Once Upon A Time – Some Thoughts on Writing in Schools

One day, when I was about five or six years old, we were writing stories in my class at school. I had lots of ideas and I couldn’t wait to get started on my story, but I was having trouble writing the very first word. I wanted to start my story with the very traditional ‘Once upon a time…’, but I didn’t know how to spell ‘once’. I knew it started with a ‘w’ sound, but I also had a sneaking suspicion that it didn’t begin with a ‘w’. I asked the teacher, she wrote the word down for me and off I went. I’m sure I had trouble with other words in that first story of mine and I can’t recall the rest of the story at all. What has clearly made an impression on me though, was the way the teacher removed that initial obstacle, which gave me a confidence boost and allowed my creativity to flow.

Fast forward a lot of years to my work delivering literacy workshops in schools. I always felt a conflict between my desire to let children write totally creatively and the staff in schools feeling the need to ‘tick boxes’. They always wanted to know what grammatical teaching I was including, how much of the spellings the children had worked out on their own and whether work had been ‘peer marked’. Similarly, training as a Teaching Assistant and subsequent supply work that followed had the potential to be equally frustrating. Time and again, when a child came to me in the setting asking for help to spell a word, the class teacher would point me in the direction of sound mats and politely ask me to encourage the children to work it out for themselves. Time and again, I would watch a child grow more and more frustrated as they tried to work out how to spell a word. Time and again, I would watch the spark of interest in story writing disappear from their eyes.

Of course I understand how important and valuable it is for a child to work something out for themselves. Of course that is very rewarding to the child and an essential part of the learning process. But surely that shouldn’t come at the expense of creativity, love of learning and a desire to express themselves? I even worked in one school for a few days where the teacher refused to tell the children how to spell ‘red words’ or ‘high frequency words’ (those that need to be learned by sight because they can’t be spelled phonetically, like ‘was’ and ‘once’), insisting they have a go at building these words from the sound mat even though this was a completely fruitless activity. I was dumbfounded to say the least, but powerless as a member of supply staff to have any influence over this.

I’ve also noticed since becoming a teaching assistant that not all mistakes are corrected when a child’s writing work is marked. Lessons have a lesson objective and teachers and support staff will highlight when this objective has been achieved and then also pick out one or two mistakes to be corrected. This is probably less damaging to a child’s self-esteem than a piece of work scattered with corrections. However, I do sometimes wonder about the long term efficacy of allowing mistakes to go uncorrected.

Further up the school, writing is a lot more prescriptive than it was when I was at school. A lesson will usually focus on a particular function of grammar, punctuation or genre and then children will be expected to write a piece of text with a list of things to include. For example, ‘Write the opening three paragraphs of a ghost story, including three fronted adverbials, at least six adjectives and a relative clause.’ What a way to suck the creativity out of writing! Our eldest found this particularly restrictive and would come home complaining that writing was boring at school. No matter how much I encouraged her to write whatever she wanted at home, these prescriptive lessons had already tarnished her love of writing at the tender age of 10/11. Thankfully, lessons at secondary school are a bit more inspiring with more creative potential.

I’m not the only person to have noticed the damage prescriptive writing tasks were doing to our children’s creativity. This discussion has been ongoing on social media and in the papers for a few years now as this article from 2015 shows and also this one from the same year. As a parent governor I had the influence to bring this up at a meeting of the governing body. The deputy head focused on writing when she did a school improvement project for her headship qualifications and very kindly took my opinions into account. I flagged up Cressida Cowell’s Free Writing Fridays campaign, which they introduced throughout the school to great effect.

As a child who loved writing at school I can remember the sheer joy at being given a story starter and then a free rein to finish the story however I liked. Or even just a total free rein to write ‘anything’. Wow! The possibilities! Of course I realise that this was not so fun or constructive for those children who did not enjoy writing. These children needed more support to write and I’m not sure this method of teaching writing provided that support, which just goes to show there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to education.

Fast forward again to my latest job. After a year of supply work in various local schools and a term-long temporary position, in October I was delighted to be offered a job in an Early Years setting (Preschool and Reception combined) covering maternity leave. Finally, a long term post I could get my teeth into and a chance to bond properly with the children and staff I worked with. It was also a chance to see the impact I was having on the children. In a longer term or permanent position you feel you can have more input into how things are done, especially when your own teaching preferences and methods align well with the rest of the team. I absolutely love my job and I feel valued every day of the working week.

On Thursday night I was telling my husband the story at the start of this blog post and explaining about my plans to write this. Bizarrely, the very next day at school, one of the little girls from reception came up to me and said she was writing a book. ‘How do you spell “Once upon a time”?’ she asked me, turning her face up to mine hopefully. I couldn’t believe the coincidence of this. It was like a sign. We sat down at a nearby table and I took a deep breath. ‘”Once” is a really tricky word to spell,’ I explained. ‘It sounds like it starts with a “w”, but it actually starts with an “o”.’ After explaining how to spell ‘once’, I supported her to spell ‘upon a’ on her own. After all, they’re written phonetically, as they sound, so it was within her capabilities to work this out. ‘Time’ posed a tricky problem as well. The split digraph ‘i–e’ (the new name for ‘magic e’) isn’t taught until a little later, so I encouraged her to hear and write the initial sound and then explained the rest of the word, saying that the ‘e’ at the end was a special one that turned the short ‘i’ into a long ‘i’ sound and then we didn’t need to sound it at the end.

Unfortunately, the end of the session and tidy up time meant she didn’t get further than ‘once upon a time’ on this occasion, but I hope (like me 30+ years ago) she felt inspired to finish her story at home and to write more in the future. I spoke to her key worker later and found out that they’d also had a similar conversation earlier in the day. It was great to hear I’m working in a setting where we’re on the same page (no pun intended). Handwriting, mark-making and writing are all explored through a combination of taught activities and learning through play. Writing menus in the home corner, drawing plans in the block area, writing their name on their work in the studio or messages for friends on a chalkboard outside. The writing area contains a sheaf of worksheets (like the one below), but also envelopes, notebooks, coloured paper and all sorts of things to inspire creative writing.

I love how things are taught in this setting, the combination of guidance and independent learning. Maybe it’s all about finding your niche and the place where your style aligns with those around you. Maybe other teaching assistants feel more at home in the other settings where literacy is taught in a more rigid way. Who knows? But I know I need to be in a setting where literacy is flexible, creative and celebrated.

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