April 19, 2021

Children's Writing

A Discovery – why children breaking the rules in writing really works

Like many teachers, I have spent a lot of time reading children’s writing and I have had the privilege of having a lot more time to do this in the last three years. Since my retirement from school, I have been working with Emu Ink turning children into published authors, as well as facilitating adult creative writing classes with Knocklyon Community School Adult Education.

I have discovered that, in general, children’s first drafts are usually more successful than adults. This is especially true in the case of those adults who are ‘new’ to writing after an absence of many years. I think this is simply due to the fact that children are intrinsically honest. Apart, perhaps, from those who have been assigned a writing piece in school (and sometimes even those), children generally write because they want to tell a story or they wish to express themselves and how they are or were feeling when an event happened. Unlike adults, they don’t automatically self-censor, consistently self-edit or criticise their efforts as they are in the process of writing. They generally just let the words flow.

            They also ‘break the rules,’ (often because they are not aware of them!) and this can really work. A sentence like “She opened the door” does not require any artificial literary enhancements to allow the reader to understand the action and to move the story on to ‘meaningful action.’ Sometimes we just need to know that she opened it, so that we know she is now inside and we can get on with getting to the heart of the story. Telling (not showing) is actually effective some of the time.

Children also instinctively use their senses in their writing of past events because they are self-aware and, perhaps, are not yet numbed to their sensory feelings by years of repetition and frequency.

            Their point of view is often unique. Because they learn through play so much of the time, they are used to freely giving their opinion, negotiating for turns and rewards and it is easy for them to see the story from a different point of view to themselves or to the protagonist.

Teachers and parents sometimes get too caught up in the ‘secretarial skills’ of writing, such as punctuation and grammar, when reviewing and evaluating children’s writing. I know that as a young teacher I often viewed it as a failure of my own teaching if children’s written works were littered, or even sprinkled, with common spelling and punctuation errors. My focus was too often on correcting those instead of rejoicing in the quality of the imaginative piece. Of course, there is a time and place for the teaching of these skills but I posit that it is not during the creative writing class. These are separate processes and use different parts of the brain.

Neuroscience suggests that the right side of our brain governs evocative, imaginative language. We use this part of our brain to engage emotions and to include sensory details in our writing, to make connections between ideas and this is to be encouraged during the creative writing process. The left side of our brain, on the other hand, is associated with precise language and analytical thought and it is this part of the brain that is engaged in the revision and editing time. This is when, as teachers and parents, we can teach a particular aspect of grammar, punctuation or spelling without interrupting the child’s creative process.

When adults are advised to become more ‘childlike’ and to live in the moment, we could also take this advice on board in our writing lives.

It is a particular privilege currently to be reading our children’s recounts of their lockdown experiences through the vehicle of Emu Ink’s, The Covid Book Project. Their accounts will be a powerful tool in the arsenal of future teachers who will be imparting knowledge of these strange times to future children. They will have the tools to teach through the eyes and words of other children who lived through these times.


April 9, 2021

West Belfast. April 2021

As I throw the home-made pipe bomb at the line of police vans in West Belfast, I wish I were at home watching the latest series of Shtisel.

My father hates Catholics. All of them. I don’t blame him for that. He’s cheering me on. I can hear his goading and catcalls above all the others. “Fenian bastards! PSNI scumbags!”

I run back over to him and watch him mopping the beads of sweat that threaten to become a river down his face. He’s using the same rag he used earlier to wipe some of the acrylic spills I left on the kitchen table. His sweat mixes with the green and orange. I hope he doesn’t notice. He stuffs the rag down the side of his wheelchair.

“Good lad! That showed ‘em.”

“Come on Dad, let’s go home. I don’t want to get caught.”

“Don’t worry about that, son. Sure you’re only 15. You’ll get off with a warning.  You’re a brave lad. I knew you could do it.”

I am two episodes into Season 3 and am fascinated by Kiva. He’s an ultra orthodox Jew, but he stuck to his dream of becoming a full-time artist. He loves his father but he has dreams of his own.

I wish I were as brave as Kiva. I wish my father had dreams of his own.