Do (or is it ‘does’?) spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPaG) destroy creativity? This debate is rarely far from the agenda in a typical primary school staff room. It’s an interesting question, which never sits easy with me, as I tend to recline on the least populated side of the fence. The side which says ‘it shouldn’t – and if it does, we need to do something about it.’
I do, of course, totally understand where this perception comes from. The grammar test at the end of Key Stage 2 is totally ‘Gradgrind’ in its approach – learn the facts and prove that you know them. Drill, drill, drill to learn them; revise, revise, revise to recall them; fill in the correct box and get the mark. Children’s writing is assessed by their teachers, who can only follow the guidance they have been given; guidance that will undoubtedly be changed yet again before it has a chance to become sufficiently embedded. However, I firmly believe it is the slavish following of this guidance that risks the destruction and enjoyment of high quality creative writing; not the learning of grammar itself.
In a recent article by David Crystal, he confirms what competent educationists already know – good grammar is essential when related to meaning; get it wrong and your audience may well misunderstand what you’re trying to say. As the notebook I recently bought my nephew states so succinctly on the front cover:
Grammar is about knowing the difference between your shit and you’re shit.
But where David goes further is by using an example that confirms exactly why good understanding of grammar supports creativity. It should not, and does not, destroy it. Hurrah, someone on my side of the fence! When you take this stance, language comes alive as we teach how to use it to manipulate writing – what a privilege it is to explore this in the creative classroom by encouraging children to analyse the writing of their favourite author, for example.
David retells this story:
Joanne, aged 10, had a great idea for a piece of fiction, but every time she tried to tell it on the page, she said that it looked dull.
“Why isn’t Terry Pratchett dull?” she asked me.
My answer was: “Because of the way he uses grammar.”
She looked at me as if I’d said a rude word. So we explored an example or two.
“Tell me where your character lives,” I asked her.
“In an old ruined house on a hill.”
“So, begin your story.”
And, dutifully, she wrote: “The old, ruined house stood on the hillside.”
“You’ve put the adjectives before the noun,” I said. “See what happens if you put them after the noun.”
I didn’t have to explain what nouns and adjectives were. She’d drawn innumerable circles around them.
And, this time, she wrote: “The house, old, ruined, stood on the hillside.”
“Which is better?” I asked her.
“Ooh, the second one. It’s creepier,” she said.
“That’s right,” I said. “When you put an adjective after a noun like that, it adds some extra atmosphere or drama to the scene.”
“Can we do another one?” She asked.
“Here’s one,” I said. “Which is more atmospheric:
‘He saw the gleam of ten thousand green, red and white eyes.’
‘He saw the gleam of ten thousand eyes, green, red and white.’”
“The second again,” she said. “It’s a lovely sentence.”
“It is,” I said, “but I didn’t write it. You’ll find it in chapter 13 of The Carpet People. By Terry Pratchett.”