Literacy skills in the UK have improved over the last few years, but writing skills have not improved at the same rate.
There is also a divergence between boys and girls – girls doing markedly better than boys when it comes to writing. It goes without saying that poor writing skills are a major hinderance for individuals in modern society, leading to poor life chances and outcomes.
I’ve come to think that it possible that the missing element in the teaching of writing is art and drawing – the teaching and practice of which has been sliding off he curriculum in recent years.
Reading is not the same as writing. The author of a novel, newspaper article or financial report, builds a scaffold upon which the reader overlays images from their experience.
The scaffold is constructed by an experienced practitioner – the writer.
Great writers receive acclaim because they build strong scaffolds for readers to build on.
If the reader does not have the prerequisite experience, then a good writer explains, clarifies and enthuses, filling in the reader’s missing knowledge.
Writing is the transmission of visualised thought.
All writing comes from thought. All thought is visualisation. Writing is an advanced form of creating images from visualised thought. Words are advanced forms of pictograms. Letters are advanced forms of marks made on the walls of caves.
Reducing time for drawing, art and visual interpretation in the curriculum, leaves children without the visualisation skills needed to “dream up” what they are being asked to write.
Visualisation skills are immediately transferable to all other subjects as well as being the foundation of self-confidence and ambition in life.
Children in school are in the process of becoming experienced practitioners of writing. Some, however, are pure visual thinkers – others think in dance movement or mathematical equations – words are not the natural medium of choice for all children.
Almost every child comes to school with the ability to hold a pencil in their hand and make some sort of image. If not, they usually have a cultural or family background which is not probably supportive of education anyway. Books and drawing materials may not have figured in the early lives of those children so they don’t have the experience.
It is a joy to watch young children given a piece of paper and a pencil. With little direction they are off, creating worlds – transmitting their visualisations – writing with pictures!
Very often children’s drawings turn into stories, with added characters, scenery and situations – they are putting their visualisations onto paper, rehearsing the story they might go on to write as text.
As children get older, drawing becomes confused with “Art”. Children say they cannot draw, comparing themselves with famous adult artists. Quite often children are told by teachers that they can’t draw – the teacher, willingly admitting that they can’t draw either, does not take drawing seriously.
Drawing is a skill that can be learned – exactly the same way that the alphabet is learned and used to create words. Drawing has it’s own alphabet of shapes that can be combined to make images. Art is something that builds upon those skills. Drawing and Art are not the same.
Drawing is like writing. A little practice every day, learning shapes – like we learned letter shapes – will improve drawing skills. A little practice every day – putting those shapes together, the same way that in literacy children learn to put words together – will reap rewards and provide children with a parallel method of transmitting their visualised thoughts.
In real life, most text is accompanied by pictures. Newspapers, magazines, websites are all heavily illustrated. Often an article is built around a great picture. Very few people read blocks of text, that are unaccompanied by pictures, in their day to day lives.
It takes time to learn how to read a novel from beginning to end – to learn how to clothe that enormous scaffold. Children learn to read novels with training books – books with pictures. The number of pictures reduce as they get older and build their reading skills and stamina.
Similarly, children need to draw pictures to help them organise their visualisation skills to help them become confident writers.
Over the years, they will need to draw fewer images as they learn to rely on the pictures in their head.
“A picture speaks a thousand words,” as the saying goes.
Hooray! The DoE report – Reading: the next steps – gives official recognition to the idea that reading books is a good thing and that reading books matters.
Many people have always known this.
While every method available should be used to start children decoding those squiggles, to become confident decoders of text and deconstructers of grammar, it is only sustained reading that provides the exercise and practice to turn a decoder into a fluent, literate reader.
Decoding is not the same as reading – machines decode.
It is sustained reading that puts classroom exercises into context. It is sustained reading that shows vocabulary in context and juxtaposes words in new and exciting ways. It is sustained reading that shows what writing actually looks like, how grammar works and how it’s rules can be creatively broken or rearranged.
Sustained reading means reading a book from beginning to end – not a page of photocopied text and a paragraph of scene-setting.
Reading is probably the most important endeavour a modern child sets out to master.
In most of life’s endeavours, the practice required to become proficient is hard, boring and often painful.
The wonder of reading is that the practice needed to become proficient is neither boring or painful – it can be fun, exciting, terrifying, funny, sad, romantic, fantastic, silly or just plain loaded with amazing and wondrous facts and information.
Reading is a pleasure – if it is not made a task or a punishment and if the right books are found for each child. This requires the kind of knowledge an enthusiastic children’s librarian offers.
The report demands that “all children to be active members of a public library.”
I hope there are still libraries for them to go to and a few children’s librarians left who know what to put on the shelves.
Why would anyone have ever thought that reading doesn’t matter?