I should start out by stating quite clearly that this is not an article advocating for the removal of all stimuli or book inspired writing tasks from classrooms. I myself use them. However, this article looks to reflect on what contemporary writing and research is telling us about these dominant writing practices.
We begin with some wise words from Donald Graves, writer, teacher, researcher and thinker: ‘Children want to write’.
In this post, I want to suggest, through use of research findings, that the provision by teachers of cross-curricular ‘topics’ or ‘writing stimuli’ for writing in schools could be inhibiting children’s desire to write. As a result, this may effect the quality of their writing too. Is it the case that too few children are realising that they can do more with writing than simply imitate or produce ‘writing to order’? Is there another way of offering topic choice which can redress this?
“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 (p.78)
If you agree with John Dixon’s assertion, the question you will ask yourself is: what do children want to write? It is true that all children have experiences and interests in their own lives which they could bring to writing, and that 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 choice of topic is almost always chosen by the teacher. Dockrell states that ‘virtually no teacher reported not using them.‘ Therefore are children too often subjected to external ‘stimuli’? Stimuli such as:
- Video or films,
- Whole-class literature study,
- Talk-For-Writing (read our article about Talk For Writing here),
- 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) 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 boxes, kits, and manuals full of synthetic writing stimulants. At best, they produce artificial and short-lived sputters of enthusiasm, which then fade away, leaving passivity… (p. 4)
Children are then expected to respond to these stimuli. There is obviously benefits to such approaches. However, if used too often, are children’s own desires not being realised? Do children learn they are only ever to be consumers of writing as opposed to authentic producers? Is it tough for children to find intrinsic motivation to grow as a writer when given too readily a series of arbitrary, inauthentic writing assignments?
According to The National Literacy Trust’s work (2017), this may well be the case particularly when a child asks ‘How much do I need to write’ or ‘How many sentences does it have to be’ or ‘I’ve finished!’. Do we know they have not been inspired to do the best writing they could do?
Incidentally, according to Jacobson (2010), writing stimuli tend to inspire ‘list writing’. She states that this is because we often ask children to write on demand. When children are asked to write on a topic they have just been presented with, where their funds of knowledge are low, they tend to brainstorm on the paper all that has been made available on the topic by the teacher. This list of everything that came to mind finds itself in the writing. Jacobson alludes that this will often result in a poor piece of writing which lacks organisation or quality detail. I guess 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 often we as teachers think them up and never actually try 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 (1982)
“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
“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)
Research findings indicate that composition is impaired if a writer lacks sufficient background knowledge about topics and ideas. – Heller (1999)
Maybe this is why The Literacy Trust has recently stated that children’s attitudes towards writing is 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 we as teachers feel responsible for providing older children with a stimulus in which to write (inauthentically)?
To diminish the potential for individual meaningfulness in students’ work is a denial of their basic humanity – Willinsky (1990)
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 ‘practising writing’ in 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 produce writing on the basis of a new and often very limited ‘fund of knowledge’. On top of this, I often have them negotiate this new found knowledge further through 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 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 (p.86)
Should the curriculum address the fact that children should be taught how to generate their own ideas for writing? If we don’t, would we be inadvertently training children in to be dependent rather than independent writers? 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. According to Jacobson (2010), stimuli are also incredibly inefficient ways of getting children to write. They waste valuable writing time.
The question we are 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 their own centre?
A Facebook post 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 look like practically? Would it work in a real classroom?
Writing assignments without a background of discussion and shared experience are unlikely to elicit much response from many children – John Dixon (1966)
Well, a colleague and 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.
We must stress at this point that we are in no way advocating the withdrawal of the teacher’s assistance when children are choosing a theme. There are many ways of supporting children to generate their own ideas, in the form of:
- 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 read about how this is done in our classroom, you may like to read our ‘The Sea Of Writing Ideas: How We Got Children Choosing Their Own Writing Ideas’ article here.
We regularly read children Michael Rosen poems. He takes the most boring and ordinary life events and makes them extraordinary. We get them to go home and write a list of ‘poems hide in‘ statements – this is where they run around their house and write down things that they could write poems about. Finally, with some of our most inexperienced writers, we ask them to bring artefacts in from home which they could write about. We ask them to draw pictures that they could then write about. No child is a floating blob in time and space – they all have experiences, passions and treasured objects – we just need to make them feel they are legitimate and that we want to hear about them in fun and creative ways!
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” -John Hillocks
“Effects [are] most positive when the teacher gears the level of work to pupils’ needs but not where all pupils worked individually on exactly the same piece of writing” – Roger Beard (2000)
We 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 – and you can read more about that here. We as teachers found it difficult to relinquish apparent control and pass the responsibility to our pupils (a question of trust). Teachers may fear that children’s self-chosen themes will be superficial or trivial (again, a lack of trust). They may even make the assumption that the resultant writing will not have the same ‘quality’ as a piece whose theme is secured by them. To allay these fears, I would ask us to consider the following observations made at the coal-face:
In our 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. Imposing writing topics upon children is an act of linguistic oppression which shouldn’t be underesitmated. We 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 themes being forced upon children is to make their writing less probable or profitable. It very often becomes an imposition and does not help children to become real writers – just writers of writing exercises.
The children in our class, however, genuinely love making their own choice of topic. They have said so many times. They are intent on writing. Many have now 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.
We 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 opporunity to write what is motivating to them. You can read about how we do this through Pupil Conferencing, here.
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 calls ‘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. You can read about why this is so important here.
As teachers, we positively look forward to reading such a wide variety of writing pieces. We feel the excitement and motivation ourselves too.
Because teachers are faced with the challenging task of balancing the demands of national standards and high-stakes writing exercises, authenticity should be a primary consideration when developing writing instruction. One reason to focus on authenticity even within the context of high-stakes accountability is because overly structured, teacher-directed writing instruction that constrains student expression are not supported by research on effective writing practices. Research has established that a process approach is the superior method to increase writing achievement (Cremin, 2011, DCSF, 2009, DfE, 2012, Education Endowment Fund, 2017, Graham & Perin, 2007, Ofsted, 2009, 2011, Writing Is Primary, 2009). It has been recognised too the pupils write more effectively if they have chosen an authentic context and have a clear purpose in their own minds (Beard, 2000). Therefore, writing instruction that neglects students’ personal, global, and community funds of knowledge related to writing has been shown to decrease student motivation and 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. It is clear then that motivation is the clearest way towards writing achievement and the biggest motivator is agency in topic choice.
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