The Writing Wars: The Major Approaches Teachers Take To Teaching Writing. Their Strengths & Their Limitations.

Image result for fight clipartThis article is written with the intention to inform and provide interested parties with the opportunity for reflection. All approaches to the teaching of writing come with their own advantages and disadvantages. It should also be said that these advantages and disadvantages depend on what it is that is being measured and what is seen as critical to children’s development as writers.

John Dixon

In his book Growth Through English, John Dixon (1967) 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

What Britton found in his research (1975) was that this type of writing made up 63% of the total writing undertaken by children in schools at the time. We may recognise this as matching the current requirements of the National Curriculum – where there is a huge emphasis on transcription.  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’ to produce 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 it 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. Children only ever become recipients of writing as opposed to active participants. This can result in them not knowing how to write for their own purposes whilst at school nor after leaving it.

2. Book Planning / Novel Study

According to Dixon, this approach is some people’s response to the skills approach and again Britton (1975) found that 18% of the total writing undertaken by students was in keeping with this type of writing at the time.

It looks to fill the vacuum left by the skills model. The concept is that teachers can be the gatekeepers of what is best in terms of literature and hand this down to a generation. They see that these ‘supposed’ great writers or great books for ‘topic’ offer a variety of models on which pupils’ writing could be hung. However, Dixon argues that this turns language into a one-way process: pupils are readers, receivers of the ‘master’s voice’. He asked how does such 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 practitioners into focusing on the teaching of ‘the content‘ (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 this given culture is disseminated by the teacher(s) alone. Therefore, there is the constant and systematic ignoring of children’s cultures. A rich network of attitudes, experiences, ‘funds of knowledge’ and personal reflections that children bring to the classroom are largely ignored and as a result children never learn how they can transmit these things out through the act of writing.
  • There is an assumption that the text will engage and feel relevant to all the children in the class. There is also the assumption that the children will not only have retained and used the content knowledge transmitted by the teacher about the text but that their ability to do so will also be assessed as part of their writing competency.
  • It perpetuates the concept that literature is a ready made structure which children are simply asked to imitate, and is a content chosen as noble and rich enough by the teacher as being worthy of attention. Writing/reading is a product handed over by the teacher for copying or at best imitating.
  • It can often lead teachers to teach literary criticism instead of focusing on teaching children how to write literature.
  • 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/reading can and will relate to their own life and experiences are largely underdeveloped.
  • It therefore neglects the most fundamental aim of writing/reading teaching – to promote interaction with one’s self (through reflection) or between people, and to create life-long writers.
  • As a result, writing has been interpreted as the study of texts and ‘imitating’ them out. It deals largely in pre-formatted activities and ‘pseudo-authentic’ writing-tasks being undertaken for assessment purposes alone.

3. Personal & Community Growth

The third type, personal and community growth, argues that teaching writing should be based on language ‘in operation’ – children 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 out into a community. Britton’s study (1975) found that this only made up 6% of the writing undertaken by children. According to Dixon, writing is about being in operation, not writing ‘dummy runs’ chosen by the teacher. It is the teacher’s responsibility to provide children with such opportunities. Therefore, it is argued by Dixon that the teacher needs to create an environment where differing voices, literature and experiences are used and published out for others. It provides a liberation for pupils from the limits of their teachers’ vision and teaches them how they can be a life-long writer.

Limitations Of Such An Approach:

Though the personal and community growth model sounds reasonable, it isn’t without its limitations. Limitations which need careful reflection:

  • If conventions and systems of written language aren’t central – where do they come, and where should they be taught? We can’t simply ignore them.
  • Children might remove themselves from classroom interactions (like sharing and publishing) because they feel they have ‘no friends’ there and their writing voice isn’t legitimate within the community when compared to their peers‘.
  • Children choose writing subjects which may cause tensions or offence within the class ‘community’.
  • Are there tensions between children expressing themselves and teachers being required to critique content?

George Hillocks 

In his book, Research On Composition (1984), Hillocks describes what he considers to be the three dominant writing approaches used within the USA at the time of writing. These are: presentational, natural process and environmental.

  1. Presentational

The presentational approach to writing, otherwise known as ‘dead end‘ writing (Wray & Beard et al, 1988), is concerned with teachers imparting ‘content knowledge’ that they’ve chosen prior to writing and checking children’s application of such knowledge. Children are asked to present their competence by producing an accurate writing product. Topics or pseudo-authentic writing tasks are assigned by the teacher and the teaching strategies employed are largely based on assessment outcomes. Children are therefore largely receivers of writing tasks which offer no identifiable purpose other than to measure children’s competence in applying taught skills. Here we can see an association with book planning/novel study.

The Limitations Of Such An Approach:

  • It involves telling pupils what is strong and weak in writing performance but it does not provide opportunities for pupils to learn processes for putting this knowledge to work for themselves, e.g. showing pupils an information text and fastidiously marking pupil errors but not teaching procedures and processes that can help pupils write information texts for their own future purposes.
  • It is not necessarily interested in children applying all the processes for writing – only the ones that require assessment. Therefore, writing products produced by the children are largely there to ‘present’ their competencies for assessment purposes only.
  • It assumes that children will be interested in the ‘content knowledge’ being used for the writing task and will also have to show their ability to retain enough of this information and recreate it in their writing. Both of these factors will be influential in a teacher’s judgement as to whether the child has been successful in presenting their competency in writing.
  • Children’s personal growth as writers is largely seen as unimportant.

2. Naturalistic Process

Natural process involves engaging children in the craft of writing and in fostering positive dispositions. All this is done in the hope that children will continue the craft as a life-long habit. Writing topics are chosen by the pupils and the key teaching strategies employed by teachers include: providing general procedures e.g. how to revise drafts and how to give comments to your peers.

The Limitations Of Such An Approach:

  • It prompts children to produce ideas and plans for incorporation in particular pieces of writing but it does not necessarily ensure that pupils develop these ideas through to any kind of formal publication.
  • Children’s writing products are seen as largely unimportant when compared to the process the children went through to create it.
  • There is little organisation for the teaching of different genres or being specific with the processes of writing. E.g. they encourage pupils to draft, discuss and receive feedback on their writing but attend less to procedures for correcting or avoiding problems – particularly conventions, use of genre-features or transcription.

3. Environmental Approach

Involves introducing and supporting active learning of complex strategies that pupils are not capable of using on their own. Children are invited to participate in the choosing of writing topics for class writing projects. The particular teaching strategies employed are: the developing of materials and procedures to engage children in all the writing processes and to produce high-quality written products.

Hillock’s report on the meta-analysis of 73 studies was that the environmental approach was two to three times more effective than natural process and over four times more effective than the presentational approach. The environmental approach presents new forms, models and criteria and facilitates their use in all class writing projects. Problems are tackled in a spirit of inquiry and problem-solving within a community of writers. For example, drawing pupils’ attention to information texts, helping them to identify the features of such texts and provide writing opportunities in which they can apply this knowledge in their own texts – which are being written for the child’s own chosen purposes.

Terry Locke

Finally, Terry Locke (2015) describes what he considers to be the four most dominant approaches. He calls them: cultural heritage, personal growth, rhetorical/textual competence and critical literacy.

1. Cultural Heritage 

The cultural heritage approach to writing believes literary texts are more important than non-literary ones. It is more important for children to study prescribed literary texts than it is for them to compose their own. This approach believes that the meaning of a text lies within the text alone and that it is the writer (alone) who produces the text. According to this model, genius is seen as a biggest factor to the production of high quality texts.

The Limitations Of Such An Approach:

The limitations are similar to that of Dixon’s book planning/ novel study approach.

2. Personal Growth

Locke’s description of personal growth is similar to that of Dixon’s. However, under this approach, Locke believes texts are created by the individual – largely alone.

The Limitations Of Such An Approach:

The limitations are similar to that of Dixon’s personal and community growth approach.

3. Rhetoric/Genre Competence

Under this approach, literacy is seen as a social practice as well as an individual one. The writer writes with the understanding that their writing will be socially situated and therefore they’ll need to consider the purpose and audience for their writing. This approach insists on children mastering different genres in order to be successful in the world and that the writing products they produce are as important as the processes they go through to create them. Therefore, children should be shown and should study good examples of genres in use and that these should be modelled by the teacher. There is a place for grammar in the classroom and children should understand how language functions in different texts.

The Limitations Of Such An Approach:

  • Genres don’t remain static and often change over time. They are often ‘hybrided’ or deliberately manipulated by writers. Where is there a place for such ‘genre play’ in this approach?
  • If children are always told what genres they require to be successful, when are they given opportunity to create their own and how will they be exposed to new and emerging genres?
  • The focus on product can sometimes erroneously mean that teachers focus on application of ‘genre features’ as opposed to how successful the writing is in its own right.
  • Whilst the approach advocates for children identifying their own purpose and audience for their writing, often this is done on their behalf by the teacher in the form of ‘pseudo-authentic’ writing tasks.
  • There is little appreciation given for children’s personal growth.
  • What happens if children are taught by a teacher who isn’t knowledgeable, competent or confident enough to produce reliable genre examples?

4. Critical Literacy

Like Rhetorical/Textual Competence, texts are socially constructed and can be labelled as differing genres. With this said, texts do not have a single meaning – different readers will read texts differently. Under this approach, becoming a writer is not a question of individual genius. Instead, writers are best produced when they are able to work within social and co-operative environments. They are encouraged to write collaboratively and not individually. All the texts we write are ideological and texts carry with them a certain power which can be used as an advantage over others – therefore we must understand our ethical responsibility as writers. Technology and multiliteracies have a profound part to play in the development of writers. Linguistic understanding is vital to understanding how texts work to act for or against us.

The Limitations Of Such An Approach:

  • Can critical literacy alienate or make children fearful to compose texts?
  • How much political understanding is required by children to take part in such an approach? When and where is this taught?
  • What happens if children don’t have access to the required technology?
  • If texts carry different meanings for different people and are written in a largely co-operative way – how do teachers begin the task of assessment?


In conclusion, being aware of certain limitations in some pedagogies is not to dismiss certain practices in schools nor those employed by teachers. Rather, this article is only looking to seek a clearer definition of the circumstances in which learning to write is likely to arise in classrooms.


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  • Britton, J., et al (1975) The Development Of Writing Abilities (11-18) Basingstoke: Macmillan
  • Dixon, J., (1967) Growth In English Oxford University Press: London
  • Hillocks, G. (1984). What works in teaching composition: A meta-analysis of experimental studies. American Journal of Education, 93(1), 133–170.
  • Locke, T., (2015) Developing Writing Teachers London: Routledge
  • Wray, D., Beard, R., Raban, B., Hall, N., Bloom, W., Robinson, A., Potter, F., Sands, H., Yates, I., (1988) Developing Children’s Writing Leamington Spa Scholastic

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