I have recently been helping a ten year old girl with her writing. Her mother was concerned that this aspect of her “basic skills” was the weakest and asked if I could help her to become a better writer.
As an experienced primary (elementary) teacher, I decided to start with where she was at and therefore did an assessment of what she knew and what she had been taught.
She had, like so many children of her age, been prepared for the dreaded SAT Tests (that she took about a week ago). Writing takes the form a short piece of about 20 minutes or so which is followed by a spelling test and then comes the longer piece which last 45 minutes.
The longer piece of writing, as you may imagine, carries the most marks in the test and tends to be the part that most teachers spend the most classroom time on.
I asked the pupil (who I will call Ann) to tell me what she would do if she knew she was being asked to do a long piece of writing. She knew that there was a plan needed and that the test actually set out a template for her to use along the lines of: what does the building look like? Where is it situated? How did you get there?
She then proceeded to show me a mnemonic that her teacher had taught her to help her with her writing it was something like ICEPACC… which stood for:
Iintroduction: set the scene and explain what you are about to write
Capital letters for all place names and names of people
Extend your writing to make sure that you have used the adjectives and adverbs (see below). Don’t write short, clipped sentences.
Paragraphs.. remember to put every new idea or action in a new paragraph.. this is to show the marker that you have an “above-average” skill.
Adjectives and adverbs must be used…. remember to put as many in as possible (they will look for it!). So don’t say “the bus went up the hill” say “the big, old, dirty blue bus lumbered up the steep incline”.
Context.. remember to keep your tenses the same and don’t flit from the present to the past or vice versa.
Conclusion… round it all off by saying what you have said and give it a snappy ending.
She then proceeded to show me how she approached a piece of writing by carefully ticking off every letter in her mnemonic as she had done it. The writing was not really that great… she admitted it herself… it did have paragraphs, capital letters and there was good use of adjectives and adverbs… there was a neat conclusion.
But it read like a mechanical exercise in putting words onto paper. I realised that she was writing to a formula and did not have any real feeling for what she was writing and therefore did not really have the ability to let the words flow.
For my fellow bloggers out there who may be reading this entry there will be the smile of recognition at this point… because we all know that we write our blogs because we want to communicate and express ourselves… we have found this wonderful means of allowing us to express our thoughts, our emotions, our concerns and our passion for the things that we hold dear and we find, as I do at this moment as I am writing this piece, that the words just flow from us in something like a torrent.
We will use the spellcheck afterwards to check the spelling mistakes… we will read through it ag phrasing and maybe we will take out a paragraph here or a sentence there.
What we are unlikely to do is to use a mnemonic to write it… we are not going to make sure that we have stuck to the script or written the perfect ending.. and have we checked the context? Did I slip from past tense into present tense at any time?
Did Shakespeare need a template? I don’t think so. This is the reason why Ann had problems with her writing. She did not see the point of it all. When I asked her to write something that she was interested in she found her fluency.
I believe that we do not give our children enough chances to write what they really want. We should let them blog and write about the things that matter to them… in the joy of blogging they will find the joy of writing….. and they may very well get hooked and produce the real writing that people want to read…not give it up as a bad job and a horrible memory as many of our children are condemned to do.