Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Charlie's First Story

Charlie, age 4 years 6 months has dictated his first story. It was the occasion of his ‘Dada’s’ birthday and his Mum asked him if he wanted to make a birthday card. Charlie said, “No, I want to write him a story.” So his Mum collected together card, pens, glitter and pencils and waited for Charlie to begin. This was the result:

Little Red, Gold and Silver and Pink and Green Riding Hood.
By Charlie Lyle-Williams

Little Red, Gold and Silver and Pink and Green Riding Hood went to visit her granny for tea.
Granny was waiting for her granddaughter to arrive.
The wolf was in the wood which was full of trees that were green, yellow and silver.
Suddenly the giant stepped into the wood and he said, “Who dares to steal my tea pot!” He was angry.
“And who has been drawing us?”
Little Red, Gold and Silver and Pink and Green Riding Hood said, “It was somebody I don’t know.” And the giant said the same.
John and Zui were next to the giant. “Hello!” said the giant, “I missed you a long time ago.”
John and Zui said, “We didn’t draw you, it was somebody else we don’t know.”
John and Zui thought about it some more and then John said, “It was the wolf who drew you!”
Rabbit said, “It was the wolf.”

Charlie’s first story portrays an imaginary world peopled with fairy tale characters – an innovative ‘Red Riding Hood’, a wolf and a giant ­who interact with real world characters – his Uncle John and Aunt Zui. Giants exist and are angry, a wolf lurks in a wood that is both real and imaginary – the trees are silver as well as green and yellow (the story was written in Autumn just as the leaves were turning and he did have glitter in his hands at the time). Ordinary things are happening: a child is going to visit her granny for tea; her granny is waiting for her, but there is a wolf and a giant in the wood.  Charlie has a firm grasp of the role of author and reader as he communicates directly with his readers to tell them the giant is angry.

In authoring this story Charlie knows it is a great present for a birthday. He often receives books as presents and he wants his Dada to have such a present. His Mum recounts how proud he was as the present was unwrapped and received with such pleasure. He is delighted to be acknowledged as competent at this thing that is so valued in his family. He wanted to share his accomplishment with me and asked his Mum to phone me so he could tell me all about it as soon as he had finished it. He knew that this was an important ‘first’ for him – his first authored story and he anticipated my positive response and excitement and the delighted reaction he would get from his father when he received his gift.

Charlie has had lots of opportunities to experience the pleasure of books and he knows that stories are authored by people. He has met real-life authors on several occasions. We have told him lots of stories that are made up as well as written down. Since he was two he has frequently been a joint author of stories and it was just a matter of time before he wanted to become a written author, not just an oral collaborator.

By asking his Mum to write down his story he shows he has figured out how to use writing for a particular purpose, it tells us that he knows something of the complexity of writing as a tool of social communication. In doing so he has taken an important step in mastering the complex sign system that is writing. By asking his Mum to write it down he has accomplished authoring in interaction with someone else, and this surely is an important pre-requisite to internalizing the act of writing for himself. He knows that his words can be retrieved later by his father when he explores his birthday gift.

For Charlie his first authored story carries enormous meaning. It is not just a written story, it is a birthday gift for a much loved parent with whom he has shared lots of stories. He also knows that writing can be accompanied by drawings and recognizes the possibilities of drawing for conveying meaning. Charlie’s mark-making in the past has been used to make graphic representation of the meaning he is making from the world (see my blog on Charlie ?) and for Charlie illustration is used to accompany his words, not the other way round as is more common for a child of his age. He uses other tools to enhance meaning; the silver trees in the story have glitter glued to them, his central character has red, gold and other glitter to show her many colours. His Mum reports that after he had created the visual character he began by saying, “Little Red Riding Hood” and she pointed out that she was not just red and Charlie then listed all the colours making this story a co-construction between mother and child. When illustrating the story he first tried to draw a house but he was unhappy with that and his Mum took the opportunity to turn it into a teapot and Charlie then changed the story accordingly and then asked his mum to draw the house. He wanted to draw a rabbit and got as far as the ears but was unhappy with it so she finished it off for him. He is able to create a giant and the figures of Uncle John and Aunty Zui (their gender indicated by the colours pink and blue). Charlie clearly understands the boundaries between written words and drawing and their relationship.

Charlie’s writing has grown out of his experience of stories and story-telling with other people – we have read to him and told him stories and encouraged him to act out stories since he was a baby. As we have immersed him in story he has had experiences that include attending events where real authors have presented their work and signed his copy of their book; he has joined in the acting out of an author’s story on a stage with other children. He has also watched pantomimes of favourite stories like ‘Snow White’ and ‘Robin Hood’ and theatre productions such as “The enormous turnip”. He knows that stories can be read and acted out and he has been given every encouragement to dramatise stories for himself. He role-plays characters from stories everyday.

I now turn to look at the story itself and explore its structure to better understand what Charlie has achieved.

Little red, gold and silver and pink and green riding hood went to visit her granny for tea.

Charlie begins by using a narrative voice to begin the story by introducing the main character or subject of the story. There are clear links to the traditional story of Red Riding Hood but extended as he borrows from the story for his own purposes.

In the next line the setting is established.

The wolf was in the wood which was full of trees that were green, yellow and silver.

This gives the impression of a magical wood which is reinforced through his drawings.  An element of tension is introduced which because of our prior knowledge of the role of the wolf in the Red Riding Hood story suggests a coming crisis.  

Granny was waiting for her granddaughter to arrive.

The receiver of the visitor is introduced through a ‘meanwhile, somewhere else’ device.  The grammatical structure implies the simultaneous nature of the waiting and the implication that someone will know if she doesn’t arrive and alerts us to the possibility of something going wrong.  

Suddenly the giant stepped into the wood and he said, “Who dares to steal my tea pot!” He was angry.

A rift occurs as a new character arrives ‘suddenly’ giving the impression that this was unexpected and possibly threatening.  The possibility is introduced that it is going to be a giant rather than the wolf that prevents the girl from completing her journey to her grandmother’s.

The plot is now advanced through dialogue and at the same time tension is created by the giant’s words ‘who dares?’ This new character is potentially dangerous. Then Charlie as author steps in to stage-manage the story and he tells us, the readers of the story lest we be in any doubt about the giant: “He was angry” leaving us in no doubt about the giant’s emotional state.

This first piece of speech introduces the abstract concepts of stealing and anger and reveals Charlie’s prior knowledge of folk tales where people do bad things to giants (like Jack stealing the giant’s belongings) and conveys the giant’s sense of justified anger in the face of such events.  

“And who has been drawing us?”

An implied ‘and furthermore’ comes with the giant’s second utterance and additional justification for his anger. He demands an answer. This is an interesting turn of events (it is Charlie the author who has drawn the giant) and who is the ‘us’ the giant refer to? It is perhaps the wolf – the other ‘baddie’ in the story?

Red, Gold and Silver and Pink and Green Riding Hood said, “It was somebody I don’t know.” And the giant said the same.

Is our many coloured riding hood trying to protect someone by not saying who has stolen the teapot and drawn him, or is this a genuine ‘don’t know’?

John and Zui were next to the giant. “Hello!” said the giant. “I missed you a long time ago.”

We now meet new characters from Charlie’s real life, his Uncle John and Aunty Zui. Charlie is now mixing fairy tale with actual people in his life, but continues to use typical story language –‘a long time ago’. In line with the trajectory of traditional tales these characters create a sense of expectation that they are there to help the subject of the story achieve her goal and arrive at her grandmother’s house.

John and Zui said, “We didn’t draw you, it was somebody else we don’t know.”

Charlie introduces the device of repetition ‘somebody we don’t know’ and thereby creates an interesting effect characteristic of folk tales and also introduces dialogue as characters speak to each other.

John and Zui thought about it some more and then John said, “It was the wolf who drew you!”

I found myself speculating – is Charlie using John to blame the wolf for the drawing, is this because a wolf is someone who can be blamed because he is not a good character, or does the character ‘John’ genuinely think the wolf did do the drawing? Is Charlie trying to protect himself, he was the one who did the drawing after all?

Rabbit said, “It was the wolf.”

It is interesting that the soft toy that has accompanied Charlie during the day and to bed each night since he was a baby is a rabbit – is it an accident that a rabbit suddenly appears and joins in with the condemnation of the wolf, or has he been a continuous presence in the story as he is in Charlie’s life?

Will the giant be convinced now that it is the wolf that is responsible for making him angry? Is the giant likely to believe John, Zui and the Rabbit because after all a wolf is not to be trusted? Charlie as narrator is not a neutral observer of these events, he is a partisan commentator who makes value judgements about who we should empathise with and who we should condemn.

This is the end of the story and the final resolution ­– whether or not little Red, Gold and Silver and Pink and Green Riding Hood achieves her goal of visiting her grand mother is left to the reader to work out for themselves.

In his first written story Charlie has a clear understanding of audience, purpose and form. He has clearly taken ownership of narrative, he understands narrative structure and is able to tell a story in his own words and people it with characters from his imagination and his life. He has introduced characters, setting, plot and rift. Whether or not the rift was resolved in his own mind we can’t know, perhaps he just ran out of steam, authoring is a demanding business after all!

Teachers faced with implementing the new English National Curriculum in England will notice that I have not made use of the government’s glossary of essential terms to analyse Charlie’s story. When I was at school I failed miserably at the requirement to carry out ‘box analysis’ on pieces of writing that expected me to be able to identify such things as clauses, relative clauses, subordinate clauses, auxiliary verbs, modal verbs, noun phrases, preposition phrases and so on ­ – all terms from the glossary. The whole thing fills me with horror, but I know that at four Charlie already knows how to do all of the things expected by the end of Year 2 when he dictates a story. I do not believe that the structural approach to teaching grammar and grammatical terms required by the new curriculum will not improve the quality of children’s writing. By listing the features of writing a child is meant to achieve teachers will be looking to tick the features off a list to provide evidence that requirements have been met rather than engage with the meaning a child has generated. We need to provide a socio-cultural context in school that enables children to generate meaning through story. Charlie’s engagement in story writing for the first time comes from four years of rich experiences of story, it is not surprising that he wants to appropriate the role of author for himself. As teachers are forced to focus on the features of writing I think children’s natural story-telling capacity may be compromised and will not help them write stories.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Childism: The Little Boy 2

Childism: The Little Boy 2: Today I was reading a wonderful book by Bronwyn Davies, ‘Listening to children’ (2014, Routledge), and this poem from ‘Don’t put Mustard i...

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Teacher Alert!

Schools have been told they must report on children's puberty development. Due to growing concern about the gap between girls and boys interventions are recommended to bring boys into line. Special gifted and talented groups are to be formed for High achievers who reach puberty at nine. Special tests are being developed to identify slow puberty achievers who are to be put on the action plus register and given extra support  to reach puberty and catch up with their peers. Teachers are required to report to parents on a continuum which shows whether or not their children are below or above average for their cohort. It is important that parents can compare their child with others of the same age. Puberty tests are being prepared and will be administered to all children in year 6 for this purpose. The government has announced targets for schools. 80% of all children will be expected to reach puberty by age 12. This can be adjusted for boys who are known to mature more slowly. However, this does not mean that schools can opt out of recommended strategies to accelerate their development. Ofsted will be required to inspect school's attainment in puberty and results will form part of the league table results so parents can choose schools who achieve highly in this area. Critiques claim that children can reach puberty at any time between 9-15 and say actions to accelerate puberty before children are developmentally ready can cause damage to children's self-esteem and confidence and impact on their neurological pathways. . A government spokesman says such 'trendy left' thinking will lead to British children falling behind in international league tables. "It is clear that those whose puberty is given attention at an earlier age make greater progress and all teachers need to ensure recommended practices are followed." A spokesperson for the teachers' unions said they were concerned that such high stakes testing would lead to children who were not meeting the targets for puberty being medicated so schools could meet their targets. Psychologists warn that interfering with children's natural development in this way will distort our understanding of child development. Guidance on how to ensure your school meets the new targets are available on the DES website.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Edward and Communication

Edward ­­– finding his voice

A couple of months ago when I woke up in my daughter’s house, my grandson Edward greeted me by stretching his arms to the ceiling and bending over to touch his toes. It was a wonderful moment of communication. Last time I had visited he had accompanied me when I did my morning stretches; his bodily gestures told me he remembered my visit and had an expectation of what we might do together. I have thought a lot about that and what it tells me about language development in a small child. It is one of the best things about being a Nana when my grandsons do something that sparks off a train of thought. In this blog I want to record my memories of Edward finding his voice.

I was visiting to share the celebration of Edward’s second birthday. Just two years old, he talks a lot but as yet the sounds that come out are not recognizable as words to the adults around him. I arrived on Thursday evening just as he and his four year-old, brother Charlie were having their bath. Charlie started to tell me about the bird of prey sanctuary they had visited that day and Edward tipped his head back and made open and shut gestures with his mouth. His dad explained he was showing me how a particular bird of prey had caught the food thrown to him by the staff at the sanctuary. His desire to communicate is strong; he wants to share and explain and inform the same as his brother. However sometimes this is frustrating for him. The next day in the car he wanted something and we couldn't work out what it was. We offered food, drink, a toy­ – we just couldn't get it right and he was so cross with us. I really felt the frustration of being a small person wanting to communicate and the big people just don’t understand.

Edward however, doesn’t need spoken language to know exactly what is going on around him. And there is a lot going on! He is surrounded by language and observes it being used to achieve all kinds of things and fortunately for him, all the adults include him in their talk. We see Edward as capable, we believe him when he is struggling to communicate and we expect him to be able to communicate in many different ways. We treat him as an understanding being who wants to make meaning out of what is going on around him. We have noticed with interest how he uses lots of talk to accompany whatever he is doing and do wonder what he is saying but can see that out of the big buzzing swarm of words that surrounds him he is finding his voice. And this voice is expressed using gestures as well as sounds; his whole body is involved in communicating. We pay attention because we assume intent when he addresses us, we respond to his gestures and sounds and recognize he has his own agenda and purpose and do our best, sometimes with limited success, to correctly interpret his signs. Of course he wants to communicate and we value language and immerse him in language related activities all the time. He is very responsive and shows his interest in words through his love of books and nursery rhymes and singing. We sit with him and read the books he chooses and love the way he actively engages and shows his enjoyment in sounds and gestures.

In a single day the activities Edward engages in at nursery and at home are all accompanied by language. He hears language being used for all sorts of different purposes to achieve different things. Sometimes language is directed at him, he is asked if he wants a drink or if he is hungry; sometimes he is given instructions, ‘sit down to eat your dinner’; sometimes he is told off, especially when he does something anti-social; sometimes language is used to try and persuade him to do something he doesn’t want to do. Language is used to describe what is happening or to tell him what is going to happen. When he shows emotions language accompanies it, ‘I know you are feeling angry, tired, frustrated etc.’; ‘You’re really enjoying that aren’t you?’ His expressions of affection are heartily returned and appreciated with words and gestures. Apart from the language directed at him he also hears his parents using language to achieve things, to plan, to speculate, to agree and disagree, to reflect and wonder, to explain and to share. It is a rich language environment and he clearly understands so much of what is going on and wants not only to be part of it, but also to influence it, to make a contribution.

When he does contribute he is definitely working within his own style; it is different to his brother's style and we know how important it is that we strive to understand him so we can support him. Watching his language development reminds me that one of the most important things about us as adults is our style of speech. Each one of us has a unique style of speaking and communicating and it is this more than anything else that gives us our particular individuality. Edward has helped me see how important it is to acknowledge this uniqueness in him and by extension get a firmer grasp of something universal in all of us. He has renewed my commitment to strive to understand this interesting and particular human phenomenon, the drive to communicate, to make meaning, to influence and control, to set our own agendas and make our voices heard. His older brother Charlie tells me, “Nana, he hasn’t got his words yet so we can’t understand him.” It is true, he hasn’t got many words we recognize as words yet, but Edward is a powerful communicator and certainly knows how to make his voice heard. And he makes me think and wonder – what an achievement!


I wrote this poem quite spontaneously - literally woke up and it was in my head. Anger is being played out with such devastating effects between Israel and Palestine, in Syria, in the Ukraine and in so many other places in the world. Our children are aware that this is going on around them and it must seem intractable. What hope can we give them of people moving away from acting on their anger towards reconciliation? Maybe teachers would like to share this with children so they can consider what it might mean to make friends with anger. 


Anger strikes suddenly like lightening from a storm
Anger is like a fierce sun burning in the sky
Anger like a powerful wave can knock you over
Anger fills your body like a swirling wind

Then just us quickly as it came it is gone and calm returns
But what it left in its wake?

We are wounded by its lightening strike
Drown in anger's waves
Burn under its penetrating glare
Swept up in its powerful wake

What if we could make friends with anger, talk to it, understand it, channel it?

Then we could laugh at the storm and welcome the refreshing rain
We could jump in the waves as they circle round our bodies
Enjoy the warm glow of the sun on our faces
Run with the wind.

If we could just make friends with anger.