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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The Three Key Ways School English Lessons Let Writers Down

For Words on Wednesday this week, issues which trouble me as an English teacher who writes.
  1. The assessment of creative writing (e.g. at GCSE) encourages students to use many adjectives and adverbs, which can lead to overwriting.
  2. In Primary School, pupils are encouraged to use as many different speech verbs as possible. The word 'said' is Number One in my daughter's list of banned words from Year 2.
  3. Students' writing is assessed in timed conditions. A typical example is the Key Stage 2 Longer Writing Test: Write a story/instruction leaflet/biography. You have 45 minutes. Ugh!
Note that I am not criticising teachers - we have to teach our students to succeed in the system. Unfortunately, those students who want to be professional writers have to master the style required in the classroom whilst also understanding that it is a specific genre and different to published writing. This applies particularly to the first two issues above while the third one helpfully creates a link between writing and stress.

I feel sorry for those teaching on Writing degrees in the UK - they must be spending ages undoing all this! We are able to do some work at A Level, but there isn't that much writing in those courses. At least where original or productive writing* is assessed at that level, the requirements are more 'real world'. Although the extent to which it is fair to expect an eighteen year old to produce an intelligent, well-argued piece about a linguistics issue in the style of a Guardian feature or an Independent comment column is debatable, following only two years on from "describe the room you are sitting in" with as much sensory description as possible... 

*It's not called 'creative writing' to avoid the excesses that GCSE taught them were creative.


  1. I don't know if you agree with this, but I find the dilemma you describe above to be relevant whether you are a writer or not. What you describe above is teaching a curriculum (that you as a writer know is flawed), whereas as a teacher we want to teach children.
    When you say: 'we have to teach our students to succeed in the system', I feel that you are doing just that, you are trying to teach the child, but within a system that doesn't allow all children to succeed and in the end only allows them to succeed in school. In the real world the students who do best will be the creative dreamers who probably weren't top of the class (take this year's winner of the Apprentice as an example of this.)
    But I'll get off my soapbox now.

  2. Yes, I do agree, Michele. My post here is just a tiny example of a much bigger issue about curriculum and relevance. It's a constant tension between the demands of the curriculum (which is a political tool and subject to regular change) and education in a broader sense.

  3. The hard part is letting the children write freely within the guidlines. Sounds a little ironic to me.

    Thanks for stoppy by Beth!


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