For the past three weeks, I’ve been going to a small primary school just outside Bedford and helping one of the teachers with a group of boys who want to improve their writing. It takes me about forty minutes to drive there, and I’m only with them for a couple of hours, one morning a week, but even after just three sessions, I’m psyched about the progress they’re making.
There’s still a lot of work to do, of course. It definitely helps that they’re all attentive, quick to respond and fairly well-behaved. Ahem. Their “problems” vary, from child to child: one boy, for example, has absolutely no confidence in what he writes; another cannot see that what he writes invariably ends up as one long string of independent clauses, completely devoid of any punctuation whatsoever. Rudiger*, meanwhile, is obsessed with the word therefore. He wants to use it all the time. It drives me fucking nuts, and I’ve told him so (minus the f-word, of course, because, er, hello?). I have, therefore, banned him from using it more than once in each piece of writing he does.
By the time they’re in Year 5, most children have had it drummed into them so often that when you ask them what their writing needs to include, you get a monotone chorus of: “Capital letters and full stops… time connectives… interesting vocabulary…” Which is all true and good. But boys—I’ve noticed this, being one myself—can get pretty obsessive, and this often stops them from just getting something down on paper. They’re constantly thinking, I’ve got to use conjunctions. Or, I’ve got to use technical vocabulary… whatever that is. And that leads to a kind of writer’s block, which we all know is worse than anything to afflict mankind in the entire history of its existence.
One of the techniques I use is getting them to free-write. How often do kids get to do that? Not very often, I’ll wager—and it shows. The first time I tried it, some of them really struggled with the mere concept. “But, I don’t know what to write,” they say. And sometimes that’s true. More often than not, however, they’re under the illusion that what I want them to write has to be perfect. Perfectly punctuated, in their neatest handwriting, and no spelling mistakes… the works. Because, somewhere along the line, this is what they’ve come to understand “writing” to mean. And yeah—ultimately, that is what we teachers are after. But not all the time, and certainly not straight away.
Sometimes you need to give them a topic, or a prompt. Sometimes not. I’ve often done it by giving them the opening, “Mr Pucci has asked me to write for ten minutes, but I don’t know what to write about so I’m just going to write about…” Either way, once you get ‘em going, you’ll probably find they use “connectives” and “interesting vocabulary” without even thinking about it. At some point, of course, you have to stop them and get them to look over what they’ve written. To begin what I call the translation process. That’s when we start doing things like reading aloud, checking for repetition or overuse of the same word, and choosing where to put a full stop. (As an aside, it’s interesting how many of these techniques I need to remind myself to use, or encourage my clients to use). For this to work—certainly with a group of nine-year-old boys—you need to establish a culture of trust and respect. Make sure they know we’re not judging any mistakes, but at the same time saying it’s okay to laugh at something that sounds silly. Watch how fast they reach for their pencils in order to make those corrections, or to put in those missing full stops. Thus begins the process of editing and re-writing… but more on that next week.
*Not his real name.