‘Donna’s Exciting Transport Adventure’: Story Writing and Life Chances

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 (and beyond…).

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 so profoundly 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.


2 thoughts on “‘Donna’s Exciting Transport Adventure’: Story Writing and Life Chances

  1. That is pure talkforwriting in action. T4W is based on how children naturally acquire language through generative grammar. Small children will invent stories in a playful way, drawing on their lives as well as the stories that we read to them/ make up for them. They innovate on all of their story making equipment and use this as a resource to increasingly invent – the drawing is also a natural process and a significant one – from cave paintings to story maps…. children should be mapping and telling from nursery onwards through reception into year 1 as a daily event – By year 1, they should have moved into supplementing this by using writing to capture their stories. To allow for children’s growth in invention, it might be best to build into the English curriculum spaces between ‘taught units’ where there is a great starting point (e.g. film, book, drama, experience, etc) and children write freely as they wish. I have written about this in the latest talkforwriting free newsletter. Thanks for the blog – lovely to hear of all children letting the stories flow – and of course, the more you listen and show pleasure in what they do – the more they say and create. Hurray for story joy!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I have some sympathy for you here but for me the main issue is that the new primary literacy curriculum is in reality just the old literacy strategy with new objectives shoehorned in. This means some things have been overlooked, for example, there is no need for children to write in 9 different genres each year, especially not in Year 1. There is much scope for allowing reading and speaking/listening to take greater priority. I know some schools are trying new things but when I have researched school websites/worked in schools/looked at schemes of work over the last two years, next to nothing has changed.

    While I don’t have an issue with the teaching of grammar, I do think that without specific books being taught/studied on the curriculum, it will not be fit for purpose. Instead it becomes a vague wishlist of grammar terms that could be learnt in primary. I also wonder about the kind of grammar schemes of work being used, how much time is given to copying/imitation/parsing sentences (latter both verbally and in writing) to secure understanding. Rather like inference, I am wondering how much time needs to be spent teaching it and how much simply using the language. What needs to be part of teaching reading and what for writing? I think one of the issues is the lumping it all together approach which may well work for those who are literacy specialists to begin with (whether they can explain what they are doing or not) but leaves someone like me who isn’t nonethewiser.

    As trad as I am, I don’t want checklist writing but neither do I want to look at reams of unpunctuated writing or sentences/paragraphs that don’t make sense because of ingrained habits. I am not sure what the correct balance is overall but I do know it’s not been hit upon so far.

    Liked by 1 person

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