Stop teaching simile!

Just this week, the Guardian published an article under the headline: National curriculum is damaging children’s creative writing, say authors.

It struck me as a fairly reasonable article setting out the weird ways in which primary school teachers have ended up teaching creative writing, in order to reach the necessary criteria in the National Curriculum. I would actually argue that the new curriculum – and the removal of levels – has done something to remove those perverse incentives, but it’s going to take a while for change to filter through the system. So I’d like to start with a small step of advice for primary teachers up and down the country:

Stop teaching simile!

I would, under the same heading, stop bothering with metaphor and personification too, naturally. I’d actually like us to stop lots of things, but this one is clear-cut for me, despite being equally unpopular with the vast majority of my colleagues it seems.

Spend a year in almost any primary school classroom, and you can all but guarantee that simile will be taught at some point, whether it’s 6-year-olds or Year 6. It seems easy at first glance. In fact, children naturally use simile in their speech, so why would we not teach it as a writing tool?

The problem is, while the structure of simile is simple, the function of it is highly complex. When Dickens uses simile to describe a vision, he explains it “like a picture impossibly painted on a running river” – a phrase which conjures up a whole depth of feeling and transience; when a Year 4 child describes the man as being “as tall as a tree”, very little is added to the reader’s understanding.

The reality is, while it’s important that we introduce children to these techniques as readers, and help them to understand the subtle nuances of meaning and additional depth they provide, the skill of actually writing a useful, meaningful simile that adds to the reader’s understanding or engagement is way beyond that of the typical adult. A well-written simile can separate the greatest writers from the merely average; it does not differentiate such potential among 10-year-olds.

And don’t let’s even get started on metaphor or personification. Teaching such things to eight-year-olds is much like teaching Pythagoras’ theorem to them. Yes, it’s possible, and certainly it’s achievable to have a technically accurate result on the page. But this appearance of understanding is illusory.

Similes are not alone in this way. Teachers, schools and publishers have worked up all numbers of tricks and techniques to teach the necessary strategies to achieve a higher level. Our system demanded it. But the new one doesn’t. It’s notable that the word ‘simile’ appears only once in the new primary curriculum, to state that children should be taught the term in Year 5/6 to support their understanding of reading; there is no expectation anywhere that they write them.

Of course I’m not arguing that they should be banned. But in an education system where there are never-ending complaints about an over-crowded curriculum, this is one of many aspects that we can safely cut out and nothing will be lost. Indeed, maybe we might just save creative writing from further damage?

And if I never see “as fast as a cheetah” or “as cold as a block of ice” every again… then all the better.

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19 thoughts on “Stop teaching simile!

  1. S. Rance 25 June 2015 at 4:12 pm Reply

    I once spent a month teaching, what I thought were, the finer points of figurative language which resulted in ‘her face was as round as a circle’… I nearly wept.

  2. suecowley 25 June 2015 at 4:23 pm Reply

    I wish I could find that letter and offer to sign it! The use of adverbs to ‘explain’ the word ‘said’ is a particular bugbear, as is something called ‘sentence starters’ which my kid learned at school, although I’m not really clear what they actually are. She came home with a story the other day and when I read it, it felt like wading through a string of techniques rather than a typical child’s story.

    I think the best place for simile with young kids is probably when writing a poem, so that they get to try out the technique and understand what it is, but they don’t end up throwing it liberally into their story writing.

    This is only going to get worse, though, with those draft SATs tests asking children to ‘name the parts’ in a poem, as though doing so was the same as literary analysis.

  3. nancy 25 June 2015 at 5:28 pm Reply

    I have to say, as part of my role this year I have been a KS2 moderator for writing, and, based on the sample I have seen, there has been a lot less ‘checklist writing’, thank heavens. Children still go through the same braid stages of writing development, but the tendency for purple prose is lessened…at least where checklists haven’t been used.
    If they are, poetry, the ideal vehicle for understanding and giving creative language a whirl (which we would, in all fairness, like children to do) goes out of the window.

    • l4l1 27 June 2015 at 1:17 pm Reply

      I totally agree. Look at how very young children tell jokes. First there is the form then the substance comes later. It depends how deep you go down the rabbit hole I guess? Exposure to the forms and other things like simile and metaphor suffer from a surface lip service to their use in practice in lessons – often. I well remember the inclusion of concrete poetry and the sins visited on children in past curricula. Get out something like the Exeter Book and read that to people and analyse it. Get as many examples of good metaphors and similes as possible in context and break them down. It’s a bit like cryptic crosswords – unless you know all the ground rules you aren’t going to be able to unpick and provide solutions. Make them transparent and the key is understanding and being able to cognate around that surely – the bit where the penny drops and, yes, that may often be down to maturation? Poetry provides the ideal context for this – it is a hyper focused distillation of language making or news that satys news if you prefer and it often encompasses the unwritten in terms of life experience – filling in the ellipsis beyond the words by such acts of evocation. With language you’ve got to be in it to win it, delve deep or not at all, even if it means you don’t understand at first. Churning out facile exemplars doesn’t help – and no excuses for we haven’t got time please.

  4. Christopher Adamson 25 June 2015 at 6:10 pm Reply

    That’s a good point about terrible similes. I’m embarrassed to say that I think I wrote some horrendous lines relating the a running person to the wind when I was in primary school… What would be the right time developmentally to teach these concepts? I just think metaphor and both/and thinking are so important for understanding poetry and novels that I would like to see a seed planted somehow…

    • Michael Tidd 25 June 2015 at 6:14 pm Reply

      The seed is planted through reading. But invariably at the moment children are expected to write similes into their narratives long before they ever read a story containing one of any interest.

  5. cazzypot2013 26 June 2015 at 1:20 am Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  6. thequirkyteacher 26 June 2015 at 5:53 am Reply

    Agree with this. Sometimes I think though that there is too much emphasis on flowery, stylistic and ‘creative’ language, and not enough emphasis on punctuation and grammar.

    For the first time in their academic lives, the children in my class have had discrete grammar lessons, and they have learned the actual rules of punctuating clauses separated by coordinating conjunctions for example. It has been revelatory for many, particularly the SEN cohort in my class, and those boys who struggle with writing are now much more confident (they had told me they struggled with the concept of ‘just put a comma where you take a breath’).

    Whilst English is not my forte (I am a maths specialist), and therefore I am not as qualified to pass comment as those who write for a living, I really feel that the nuts and bolts of writing should be taught discretely and directly, if children are to have any chance of being able to write in a creative way.

    I’m really pleased that the new curriculum lends a greater weighting to SPG, and I think many secondary schools will start to see the writing ability of their new intakes start to improve over the next few years.

    What doesn’t help, is when the Literacy coordinator books an author to come and speak to the school, and said author tells that whole school the following:

    a) girls are better than boys at writing
    b) spelling, grammar and punctuation do not matter; you just have to be ‘creative’ and ‘let it flow’
    c) anyone can be a famous writer if they just believe in themselves

    I shit ye not; these sentiments are actually rather commonplace, but the author just happened to have the attention of the whole school because they were ‘famous’.

  7. chrisanicholson 26 June 2015 at 7:23 am Reply

    I have a vivid memory of helping in my older daughter’s year 2 classroom in the late 90s, just before the implementation of the National Literacy Strategy, sitting with a group of children and almost dragging “creative” similes out of them in order to put together poems which were then “celebrated” as examples of their creative work.

    In that school, at that time, “creativity” (always of the artistic sort) was talked about endlessly and clearly valued above everything else. I remember being so angry for my daughter, who was not creative in this way, and who struggled to write stories, but who was enthusiastic about learning, well-behaved, eager to participate in class, hard-working, and kind – values that were all too clearly much lower on the list of qualities to be “celebrated”. I’ve made this comment as an illustration of where the ideas criticised in this piece came from, in terms of the fetishisation of “creativity”.

    • l4l1 27 June 2015 at 1:32 pm Reply

      Perhaps people need to go back to the definition of “create”?

  8. Beth G-G 26 June 2015 at 6:54 pm Reply

    My Uncle Mike told us a story years ago of some homework their class was given to complete a list of about 50 phrases – ‘As blind as…’ ‘As happy as…’ ‘As white as…’ etc. When they were asked by the teacher how many they’d managed to complete, most had got more than half but one boy had got nearly all of them. The teacher was mightily impressed and got the boy to read out his answers to the class. He stood and gave his answers ‘As blind as can be. As happy as can be. As white as can be…’. Not sure how it went down with the teacher but it clearly stuck with my Uncle Mike for 40 years🙂

  9. suecowley 26 June 2015 at 7:05 pm Reply

    We shouldn’t forget that being allowed to write badly before you write well is all part of the process, and writing badly is not just about missing out punctuation or confusing grammar. I suspect we’ve all written a fair few bad similes in our time, and you don’t jump to perfect command of the language without being allowed to make lots of mistakes first. (Well, I didn’t, at least.)

  10. Miss Clark_RE Teacher 27 June 2015 at 9:54 am Reply

    Reblogged this on RE & Philosophy.

  11. julietgreen 27 June 2015 at 5:18 pm Reply

    This points to a major flaw in the national curriculum, whereby ‘desirable’ features of writing are turned into prescriptions, in the belief that following these will lead to ‘improved standards’. Would it be too much to suggest that writing should be taught by people who can write? In fact, I would nail my colours to the mast of expertise in all the subjects, and then perhaps we could do away with the decontextualised prescriptions altogether.

  12. mmiweb 7 July 2015 at 2:57 pm Reply

    The dangers are, I believe, between the instrumental and the conceptual natures of ideas. At this time we have an instrumentalist set of politicians who have the idea that you can nail down the rules into a simplistic and formalistic form as this is something which is then easy to test. This can especially be seen in the ridiculous guidance as to what is a question and what is an exclamation that has just been issued. It is so much easier to mark a child parsing a sentence or delineating the parts of a poem rather than to mark the quality of either of these and if you are obsessed (as this government is) with testing, quantifying and then league tabling then this is an inevitable curriculum consequence.

  13. Onlyamanatee 27 July 2015 at 1:59 pm Reply

    Part of the point of figurative language is the element of surprise. I do wonder sometimes if that gets forgotten in explanations of it. The other thing is that what is surprising and new to an 8-year-old is not new to the rest of us – but that’s as it should be, isn’t it…?

  14. […] you haven’t already read my rant Stop teaching simile! then I’d suggest starting with that first. However, having started something, now things keep […]

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