‘My spelling isn’t that great’: Michael Morpurgo on why teaching kids to love writing is more important than grammar

I didn’t love reading at all when I was young. As a teacher, I loved it, and now as a reader, I love it. But I was put off the whole idea of words very early on.

Some years ago, I was made to do a key stage 2 (seven to 11 years old) English test. I don’t even want to tell you how I did, but it wasn’t good. I find expressions such as “fronted adverbials” and “subordinate conjunctions” extraordinarily abstract and difficult to get my head around. But we’re stuck in the Michael Gove era, in which children are trained in analysing language in a way that seems to me to restrict and inhibit, rather than to encourage creativity. So I was glad to discover that someone has done some proper research on this part of Gove’s education reforms; UCL and University of York have found that this emphasis on grammar in primary school does not improve six- and seven-year-old children’s writing.

When I was a primary school teacher in the 1970s, in a village called Wickhambreaux, just outside Canterbury, we were free of such burdens. I was able to concentrate on encouraging children to find their own voices. That is what literacy is for – to express your thoughts, to discover the music in language, the joy of reading, and all the interest, knowledge and understanding we can gain through that. It is not the analysis of a sentence – that comes later.

As you read one story, they pick up a book by the same author or a similar book with a similar subject, and extend their reading on their own. And I extended their writing by saying to them: “Look, Roald Dahl was your age once. He sat down and wrote his first story. Why don’t we go and write our stories?” I would never make them sit down with a blank sheet of paper, and then say: “Do it”, which is what happens time and time again in tests up and down the country to this day. It’s an impossible task to set a child. You have to inspire them; you have to go out and trigger it somehow.

We would go for long walks up to the nature reserve, look at herons standing in the reeds, and we would be quiet. Then we would go back and write down what we felt about what we had seen. Some children would be descriptive; most were very thoughtful. But each of them was beginning to find their voice as a writer. They weren’t cramped by anything I was trying to teach them.

This is the opposite of how I was taught, at St Matthias primary school in London, which was very punishment-driven. There was fear in the classroom, and grammar and punctuation were part of that. It is now a wonderful school, where kindness and creativity go hand in hand.

I came from quite a bookish family. I was read to every night by my mum, who was an actor. She was guided by the instinct that if she loved a poem or a story, she wanted to tell me that story, or read me that poem. So I was handed the love of stories by my mother, but then went off to primary school, where I learned that words were not for storytelling, or music or fun. They were about spelling and punctuation, and if you got things wrong, you were in trouble.

I didn’t want to go into detention, but I did spend an awful lot of time there because I found the more red marks I got, the more I was scared. And when you’re scared, you don’t do things very well at all. I knew I was pretty good at telling lies, but I didn’t know I could be a storyteller until much later, when I was a teacher.

On World Book Day this year, a pupil asked me: “Do you ever make mistakes?” Of course I make mistakes. When I’m working on my own books, I often slip into a slack way of saying things, which is too oral, if you like. I’m reminded about it fairly firmly by good editors, and that’s fine – it’s a way of improving what’s already there, and refining it. My spelling isn’t that great, either; I’m quite ashamed of that sometimes. My grandson can spell things better than me. But that’s OK. It’s just a side of me that needs improvement. At 78, I’ve got plenty of time left.

I tell children to look at the manuscripts of writers far greater than I shall ever be, and the amount of crossings out that they do. Children are concerned about not getting it right, and that is part of the problem. But actually, it’s really good fun telling a story. I’ve been working on a new one this morning. I started the day thinking it was going to be one kind of a story. I started the first three or four sentences, which didn’t seem to go that well, so I crossed them out. That’s what you do – you judder and judder until you find the right tone for the story and a path seems to open up through the undergrowth in front of you, and you find a way to go. But it’s not going to be helped by a constant worry that the sentence you have just written is not correct.

I grew up with people telling me: never, never start any sentence with “and”; I start huge numbers of sentences with “and”. I’m not just trying to get back at some English teacher I had when I was 10. While I can see how you could overdo it, sometimes there’s a really good reason for doing it. And sometimes there’s a very good reason for having a comma rather than a full stop. It’s a matter of judgment, and not just rules. I think today’s rules are a misunderstanding of language. Grammar, punctuation and spelling are guidelines about how we frame our language, and very important in terms of communication, for accurately reflecting what it is we wish to say and how to be understood. But they’re not supposed to tie us up in knots.

It is important to keep our focus on every child becoming a reader, and having the experience of falling in love with Philip Pullman and Jane Austen and Shakespeare. It is not about teaching something that’s then got to be tested. If you do that, what will happen – and what has always happened in our system – is that those who succeed at that level are fine and go on their way towards university. And those who don’t succeed begin to feel that they’re failures and that language and books aren’t for them, because they’re not enjoyable, because they keep getting bad marks in tests. The problem with testing is that there are winners and losers and we have an education system that divides people very early on. More and more, what has been lacking in our primary schools is space in the curriculum for creativity, for exploring the potential of children in terms of the way they use language.

I often get letters from teachers and children correcting the grammar in my books, and they are quite right. But people can be over-obsessed by it. If you look at some of our great writers and you start analysing sentences, the poetry is what counts, the sound, the meaning. The grammar is supposed to be what serves that. It’s not what you start out with in the first place.

Michael Morpurgo was talking to Amy Fleming

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