Does a focus on spelling, punctuation and grammar destroy creativity?
This current debate is never far from the primary school staffroom agenda. It's an interesting question, which never sits easy with those of us reclining on the least populated side of the fence. The side which says 'it shouldn't – and if it does, we need to do something about it.
I do, of course, totally understand where this perception comes from. The grammar test at the end of Key Stage 2 is totally 'Gradgrind' in its approach – learn the facts and prove that you know them. Drill, drill, drill to learn them; revise, revise, revise to recall them; fill in the correct box and get the mark. Children are then expected to successfully apply these skills in their writing, assessed by their teachers following 'guidance' they have been given; guidance that will undoubtedly be changed yet again in this turbulent world of assessment. I firmly believe it is the slavish teaching to this checklist (particularly by teachers who lack confidence in their subject knowledge) that risks destroying young children's love of writing before they have even begun, masking their imagination behind an opaque veil of fronted adverbials, antonyms and an overwhelming, stagnant heap of success criteria.
Our challenge is to enable our young people to achieve mastery of grammar as early as possible, at a sensibly graduated pace and level relevant to their maturity – within this firm foundation, high quality teaching should, indeed must, allow their creativity to take flight. Children need grammar so they can make choices about how to use language to their own ends. What we absolutely do not want is to be faced by a year four class asserting (as they did to me at the start of this term), that the first sentence of their holiday recount really should begin with the word 'amazingly'...
Reassuringly, the very next day I was inspired by an outstanding workshop at The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Teller Centre, where our Year 5 children sat entranced as they heard of the process behind the great author's swashboggling inventiveness. The interactive tasks within the centre re-lit the flame of imagination which, in these days of screen passivity, risks being dampened for an entire generation and beyond. Every child embraced dressing up, developing new characters, creating a film script and jotting down ideas in their writer notebooks – a skill which our school embraced further when we took our gifted key stage 2 writers to a workshop at Buckingham Palace, where they explored various art works as sources of inspiration, guided by a published author.
A recent article by David Crystal confirms what all education professionals already know – good grammar is essential when related to meaning; get it wrong and your audience may well misunderstand what you're trying to say. As the notebook I recently bought my nephew states so succinctly on the front cover: Grammar is about knowing the difference between your rubbish and you're rubbish.
But where David goes further is by using an example that confirms exactly why good understanding of grammar supports creativity and freedom of expression. It should not, and does not, destroy it. When you take this stance, language comes alive as we teach how to use it to manipulate writing – what a privilege it is to explore this in the creative classroom through encouraging children to analyse the writing of their favourite author, in this case Terry Pratchett's positioning of adjectives in this sentence from 'The Carpet People'.
'He saw the gleam of ten thousand eyes, green, red and white.'
Enabling mastery of grammar is our challenge as educators, without compromising on a rich, vivid, creative curriculum that brings language alive, feeds the imagination and discovers meaning in our communications. Exploring writers' techniques, broadening reading, investigating vocabulary, embracing a range of experiences, writing for a purpose, developing a love of learning - this is our mission. Amazingly, if we get the balance right, our young writers will fly.
Copyright: Debbie Rainer
Deputy Head Teacher
St Anthony's Catholic Primary School and Nursery, Slough