When you write, ideas crazily spill from your head, tumble down your arm, into your pen and out along the crisp, white page. To us, the only way to see ideas is scribbling them down – but ideas are more than just words on a page.They are colourful, squirming, squiggly things that slide and slip through the nooks and crannies of your brain. Some of them crash against the walls of your head in roaring waves. Others come more slowly – each droplet of water a letter.
Once you gain control of the sea – the droplets make out your idea.
– Year 5 Child.
Modeling topic selection is the best way to help children develop independent thinking and decision-making skills for composing – Heller (1999, p.86).
Research clearly shows that if children get to choose their topics, this strongly influences their enjoyment of writing and therefore the progress they make. Children may need initially to generate a whole raft of topics and ideas that they feel they could write about.
So, as part of our writing pedagogy Real-World Literacy, at the beginning of the year, we have children filling in an ‘Ideas Heart’. It is also advantageous for a teacher to write down what topics children consider themselves to be an expert in. Get children to collect on paper the people, places, games, hobbies and interests they know well as well as the things they love and care about in their lives.
‘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)
We believe in this concept because when children write about what they already know, they already have the information at their fingertips – they are full of confidence. This allows them to think about how to write it instead of having to concentrate on what it is they are being asked to write.
It is often the case that a teacher will use a book studied by the whole class as a stimulus for writing. We believe that such an approach can be restricting, especially if children are not motivated by the content of the book. In our view, surely, it is more logical that children be allowed to draw on their own reading of: picture books, novels and poetry from the class/school library or from home. Always bear in mind that:
‘what children write reflects the nature and quality of their reading,’ (CLPE, 2012) p.35.
You as teacher-writer should share your own Ideas Heart with the class. How you approach idea-generation should also be discussed during Writing Study sessions. This is discussed in a lot more detail in our Real-World Literacy document. To view this document, please go here.
If you’ve been providing your children with writing stimuli each day, then they are likely to have difficult with choice at first. This is because choosing topics is a writing skills (and all the more reason to teach it). In other words, the more you do it, the better at it the children will become. Throughout the year, we have provided Writing-Study lessons that give students new strategies for finding topics. Does that mean that the children never feel stymied when it comes to finding an idea? No. Writers do experience writers block and often this just simply requires some thinking time. Thinking and time. That’s something that we have difficultly allowing for in classrooms. However, generating an idea is still faster than having to ‘teach’ the content of a stimulus you want the children to regurgitate (Jacobson, 2010, p.32).
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:
- Creating an Ideas Heart and allow children to add to it throughout the year.
- Asking themselves ‘What if..?’ questions
- Roald Dahl famously came up with the idea for Charlie And The Chocolate Factory by simply writing this what if… question ‘What if a crazy man ran a chocolate factory?‘
- Generating ‘When I was little…’ or ‘Imagine a day when…’ statements
- ‘What makes me happy, angry, scared or upset’ lists
- Donald Murray said ‘problems make good subjects.’ What itch needs scratching list – a list of issues that need solving, correcting, explaining or exploring. Topics that make you curious, furious or confused.
- Questions for memoirists – Children answer questions to jog their memories for potential memoir ideas (see our article about memoir writing).
- Using the ‘Michael Rosen’ effect. This is where children can take an otherwise ordinary moment and make it extraordinary. This can be an alternative to memoir writing for children who would much rather not write about anything overly heartfelt or emotive – which we can occasionally come across.
- Create a ‘Where Poetry Hides’ list. This is where children run around their house looking for objects they could write about. (see our Poetry genre-booklet).
- Deciding to use ideas from the books they have chosen and read. To aid them we teach them to note the theme, setting and characters from two different books they have enjoyed, and look to create something new from that.
- Writing fan fiction using something from the book they are reading/have read.
- Writing inspired by poems – taking a poem they like from the class-book-stock and using it to write their own poem.
- Deciding for themselves to use the topics from our foundation subjects in any way they wish including creating genre-hybrids.
We would also add that you can read aloud books and poems about everyday and universal experiences and that this will often spark in children their own idea for writing. We call this ‘universal theme to specific topic’.
Use of these strategies facilitates children’s choice of writing topic. No longer do you have to fear that some children will have nothing to write about.
If you would like to receive updates from our blog, you can click the follow button in the top right-hand-corner of the page. Alternatively, you can follow us on twitter at @lit4pleasure
If you like the sound of this type of teaching, you can read our document Real-World Literacy by click here.
For research conducted on the theme of ‘topic choice’, please see the references below:
- Bearne, E., Marsh, J., (2007) Literacy & Social Inclusion London: Trentham Books
- 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
- Feiler, L., et al (2007) Improving Primary Literacy: Linking Home & School 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.
- Gonzalez, N., Moll, L. & Amanti, C. (eds) (2005) Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classroom, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
- Graham, L., Johnson, A., (2012) Children’s Writing Journals London: UKLA
- 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.
- Heller, M., (1999) (2nd Ed) Reading-Writing Connections LEA: USA
- 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
- Morpurgo, M., (2016) Such Stuff: A Story-Makers Inspiration London: Walker
- Rosen, M., (2016) What is poetry? The essential guide to reading and writing poetry. London: Walker Books
- Smith, Clint. (2016) The danger of silence Available Online: [http://www.ted.com/talks/clint_smith_the_danger_of_silence#t-242155]