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Obsession with ’literacy’ stifling writing talent, says Morpurgo

Tuesday 27 October 2015

Michael Morpurgo has said a drive to improve literacy is strangling a generation of storytellers

By Javier Espinoza, Education Editor

25 Oct 2015

He is one of the country’s foremost writers, whose fantastical novels enthral children and adults alike.

But Michael Morpugo has warned that the Government’s obsession with improving "literacy" threatens to stifle the next generation of storytellers.

The former children’s laureate said that instead of talking about “literacy” when it comes to getting children to read, we should talk about “stories, poems, literature, creativity”.

Mr Morpugo, author of War Horse and Private Peaceful, suggested pupils should put aside half an hour a day and dedicate it to writing stories as a way of nurturing a new generation of "authors who created Toad, and Just William, and Winnie the Pooh".

Key measures of literacy include the ability to decode regular words and read them aloud, as well being able to read some common irregular words and show pupils understand what they have read.

But, writing for Teach Primary magazine, Mr Morpurgo takes issue with this approach, which he says is at odds with nurturing creativity.

He says: “’Literacy’ is the government’s word now, and it’s not one of which I am fond, loaded as it has become with political baggage.

“It is certainly good that over the past few decades we have recognised that the whole subject of reading, and getting children to read, is of prime importance – but rather than ‘literacy’, I wish we could talk about poems, literature, creativity.

He takes issue with the word “literacy” because, in his view, once you label a child’s “relationship with language” it tends to be mostly about writing and it tends to exclude drama, poetry and prose.

The award-winning children’s author accused politicians and teachers of just focusing on outcomes. He wrote: “Everyone is fixated on this idea about measuring what a child learns in terms of being able to satisfy the examiners tomorrow.”

He said: “Those authors who created Toad, and William, and Winnie the Pooh didn’t do it because they went to school and Did Literacy. Those stories came from a different place of learning, where children were allowed to explore, even when it became uncomfortable.”

The former teacher added: “It would be wonderful, I think, if there could be half an hour at the end of every school day (that time when everyone knows you don’t teach or learn anything anyway) given entirely to story making.

“This used to happen at the last school I taught at – for the final thirty minutes the teachers would read to the children, or there would be drama, or writing, or music, or all of them at once.

“It was the eagerly anticipated treat after hard work; and once it was over there was no discussion, no questions, no test. It was all about the moment, and everyone loved it. “That’s the kind of excitement we have to leave room for in the curriculum… otherwise, teachers are left constantly trying to push a rock uphill.

“When children want to learn, they will. You can force feed them, of course, and it will produce the goods in the short term – but it won’t easy their progress through life.”

A Department for Education spokesman said: “Teachers are free to structure the school day in the way that works best for them and this can include giving their students time to write stories in the way Mr Morpurgo has suggested.”

Nick Gibb, the schools minister, said: “We want every child, regardless of their background, to read widely and read well, giving them the greatest opportunity to fulfil their potential.

“The best way to achieve this is to develop a love of reading from as early an age as possible and that’s why we have funded the Reading Agency to expand its Chatterbox book clubs scheme in primary schools. We have also replaced the overly prescriptive curriculum with a new slimmed down version that gives teachers the freedom to use the methods they know best that will inspire their pupils.”

© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2015

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