Creative writing

6 Replies

One of the things very young children are encouraged to do in my local schools is creative writing. Putting your personal ideas on paper is a highly valued skill in our education system.

Of course, the kids I work with can’t do it. They stare at the blank page and get some chicken scratchings down, but their letters are poorly formed, they can’t spell the words they want to write, and quite often when they’re finished, even they can’t read it. The whole process makes them feel like failures.

These children have creative ideas, all right, and all but the language-impaired ones can easily tell you about them. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to stop them from talking about their creative ideas long enough to get some written work done. I’m currently a working with one Grade 2 group which is an exercise in hilarity, as they riff off the words we’re working on spelling, one-up each other with funny stories, and devise alternative endings for my decodable books.

In praise of Creative Talking

I recently came across the following by teacher Fay Maglen in the very useful but now apparently out-of-print book Wordswork:

“…adults expect written evidence of work and creative expression too early, to the point, perhaps, of inhibiting the free flow of oral expression. Certainly it would seem that in some classrooms more value is placed on what children write than on what they say…

“If…the teacher wants the children to share their ideas with the class, why can’t they simply tell them, using as they do all their idiosyncratic verbal and non-verbal expressions to add to the enjoyment of the story? This is much more interesting for the audience than listening to the stilted, unnatural reading-out of personal stories, and it saves the agony of those children who cannot make head or tail of their own writing.”

To Maglen, the argument “ideas are more important than spelling so let’s forget about spelling” is facile (hear, hear!). She goes on: “It is absurd to persist with the idea that children’s thoughts should simply flow onto the page when, spelling apart, the physical act of forming letters is a slow difficult process for many children in the first few years at school.”

Practising mistakes

The other major problem with encouraging very young children to write in an open-ended, creative way, even though they can’t spell the words they want to use, is that it encourages them to practise mistakes.

Every time you write “hed” or “mowse” or “brij”, you are reinforcing and remembering versions of these words which later will need to be unlearnt.

It would be a whole lot better if these words could be learnt right first time.

Of course it’s not possible to prevent every spelling mistake, but I think adults should do their best on the prevention front, because (sorry to use a cliche, but) it’s a heck of a lot better than cure.

Errors children do make should be quickly corrected e.g. if a child writes “mowse” instead of “mouse”, tell her or him that “ow” is one way to write this sound (as in now, cow and brown) but in the word “mouse” the spelling is “ou” (try to say the sound and write the spelling, rather than saying the letter names). If you have your movable alphabet handy you can also demonstrate this, as shown here.

If you have time and the child is interested, you might also like to show them that this pattern applies to other words that rhyme with mouse e.g. house, louse, douse, spouse, grouse.

Vote 1 creative dictating to an adult, followed by copying

The argument that structured writing/spelling work stifles children’s creativity, and open-ended writing fosters creativity and self-expression, doesn’t stand a lot of scrutiny.

Weak spellers of any age tend to avoid tricky words, and stick to writing words they can confidently spell.

This can lead to pretty stilted prose, as anyone who’s tried to write decodable books can readily tell you. But decodable books are not pretending to be authentic self-expression or quality literature, they’re just books with L plates on, for learner readers.

If your goal is self-expression and an interesting narrative, then get a child to dictate a story to you, for them to copy. Young children usually enjoy this – you’re their secretary, and you’d better listen up, because this is a story worth spelling correctly, writing neatly and illustrating beautifully. In a classroom situation, this usually requires taking turns, because one teacher can’t take dictation from 20 children at once. But little school kids have usually learnt to take turns, and are interested in each other’s stories.

The child comes up with the ideas, you help with the spelling and stop them from practicing mistakes, and they produce a quality product for everyone to admire on the fridge door.

Along the way they practice their handwriting, and reinforce spelling patterns previously learnt, plus meet new ones in a task that doesn’t set them up to make mistakes.

Because there’s no word-avoidance involved, the end product of the you-dictate-then-copy task is likely to be a more authentic and interesting piece of writing than what you get when you ask a very young child to write a story from scratch, especially when it’s a child who is struggling with spelling.

Meanwhile, their main spelling-learning is done at another time, in structured activities that systematically introduce them to all the main spelling patterns of English, working from simple to complex, such as the activities in this website’s shop and those listed under Phonics Resources above.

Once they have a good grasp of the major spelling patterns, they can knock themselves out tackling the blank page independently.

Title image is from flickr, by torbakhopper




6 thoughts on “Creative writing

  1. Natalie Campbell

    This all really makes sense. I would love to see the writing expectations of our Prep/Kindy/Foundation/Pre-Primary students readjusted. Acara, and the state’s various curriculums, expect our youngest students to produce quite a bit of writing. I really think it would be so much better to focus on developing reading and allowing students to develop some automaticity with word recognition, alongside systematic code instruction. Then students could draw on that knowledge to produce/create texts, and reduce the enormous cognitive load that early writing places on young students. When we ask young students to write, its not only spelling and code mistakes that get unintentionally practiced, its immature letter formations, immature grammar, poor sentence formation. Would love more time for embedding text creation ONLY orally with my 5 year olds, and more time for instructional reading. Most importantly, allowing fine motor skills to be well developed so that writing fluency has one less obstacle!

  2. Elizabeth

    I love this. Makes so much sense to write what they say. And agree with the correcting errors to avoid rewriting mistakes. Great blog post, thank you

  3. Lyn Goodwin

    I can’t agree strongly enough, Allison! It is a tragedy to see small children struggle through ridiculous lessons where , as young as six, they labour through tortuous writing sessions. They are expected to write page- long planning pages and drafts as if they are prize-writing authors, when they haven’t even been exposed to all the letter/sound knowledge they need to read and write. Many physically are not even equipped to do the handwriting! What are we doing to these children? And yet wonder why so many students have anxiety and disengage from learning!
    I feel the few advanced students, who find learning to read and write easily, are the reason teachers think they’re doing a good job and all the other students…well, it’s inherently a problem with THEM. Constructivist theory at its worst.
    I started teaching over thirty years ago on kindergarten, and am once again teaching kindergarten now at the other end of my career. I am deeply saddened by the changes in expectations over the decades that are placing vulnerable children in impossible situations that lead them to feel as failures.

    1. Mim

      Lyn, I totally agree with you! I’m a former JP teacher and am currently tutoring 13 kids week after school. I see the results of kids who “just don’t get it”, that have failed to learn enough skills, in the way the current system teaches them and now need remedial help. The change in expectations is scary & disappointing. I wish they would let kids be kids and learn at their own rate, once the phonological skills have been acquired and build on a firm foundation of phonics-based decoding and encoding of words!

  4. Mim

    Alison, great article! 🙂
    What do you think about the practice of either (1) getting kids to dictate their story onto a program that types it out for you (speech-to-text) OR (2) allowing the adult to type as the child tells their story? I know it’s important for kids to do writing and embed the words and spellings into their brain, but its the child has dictated a long story, having to write it out themselves can get laborious!

    Just to add a bit of context, I tutor several kids with severe dyslexia &/or other learning issues, that’s created a great reluctance to write in these kids! I have begun showing the kids in Year 4 or older how they can tap a certain key on my keyboard and then say what they want to say and the computer types out their thoughts. It’s not fool proof, so they still have to re-read their writing and edit it, add punctuation, and then format it so it’s pleasing to the eye. (One lad, for example, is doing a project on the history of old farming harvesters.) So I am trying to teach research skills and ‘project writing’ and presentation skills as well as the actual ‘writing’ skills. Doing this has helped motivate my very reluctant learners more as they are ‘freed up’ from having to physically write and from having to remember how words are spelt. I know this is a bit different to typing out a 5 or 6 year old child’s story and letting them illustrate it, but I wondered about how you feel about using technology to assist slow, reluctant or young writers?

    1. alison Post author

      Hi Mim, I agree, it really depends on the aim of the exercise, and it’s really important to be clear about the aim and not try to aim to do too many things in one activity, and end up failing to do any of them well. If the aim of the activity is to get the kid’s good ideas down on paper and encourage them to like the idea of producing text, and writing is really a chore, then I think it’s fine to just let them give you dictation or use speech-to-text. Perhaps you might ask them to write or type just the last couple of sentences, giving them the spellings of any words they don’t already know. Save the spelling practice for more structured activities where you can control the error rate and ensure high levels of success, especially for those kids who just deflate when they make mistakes. I don’t think it matters what age a child is when they use technology, I think the main thing is to be clear about the purpose and reason for using it. I used to work at Yooralla’s technology centre where lots of clients who were dazzled by technology thought it might replace pencil and paper, but to everything there is a season, and sometimes the priority is text production, in which case technology really helps, whereas sometimes the priority is handwriting and spelling, in which case a pencil and paper is usually going to give the best long-term results. I hope that makes sense. All the best, Alison


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