Saturday, 6 June 2015

An Open Letter to the Education Secretary, Ofqual and STA... Cecilia Busby

 I have been pondering the issue of children's writing in primary schools ever since I came across a teacher who had banned the word 'big' in his year 6 classroom. (I blogged about this on ABBA a while ago here). Recently, a few other friends mentioned being disturbed by the over-emphasis on 'interesting words' in children's writing. So I decided it might be time to try and make an intervention. I have talked to people at the Standards and  Testing Agency, who set and mark school assessments, and they suggested I write in more formally. So here is my first draft of a letter to go to Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State of Education, as well as executives at Ofqual and the STA. If there are other children's writers out there who would like to sign it (and/or have suggestions about additions or changes in wording) please get in touch via twitter or my website!)

(N.B. the version below is the latest edited version and will be the one going to Nicky Morgan, along with 45 names of children's authors)

We are a group of children’s writers who have become increasingly concerned about the teaching of writing in recent years, particularly in primary schools. As professional writers, we often visit schools to promote reading and encourage creativity and enjoyment of writing among children of primary age. We have all noticed a very damaging tendency for children at primary schools to be steered towards certain styles of writing in line with the assessment criteria used to measure children’s levels of attainment. As a result, their writing is in general less fluent, clear and engaging and has a tendency to be too elaborate, flowery and over-complex. This has knock-on effects on their writing at secondary school and has been noticed by some of us in students at university level.

National Curriculum guidance on the use of ‘varied vocabulary’ and ‘imaginative language’ has meant in practice (and we have all seen examples of this in classrooms) that children are taught not to use simple words such as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘small’ or ‘big’ but to always find other more ‘interesting’ words to replace them – such as ‘wonderful’, ‘terrible’, ‘minuscule’ or ‘enormous’. They are also taught never to use ‘and’ or ‘said’ if they can shoehorn in ‘additionally’ or ‘exclaimed’, and are encouraged wherever possible to use personification, metaphor, similes and subordinate clauses.

Because these words and constructions are handed to children as ‘better’ alternatives to simple words or shorter, simpler sentences, they do not come across them in context. They fail to understand the nuances of their use, and they also fail to realise that they are relatively unusual – that they are used sparingly in good writing. For every use of the word ‘minuscule’ in actual books, there are probably twenty uses of the word ‘small’.

We would urge the government, Ofqual and the Standards and Testing Agency to consider ways in which they can make it quite clear to teachers and assessors that complex vocabulary, figurative language and complicated sentence structures should be used with caution and their use should always be subordinate to good, clear and fluent style. Otherwise we risk producing a generation of children who believe that a sentence such as ‘I bounded excitedly from my cramped wooden seat and flung my arm gracefully up like a bird soaring into the sky’ is always better than ‘I stood and put my hand up’.

Cecilia Busby writes fantasy adventures for children aged 7-12 as C.J. Busby. Her latest book, The Amber Crown, was published in March by Templar.

"Great fun - made me chortle!" (Diana Wynne Jones on Frogspell)

"A rift-hoping romp with great wit, charm and pace" (Frances Hardinge on Deep Amber)


catdownunder said...

May I make a suggestion based on the experience of writing thousands of letters? It needs to be much shorter. Letters should usually be just one page in length. That is all that will be read.
That probably sounds very negative and critical but it really isn't intended to be and please do say this because it needs to be said here Downunder too!

C.J.Busby said...

I think you're right if this were actually a 'political' letter going to a newspaper - and I think the copy sent to the education secretary is probably an exercise in futility - but the people I've talked to at Ofqual and STA seem quite genuinely open to hearing what we have to say and I think they will engage with a longer and more reasoned version.

C.J.Busby said...

Just to say - I will be sending a shorter version to the Education Secretary, but this one to Ofqual and the STA as I think they do need the details. Any other suggestions for changes welcome!

Penny Dolan said...

Good wishes with this, especially as these requirements seem to be "encouraged" in children between six to eleven years of age! Penny.

Keren David said...

Please do put my name on this excellent letter. I hate the way that children are taught to write, and would like to know who makes these terrible and ignorant decisions. I don't think I could pass English Language GCSE, because of the stupid way it is constructed, and I've been a professional writer and editor since I was 18.

Sheena Wilkinson said...

Please include my name if it's not too late. As a former secondary school English teacher I spent a lot of time trying to undo the damage of primary school teaching on creative writing.

Hilary said...

Such a good idea to send this. It needs to be said. Good luck.

Katherine Roberts said...

Having just completed a year as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow in a university helping students with their academic writing, I saw the echoes of this early teaching, especially on the English courses. One of the first quotes I put up in my office was Stephen King's "Any word you have to look up in a thesaurus is the WRONG word." (That one made students laugh, but they saw the point!)

Neelima said...

I agree with you...languages must be taught differently. I see so much emphasis on grammar and rereading the same lessons over and over again. How can the child love to read and write?

A very interesting petition indeed...all the best with it!