Time For Reflection: The Three Major Approaches Teachers Take To Teaching Writing & Their Limitations.

This article is written with the intention to inform and provide interested parties with the opportunity for reflection.

In his book Growth Through English, John Dixon discusses the three common ‘types’ of writing teaching: skills, book planning/novel study and personal and community growth. 


A skills approach to teaching writing focuses on the learning of:

  • correct spelling,
  • cursive handwriting,
  • vocabulary,
  • correct grammar usage,
  • comprehending the use of longer and more complex sentence structures.

We may recognise this as matching the current requirements of the National Curriculum – where there is a huge emphasise on transcription. Its ideal pupils might well be proof-readers and copy-typists. You may of course find this ironic when you consider the argument for more skills is usually so that children can communicate better for unimpeded sharing! The teacher will give out writing assignments and tasks, ‘correct’ the class’ work and organise recurrent skills tests for grammar and spelling. The class will be disciplined in carrying out the exact task set by the teacher, and to work on whatever aspects they have ‘failed’ the last time.

Limitations Of Such An Approach

  • The main limitation of the skills approach is not so much what it focuses on but rather the vast amount is chooses to ignore.
  • Whenever the so-called skill elements of language are divorced from the rest of writing learning (like composition, purpose, audience, agency, writing voice, identity-building), the means simply become the ends.
  • It invites teachers to make children produce writing along the lines of ‘drill’ exercises.

2. 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 as the great writers offering 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.

3. Personal & Community Growth

The third type, personal and community growth, argues that teaching writing  should be based on language ‘in operation’. Children who learn how to use language for their own purposes and on the behalf of other people. Learning through writing and learning that they have something worth sharing. Writing is about being in operation, not writing dummy runs chosen by the teacher. It is the teacher’s responsibility to prepare and allow opportunity for children to have such opportunities. Therefore, the teacher needs to create an environment where differing voices, literature and experiences are stored. Each pupil can then take from the store what they can and what they need. It provides a liberation for pupils from the limits of their teachers’ vision.

Limitations Of Such An Approach

  • If conventions and systems of written language aren’t central – where do they come? We can’t ignore them.
  • Children removing themselves from public spaces (like sharing and publishing) because they feel they have ‘no friends’ there.
  • The tension between children expressing themselves and teachers being required to critique content.

In conclusion, being aware of these limitations is not to dismiss certain practices in school. Rather, we need to seek a clearer definition of the circumstances in which learning to write is likely to authentically arise in class.

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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