Wicked writing lessons for children
Motivation and confidence are key to getting children writing, says Michael Morpurgo
Wicked winners 2012: Michael Morpurgo (front) with members of the cast and finalists at last year’s Wicked Young Writers’ Awards
The first book that the award-winning writer and former British children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo put his name to was Children’s Words, a compendium of poetry for children that was published in 1972.
“I think I picked up very early on in my career as a teacher,” he says, “that the two most important things to get children writing are motivation and confidence – seeing that their work is being treated with respect.”
The book put the work of children (including a 13-year-old Daniel Day-Lewis) “side by side with the juvenilia of a writer like Coleridge, and for a child to see that something they wrote can belong in the same book as a great writer is part of the same process, is one of the most important things you can do to build their confidence.”
Morpurgo is now well known for his historical children’s fiction, including Private Peaceful and War Horse, which has been turned into both a film and a play. He started his professional life as primary-school teacher, and was directly inspired by his work with young children to turn his hand to children’s fiction.
“I discovered early on that the way I could empower children the most was to help them find their voices as writers. I noticed that there was a lot of fear about writing: getting spelling and punctuation correct, getting your handwriting neat. But we read stories aloud every day in the classroom, and it [became clear] that essentially, it all comes from speech, which is natural for children who love talking and telling stories.”
Morpurgo noticed the stumbling block for children came not at the moment of creative invention but in the act of writing the story down. “Inhibition comes when they are putting their stories on to paper,” he says. “We need to encourage them to understand that this writing thing is for everyone, not just for clever or talented people, and the more books that you read, the easier your facility will become, the more you will be able to access. We wrote stories every day, and I found that the more I encouraged children to forget about being ‘right’, and to focus on the world around them and their place within it, the more engaged and the better their writing became.”
A similar belief in the relationship between reading and writing has inspired a new Arts Council-funded writer’s residency, administered by the education initiative of the Church of Ireland College of Education. It was awarded this year to the children’s writer Sheena Wilkinson. The idea arose out of the Write to Read Literacy Project being piloted in primary schools. It was initiated as a response to results in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) test. This found that Ireland dropped down the league table from fifth to 17th place during assessments in 2006 and 2009.