Improving Children's Creative Writing

There’s a lot to consider when children start creative writing, the Descriptosaurus makes things a little bit easier. 

Children's Creative Writing

As an English teacher and independent tutor, I see a variety of children who wish to improve their creative writing. Most of the time it’s not accuracy in SPaG, but creative, visual descriptions that require most work. 

When children begin to write creatively for the first time there is lots to think about. They need an exciting, but logical, plot; they need a balance of description, action and dialogue; they need to start to consider technical elements of writing such as spelling and punctuation. Too often, students are put of creativity to concentrate on VSPaG and what teachers mark is technically accurate, but also quite boring.

Teachers have been trying to combat this for years, using phrases such as ‘show, don’t tell’ to try and explain what a child needs to do to improve their creativity. The problem with the phrase ‘show, don’t tell’, is that it’s notoriously difficult to interpret unless you already understand what that means.

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Descriptive Writing

Show, Don't Tell

In the past, I’ve scrawled in red ink the infamous phrase ‘show, don’t tell’, thinking I was explaining exactly what a student needed to do to improve. After all, we did spend a series of lessons on it earlier in the year. Yet this is the thing that writers of all ages struggle to achieve. In the adult writing group I attend, we use the same phrase to highlight areas of description that aren’t very good. A quick search on the internet lists courses and workshops on this very idea. 

If adults don’t understand what ‘show, don’t tell’ means, how can we expect children to?

Descriptions Using Adjectives

Example A

He was trapped in the thick, dark forest.

Example A, while technically accurate and includes adjectives, isn’t particularly inspiring. Many children would try to make this better by swapping out the adjectives for more complex vocabulary. But vocabulary is only part of the puzzle. The first sentence isn’t great for three reasons.

  1. It is a simple sentence. 
  2. It has no language devices.
  3. The vocabulary is straightforward.

On their own, these aren’t always bad things. Children shouldn’t only write compound or complex sentences. Nor should they include literary devices, such as metaphors or similes, and ambitious vocabulary all the time. Moderation is key. 

The Problem with Vocab

Vocabulary is important. We can only really understand concepts if we have the vocabulary to articulate them. Research supports the teaching of vocabulary across all subject and all year groups. Here in the UK, when the curriculum in England changed to a more academic, knowledge based approach to teaching and learning, schools ramped up the teaching of vocabulary. Displays went up on notice boards. Lists of words were distributed to students for different subjects. Scores of English teachers, myself included, red-penned work with the target of ‘include ambitious vocabulary’. 

The effect of these efforts was that students learnt lots of new words and their meanings out of context. The effects of this were seen immediately in the new GCSE English Language courses, exam boards like AQA started to notice vocabulary for vocab’s sake. In the first year of these exams, AQA released an exam report which referred to ‘over ambitious vocabulary that sounded sophisticated but was frequently misused’. Again, in their 2018 exam report ‘over-ambitious vocabulary that is misused and obscures meaning’. In 2019, they went as far as giving examples of examples of ‘wow words’ that were used without success.

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Building Vocabulary

Vocabulary instruction should be included within the teaching and learning of every lesson. Students should be able to learn new vocabulary in context and consider the effect of individual word choices. 

Example A

He was trapped in the thick, dark forest.

Example B

He was beguiled in the beefy, unilluminated holt.

If given the task to improve example A, many students would reach to a thesaurus. The result might be something like Example B. Left unattended with a thesaurus, children do produce sentences like this. Out of context, these words are synonymous with the words in Example A. Put together, the words used in Example B don’t make sense and it would be better to use simple, clear vocabulary. 

One of the most commonly asked questions that I get as a private English tutor is how to improve the vocabulary of students. The answer is simple: read, and read widely. Children need to experience words in context for them to understand connotations and nuances. Learning lists of words and definitions will not improve creative writing. As schools have seen in the GCSE English Language exams, learning vocabulary this way can actually hinder progress. 

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Developing Description

“The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words.” – William H. Gass

Example A

He was trapped in the thick, dark forest.

Example C

Cloaked in a blanket of darkness, it was impossible to move quickly though the spidery tangle of trees and bushes.

To construct the second sentence, I used the descriptosaurus. The book itself breaks down parts of sentences into vocabulary, phrases and finally different clauses. Compared with simply using a thesaurus or, as many 11+ students are wont to do, a vocabulary list, this is a far more effective method of improving creative writing quickly. It pairs off nouns and adjectives, modelling appropriate ways of using adjectives in ways that rote learning of complex vocabulary doesn’t enable. From the perspective of the examiner, Example C is a far better sentence.

  1. Subordinate clause shows understanding of sentence structures and types.
  2. Descriptive language techniques including figurative language and alliteration have been used.
  3. Considered choice of vocabulary.

How Descriptosaurus Works

Since 2008, Descriptosaurus has worked to develop children's creative writing. Now there are a whole series of books that break down descriptive writing and model interesting vocabulary.

By breaking down elements of sentences to their different parts, it is possible to build up more creatively each individual aspect of writing. The Descriptosaurus is a wonderful source of information that children can ‘magpie’ ideas from for their own stories. 

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