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This post was originally written in 2016.
I should start out by stating quite clearly that this is not an article advocating for the removal of stimuli or book-inspired writing projects from classrooms. Instead, this article will reflect on what contemporary writing research is telling us about how these dominant writing practices may need to be adjusted to be at their most successful and meaningful (Young & Ferguson 2020, in press).
We begin with some wise words from Donald Graves, writer, teacher, researcher and thinker: ‘Children want to write’ (1983 p.1). However, the provision of cross-curricular topics and other stimuli for writing could be inhibiting children’s desire to write and adversely affecting the quality of the writing they produce. Children are failing to realise that they can do more with writing than simply imitate it or produce ‘writing to order’.
“Ideally, no pupil should be given a writing task which does not yield them enough fruit in their own terms, so that they can feel it is worth doing.”John Dixon (1967 p.78)
If you agree with John Dixon’s assertion, the question you will ask yourself is: what do children want to write? All children have experiences and interests in their own lives which they could bring to writing, and teachers could make it possible for them to do so. An incident, a person, a preoccupation, an opinion, a question, a memory, a curiosity, a story – all these are personal resources available for children to draw on as valuable and valid subjects for writing in school. Yet, in the dominant writing practices, according to research (Dockrell et al 2015), the topic is almost always chosen by the teacher. Are children too often subjected to external ‘stimuli’? Stimuli such as:
- Video or films.
- Whole-class book-study units.
- Pseudo-authentic cross-curricular writing projects.
- Pictures or excerpts from non-fiction texts.
“Children can write letters to the man on the moon. They can write a diary of the classroom hamster. They can write warning notices designed for sites of nuclear waste. The outcomes from such tasks may look effective and may provide useful practice in following conventions. Nevertheless, without the use of an underlying rationale and some attention to other aspects… such writing may only have short-term value.”Roger Beard (2000).
Calkins (1998 p.4) describes the outcome when real reasons for writing are ignored: ‘after detouring around the authentic, human reasons for writing, we bury the students’ urge to write all the more with… synthetic writing stimulants. At best, they produce artificial and short-lived sputters of enthusiasm, which then fade away, leaving passivity’.
It’s not so much the stimuli that is the problem here. It’s that children are expected to respond to these stimuli in the way their teacher (or the commercial provider) has interpreted them. There are obviously benefits to such approaches. However, if used too often children’s own desires and personal responses are not being realised. Children learn they are only ever to be consumers of writing as opposed to authentic producers. They become reciters not writers. It must be tough for children to find intrinsic motivation to grow as a writer when they are given too ready a diet of arbitrary and inauthentic writing assignments.
According to The National Literacy Trust’s work (2017), it is indeed the case. We see this when a child asks ‘how much do I need to write?’ or ‘how many sentences does it have to be?’ or after a few minutes exclaims ‘I’m finished!’. These are all signs that they are not inspired to craft the best writing they can.
According to Jacobson (2010), writing stimuli tend to inspire ‘list writing’. She states that this occurs most when children are asked to write on demand. When children are asked to write on a topic they have just been presented with, when their funds of knowledge are low, they tend to simply ‘tell’ on the paper all that has been made available to them about the topic by their teacher. A list of everything that comes to mind finds itself in the writing. Jacobson asserts that this will often result in a poor piece of writing which lacks organisation or quality detail. A prompt will either interest a child or it won’t, and the quality of writing will always reflect this. Another issue with prompts is that we, as teachers, assign these writing tasks without ever trying them out for ourselves.
The reality is that when children care about what they write, they bring an energy and will to the writing. They want it to succeed.
“When we assign topics we create a welfare system, putting children, our students, on to writers’ welfare.” – Donald Graves (1983)
“An arbitrarily assigned topic, with an error-hunting teacher as the sole audience, may do little for the writer, whereas a topic the writer cares about and an audience responsive to what the writer has to say are the essential ingredients for a profitable experience.” – Bereiter & Scardamalia (1986)
“Children resent the imposition of having to write on preselected or teacher-selected topics about which they are not familiar or interested. While some teachers use “story starters’’ or ’’creative writing topics’’ as imaginative ploys to motivate students to begin writing, when used too often, children can begin to rely on their teachers for topics.”- Hoewisch (2001)
“To diminish the potential for individual meaningfulness in students’ work is a denial of their basic humanity” – Willinsky (1990)
Maybe this is why The Literacy Trust has recently stated that children’s attitudes towards writing are stagnating and that fewer children are writing at home or for pleasure. It’s well known that even very young children will ‘write’ spontaneously and readily about things which have made an impression on them in their daily lives. So how and why is it that as teachers we feel responsible for providing older children with a stimulus in which to write (inauthentically)?
Writing tasks set by any teacher (including myself) are very often derived from the foundation subjects such as history or geography, and are thus termed ‘cross-curricular’ topics. What is the rationale for our thinking here? Is it simply to provide children with a subject on which to hang another arbitrary writing task within a particular genre – in effect, a form of writing exercise? It is possible that we as teachers see cross-curricular writing as an opportunity for children to show their understanding of a geographical location or an historical event(s). Maybe we see it as an opportunity for pupils to express a feeling of empathy for a character caught up in a particular moment in history, or simply a way to cram extra foundation subject work into the timetable. Unfortunately though, as a teacher who specialised in History & Geography before gaining an MA in Education with Linguistics, when I plan these lessons, they produce neither a decent historical/geographical piece of writing nor a good literary one. This is because I’m effectively asking children to make an imaginative leap into someone else’s psyche or else I want them to produce a piece of writing on the basis of a new and often very limited ‘fund of knowledge’ and with no opportunity to harness their personal response. On top of this, I make it even harder by having them draft out this new found knowledge whilst at the same time attend to literary requirements such as noun phrases, relative clauses, the subjunctive mood, the passive voice and fronted adverbials. Now, a few children will occasionally be inspired by these topics; fewer will be able to produce a satisfying and meaningful piece of writing. The reality is that all too often you receive a collection of stilted, inauthentic and depressingly similar pieces.
“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)
“Our best guides are the things pupils come up and talk about – their individual and group interests rather than an external ‘stimuli’ or book (which necessarily cannot know their particular circumstances or desires)…[therefore what is needed is] a questing exploratory atmosphere in a writing classroom.” John Dixon (1967 p.86)
Shouldn’t the curriculum address the fact that children should be taught how to generate their own ideas for writing? Shouldn’t we also ensure children can write in personal response to their learning in the other curriculum areas? If we don’t, would we be inadvertently training children to be dependent rather than independent writers? Teacher-assigned writing prompts, story starters and stimuli are just a few ways we communicate to children that they might not be capable of writing and thinking on their own. Stimuli are also incredibly inefficient ways of getting children to write. They waste valuable instructional and writing time (Young & Ferguson 2020, in press).
The question I’m asking here I guess is: why do we require pupils to jump through these hoops when we could be inviting them to write about what they are expert in, authentically, with engagement and interest, for a purpose and audience of their own choosing and in a (learned) genre which suits their intention- in short, what they are capable of doing from a position of writing strength?
A Facebook comment from a reader of this post said:
I agree with many points in this article, but what about those children that cannot think of anything to write about? The ones that do nothing on the weekend except watch TV or play on the computer? The ones that have very little life experience to bring to the table? Often the anxiety of having to generate ideas is the hardest part of writing for these children. Sometimes a teacher directed task or stimulus is the right thing to do for some of our children. It can’t be a one size fits all, need to differentiate!
Whilst reading our article, you may have been wondering the same thing. What could self-directed subject choice within a controlled curriculum look like practically? Would it work in a real classroom? However, I ask the following questions:
- Is there any lower expectation than believing working-class children have nothing to write about?
- Are you telling me that a group of 30+ children and a teacher cannot joyfully collaborate to generate a whole host of ideas for writing?
- Are children only allowed to write about things teachers want to read about? For example, why would it be a problem for a child to craft a meaningful and successful text about TV or computer games?
I have been working for some time on producing a new pedagogy for writing in the primary school which begins with children making their own choice of subject. You can read about it here. I must reiterate that I am in no way advocating the withdrawal of the teacher’s assistance when children are generating an idea for writing. Quite the opposite. There are many ways of supporting children to generate their own ideas. For example:
- Idea hearts or idea maps,
- Asking themselves ‘What if..?’ questions
- Generating ‘When I was little…’ statements
- ‘What makes me angry, scared, upset, happy’ lists,
- Deciding to use ideas from the books they have chosen and read,
- Deciding for themselves to use the topic(s) they are studying/ have studied in foundation subjects.
To name just a few.
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’
I appreciate that this shift from imposing tasks and themes for writing to allowing children to write about what they would like is an ideologically profound one (Young & Ferguson in press). As a teachers myself, I found it difficult at first to relinquish apparent control and give personal responsibility to my pupils (a question of trust). You may fear that children’s self-chosen themes will be superficial or trivial (again, this is a lack of trust). You may even make the assumption that the resultant writing will not have the same ‘quality’ as a piece whose theme is secured by you. To allay these fears, I would ask you to consider the following observations made at the coalface.
In my experience, children’s freedom to write about what interests and motivates them, what has amused or struck them, what they care about, love or hate, carries many benefits. Assisting a child with a theme is not the same as imposing a topic for children to write about. I believe that quality writing cannot emerge without an underlying authentic intention. That is not to say that in some circumstances there may be an adequate reason for requiring children to write to a given theme, to explore an issue in a particular subject area for example. But if our aim is to help a child learn to write, then we have to accept that the consequence of selected topics being forced upon children is to make their writing less profitable. It very often becomes an imposition and does not help children to become real writers – just writers of writing exercises.
The children in my classes have genuinely loved coming together and making their own choice of topic. They have said so many times. They are intent on writing. Over the year, almost all of my pupil-writers acquired their very own notebooks in which they jot down ideas and try out pieces – often at home, at playtimes or in their free-time.
I believe the most direct and relevant way for a teacher to demonstrate to a pupil the power of writing is to write with them and give them the opportunity to write what is motivating to them.
They come to understand all the functions of writing – to share and communicate, explore issues, explain or persuade, entertain and inform, get through a hard time, re-live a good time or work out a problem. They begin to write like real writers, readily sharing their work with their peers and giving and accepting helpful criticism. Not all topics will prove to be what Graves called ‘hot topics’. But children will be practising the craft of writing until their hot topic comes along. They will learn that they are producers of content, not simply there to rehash or consume other people’s writing ideas and desires (Young & Ferguon 2020, in press).
As a teacher, I positively look forward to reading such a wide variety of writing pieces. I feel the excitement and motivation myself too.
Because teachers are faced with the challenging task of balancing the demands of national standards, authenticity should be a primary consideration when developing your writing instruction. One reason to focus on authenticity even within the context of high-stakes accountability is because overly structured, teacher-directed writing that constrains student expression is not supported by research into effective writing teaching. Research has established that a contemporary Writing Workshop approach is the superior method to increase writing achievement (Young & Ferguson 2020, in press). It has been recognised that pupils write more effectively if they have chosen an authentic context and have a clear purpose in their own minds for their writing. Writing instruction that neglects students’ personal, global, and community funds of knowledge has been shown to decrease student motivation and their interest in writing (Au & Gourd 2013; Dyson & Freedman 2003; Ketter & Pool 2001; Watanabe 2007) with The National Literacy Trust (2017) linking motivation to write with writing achievement in the clearest terms. Children are seven times more likely to attain academic expectations in writing if they are motivated to write. It is clear then that motivation is one of the clearest ways towards writing achievement and the biggest motivator is agency in topic choice (Young 2019).
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