Why we need a National Writing Day
By Mónica Parle, Executive Director of First Story
Writing is as important as reading, so why is writing undervalued in our society?
For the past nine years I’ve worked as Executive Director for First Story, a literacy charity that runs after-school creative writing programmes in schools in low-income areas to encourage self-expression and confidence. I’ve been to countless meetings under the banner of ‘raising literacy standards’, only to find that most recommendations relate primarily to reading support. I often leave frustrated, wondering how society has become so one-sided about its approach to literacy. Most experts agree that literacy is a combination of multiple skills – reading, writing and oracy – but we always seem to reduce it to one.
Ahead of National Writing Day on June 27th, the National Literacy Trust recently published a report which found that “children and young people’s enjoyment of writing and how often they write in their spare time is in decline”. Fewer than 1 in 5 children write for non-school related reasons, and children outside London are the least likely to enjoy writing or to write beyond the school curriculum.
Everyone agrees writing is important, especially for young people, but discussions stall beyond this point. People claim writing is harder to teach than reading, because adults lack confidence in their own skills, or because no one can agree on what ‘good’ writing is. Therefore reading is simply easier to measure and assess.
I would argue that society’s lack of confidence is due to decades of writing being undervalued and subsequently under-invested in. It’s time to re-dress that imbalance.
Writing is such a fundamental part of our day-to-day lives. We make lists, send e-mails, sign children’s permission slips, write letters, and fill in forms. Obviously, reading is integral to all these functions, but if we couldn’t put pen to paper, we couldn’t fully engage in life. Every part of our lives is governed by the written word. Yet when we talk about how to improve literacy, why do we only focus on one side of the coin – reading?
Allowing the promotion of writing to lag far behind reading is to our detriment. Creative writing connects people to their own voices, to their homes, their languages and their own stories. Studies have also shown that writing can benefit educational growth, promote well-being and build confidence through self-expression.
One student on completing First Story’s after-school writing programme, described herself as feeling transformed “…from an insecure, lost, quiet, sixteen-year-old refugee, to a confident, defiant, ambitious, proud Scottish-African Muslim woman, who is determined to shape her future, and make life better for those around her.”
Writing and reading are completely interrelated, so why place so much emphasis on just one?
There is a valuable argument that teachers would struggle to teach creative writing on top of an already overwhelming workload. So why does the curriculum focus so much on the technical elements – on spelling, punctuation and grammar, on a student’s ability to label fronted adverbials, modal verbs and relative clauses – in disproportion to whether a piece is unique, whether it conveys what it sets out to do, or even whether we like it?
Of course, spelling, punctuation and grammar are critical skills, but they shouldn’t be put ahead of the intent and style of the piece, the reason we put pen to paper in the first place. My own six-year-old’s emphasis on formality rather than form concerns me greatly. I‘ve watched her grow from a child who scrawls in pink pen in her notebook to someone who frets over having straight lines and agonizes over using a pencil without a rubber. Gone are the days of the pink pen.
Children’s Laureate Lauren Child and authors Cressida Cowell and Michael Rosen have all been vocal about the need for more emphasis on writing for pleasure, but these calls don’t get the attention they deserve and they are not the subjects of national campaigns. Crucially, they are not taken up to the extent that the reading for pleasure agenda is, and our awareness of this imbalance led First Story to launch an annual UK celebration of writing, National Writing Day.
Becoming a confident writer requires experimentation, taking chances and discovering your own unique voice. It requires practice, and it requires play. Although it is often hard to write ‘well’ just the act of putting pen to paper, entirely for our own purposes, has tremendous well-being benefits. One of our supporters, Billy Bragg, said recently about his experience of literacy work in prisons, “I tell the inmates ‘Poetry won’t get out you out of here, but it can help explain to your family how you feel.”’
Reading and writing are not oppositional forces; they are complimentary ones. Being a strong reader does make you a better writer, but conversely approaching a piece of text as a strong writer, also makes you a better reader. They’re interactive.
Of course, there’s more to it if you want to become an award-winning writer, but to simply be a writer, all it takes is a pen, a piece of paper and some time to write, and read, and discuss.
Projects like National Writing Day remind us of the importance of creativity, especially in education. And, in the spirit of the ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ mentality, young people are more inclined to spend time writing if they see the adults around them do so.
We hope many schools, communities, families and individuals take part in writing events across the country on June 27th, and that society better supports, encourages and appreciates the benefits of writing as a result of National Writing Day.
Executive Director, First Story
First Story, Omnibus Business Centre, 39-41 North Road, London N7 9DP
020 7481 7777 I firststory.org.uk I @FirstStory I nationalwritingday.org.uk I @writeday