Don't knock blogging – it's the answer to our literacy problems

New research shows that almost 50 per cent of schoolchildren say writing is boring. The solution, discovers Hilary Wilce, is to let them loose with digital technology

Thursday 03 December 2009 01:00 GMT

According to all the data, Daniel Moseley and Rahil Thobhani ought to hate writing. Educational research shows that many British schoolchildren are struggling with this basic skill, and that secondary school boys from poorer city areas are among those who flounder most.

But these two 11-year-olds sit in their school library talking passionately about letting their imaginations run riot, and how you can use suspense and dialogue to craft a good story.

"I used to think writing was boring. Now I like it and I feel confident about it and think I'm quite good at it," says Daniel.

"We did a lot at primary school, but here we've done even more," says Rahil. "We've learnt to use more ambitious words and things like that."

So what's the big secret of turning boys on to writing?

"Technology," says Bev Humphrey, their innovative and sparky school librarian. "The boys here have more technology in their mobile phones than we could ever afford to buy for them in school. They don't see technology as separate from life: they see it as part of everything they do, so we can't just take all that away and sit them down with a pencil and a piece of paper and say 'write something'."

Her approach is endorsed by research from the National Literacy Trust, published today, which has found that although nearly half of all UK schoolchildren claim writing is "boring", blogging and social networking greatly improve their attitudes and make them much more confident about their writing skills.

The research, which examined the attitudes of 3,000 children in England and Scotland towards writing, found that 61 per cent of those who keep a blog and 56 per cent of those who are on social network sites feel they are good or very good at writing, compared with only 47 per cent of those who don't engage with text online. Pupils who are active online also tend to write more in traditional forms such as short stories, letters, diaries or song lyrics.

Jonathan Douglas, director of the NLT, says these new findings point up serious disjunctions between how literacy is still taught in schools, and how it needs to be taken forward. "In this research 12 per cent of pupils said they didn't believe writing was an important skill. This is terrible. But it also shows that the more we incorporate multimedia activities, the more relevant literacy is to them. The digital age often gets a bad press but the findings of this report show that social networking sites and blogs are linked to more positive attitudes to writing."

Bev Humphrey agrees. Her school is Woolwich Polytechnic, a boys' school in Thamesmead, south-east London, where results are improving but are still well below the national average. Pupils' ambitions tend to be modest and their horizons low. Many may never leave their relatively isolated Thames-side suburb.

But as an avowed tech-head, she is successfully harnessing cutting-edge technology to get them writing – and expanding their worldview in the process. For the past two years she has run an online writing project, The Write Path, which links pupils around the world and enables them to write stories together. "It started in a pub," she says. "I was having a drink with a colleague from Stockport and I said wouldn't it be good if our pupils could share their work."

Now 44 schools from as far afield as China, Brazil, Australia and the US have joined in. Published writers start the stories off, then pupils from different schools add paragraphs and send them on to the next school. This year the project ran for a week in October with 60 of Woolwich Polytechnic's 240 year-seven pupils taking part and writing stories online, as well as creating comic and video stories.

In addition, Bev Humphrey devises electronic library quizzes, uses small eReaders to encourage boys to read, and constantly mines her own digital networks for ideas and inspiration. "Twitter is the best professional development I've ever had, far better than any course I've been on!" she says. "If I have a problem I can tweet about it and get help within a minute."

Technology is also a very social activity, she points out, even though it is often seen as insular. She has used Facebook and Twitter to persuade children's authors such as Theresa Breslin, Alan Gibbons, and Robert Muchamore to take part in the Write Path, and as a result has been able to take a group of boys to central London to meet writers – something that was, Rahil says solemnly, "a once in a lifetime's experience".

But doesn't writing online simply encourage children to ignore spelling and grammar?

"The thing about boys is that they are not good at transferring their skills," says Bev Humphrey. "They are always texting or on their computers at home but these aren't things they see as relevant to school. They think that school is work, and that they can't do it. So doing things online frees them up to have fun and enjoy writing, and if we can build up their confidence and get them writing, the paragraphs and spelling will come later. After all, they are taught these things in class."

Jonathan Douglas agrees. "Knowing what kind of language to use when is obviously a key skill, but the important thing is that we need to redefine literacy for the modern age as something pertinent and relevant to everyone." He points out that 95 per cent of children need to be functionally literate by 2020 to bring the UK in line with other developed countries.

The technological approach has already been taken up by many schools although David Reedy, president of the UK Literacy Association, says that teachers' nervousness about technology, and narrowly based national tests, can block progress. "But we very much agree with what these findings are showing. We really should be looking at what it is to be literate in 2010, and we are keen for those experiences that pupils have at home to be brought into schools."

As for Daniel and Rahil, they can't see what the fuss is about. "Boys like technology," says Daniel, "so we like using it. But at the same time we're writing. So this is just like sneaking the learning in while we're doing it."

"And it's the way modern authors write," points out Rahil. "On the computer. That's how they do it."

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