To write or not to write? That is the question.

“I don’t know where to start.”

I have heard this phrase many times during creative writing lessons in school and, as I sit here at my desk, it is me (not one of my pupils) uttering those infamous words. It is true. I literally do not know how to start this article. There are lots of ideas swirling around in my brain, but I am not sure how to get them down on paper.

I’m suddenly whisked back to my newly qualified teacher training days and a visit to Kew Gardens. Fifteen, fresh-faced, twenty-something teachers full of enthusiasm and a desire to impress. The lecturer took us outside and asked us to write a poem about a tree which we would then read aloud to the group. An uneasy silence. Relative strangers looked around at one another anxiously. Heart rates increased. Palms became damp. We were given thirty minutes. To this day, I can remember the feeling of sheer panic at the thought of having to write something worthy of being read aloud to my peers. Fortunately, the trainer put us out of our misery after ten, extremely long, minutes to explain that the task had been set to make a point- and a very valid one at that. As educators, we ask children to write stories all the time. We expect them to conjure up an exciting tale with excitement, problems, solutions, descriptive settings and characters, not to mention a memorable ending and then share it with their greatest critics. (their peers) Is it any wonder many children become reluctant writers?

When a child first holds a crayon, with a full-fist grasp, and makes their first mark on a piece of paper, it is a significant milestone. Eyes bright with awe and wonder, the child is spellbound. This develops into simple symbols to convey meaning before the addition of random letters. Eventually we begin to write for purpose and include the writing conventions we are all familiar with. A young child’s love of writing is clear, it is evident on our furniture and walls for a start… When do they lose this? Is it because we force them into writing against their will? Do we over-criticise in our demands for perfection? How many times have I been presented with a piece of work by a budding “author”, only to curb their enthusiasm by pointing out a missing capital letter?

Many children (and adults) fail to see the purpose of writing unless there is a reason for it. There is a clear motive for making shopping lists, writing birthday cards and jotting down addresses. Why do we need to learn to write narrative, instructions and non-chronological reports if we are not planning on becoming an author or a journalist? Personally, I don’t want the art of writing to be lost in this world of technology and I believe the key to opening the door to writing is to make it meaningful, relevant and most importantly fun. For children, the physical aspect of writing is challenging, add in the need to spell words correctly, use punctuation, include fronted adverbials and relative clauses and they become tired and demotivated extremely quickly. By removing the extra thought required, making it a natural process and by hooking children in with relevant and meaningful tasks, we can achieve a completely different response and outcome.

Over many years, through trial and error, I have found two writing strategies that really work. They are similar in approach and both use a methodical approach which suits the less imaginative among us. ‘Slow Writing’ involves giving children a set of rules to follow when writing a paragraph. For example: –

  1. Sentence one must include two adjectives.
  2.  Sentence two must start with an adverb.
  3.  Sentence three needs to end with a question mark.
  4.  Use a personification in sentence four.
  5.  This sentence can only be three words long.

At the beginning, children will be reliant on the rules but like with learning to use gears in a car, they soon begin to vary their sentences and vocabulary without thinking.

Alternatively, ‘Uplevelling’ can also be extremely effective. In this strategy, children are given a basic sentence such as “The frog went in the pond.” The children are then given a set of instructions explaining how the sentence could be improved. For example: –

  1. Use two adjectives to describe the frog and the pond.

The slimy green frog went in the murky deep pond.

2. Start the sentence with a fronted adverbial.

Deep in the woods, the slimy green frog went into the murky deep pond.

3. Improve the verb and add an adverb.

Deep in the woods, the slimy green frog jumped enthusiastically into the murky deep pond.

4. Add a relative clause to tell the reader more about the frog.

Deep in the woods, the slimy green frog, who was extremely hot, jumped enthusiastically into the murky deep pond.

Simple yet extremely effective. I have found this works with even the most reluctant of writers. Children like to know what is expected of them and enjoy seeing immediate results – both these techniques offer this. There is no better reward than seeing the pride shining out of one of my pupil’s faces having completed a wonderful piece of writing and realising they actually enjoyed it!

“Writing is the painting of the voice.” Voltaire.

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