“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.