We live in an age where you can visit the other side of the world at the click of a button. Children have access to an amount and variety of information unheard of ten, or even five years ago. To be able to communicate, understand, and empathise has never been more important. Today’s education has to equip children with the skills and tools that enable them to process and engage with our world, and the power of stories helps them do this.
The ability to read and write is integral to our lives. The National Literacy Trust research from 2014 showed that adults with higher levels of literacy were less likely to have poor health or be diagnosed as depressed, and more likely to have higher-paid employment and take active participation in their community. 70% of pupils permanently excluded from school have difficulties in basic literacy skills. The evidence shows that literacy has a significant relationship with success and happiness of people of all ages.
I’ve been working with a Year 6 class recently, some of whom just love to use the thesaurus. It’s the Holy Grail of writing, the golden chalice from whence all WOW words flow. Simply tip it over your work and – WHAM – instant ‘Level 5’! (Although we’re not using levels, I know, I know…)
This is great. They are so enthusiastic about words and writing, and they are aware of their choices as writers. Here are some examples:
‘…but in the end we had a really acceptable day.’
‘The food was cordial too.’
‘He has a cape that waves behind him in the gust.’
It’s clear that all is not well in Grammar Land. These children are missing something.
“Okay George, what did you write in your story plan?”
“Next I kill all the zombies.”
Your heart sinks… why do they always want to write about zombies? Any excuse – fairy tales, adventures, building tension, setting description, no matter – suddenly there are hoards of zombies pouring out from the undergrowth, and sweet little George is blasting them to kingdom come with his pump-action shotgun.
I have no problem with action – in fact, I love stories which move quickly, not giving the characters time to breathe before the next crisis! So then why is it that as teachers, we recoil when we are asked “…can I write about zombies?”
It is true that all stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But not all stories have to take place in that order. Without this awareness, we can be in danger of limiting children to only one way of constructing a story.
Opening, build up, climax, resolution, ending: the story mountain.
This is a familiar litany to teachers who model the structure of stories. Children need this firm foundation to understand the story formula. We can be very dogmatic about using this structure, but it isn’t true that stories always follow it strictly.
How can we push and challenge children once they understand the beginning, middle and end? If we always follow this pattern, stories become robotic machines, blindly following the path without the creative tweaks, loops and twists which keep the reader interested.
Summer is sitting staring at her blank page. She’s chewing the end of her pencil, and you can see a flake of HB yellow and black paint stuck to her top lip. “Come on Summer,” you plead, “there must be something you can think of…”
Many children find generating ideas when writing difficult. This is worrying for them, frustrating for teachers, and can be a hard barrier to break through. It’s a common problem. We recently surveyed 100 teachers from across the UK, asking them “What do children in your class find challenging about writing stories?”.
Two-thirds of those teachers said that coming up with ideas and writing creatively was a barrier to their children’s progress. Is this an epidemic? Are we seeing the death of creativity in children?
Recently a charity coalition, the National Literacy Forum, has released the Vision for Literacy 2025. It has been presented to Parliament and maps out the actions that need to be implemented across the UK to ensure that we take positive steps towards becoming a “literate nation”. But why all the fuss? Why is literacy suddenly so important?
Well, for starters, we shouldn’t confuse literacy with English – as in, the study of the English language. Being literate is much more than this.
Does anyone remember E.R.I.C.? Everybody Read In Class? As a young reader, I have fond memories of that hallowed time when the whole class, teacher included, sat and read for fifteen minutes or so after lunch.
D.E.A.R. is a more recent alternative – Drop Everything And Read. But in the days of phonics groups, maths interventions, guided reading, comprehension, grammar and punctuation tests, and so much more, how many schools have the time to “waste” on this?
I’ve just been reading the Guardian article on Frank Cottrell Boyce’s David Fickling Lecture, where he argues that:
“…the transformative power of reading is under threat in an education system obsessed with targets and literacy.”