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Stories saved my life

PAUL RUSSELL explains why stories can open up a world of learning.

It is an odd sort of statement to make, but without an education, the life I lead would never have been possible, and without stories, I would have given up on my schooling years before I gained one. 

I am dyslexic, making reading difficult, writing frustrating and spelling almost impossible. So the fact that I am both a teacher and an author means that the chances of Bigfoot and the Lochness Monster having tea together is more likely than you might have believed.

Trust me; I was close to becoming a statistic. One of those people with dyslexia that struggle through school and never pick up a book ever again. But I always had stories in me. Dyslexia meant it was difficult for me to get them out so anyone else could appreciate them, but I didn’t stop writing.

Writing for me was something that felt as natural as breathing. The problem was, conventional writing didn’t actually work for me. I couldn’t remember grammatical structure or spelling rules, and to be honest, I still have trouble.

My favourite English teacher once said to me, “You are really quite a good writer, and if you keep going, you can always pay someone to fix your spelling.” This should be the dyslexic creed. Too often, with our time-poor classrooms and crowded curriculum, we use writing as a means to teach literacy, providing students with feedback on how they can improve their structure, stick to one tense, utilise paragraphs and develop spelling.

As a creative, a teacher and an author, I have found there are two things that people need to find to become a storyteller, and neither of them is spelling. The first is a way to record their story, and the second is a way to inspire it.

If a child tells you the words for a story and you write the words for them, it doesn’t stop being their story in any way. Just like if children record themselves telling you a story or using pictures, the story itself holds no less merit, power, imagination or inspiration.

I would argue that a child can ‘write’ a story with their mouth, and this story can be as easy to edit and improve as any piece of text. There is just as much opportunity for a child to learn and just as much engagement for the audience.

Technology has gifted us with apps that convert speech to text, instant spell checkers and the Internet in your pocket, to search for spelling options or word choices. Never before has the world been more accessible to people with dyslexia.

Embrace creativity. Teach handwriting. Absolutely teach spelling. Tell children about word origins and those rules that work most of the time. But also find space and time just to let them write. Let them tell stories uninterrupted and spread their creative wings without having them clipped by what convention says a story should be.

Paul Russell has dyslexia, is a primary school teacher and is an author of several books, including his popular autobiographical picture book, “My Storee.” He is an advocate for literacy and passionate about supporting and building a passion for reading in all children.

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