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.