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Teaching the Unteachable

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An article on the Guardian website yesterday claimed that, in the United Kingdom, children are being taught creative writing skills in a detrimental manner. Classrooms up and down the country echo the mantra, “Don’t say said!”, and helpful posters list “banned words” like badgoodbig and and.

The net result, argue critics, is that students are being rewarded for producing flowery, unreadable wordvomit, and penalised for actually writing in a reasonable fashion.

From the ages of four to fourteen, pupils are discouraged from using short words where a longer one would do the job, and this is actively reflected in the grades their teachers are constrained into giving them. Mark schemes are absolute; if a piece isn’t riddled with synonyms, it won’t make the grade.

Most worryingly of all, from my perspective, is that the system was already very much in place when I was in school. Which means we have an entire generation of people who were conditioned into favouring purple prose.

Purple prose, for those who have not come across the term before, is the catch-all for writing which is so obtrusively ornate that it effectively hinders reading. Therefore, we have on our hands a generation of writers who will, by habit, be unreadable.

A targets-based educational system has ushered in a Dark Age in British literature.

Personally, I fear for my own writing. I have always thought of myself as “good”, but now I see that I was looking at myself through the lens of a system which valued the atrocious. I could be atrocious.

Then again, from a young age, I despised the “said is bad” dogma, because I knew flat out that it just wasn’t true. Plenty of the books I read used the word “said” in spades, and it never once got dull. The word “got” was also exiled from the classroom for no good reason, and it riled me beyond belief. I would spend minutes trying to replace this bit of fluff, this insignificant filler word. It destroyed the flow of my writing. And for what?

It never once became dull. It never once grew dull. It never once developed the property of being dull.

That’s what happens. Very quickly, one runs out of synonyms for these perfectly adequate words and has to resort to a feat of violent contortion. The word “got”, like “said” is essentially invisible to a reader. It very deliberately adds nothing at all to a sentence, because quite often there is nothing more to be said. In real life, people do not whisper or bellow or mumble or exclaim half as much as they say, say, say and say.

To really put all this hideousness into perspective, I’m going to include an excerpt from My Immortal, a piece of Harry Potter fanfiction widely touted as the worst thing ever written:

‘”Why did you do such a thing, you mediocre dunces?” asked Professor McGonagall.

“How dare you?” demanded Professor Snape.

And then Draco shrieked. “BECAUSE I LOVE HER!”‘

Apart from everything else, what is utterly jarring about these lines is the way the writer has inflicted significance on the manner in which every line is said.

Yet, according to the syllabus, this is not obnoxious, cloying, violently unreadable tripe, but 10 out of 10, full marks, top of the class.

So- what’s the solution? I think the trouble with trying to grade creative writing is that reading is personal. Charles Dickens is widely regarded to be one of the greatest writers ever to have lived, and yet I would rather spend four hours proofreading My Immortal-calibre fanfiction than endure Great Expectations again. If I was a primary school teacher, and Dickens was in my charge, I’d have him writing lines every break and lunchtime: “I will not use twenty words where one would suffice.”

The mark scheme, then, is a necessary evil. But I challenge you to tell me what should be on it.

I have another solution. Why did I, as a child, know that “said” was good, and “good” was fine, and “and” could actually be quite a pleasant device if I used it properly? It’s because I read.

I didn’t read, as the curriculum instructs, to derive meaning about the intentions of characters. I didn’t read in a way that was assessable or useful to my teachers. I read for the sheer pleasure of it.

Reward children for reading. Give them a wide selection of books (and audiobooks!) to choose from. Encourage them to share what they enjoyed about books. Make them write less. And when they do, don’t grade them. Show them to their peers. Ask what they liked about them.

I don’t know if it would work. But surely it’s better?

What are your thoughts? How should we teach children to write?

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About Big Rook

Chess coaching and events in the north-west of England

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