What If Almost Everything We Thought About The Teaching Of Writing Was Wrong?

This article is based on, and written in relation to, findings of educational research and writings see end of article). The tenor of this article is to allow the reader to reflect on children’s reading and is in no way a criticism of any school(s) policy or teachers’ practice.

Why Do We Write?

Language merely reflects our way of trying to make sense of the world. – Frank Smith

Frank Smith (1982) says ‘writing touches every part of our lives‘.

  1. One of the first reasons we write is because it is a tool for communication in culture. It gives us the ability to share information over time and space with multiple individuals (explaining, recounting & opinion).
  2. It can also be used as a permanent record or as a statement e.g. in history, geography  & science genres.
  3. The third cultural aspect for writing is artistry (narrative and poetry).
  4. Finally, there is also the personal aspect to writing. Writing allows us all to reflect, express our perceptions of self, to socially dream or to be critical (memoir).

By writing, we find out what we know; what we think. Writing is an extremely efficient way of gaining access to that knowledge that we cannot explore directly. – Frank Smith (1982, p.33)

For us, writing is a relationship between thought and language. When we write a first draft, we rehearse what is otherwise on our minds – whether we are conscious of this or not. Writing simply provides us with an opportunity to discover and then revise these thoughts in ways that we could not have imagined ourselves capable of when we first began our writing pursuit.

We, but also children, use writing to separate ourselves from our writing ‘work’ and so become more objective. Alternatively, we can use writing to do things that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. – this is what Gutierrez (2008) calls ‘social dreaming’.

Ultimately though, writing is a means for us to express ourselves in the world, make sense of the world or impose ourselves upon it.

Writing does more than reflect underlying thought, it liberates and develops it.- Frank Smith (1982, p.33)

Why Is There A Difference In Children’s Writing?

The question now is why do children write at school? For these purposes? – Not often. There is a massive discrepancy between the writing done in the real-world and that of the classroom. Why is this so? – Is it the case that we are just doing what has always been done and never reflected on the purpose of writing and thus the teaching of writing?

Donald Graves says ‘all children want to write’. It is just a case of allowing them to write about the things they are interested in. As Frank Smith says, ‘all children can write if they can speak it.’ If they can talk about it, they can write it down.

Most current writing pedagogy seems to be deliberately withholding from children the role of language in empowering and changing social relations. We believe teachers need to increase their consciousness, and the consciousness of their pupils, of how language contributes to their lives.

The current political agenda is clear for all to see:

These examples embody the ‘basic skills’ assumptions held by successive governments since the late 80’s which claim an authority which is supposedly natural and unshakable. Through current writing pedagogies, we as teachers are perpetuating the idea that we as teachers know, while children do not; that we as teachers are in a position to determine, while children are not and that children should simply comply, adapt to or cooperate with our writing tasks.

The above ideologies around writing consciously avoid giving prominence to language’s social origins; that language is both socially developed and socially developing. It is this perspective that is all too often missing in schools. The result is schools supporting the devaluing and neutralising of most children’s identities. We are producing writers as consumers (or at best imitators) when really we need to be encouraging a generation of producers. Producers who know early on in their lives that they have a writing-voice and know how best to use it. The current ways of representing language, listed earlier, inhibit children from coming to conceptualise language as an object for critical consciousness – that is, they prevent children from having a genuinely educational and educated orientation of language.

Writing in classrooms at present isn’t seen by children as important work. It fails to speak to the real needs pressing on the young. It doesn’t currently answer the burning question which day-to-day experiences force upon young minds. At present, problems encountered outside school walls are treated as peripheral when surely they should be central. The current effect of making writing abstract – subject centred – external to individual longings, fears, experiences, and questions, is to render children listless and indifferent. As John Taylor Gatto testifies, the widespread understanding among the young is that writing isn’t about them (and their interests, curiosities and futures), but exclusively about the wishes of other people. Writing pedagogy is, at present, built around the self-interest of others and this, in our view, is wrong.

To diminish the potential for individual meaningfulness in students’ work is a denial of their basic humanity – Willinsky (1990)

Why There Shouldn’t Be A Difference.

In his review of 100 years of literacy research, Hillocks (2011) forcefully stated, “We know from a very wide variety of studies in English and out of it, that students who are authentically engaged with the tasks of their learning are likely to learn much more than those who are not” (p. 189).

Children generally start out their lives enjoying mark making and writing until they become discouraged or disinterested. This only begins to happen when children are restricted by  classroom pedagogies which inhibit children’s free and natural expression. The current state of writing pedagogy causes children to write about things they do not know a lot about and have no natural experience of – all of a sudden, writing is made even harder than it needs to be. Children also quickly become aware that their writing will not have a readership beyond their teacher; has no purpose, achieves nothing and will often live forever within the dark pages of their literacy book. Beyond this, children are made to become self-conscious of error at the earliest stages of the writing process which makes them less likely to take risks and makes their writing tentative and dull. Their risk taking diminishes alongside their enthusiasm and children eventually feel like they no longer want to ‘perform’ – because of a perceived inability to achieve certain external and often arbitrary standards.

To not affirm and respect student voices is both morally wrong, because it disparages who students are and what they know, and strategically a mistake, because students will resist becoming active partners in teaching and learning. – Lensmire (2000)

The Good News

The good news is that change is not only possible but it is continuously happening. We need to help increase children’s consciousness of language . It needs to be this, rather than just experiencing it externally or ‘playing’ at it. 

To want to write, a child must simply see writing done and see what writing can do. How much writing do most children see being done at school is also a potential issue flagged up by research projects – a topic we discuss here.

The question is why does the writing activity children engage in seem so far removed from the real intentions of writing? This is the question LiteracyForPleasure has tried to answer in our pedagogical approach to writing, which we are calling Real World Literacy. To read more about this new approach please click here. 

Real-World Literacy argues that children engage in language awareness. That children should be conscious of the different genres which can bring about change and how to use grammar functionally to achieve their social goals effectively. The main reason for this choice of focus is of course due to its current relevance, given the major changes in educational policy and practice as outlined in the first paragraph. This of course doesn’t go far enough.  We should provide children with the freedom to write about subjects which matter to them whilst also raising their consciousness of how they can share it effectively. These two concepts are dialectically related.  

Real-World Literacy develops a child’s critical consciousness of their environment and their critical self-consciousness, and their capacity to contribute to the shaping and reshaping of the social world. We advocate for pupil choice as opposed to writing-task assignments because the latter plays little part in presenting children with any element of their humanly produced and humanly changeable social environment. Currently, children will instead grow up feeling part of an environment over which they have no control or say.

The point of language education is not awareness for its own sake, but awareness as a necessary accompaniment to the development of the capabilities of children as producers and interpreters of writing. We hope to give children the tools that will allow them to challenge, break through and ultimately transform the dominant orders of writing – not simply copy them or imitate them from/for the teacher.

Children’s experiences + the teaching of language awareness & providing opportunity for purposeful writing production = language capability potential.

Developing children’s language potential depends on the partnering of language awareness and practice through purposeful writing. Purposeful writing comes if we provide children with ‘language awareness’ in which they can build on their experiences. Language awareness includes the teaching of the writing process, functional grammar activity, genre study and genuine publication to the outside community.

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Go here to read more about Real World Literacy.

Finally, if you are interested in the research which underpins our advocacy for authentic topic choice you may want to peruse our references below:

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References:
  • Bernstein, B. (1996) Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity, London, Taylor and Francis.
  • Canagarajah, S. (2004) ‘Subversive identities, pedagogical safe houses and critical learning’ in Norton, B. and Toohey, K. (eds) Critical Pedagogies and Language Learning, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Cremin, T., (2011) Writing Voices: Creating Communities Of Writers London: Routledge
  • Flint, A. S., & Laman, T. T. (2012). Where Poems Hide: Finding Reflective, Critical Spaces Inside Writing Workshop In Theory Into Practice, 51(1), 12-19
  • Gee, J. P. (2008) A sociocultural perspective on opportunity to learn In P. Moss, D. Pulin, J. P. Gee, E. Haertel and L. Young (eds) Assessment, Equity, and Opportunity to Learn (pp.76-108) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Gonzalez, N., Moll, L. & Amanti, C. (eds) (2005) Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classroom, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
  • Graham, S., Berninger, V., & Fan, W. (2007). The structural relationship between writing attitude and writing achievement in first and third grade students In Contemporary Educational Psychology, 32(3), 516-536
  • Gregory, E., Arju, T., Jessel, J., Kenner, C. and Ruby, M. (2007) ‘Snow White in different guises: interlingual and intercultural exchanges between grandparents and young children at home in East London’,Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, vol. 7, no. 5, pp. 5–25.
  • Guerra, J. C. (2008). Cultivating transcultural citizenship: A writing across communities model In Language Arts, 85(4), 296–304.
  • Gutiérrez, K. (2008) ‘Developing a sociocritical literacy in the Third Space’, Reading Research Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 148–64.
  • Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Maybin. J. (2006) Children’s Voices: Talk, Knowledge & Identity London: Palgrave
  • Rogoff, B., Moore, L., Najafi, B., Dexter, A., Correa-Chavez, M. and Solis, J. (2007) Children’s development of cultural repertoires through participation in everyday routines and practices In J. E. Grusec and P. D. Hastings (eds) Handbook of Socialization: Theory & Research (pp.490-515) New York: Guildford Press
  • Tomasello, M. (2003) Constructing a Language: A usage-based Theory of Language Acquisition Cambridge: Harvard University Press
  • Tomasello, M. (2006) Acquiring linguistic constructions In R.S Siegler & D. Kuhn (eds), Handbook of Child Psychology: Cognitive Development (pp. 255-298) New York: Wiley
  • Willinksy, J., (1990) New Literacy: Redefining Reading and Writing in Schools London: Routledge
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Talk-For-Writing Is Excellent But Does It Go Far Enough?

We are convinced that Talk-For-Writing is one of the best ways to teach children how to write in different genres. Like many of you, we had considerable success. However, we were aware that, no matter how independent the independent phase of Talk-For-Writing was, it still had a certain feeling of ‘writing exercise’ about it. For us, it didn’t feel like Talk-For-Writing went far enough, in the sense that children were often not being given the opportunity to go on to use these newly acquired genres in writing about what they personally know, love and care about. They don’t get to use the genre for their purposes and after all, this is what writing is all about. As the psycholinguist Frank Smith says, ‘the environment in which a child will want to write is an environment of demonstrations, not just of ‘this is the way we do things’ but also ‘these are things that can be done’. As a result, Talk-For-Writing is just the beginning of any writing topic and our Real-Word Literacy pedagogy goes well beyond it.

Talk For Writing: The Precursor To Process Writing

Talk For Writing is an approach to language and literacy learning developed by Pie Corbett and Julia Strong, described in detail in their book Talk For Writing Across The Curriculum (2011). It is concerned with children’s composing and writing of non-fiction texts and demonstrates how focused talking and oral activities together with shared planning and writing can help children internalise the linguistic structures and patterns necessary for the successful writing of such texts.

An intensely practical approach, it is nevertheless based on a sound and influential body of research, notably the work of Halliday (1975) in formulating a model of language in social context within the discipline he termed Systemic Functional Linguistics, and on the subsequent work of Martin (2007) who developed a pedagogical approach to literacy learning informed by genre theory. Martin (2007) asserted that a focus on literary genre would reveal the contexts which influence texts, and that these, if taught, would enable students to write culturally informed texts and thus have entry to a society’s particular cultural norms.

The Talk For Writing (2011) project makes an equally strong claim for the inclusion of all children in the learning and development of writing and what this means in terms of their place in society. The teaching sequences are essentially interactive and encourage collaboration between teacher and students and between students and their peers, wherein the students accomplish a piece of writing that is more successful than one they would produce on their own. The teacher’s role is to draw out, model and scaffold. Ongoing formative assessment is seen as central to pupil progress, with feedback to pupils at every stage both offering and eliciting from them sensitive suggestions for improvement, involving them in their own learning and raising their expectations of what they can achieve.

Martin (2007) expands on the genre-based model of literacy learning. He posits a three-stage pedagogical process in relation to a text: deconstruction, joint construction and individual construction. The interactive element is exemplified and stressed in his description of the process. In Talk For Writing the stages are referred to as Imitation, Innovation and Independent. Literacy For Pleasure’s Writing approach (read here) proposes that teachers treat the introduction of any new genre, which includes using language to produce or consume texts, as a matter best served by Talk-For-Writing and these three elements.

It is envisaged that, by systematically building on children’s knowledge of genres over the years of primary schooling, the linguistic features shaping each genre will be embedded in the children’s repertoire and can be employed both across the curriculum and beyond the school gates. However this doesn’t always seem to be the case.

What Should Come After Talk For Writing?

Writing assignments in a traditional curriculum often require explicit replication or transference of what the teacher has taught. Thus, something like the independent stage would be the end of a writing activity. We believe, however, that Talk-For-Writing’s independent stage is only the beginning. What Talk-For-Writing does so well is attend to the ‘vertical’ forms of learning. Children move from immaturity and inexperience to maturity and competence. However, we have a more expansive view of development and our approach is also concerned with the horizontal forms of learning, that of expanding children’s real-world, outside literacies. We believe that Real-Word Literacy captures both vertical and horizontal forms of expertise. It includes not only what students learn in formal learning environments but also what they learn by participating in a range of activities outside of school. After Talk-For-Writing, children should develop from it and use it as a guide in subsequent writing.

The rationale for the instructional routines within Talk-For-Writing is that they allow for a gradual release of responsibility from teacher to child (Higgins, Miller & Wegemann, 2006). Our approach, Real-Word Literacy, also allows for this. Children apply the linguistic features learned in Talk-For-Writing to the topics and themes they actually want to write about.

Currently, even in the independent phase, children are rarely, if ever, given an opportunity to follow their own ‘writing desires’ through the newly learnt genre. (This is either an issue of T4W not being clear or teachers simply not having trust in the children) The topic is nearly always in the control of the teacher and therefore just becomes another ‘writing exercise’. T4W states that only the highest-ability should be allowed to negotiate their very own writing-topic through the genre. We believe this to be mistaken. Why should the lowest ability regularly have to negotiate a teacher-chosen-topic of which they often have a very limited knowledge when compared with being an absolute expert in their own interests and experiences? This tackling of a subject not known well to the child actually makes the writing process even harder than it needs to be.

This kind of writing is more authentic because it is not simply a response to an assignment or exercise set by the teacher (a piece of literature, a film-clip or the class topic). Unfortunately, drills and exercises teach children that writing is a nonsensical activity. The language of their exercises will often be purposeless, decontextualised and trivial when compared to their lived experiences or their ‘social dreaming‘. Children begin to believe that the only evident reason for writing is to get it over with, to get it marked or because the teacher says so and that their experiences or ideas are not worthy of writing. To move away from this is a profound shift.

The transition to a Real-Word Literacy means children can constructively critique a genre, account for its cultural purpose, know and apply the grammar involved, creatively extend the genre, and go on to innovate writing on their own to serve real purposes. Through this approach, children can begin to understand how writing can help them steer their own social and academic future.

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