Write by Numbers

“Co-ordination is used to balance noun phrases and clauses …”
“Fronted subordinate clause foregrounds …”
“Relative clause modifies the noun phrase …”
“Modal verbs denote ability and possibility …”

(From ‘Working at the Expected Standard: Leigh’ in the Teacher Assessment Exemplification for Key Stage 2 Writing)

What do these things even mean? I mean, I know what most of these things mean, if I force myself to concentrate really hard, but I have absolutely no idea why we would choose to look at a child’s writing in this way. Writing is not successful because it does or does not contain fronted subordinate clauses or modal verbs; writing does not work because it does or does not use ‘co-ordination’ (whatever the hell that is). Writing works when it has rhythm, and style, and passion. Writing works when it conveys meaning to the reader, and makes the reader see the world in a slightly different way. Writing works when it is about a writer, with a sense of purpose, speaking to an audience, on their own terms. This approach to the assessment of writing is positively harmful, although not because of the grammatical terms themselves – the terms are simply a way to describe how language works. The reason it is harmful is because of what it potentially does to the way that children are taught (“Make sure to include a fronted adverbial!”). It is harmful because of the ridiculous level of expectation of our young writers. And it is harmful because of the way that, if Hemingway were to be assessed for Key Stage 2 writing, he would be marked down as a total failure.

When I sit down to create a piece of writing, I do not do it by sticking together a series of grammatical constructions, one after the other, until I have created a sentence. I take the contents of my brain, and I try to figure out a way to put my thoughts onto the page in a way that will appeal to a reader. I take the greatest of care not to make my writing any more complicated than it absolutely has to be – that is my job as an author. If I caught myself using a ‘fronted adverbial’ to start a sentence, I would strip it back out again in the edit, and tell myself to stop being so convoluted and overblown. Even as an author, as someone who makes my living out of moving words around on a page, I do not approach writing in this way. I have to confess that I have absolutely no idea why the Government has produced such a ridiculous set of documents about teacher assessment of writing. When I read them (especially when I read the Key Stage 1 version), I found myself torn between ripping my own eyes out in sheer frustration, and sobbing at what we are doing to our youngest writers. But mostly I just sat open mouthed, in complete confusion, about what sentences like this could possibly mean: “A range of fronted adverbials, including single adverbs, phrases and clauses, delays the use of the imperative verb, providing variety of sentence structure.” And then I realised. We are not meant to teach children to write as a form of self expression anymore. We must teach them to write by numbers.

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12 Responses to Write by Numbers

  1. Abby says:

    It’s really soul-destroying when you are forced to teach in a way you don’t agree with due to external accountability measures that make writing worse, not better.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Peritract says:

    I do find it distressing that the curriculum seems to promote bad writing. You end up with a choice between teaching students to write well, and teaching students to show off the techniques that get them the marks. It’s not fair if you don’t show them to succeed against the metric that they will be judged by, and it causes difficulties for both you and them. On the other hand, teaching them to move up levels is often not helpful (or even actively damaging) when actually getting them to be better writers.

    In reality, writing that is stuffed full of “powerful words” is often bad writing. Not everything needs minor sentences, or one sentence paragraphs. An awful lot of “complex punctuation”, which students are expected to display mastery of, just isn’t that common, and that’s okay; not everything needs a semicolon. The requirement to demonstrate the use of these skills, whether or not they are appropriate, is extremely misguided.

    Liked by 4 people

    • suecowley says:

      It’s terribly sad, I keep having to remind my ten year old kid that this doesn’t equate to ‘good writing’ and she can start a sentence with ‘And’ if she wants to.


  3. Ahh, thanks for this. I couldn’t have been more emotionally distant from writing by the time my formal education finished. Now I’ve got hold of myself again, it turns out writing is the best and only real way I’m able to connect with my own thoughts. Chasing the write by numbers rules pulled me so far from myself, I was suffering under anxiety until (by chance and luck) I found real writing again, post graduation. It’s nice that some nice people like to get all excited about the words that describe the words that make lovely sentences. That’s lovely for them and I’m glad they have each other, but I don’t know why they ever made my teachers bend to their pleasures, because that broke me; a student who was only trying to do well at school.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. LuckyJim says:

    I see a lot of this in my school in the writing produced by our more able children. They have learned that successful writing means showcasing all the techniques on the “steps to success” for the lesson, rather than producing a piece of writing that engages the reader and communicates meaning clearly (which is surely the purpose of any written communication). As a result, I see a lot of dry, list-like writing featuring linguistic devices that were not necessarily needed at all.

    Of course, for mature writers, fronted adverbials, relative clauses, modal verbs etc are often exactly the sort of linguistic devices that help to engage a reader and communicate clearly. Sadly, listing them on an assessment framework seems to inevitably lead to them being shoe-horned into pieces of writing, rather than chosen because they are the most effective tool to communicate meaning.

    The reality of teaching, with all the workload and accountability pressures it carries, means that teachers often feel forced to look for the shortest route to getting children to use these devices in their writing. Somewhere along the line, we lose sight of the entire purpose of the written word!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Pingback: Say What!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?! | Freeing the Angel

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