Inside the words

This week we are going to think about language in a more focused way. We continue to read aloud and have children read for themselves. In doing so they acquire the rhythms and turns of phrase, the vocabulary of a favoured author, the desire to try out a new way of writing. It is also helpful for them to have the meta-language with which to talk about texts. It is helpful for them to try for themselves different forms of language. Not a naming of parts but a way of talking about the techniques they can use, are using.

Writers can learn the grammars of form and paragraph, the ways sentences can be constructed and how they can be put together through reading closely and in habiting the writing of more experienced others. We see that there is a wonderful two-way traffic between reading and writing. Through reading, and talking about reading, paying close attention in the context of the whole, we learn more about how language works. That sense of language comes both consciously and unconsciously into the writer’s hand.  As Kate Clanchy puts it in Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, ‘We are learning to write by reading and to read by writing.’ In The Reader in the WriterMyra Barrs and Valerie Cork describe an elegant research project based in Year 5 classes where teachers and researchers explored the impact of reading closely on writing. The impact was great and was particularly significant for children learning English as an additional language. Children’s writing took on the characteristics of the kind of complex and nuanced writing that is expected at the end of Key Stage 2 and is defined by its component parts in the criteria for assessment. The danger is that we ask children to begin writing with the component parts in mind, rather than writing with ideas in mind, and a sea of language from which to draw.

‘Once upon a time’ – a fronted adverbial if ever there was one and one which the youngest child will use to tell a story. Children absorb the language and we can help them reflect on that. We would like children to sometimes read like a writer, to look and see how a writer has managed a particular effect. They don’t need to go on a hunt for all the adverbials in an arbitrarily chosen extract, or, even worse, in one that is especially written with adverbials in mind. That way helplessness may lie. We would like them to be interested in how writers solve particular writing problems, and, indeed, to have the language to talk about them. 

When Ollie was in Year 2, writing was just too much. As he told his mother:  “I can’t keep it all in my head: the full stops & capital letters, the spelling & the joined up handwriting, the good sentence starters and the conjunctions”.  Of course he can’t. As we begin to be writers there is just so much to learn. However, children begin by believing that they have something to say. When they believe their writing is important, they will write and they will be open to learning the secretarial skills. They will try out new genres and different ways of saying things. 

We must build collections of poems, picture books, fiction and non-fiction which will build and extend children’s language repertoire. This week we will introduce you to some of our favourites.

Here is a tiny extract from Carol Duffy’s poem, Inside the Egg.

Inside the tear, salty,

was sea.

Inside the sea, afloat,

was a boat.

Inside the boat, locked,

was a box.

Inside the box, wrapped,

was a map.

The poem itself is too long. These few verses give you the idea and there is so much here to think about in terms of language. It beautifully illustrates the way a particular use of language can make you think about meanings. That preposition, ‘inside’, makes you think about things and ideas stacked in an infinite procession like Russian dolls. You can use other prepositions: under, above, beyond… If you wish, this is a simple sentence. It has an adverbial, an adjective, the verb, a noun. It is intriguing.

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