My 3 year-old son has just told us his first story. Yes – he used a story map (disclaimer: my non-teaching wife claims she has never heard of Pie Corbett), and yes – it made me think. Hard. A proud parental moment soon left me pondering how other preschoolers play with language and stories. And, more importantly, how we can ensure that all pupils can do so in those first few years at school.
The process went as so: my eldest had been in the kitchen playing with some transport stamps and pens. He then announced that he wanted to write a story. It starred (or, at least, started with) a girl called Donna. My wife explained that he muttered excitedly as he drew lines between Donna and the different stamped images, then, when he had reached ‘The End’ (capitals added by me), he retold it to us in full. We prompted him with ‘what happened next?’ etc., but the story was ‘his’ to tell. And it was so so exciting to behold. Here are some of his key sentences:
“The boat hit a big rock and it sunk into the sea.”
“She went too fast on the motorbike so she had to stop.”
“The firemen squirted out the fire.”
“The train took the fire away because a steam train needs a fire to make it go.”
“It puffed and it puffed but smoke went into the pistons.”
“It choo-chooed along the track and went into the tunnel.”
“It was a London train with rats on the tracks.”
While it won’t win any awards, I think he’s done a pretty good job at such a tender age.
The thing that struck me about his story was that its every nuance and detail could be traced to one of his experiences, both direct (i.e. visits, discussions, games etc) or indirect (books, TV, films etc): rats on the ‘London train’ is from our recent rides on the tube (“Look – over there! You just missed one…”); the ‘puffed and it puffed’ are a variation on the Big Bad Wolf’s catchphrase and the ‘boat hitting a big rock’ were paraphrased from a story I’d made up for him a few nights before, itself based on Thomas the Tank Engine.
Chances are, most educators would agree that this holds true for most children’s imaginary play and stories in their formative years. It also made me revisit a well-trodden thought: when does his mishmash of ideas and experiences truly constitute an original piece of writing? Or is he just riffing on a set idea in a similar way to the reliably effective planning sequence (read ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’…. write ‘We’re Going on a Tiger Hunt’) of many Early Years and KS1 book studies?
And, more soberingly, if, like my lovely son, novices talk about (and therefore, write) only what they know and experience, how do we rate the chances of pupils without access to trips to London, regular reading sessions, or even just the books themselves?
“Children’s literacy levels are strongly influenced by the number of books they are exposed to in the home, irrespective of household income or parental education.”
Lost for Words: poor literacy, the hidden issue in child poverty, National Literacy Trust, 2013
Another link here is the ubiquitous attack on SPaG in primary. While I don’t particularly agree with all of this recent article from the Guardian*,
Ditch the grammar and teach children storytelling instead
… I can see that those pupils without early access to reading materials and learning experiences need to be immersed and captivated by books, rather than being able to identify a plural noun suffix (Year 1) or a subordinating conjunction (Year 2). I acknowledge that the two are not mutually exclusive, but wouldn’t a triage approach to an English curriculum (core knowledge, love of stories, love of reading, love of vocabulary firm and established before higher-order ‘naming of parts’ grammar etc) make much more sense than the blunt instrument of primary SPaG assessment?
Similarly, I’d like to think that my current Year 6 class are confident enough in their writing composition skills to subtly combine both their knowledge of grammar and punctuation with the deeper skill of crafting a good page-turner. But I’d probably be deluding myself. They stop and check so often for semi-colons, passive voice and adverbials that their writing becomes stilted, soulless and a chore for the writer.
In other words, the absolute opposite of ‘Donna’s Exciting Transport Adventure’.
That blog was more rambly than I wanted it to be.
All constructive feedback will be welcomed.
* Particularly this rather glib bit: “What everyone on both sides of the debate seems to be missing is that storytelling can be taught and tested.” Please, please explain how you can ‘test’ storytelling… and allow teachers in on the secret. You’d make
millions thousands hundreds if you sold the idea to Twinkl a few quid.