Master The New English Curriculum And Get Children To Understand The Impact Of Their Writing
Ian Eagleton saw big improvements when he helped children to take control of their writing – down to the very last semicolon. Here’s how you can do the same…
- by Ian Eagleton
A Year 4 class. We’re tackling The Tempest as part of a theme week and I am thoroughly enjoying the challenge of presenting Shakespeare to children at primary age. During a class discussion, I pose the question:
“So how do you think Ariel became imprisoned in a tree?”
Obviously, I know what the answer should be. We have already explored the characters and their relationships and I am expecting them to remember from the previous lesson’s freeze-frame activities the role of the unseen witch, Sycorax. Someone will answer in the affirmative and I can then pat myself on the back at seeing how much they have remembered.
A hand flies up. It belongs to a child whose feet were kicking in excitement as we watched the BBC’s Shakespeare: The Animated Tales. She was transfixed by the magical story of mischief and mayhem on a forgotten, unknown island.
“Yes, go on. Have a go! Why do you think Ariel is in a tree?”
“Because he wanted to be!”
Sniggers from around the class and the children shake their heads. I take a deep breath.
“Well…if you think about it, the tree is a prison for Ariel, isn’t it? You wouldn’t want to be trapped, all squashed up in a tree, would you? Has anyone else got an idea?”
But the hand flies up again.
“No I wouldn’t want to be in a tree, but maybe Ariel is punishing himself for something…”
Now at this point, I can either end this exchange with, “That can’t be right…” – after all, time is precious in a classroom. Instead, I choose a different tack.
“Go on….” I say.
“Maybe a spell went wrong and he feels bad, like in the story you told us, when we did the Romans, about Boudicca poisoning herself. She might have felt she had let the Celts down and so she killed herself and perhaps Ariel is doing the same thing for something bad he’s done.”
Silence. I am dumbfounded. The child in question struggles with her spelling and handwriting, and with our relentless focus on grammar and spelling, has found the new curriculum demands particularly difficult – along with countless other children across the country.
“I would never have thought of that. What a thoughtful answer,” I say, still slightly bemused.
A smile spreads across my face and the child giggles nervously. The class clap. This is perhaps one of the most defining moments of my career, which I have based on a love of stories and teaching English. It is only later in the day that I have time to reflect.
This is an example of when an answer reminds you of why you began teaching – something entirely unquantifiable. Something that you can’t assess or level. An answer that could only come from a child. An answer that shows she has made connections with other areas of the curriculum studied, with other stories we’ve shared and with other periods of time.
It got me thinking. I knew the answer – Ariel was in the tree, bound by Sycorax’s magic. It concerns me that, had the child in question not continued with her line of enquiry and had I not, begrudgingly, allowed her to explore her idea further, she would never have been able to formulate her own response to the text. I would have, skilfully through questions and probing as all good teachers do, led the children to the conclusion I expected. I may have limited that child’s creativity and confidence to freely respond.
It made me wonder how often I had dismissed an idea or response from a child because it didn’t fit with my own adult interpretation? In the past when I modelled then asked the class to write a good example of a newspaper article or persuasive advert, was I asking them to write with an adult’s voice? Having taught in Year 6 for many years, I have been guilty of giving children a pre-prepared list of Success Criteria with the implication that if they tick everything off the list – full stops, capital letters, a fronted adverbial, a range of conjunctions – their writing will suddenly be great. But it doesn’t work like that.
Over the last year, I have begun to rethink and redesign my teaching of writing. I am only too aware of the New Curriculum requirements and the focus on learning a host of complex terminology and spelling patterns, which promote a superficial, closed, ‘right or wrong’ understanding of English. The suggestion being that writing can be only interpreted in one way. Children may be able to tell you fluently and, in my experience, rather manically by the time SATs lurch around, what a ‘determiner’ is, but is this really what writing is about?
Our role as teachers and educators is surely to help children develop their own voice and allow them to write for a range of real, age-appropriate purposes. I believe it is important that children learn the correct terminology and the structure of the English language. But is this all there is to it? Or do they need to know about subordinate clauses and be able to explain why they have used one – what has it added to their text and how it influenced their reader – and then choose when they use it?
In my experience, there are a number of ways we can navigate the new curriculum and develop our children’s passion for writing, helping them understand the impact of their writing.