W(h)ither writing?

I’m in a lot of Primary schools at the moment looking at the writing done in Year 6. One of the many things that strikes me is the loving care that pupils devote to presentation of the finished product. A piece of writing may take a week or more to develop, with various teaching strategies used along the way to draw attention to different aspects of composition and technical accuracy , but there might be another week in getting the piece to the standard required for inclusion in a “Theme” or “Topic” book. Often this will include the selection of paper that looks right for a particular effect, and a typeface will be chosen to enhance the look. Various images might be placed around the central text, and a whole panoply of pockets, fold out charts and arrows added to assist the reader.

What happens to this impressive approach to writing when little Johnny moves up the road to the local Secondary? The evidence suggests that he’ll get an English exercise book which might be used for anything and everything from rough notes to scribbled drawing to full length stories. Presentation will be very low down on the list of priorities, if there at all, and the opportunity to produce something via a computer is usually limited to those who have the time and the inclination to do something with their final version at home.

Does this matter? If Johnny’s writing improves, isn’t the presentation aspect merely decorative? Well, to some extent yes. But – and it’s a big but – the art of presentation makes up a goodly chunk of the way writing is perceived in the modern world. Since the vast majority of writing now requires a keyboard rather than a pen, the look of the piece becomes all important. It’s why people spend ages poring over the most appropriate theme for their blog, or tinker endlessly with the look of their web pages. The content is, presumably, enhanced by the look. If your first reaction to a piece on your screen is, “Ugh, that’s hideous!”, you’re presumably less likely to be influenced by the words of wisdom contained within the offending design.

So w(h)ither writing? Do we just have to accept that “they do things differently in big school”, or that interest in the look of something inevitably fades, along with interest in writing at all as puberty kicks in? If the proportion of time and energy devoted to presentation in early secondary school could match that in primary, would progress in writing slow down? Somehow, I doubt it.


Marking time

It’s that time of year again. The annual ritual of marking Key Stage 2 tests has begun, with the inevitable practice session on the Online Marking System. The system doesn’t really change year on year, except for a few minor tweaks, but we’re all forced to go through a little rehearsal to test our competence in checking attendance registers and entering marks, just so we show that we can do it – exactly as we did last year.

The principal difference this year is that most of us are only marking the Reading paper. For some reason best known to himself, St Michael of the Gove decided that teachers could be trusted to come up with levels for Writing themselves. Except of course that they couldn’t. The Local Authority has to sample 20% of its schools, with fully trained moderators turning up to verify that the poor Year 6 teachers haven’t cheated and given their entire class Level 4 or better. (Funny how LAs come in so handy sometimes, isn’t it? Most of the time they’re lambasted for being an inefficient and bureaucratic burden on the schools.) So out go the mind-numbing spelling test and the Shorter and Longer Writing Tasks – or perhaps that should be outsourced – and we’re left with 35 questions to mark, most of which are either right or wrong, much like Maths questions. That we’re allowed to mark them speaks volumes for the fact that it’s difficult to get the marking wrong, so schools are unlikely to complain about their Reading marks and levels (though no doubt some still will).

So … London calling, and the prospect of a long morning holed up in a windowless hotel room with a Team Leader’s voice exhorting us to be fair and accurate in all our work. Oh yes, and definitely to meet our deadlines.

Passnotes: a Wendy Cope poem

Wendy Cope: Lonely Hearts


The poem is a villanelle. This is traditionally a form used for love poetry when the poet is yearning for love, but unable to find it. In terms of structure, it’s a poem of 19 lines, featuring 5 x 3 line verses (known as tercets) followed by a 4 line verse (a quatrain). The villanelle also only allows 2 rhyming sounds. The 1st and 3rd lines of the first verse rhyme, and these lines then form a refrain or chorus which is repeated alternately as the third line of each verse, and then come together again as a couplet (a pair of lines that rhyme) at the very end.

It’s a very, very complicated structure. There’s an irony in that the speaker asks for a “simple wish” in an extremely complicated way.

The speaker

The poem is probably spoken by a woman (it works if it’s a man, but it is a little strained). She’s scanning the “Lonely Hearts” column of a newspaper in search of someone to form a relationship with. All we know about the speaker is that she’s “successful, straight and solvent” and that she probably lives in North London, since she would like her prospective lover to be from that area, too.

The “story” of the poem

Each verse contains one or two of the adverts that the speaker is reading. Each of the characters who’s placed an advert has tried to sum up their qualities very briefly, and sometimes also say what they’re looking for in a partner. There’s quite a range of types, and we could argue that the speaker is becoming increasingly desperate as she scans each ad and moves on. She seems prepared to consider almost anyone provided they live in North London, and asks herself about each one: “Is it you?”. You could argue that this is funny, and chuckle about this woman poring over the adverts, or equally that it’s sad as she seems quite desperate for a partner.

How form and content combine

We’ve already noted the contrast between the “simple wish” and the highly complicated form. It’s also worth reflecting on the fact that the ending of the poem leaves matters unresolved. There’s no definite choice made, so we might imagine the speaker continuing to scan lonely hearts columns as she searches for something to take her out of her current situation.

It’s worth pointing out, too, that the form of the poem is very restraining – there are rules about how it must be written and a poet can’t break them once the villanelle form has been chosen. This might suggest that the speaker is very restrained and rule-bound. If this is the case, then the fact that she’s looking at ads from a “gay vegetarian” or a “male biker” becomes quite amusing. Perhaps she’s desperate to break out of her conventional, rule governed existence?