With prescriptive teaching styles, a test-based culture and an obsession with attainment levels, it’s not surprising that children in the UK are in danger of being put off writing.
This is happening from a very young age – with recent research showing that while British children can be technically competent in their writing, they often don’t take any real pleasure, or see the point in actually doing it. This is also backed up by a study from the National Literacy Trust which found that only 45% of school children enjoy writing.
There has been a steady decline in children’s enjoyment of writing over the past five years. It’s a decline which coincides with national curriculum reforms that have led to a highly prescriptive style of English being taught in primary schools.
Under this new curriculum, levels of grammar, punctuation and spelling that children need to master are outlined for each year. And expectations are high – with children in years five and six expected to be able to use “relative clauses” and “the passive voice”. In other words, these nine-, ten- and 11-year-old children need to know how to “post-modify” noun phrases with embedded clauses, and “obscure the agent of an action” with the use of the passive voice.
The delivery of this curriculum is monitored through mandatory grammar, punctuation and spelling tests at the end of year six. Writing, on the other hand, is teacher assessed in year six – with the government’s new writing assessment frameworks focusing almost exclusively on the technical aspects of writing. Consequently, many teachers are under increasing pressure to be less creative in the way they teach writing to their students.
Making a song and dance of it
Creative teaching is also threatened by no explicit assessment of “spoken language”, as a result of a national curriculum which focuses exclusively on reading and writing. But this is where the national curriculum has it all wrong, because research into the interplay between drama and writing has actually shown just how positive it can be in helping to boost children’s attainment and attitude towards writing.
Under the current curriculum, drama is narrowly defined as “performance” and “script writing”, rather than a rich and imaginative context in which to embed and develop learning opportunities such as writing.
Our own research shows how drama can be used by teachers to re-engage children in writing. Our project is being run in partnership with the Alive and Kicking Theatre Company and involves teachers being trained to use drama to create “moments” for writing with the children.
The specific approach we have used is called “dramatic enquiry”. This sees the children and the teacher creating an imaginary world in response to an issue or a problem where there are no easy solutions. For example, children could discover evidence of a child who has run away from home – and then create a back story for their protagonist and decide what would happen next.
As part of this approach, the children and the teacher also use writing journals to capture ideas about story and character, as well as language they can use in their writing.
Making writing fun again
Not only is this a fun activity for the children, but the use of drama can also help to provide a real purpose for their writing. And help to boost their confidence in their abilities as they are more empowered to take control over their own ideas.
This is particularly important given the idea of children developing a “growth mindset” is gaining traction in both primary and secondary schools – which is said to help boost their levels of resilience. And our research shows how drama for writing can really support this process in giving children a “can do” attitude.
Crucially, our research also shows that this approach to writing and achieving the expectations of the national curriculum are by no means mutually exclusive. In fact, the opposite is true, because children who are engaged in writing through drama can then be taught to use the passive voice or relative clauses in a much more contextualised and meaningful way. Showing that drama not only makes writing fun, it also satisfies the demands of a test-based culture.