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The Art of Writing

Our weekly blog has been written by Carly Shapland, Head of English & Media, who talks about growing confidence and not being afraid of releasing your inner writer.

Writing the final teacher blog of the year is a bit of a toughy: Is anyone still reading these? What if they are looking for inspiration for their holiday reading list and all I manage to do is put everyone off? Why am I spending my afternoon doing this when there is a stock take to do in the book cupboard?

The staff blog is always my nemesis. I am an English and Media teacher who loves reading and analysing but I am not a fan of writing. At all. Not even a little bit. Nope.

On the one hand it puts me in a uniquely empathetic position when a pupil struggles to write, whether that be creatively, transactionally, or analytically. On the other, it means I am next to useless when they ask the inevitable “But how do I get started?”

Apparently “just write something, anything, you can always change it later”, is never the advice they are looking for.

Recently, I dabbled with AI with one of my very talented Year 13 pupils, Sophie. We were frustrated at the lack of exemplar material available on a particular text; she was finding her dyslexia was getting in the way of clearly writing what she wanted to in an essay and I didn’t have the time (or self-assurance if I am honest!) to write an exemplar for her.

So we asked ChatGPT.

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It gave us possibly the worst essay either of us had ever seen and a jolly good giggle about exactly what a computer thinks an English A Level essay looks like. My brain nearly popped with indignation that it wrote the entire thing without a single supporting quotation. It also turns out that writing “how do you know this?” is a great prompt for getting English and Media pupils to substantiate their arguments but not an AI bot, which, quite frankly, was just plain insolent in its responses about stored data and only getting out what you put in!

However, it did get me thinking…

What can we as adults’ input into our young people’s minds to support them in writing clearly, confidently and with focus?

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I have written before about the benefits of reading and reading widely. It is thoroughly researched and proven that this will give a knowledge of different text types; how different texts are organised, as well as building, that ever so important, vocabulary that makes writing fluently and with authority easier in any subject, not just English. But there is far more to it than that, of this I am certain, given that my son is an avid reader but still, at the end of year 6, would rather do anything, and I mean anything, but write.

How do we instil confidence around writing, even when there are barriers like dyslexia to overcome?

Modelling writing is one of the key things we can all do: sharing examples of the processes we use to edit and shape letters, emails, reports and for those who write creatively, the creative process. Pupils (and my son) like nothing better than spotting typos and punctuation errors when I write or type and share what I am doing; it is certainly a great way to prove that no one is perfect. Of course, shaping a text publicly in that way does mean ‘putting yourself out there’ a little and I am not suggesting sharing the drafts of revenue reports destined for the CEO, but when you can write with or in front of young people it really is helpful.

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Another approach, particularly with younger writers is to let them write freely. Don’t correct the handwriting, don’t correct the spelling, or the punctuation, or even the grammar. Trust me when I say, as a Standard English pedant, that bit of advice isn’t easy to give.

But it works.

As children’s language skills develop over time writing correctly does start to come more naturally, an inner voice develops that forces them to use the correct syntax and punctuation. And if it doesn’t, there is always auto correct!

Writing is often a case of pick your battles, particularly with the most reluctant writers. Of course, the more advanced the course being studied the greater the need for fluency. And we know fluency comes with accuracy, so we can’t ignore technical accuracy forever. Nonetheless, pushing too hard too soon, or when a young person is having genuine difficulty, can cause more long term problems than it solves.

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Finally, don’t forget, writing is a fine motor skill. It’s not just writing with a pen or tapping your fingers around over a keyboard that helps develop the muscles necessary for writing. Buttons, needle threading, folding clothes, cooking, and Lego (to name but a few activities) all help to develop and maintain the strength needed for the physical aspects of writing.

Anyone that doubts the need to make sure that hand and digit strength is maintained into adulthood to keep the writing flowing: one of my poor year 13 pupils, who had a 2 hour History A Level exam followed by a 3 hour Literature exam, can attest – when the cramp sets in, the ideas most definitely stop following!

As for reading recommendations for the summer: anything that brings the reader joy is always my number one tip. I am currently finishing off The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters and will be following it with Corregidora by Gayl Jones. And for the younger readers, if you haven’t come across A F Steadman’s Skandar series, complete with carnivorous elementally powered, battling unicorns: give it a go. … I have to confess I haven’t picked up much Young Adult fiction recently, but Emily in year 10 tells me The Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson is worth a read.

Mrs Shapland
Head of English & Media