primary, Powys.

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