The acclaimed author and former children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo says that teaching children to love writing is more important than learning about grammar. Morpurgo’s latest intervention – headlined Let’s not suck the joy out of writing in the print edition of the Guardian – comes a few weeks after publication of the government’s education white paper which set a target of 90% of children leaving primary school reaching the expected standards in reading, writing and maths by 2030 (the figure in 2019 was 65%). Critics worry that an obsession with teaching the ‘mechanics’ of language takes all the enjoyment out of reading and writing and stifles children’s creativity. Too many children find writing a chore and never read for pleasure. Our goal should be to make reading and writing fun, to see literacy as a way of enabling each child to express themselves imaginatively and igniting their creative spark.
In his Guardian article Morpurgo, who was children’s laureate between 2003 and 2005, writes that the “Michael Gove era” – a reference to reforms introduced when Gove was education secretary, including a phonics-first approach to teaching reading – “seems to me to restrict and inhibit, rather than to encourage creativity.”
He quotes research findings that an emphasis on grammar in primary school does not improve six- and seven-year-old children’s writing.
And he remembers back to his time as a primary school teacher in the 1970s:
I was able to concentrate on encouraging children to find their own voices. That is what literacy is for – to express your thoughts, to discover the music in language, the joy of reading, and all the interest, knowledge and understanding we can gain through that. It is not the analysis of a sentence – that comes later.Michael Morpurgo, writing in the Guardian
In our blog Igniting children’s creative spark and promoting literacy we wrote:
Writing isn’t just functional — an essential skill that we need to fill out forms and text our friends. Nor do we just need to know the ‘rules’ of writing so that we can communicate accurately with others without being misunderstood. Good writing is a thing of beauty, capable of engaging and inspiring both reader and writer. It is empowering, allowing us to articulate ideas, express emotions or create whole worlds of the imagination.
In our blog Why we must do more to promote reading for pleasure we wrote:
Proficiency in writing, oracy, numeracy and especially in reading is perhaps more important than ever in this digital age. Put simply, reading transforms lives — for people of all ages. The benefits of reading are incalculable. It increases educational attainment. It broadens horizons. It promotes tolerance and understanding across cultures. It develops creativity and the imagination. It boosts mental health and wellbeing. The list is endless.
Literacy is also good for mental health. In 2018 the National Literacy Trust published research exploring the link between reading, writing and mental wellbeing. It found that:
Developing children and young people’s reading, writing and oracy — a prerequisite of which is the provision for all of free-to-use, generously stocked libraries — is fundamental to their personal development, to their full self-realisation as an individual, and to their role as a member of their community and wider society. In short, learning to read, write and communicate effectively and to interact and engage with others are key life skills.
We need to build on children’s natural curiosity and thirst for knowledge to promote reading for pleasure. As a nation, we simply don’t read enough — despite the many undisputed benefits that reading brings. Nor do we do enough to make it easy and fun for our children to read. We need to give them every encouragement to develop the habit of reading for pleasure so that they carry a love of reading with them into adulthood.
And – perhaps hardest of all – we need to find ways to instil in our children and young people a love of writing.
Image at the head of this article by Chhumvichhouk Rounh from Pixabay.