This article is written with the intention to inform and provide reflection. With the Book Trust’s ‘The Write Book‘ research summary coming out in March – we were excited to see what it concluded.
We have entitled our article after the saying that: you give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day – teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime. That is what we have tried to achieve through our own approach to the idea of traditional ‘Book Planning’ or ‘Novel Study’.
Ever since reading The Reader In The Writer, we have always advocated for children using books of their choice to inform their writing. There is no greater joy than showing children that through literature we can take signs from life within us – that this is exactly what our favourite books draw on and what we, as the reader, may be able to bring to them too. Perhaps, what we as teachers cannot and shouldn’t do is do this important work on behalf of our pupils. To feel those kind of relationships with books means to be deeply and personally involved in a text you have struck a connection with. This is different from being asked to recognise them at a cool distance away; about a text your teacher has decided they have a connection with. This year we have taught all the children in our class how a writer goes about generating an original idea; this has included teaching them how real authors (themselves included) use their favourite texts to produce something new for their own short-stories and flash-fictions. This is opposed to the use of a single book on which all children must hang their writing.
We accept that this is slightly different to the traditional way of teaching children to write through a ‘class text’ also known as ‘novel study,’ which is often chosen by either the teacher or by some kind of working majority amongst the children.
The benefit of our approach, we believe, is that it is enabling – it takes children off what Donald Graves articulates perfectly as ‘writers’ welfare.‘ They, for once (in a long time), have been shown and then encouraged to develop their own writing voice on a book or theme of their own choosing (the benefits of which can be seen in the research references below) and is a strategy they can use forever.
Remember too that when children are younger they are actively encouraged to write/mark make about any book that may have inspired them – however once they enter infant and primary school this privilege is largely taken away.
In the research project ‘Teachers As Readers: Building Communities Of Readers,’ it talks about teachers who undertake ‘novel study’ literacy units with their classes. It talks about how read aloud sessions are usually followed by literacy work focused on developing word, sentence or text level skills linked to the reading. It states that this type of teaching of writing has serious potential consequences. The children in the study explain that whilst their teacher read aloud – often they didn’t like it. This is because it, in part, it involved subsequent written work. Teachers are inadvertently tethering writing tasks onto reading aloud and children don’t like it.
‘This process of novel-study can sap central enjoyment and satisfaction away from the act of reading and responding. There is widespread and self-defeating refusal to see that literature cannot be taught by a direct approach, and that the teacher who weighs in with talk or lecture [on a text of their choice] is more likely to kill a personal response then to support and develop it. We are all tempted into doing so, of course.’ (Dixon, 1967) But then it becomes all too easy for children to feel that their own responses to the book they would have chosen as study to be unacceptable and instead learn to only profess the opinions of the respected critic (their teacher). Research is clear. If children don’t like the act of writing, they won’t progress nearly as well as children that do. Again, see references below for more details.
Some may of course recognise this as sounding incredibly similar to the failed Literacy Strategy and the dreaded ‘Literacy Hour’. Something that was never able to achieve the longevity and respect of its Numeracy counterpart. The dryness of schematic and systematic analysis of imagery, symbols, linguistic and grammatical features as well as structural relations. There it is likely that this should be avoided passionately at school. It is literature, not literacy criticism which we should be looking to promote in writing lessons. However, it is vividly plain that it is much easier to teach literary criticism than to teach literature, just as it is much easier to teach children to write according to writing-tasks than it is to teach them to use their own voice (Dixon, 1967).
Of course you also have the additional consideration that this is yet another way in which reading instruction can bleed into writing lessons and writing time. This often happens because, as Cremin (2014) points out, the vast majority of teachers come to teaching with a love for reading not writing and this of course must have significant epistemological effects on their writing pedagogies. This is something perhaps to reflect on. You can read more about it here.
Incidentally, we too have spoken on the subject of writing-stimuli having negative effects on children’s writing potentials here and how it is dangerous to believe children are too ‘culturally deprived’ to choose an appropriate book topic of their own here.
Bodies of knowledge – about life, about books, about words – are among the products of their work. It is possible to regard these bodies of knowledge as the ‘content’ for a writing lesson – though not everyone would be happy with this view (John Dixon, p.74)
Incidentally, you may find the following, taken from our article here, interesting:
Book Planning / Novel Study
This approach is some people’s response to the skills approach. It looks to fill the vacuum left by the skills model. The concept is that teachers can be the gate-keepers of what is best in terms of literature and hand this down to a generation. In a happy way, they see it that the great writers can offer a variety of models on which pupils’ writing could be hung. However, this turns language into a one-way process: pupils are readers, receivers of the master’s voice. How does activity like novel study relate to the stream of public interaction through writing in which we are all involved every day? Can we agree then that this has in the past (and present) misled many teachers into focusing on the teaching of ‘the body of knowledge’ (the stimuli itself) at the expense of teaching the actual generalities of writing? This misconception has had very far-reaching consequences. By concentrating on the stimuli (the book), the teacher can either assume the relevance of what they are handing over – or more honestly, the question of relevance (for the children) never enters their head. Instead the tradition is accepted.
Limitations Of Such An Approach
- The main limitation of course concerns ‘culture’. This model stresses culture as a given and one that is chosen by the teacher(s). Therefore, there is the constant and systematic ignoring of ‘culture’ as the pupils in the class may know it. A network of attitudes, experiences and personal reflections that children bring to the classroom are therefore largely ignored.
- It perpetuates the concept that literature itself is a given, a ready made structure which children are simply asked to imitate and a content chosen as noble and rich enough by the teacher as being worthy of attention. Writing is a product handed over by the teacher.
- This approach denies children exposure to compositional processes which are used throughout life. For example: generating and publishing original thoughts, ideas and concepts, reflecting on lived experiences, reactions to one’s own reading material, wanting to share something we know a lot about and wanting to make changes to the world. In other words, strategies which could show children how writing can and will relate to their own life and experiences are largely underdeveloped.
- It therefore neglects the most fundamental aim of writing teaching – to promote interaction with one’s self (through reflection) or between people.
- As a result, writing has been interpreted as the study of texts and ‘imitating’ them out. It deals largely in pre-formatted activities and writing-tasks.
This year, we have taught the children in our class how they can successfully use any book in their writing that has had an impact on them. We have done this in a number of ways:
- Provided the children with a class library full of high-quality texts including poetry.
- Shown them how they can write ‘inspired by poems‘ and created regular time for them to engage in that kind of writing.
- Shown them how to appreciate certain character development, setting descriptions or beautifully crafted sentences in their reading, how to make a note of it in their ‘Writing Tricks Books’ and then use those jottings to inform their own story, flash-fiction or poetry writing.
- Shown them how to ‘hybrid’ two or more of their favourite books to look for themes that they could exploit for their own writing.
- Shown them how to ‘hybrid’ genres in new and unexpected ways using themes from their reading.
- Shared many exemplar texts written by children and ourselves that model how this has been done successfully and made these available to read in the class library.
- Shown how to write ‘fan-fiction’.
- Having a book that is read as a ‘class-read’ for which the children can be inspired by and write around but are also not obligated to do so.
We have done this because the research on effective writing teaching points this way. Create a class of producers instead of consumers (or at best imitators) and writing outcomes and attitudes will improve dramatically. We are in the fortunate position that we can see the research and theory come together in practice and succeed.
The goal of education in general, and any writing program in particular, is to help students gain independence. (Ted DeMille, p.145)
Imitating the masters is universal in all art and is often the first stage in any creative process. This is why our Genre-Booklets are proving to be so popular. They share with children: the patterns, the approach writers take and the linguistic features that can be deployed in story writing. Some people have recently asked, how do you get children to write their own unique stories without using a whole-class mentor text or any other kind of writing stimulus? We’ll look to explain how below.
No one should be in any doubt that it’s important to show children how other accomplished authors do what they do. It’s also important that children have time to enjoy, appreciate, discuss, understand and try imitating aspects of the books they are reading. And most importantly – we need to show children how they can do this for themselves.
Our Flash-Fiction Genre-Booklet is essentially a writing unit designed to help children identify story patterns, use ‘author voice’ and create stories independently. The stories that are exemplars within the Genre-Booklet are deliberately short and show children that this type of writing is well within their grasp.
The exemplar texts showcase how a short-story can be constructed using only 250/300 words. We try to keep this limit in the children’s minds as they write too, so as to avoid the inevitable ‘and then…‘ syndrome. Educator Nancie Atwell makes the point that even the children in her middle-school (12+) can find anything longer than 300 words difficult to handle and in our experience, working with children from 5-11, this can often be said about them too.
Our exemplar texts are not there for the children to imitate – not even the ideas. They are there to showcase how the linguistic features of story telling can be used effectively. These include:
- How they can use typical themes of literature,
- A clear and memorable telling of an event (including different types of openings and endings),
- Using inviting language,
- Thought provoking descriptions of character or setting.
Once these features have been made explicit to the children, we encourage them to generate their very own writing ideas. This includes strategies like:
- Using the books they have read during DEAR time.
At this point, we should say that for this approach to story-writing to most effective in your class, you would have to adopt an approach to reading very similar to ours. To read about how our children are reading during DEAR time, follow this link. Essentially though, you need to be reading high-quality literature aloud, encouraging children read independently and giving them plenty of time to do so.
- Using their ‘linguistic collections’ from their Writing-Tricks Books.
Again, these collections come from the children’s reading during DEAR time. To read about ‘Writing-Tricks Books’ click here. Essentially though, this is a book, which lives in their trays, encourages children to write down things they notice their favourite authors doing and the sentences and themes they like the most. Children are encouraged to then dip into these collections when they are generating ideas for a flash-fiction.
- Our 10 strategies for idea-generating, which can be found here.
These are strategies that encourage children to write stories from personal interests, recounts, loves, hates, idiosyncrasies, hobbies and obsessions. These 10 strategies unearth a whole beach full of potential topics for stories.
If a child is using a book or a ‘linguistic collection’ as a means for a story idea – we ask them to try and integrate into that a real experience. We do this is because children often find the writing experience easier as a result. In our class, we call these types of stories ‘Inspired by…‘ stories, after the poem ‘My Yellow Dog’. We’ve noticed that what begins as imitation or impersonation soon moves beyond that by the time the children have finished their writing.
Each student creates a final draft in the voice of an author and their own in usually two or three days. Soon after, the children revise these texts and edit them for punctuation and spelling. They are then published into the class book stock for everyone to read or entered into local or national writing competitions.
And so we were pleased to read in the Book Trust’s ‘The Write Book‘ research summary that we are indeed on the right lines:
- Children enjoy writing more, and write better, when they’re inspired by a high quality book they’ve loved.
- Book choice is key in encouraging children’s creative response. (and who better to choose than the child themselves).
- Using high quality books to inspire and emulate writing encourages children to think of themselves as writers (even more so if you have taught them an idea generating strategy that is genuinely used by published authors).
- Improved the technical elements of their writing such as vocabulary, descriptive writing skills and sentence structure.
- Developed more interest in and enthusiasm for books and writing.
- Wrote voluntarily at home and in free time at school, often when they had never done so before.
And so, in many ways, we are inviting you to combine the best of educational research. Use what ‘The Write Book,’ The Reader & The Writer and what the meta-analysis (here) says to create a truly effective, memorable and life-long writing curriculum.
If you’d like to read more about how the children writing independently in our class, you can go here.
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**Please note that the views expressed on this blog are informed by educational research but may not represent our employer.**
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