This is a blog post about how to nurture creative writers. It is a response to this article, which tells us that in order to help children become creative writers, schools should increase opportunities to do creative writing via the use of various kinds of stimuli, as well as the hook of a small amount of media fame, rather than dwelling on, um, ‘boring’ things like basic sentence construction, spelling, grammar and punctuation.
I think their approach is going to be great for the children who already love (and are therefore relatively good at) writing, but for many others, it will be frustrating and pretty disastrous in the long run. To me, this situation is analogous to the folly of trying to develop problem solving ability in maths through the medium of lots of fun lessons with group work, discovery and of course open-ended problem solving.
What makes a creative writer? It seems to me that educators who advocate for the approach described in the TES article look at a truly creative writer in their class or school and see only the emotion of the writer rather than the words on the page. She is so inspired, so motivated, and the response is to try and artificially create that initial emotion in other children in the hope that they too will produce sumptuous writing just like our creative writer who sits with her pink sparkly pencil (with unicorn head rubber on the end) poised for action, waiting for the signal to fire up her fertile imagination.
This is not the case for Tommy who not only thinks he is a terrible writer, but is actually a terrible writer. Tommy couldn’t give a flying rat’s butt about a special creative writing project because he doesn’t want to look like a fool in front of the girls with their pink sparkly pencils. When pressed to take part, he has to deploy one of two key strategies. Strategy A involves unleashing his inner Lee Evans, but that resulted in a missed playtime and a swift trip to the headteacher’s office last time, so he resolves to deploy strategy B which is to use what limited writing knowledge he has and generally keep his head down. It’s no surprise that his story usually ends with everyone dying in an explosion, or waking up and realising it was a dream. His handwriting is atrocious, painfully slow and he can’t spell or automatically construct a sentence that makes sense. He lacks knowledge of stories and general knowledge to draw upon as inspiration. If he does engage with the creative writing project, he’ll just be reinforcing, embedding and potentially making permanent, his poor writing technique. If he doesn’t, then it’ll be because he’s trying to avoid the rude truth of being exposed as a poor writer and the awful feeling of confusion that goes with it. Talk about making behaviour problems worse.
So what makes a creative writer? Here are the ingredients:
- Knowing how to construct a decent sentence and being fluent in the use of this knowledge (basically, not even having to think about it)
- Knowing spelling, punctuation and grammar rules and being fluent in the use of them (so, not even having to think about it)
- Knowing a ton of stories (types of characters, storylines, settings) and being fluent in the use of them for inspiration
- Knowing a ton of general knowledge about the world and being fluent in the use of this knowledge to add detail
- Knowing a huge variety of words, phrases and sayings and being fluent in the use of them
- Knowing how to join up handwriting so that it is neat, readable and being fluent in its use (so, quickly and not even having to think about it)
- Fluent reading ability to check own work
- Possession of the habit of being able to concentrate for a length of time without giving up
- Possession of the habit of planning and proof-reading in a systematic way
- Possession of the habit of thinking about the reader rather than himself
- Due to having all of the above, receiving genuine praise, recognition and admiration for producing a great story such that you are motivated to do even more
Many teachers are somewhat opposed to ensuring the features described above are taught and practised to the point of fluency. They see it as boring or too hard for children and would much prefer the option of creative writing projects where, at the surface level, everyone looks busy and happy, but what is happening is that the writing can is being kicked down the road – Tommy will end up missing lessons in year 7 because despite his ‘story’ being ‘liked’ by 2000 non-experts around the world, he still can’t write a sentence that can be read by someone else. Further, some leaders would even downgrade the teaching and practice of some of the ingredients because they do not form part of the data set that the school is judged by. Some even oppose the teaching of the above because they see it as interfering with a child’s right to be his ‘true self’ which in their view is a non-conformist individual who can go through life not having to worry about things like spelling rules. I take a more old-fashioned view.
How do we ensure that Tommy can also be a creative writer? We need to give him all of the above and ensure that he doesn’t have an opportunity to opt out along the way. We should do this not because it’ll help with the attainment and progress data, but because it is the right thing to do. The process takes years and years, not days or weeks at the last minute. This means explicit teaching and enough peaceful, purposeful practice of everything listed. Ideally, each component should be taught and practised discretely to the point of automacity before being added to the mix of creative writing in order to avoid cognitive overload. Then Tommy feels great and wants to do more. He may never become a truly creative writer in the sense that he becomes some kind of world famous author, but at least he can write.
Who’s with me?