Reviewing skills should be taught in English lessons
It was run by a theatre company which specialises in high quality issues-inspired plays. They are often about science, health and decision making and are performed mostly in secondary schools.
The company had invited teenagers who’d seen a specific production to submit a review for the competition. I was asked to judge from a final shortlist of five.
It was an interesting task which left me reflecting on how reviews are most effectively written and how you learn to do them. It also set alarm bells ringing because I don’t think reviewing skills are being taught in schools, although the ability to analyse, assess and comment on something is pretty basic. Given my task my thoughts were focused on plays, but similar factors affect reviewing books, films, TV programmes, shops, holidays, products, restaurants or almost anything else.
The best possible training for any sort of writing is to read as many examples of the genre written by experienced people as you can. That way you absorb the conventions and possible approaches. You won’t write, say, a decent novel, play or poem unless you’ve read plenty of novels, plays or poems. And exactly the same principle applies to theatre reviewing.
The first thing which struck me about the five reviews I read for this competition was that most of the writers had clearly read very few professional reviews – if any.
If you’re reviewing a show your first task is to assess it as a piece of theatre. That means commenting on directorial decisions, quality of acting, sets and other designs and how well it hangs together and tells a story.
Every good play deals with ‘issues’ and makes you think, but you really shouldn’t use nine tenths of your space in a review of King Lear for your thoughts and feelings about dementia and abuse of the elderly. Neither would it be appropriate in a review of Death of a Salesman to discourse at length about family values and failed ambition.
No one had told these students that. Far too little of the content of their reviews focused on the elements which make good theatre, although they were strong on the issues it raised. Although reviewing is one of the many skills taught in the National Curriculm – it is evidently being marginalised.
There were also alarming problems with English. Now, I’d been told to ignore the English so, with difficulty, I did. But I’m a former, passionate teacher of secondary English and now a writer of English textbooks (Galore Park Publishing). I’ve been deeply in love with this lovely language of ours for as long as I can remember and get very distressed when I see it mangled.
And ‘mangled’ is a polite word for most of what these students had written. Why have their English teachers not taught them to organise their thoughts in paragraphs? Of the five entries, four were completely unparagraphed – and 5/600 words long. The impression given is random thoughts hurled down on paper in any old order.
Then there’s vocabulary. ‘Never use a long word where a short word will do’ should be written in huge letters and displayed in every English classroom in the country. It always was in mine. If teachers don’t stress this you end up with students who write ‘commence’ instead of ‘start’, ‘stated’, instead of ‘said’ and, once they learn the word ‘residence,’ they’ll never say ‘house’ ‘flat’ or ‘home’ again. And it leads to horrible, murky, convoluted prose as well as misuse of words.
And if teachers know how to use full stops and commas accurately I wish they’d share their knowledge with their students. Not one of the young reviewers whose work I read had a clue about correct punctuation. And lack of it muddles meaning.
It isn’t often that I itch to get back into my teaching harness. But I’d love to give these youngsters a few lessons. So much potential – but they’ll never make it as writers without sorting the basics.
The theatre company concerned has floated the idea that next year I might do an interview or on-line tutorial, or something similar, which young competitors would be advised to consult before they start. Makes sense and I’ve agreed, in principle, to do it.
Less emphasis should be placed on pensions and which tests to boycott, and more on teaching these vitals lessons in the classroom.
Susan Elkin’s latest book Unlocking the Writer in Every Child is published by Ransom.Tagged in: books, children, education, learning, literacy, Reading, reviewing, theatre
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter