Teaching Writing: What Actually Is Authentic & Meaningful Writing?

Authenticity increases student engagement and achievement, particularly in teaching writing (Behizadeh, 2018)

According to Wray et al (1988), children are put off writing because:

  1. They feel they have nothing to say.
  2. They feel they do not write well and become discouraged by their final product.
  3. They do not write regularly enough to view the task as a natural progression from talking.
  4. They get tired of doing the same old task over and over again.
  5. Everything of interest which happens in schools leads to ‘now we’re going to write about it’.
  6. After all their efforts, nobody takes any notice of what they have done anyway.

It is often stressed that authentic writing experiences can improve children’s pleasure and academic outcomes in writing. Indeed, calls for authenticity can be found throughout literature and research (Dyson, 2003, Leung & Hicks, 2014, Flint & Fisher, 2014, Flint & Laman, 2012, Gadd, 2014, Grainger (Cremin), Goouch & Lambirth, 2003, New London Group, 2000, Wegner, 1999). Perhaps the best example though is Hillocks (2011), concluding in his review of 100 years of writing research that:

We now 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. (p.189)

But what do we mean when we say or hear that children should be writing authentically and can all writing projects really be inherently authentic for all children all of the time?

Well, Behizadeh, (2014) in her wonderful work, does try to offer a definition of authentic writing as:

‘A child’s judgement of the connection between a writing project and their life.’

However, according to Behizadeh (2014), writing too often resides within a task or text chosen by the teacher, rather than residing with the student themselves. Behizadeh even shows that teachers can perceive their assessment tasks as being authentic writing projects (not knowing that their students think quite differently)! So whether a writing project is authentic clearly depends on who is being asked…

  • Splitter (2009) argues that authenticity is actually subjective and that children deserve to be persuaded and not just told why they are undertaking a class writing project. Their learning in writing should also be linked to their world (p. 143).
  • Purcell-Gates, Duke, and Martineau (2007) claim that it is the purpose and genre of writing that determines its authenticity. Specifically, a project is authentic if the genre exists in the world outside of school and the purpose for writing is the same as it would be if the child was writing it outside of school.
  • Gambrell, Hughes, Calvert, Malloy, and Igo (2011) claim that authentic writing projects are ones similar to those encountered in the day-to-day lives of people. This is opposed to school like activities such as completing worksheets and answering teacher-posed questions.

Locke (2013) suggests that for a writing project to be meaningful and motivating, it needs to be relevant to the student’s world in terms of:

  1. its genre
  2. having reference to previous writing projects
  3. having a purpose
  4. having an anticipated audience.

Both genre and purpose need to have real-world relevance and be valued outside of school…a writing task connects to their life…the task is meaningful to them and connects to their experiences, culture, interests and goals…writing tasks become personally relevant (Behizadeh, 2018)

We also need to be careful that we don’t simply end up creating pseudo-authentic writing tasks as Whitney (2017) explains: We’ve all heard the advice to have students write for authentic audiences. But the truth is that too many times, even when we try follow that advice, we accidentally end up just having students pretend to write for someone other
than us. So our students write letters to the school board about lunch or the parking lot, but do we really deliver the letters? Is there a conversation with members of the board
afterward?

What Can You Do In Terms Of Your Classroom Practice?

  1. Discuss with children what they believe to be authentic reasons for writing?
  2. Begin to see writing projects as being on an ‘authenticity continuum’ rather than either/or. This might help you consider how you could make a writing project more authentic. You could also give more ‘leeway’ to the children when planning your class writing projects.
  3. When introducing a class writing project, understand that children need to be persuaded of its authenticity and not simply told.
  4. Reflect on whether you are actually just setting a pseudo-authentic task which doesn’t really carry a real audience at all and how you might change it.
  5. Teach class writing projects with a view to allowing children time to use them at a later date for personal writing projects. These personal projects can be undertaken at school, home or both.
  6. Provide children with personal writing project time.
  7. Allow children to use their ‘funds of knowledge’ from outside of school in their class writing projects instead of always providing the ‘funds of knowledge’ yourself.
  8. Create a community of writers where writing ideas can be generated collaboratively and made available for all children to use if they wish to.
  9. Understand that children will need to be taught the skills of generating ideas for themselves, particularly if they have been brought up on a diet of ‘back to basics’ writing instruction (Ketter & Pool, 2001).
  10. The best authentic writing experiences, according to Behizadeh (2014), are ones which merge both writing as a pleasurable experience for the writer with writing for the pleasure. This involves the writing having an impact on others. Authentic process is intricately linked to authentic outcomes. If children know their is an authentic outcome for their writing, they will engage in the processes in an authentic way too (Behizadeh, 2018).
  11. Therefore, allow children to regularly publish to their class/school library and beyond.
  12. Begin to reflect on the erroneous assumption that although children may enjoy authentic writing more, they won’t learn and demonstrate the skills required in the curriculum. The reality is children’s need for authentic writing can be honoured and they can succeed in a high-stakes writing assessments. Research demonstrates that authentic writing instruction is effective writing instruction (Dombey/UKLA, 2013, EEF, 2017, Gadd, 2014, Goouch, Cremin & Lambirth, 2009, Graham & Perin, 2007, Morizawa, 2014). Indeed, The National Literacy Trust (2017) states that ‘seven times as many children and young people who enjoy writing write above the expected level for their age compared with those who don’t enjoy writing.’
  13. Even when writing an expository text designed to deliver information, students should link sharing information to personal aspects of who they are (Behizadeh, 2018).

Our Real World Literacy Approach

Perhaps then our Real-World Literacy approach is a balanced approach. Using our Genre-Booklets and structure-strips, we set class writing projects which allow children to learn about typical purposes and genres used in the outside world. Once taught, the children are given regular time in which to undertake personal writing projects, using the resources and skills taught in these class projects – this is where they can use these learnt writing purposes and genres in even more authentic ways.

References

  • Behizadeh, N., (2014) Xavier’s Take on Authentic Writing: Structuring Choices For Expression And  Impact In Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 58(4) pp. 289–298
  • Behizadeh, N. ( 2018). Aiming for Authenticity: Successes and Struggles of an Attempt to Increase Authenticity in Writing. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 62( 4), 411– 419.
  • Dombey/UKLA, (2013) Teaching Writing: What the evidence says UKLA argues for an evidence-informed approach to teaching and testing young children’s writing UKLA: London
  • Dyson, A., (2003) Popular Literacies and the “All” Children: Rethinking Literacy Development for Contemporary Childhoods In Language Arts Vol.81, No.2
  • 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.
  • Gambrell , L. B. , Hughes , E. M. , Calvert , L. , Malloy , J. A. , & Igo , B. (2011). Authentic reading, writing and discussion: An exploratory study of a pen pal project. The Elementary School Journal , 112 ( 2 ), 23 – 258 .
  • Goouch, K., Cremin, T., Lambirth, A., (2009) Writing Is Primary: Final research report.London: Esmee Fairbairn Foundation
  • Hillocks, G., (2011). Commentary on “Research in Secondary English, 1912–2011: Historical continuities and discontinuities in the NCTE imprint” . Research in the Teaching of English , 46 ( 2 ), 187 – 192
  • Ketter , J. , & Pool , J. (2001). Exploring the impact of a high- stakes direct writing assessment in two high school classrooms . Research in the Teaching of English , 35 ( 3 ), 344 – 393.
  • Leung, C., Hicks, J., (2014) Writer Identity and Writing Workshop A Future Teacher and Teacher Educator Critically Reflect In Writing & Pedagogy 1756–5839
  • Locke, T., (2013) Developing Writing Teachers  London: Routledge
  • Morizawa, G., (2014) Nesting the Neglected “R” A Design Study: Writing Instruction within a Prescriptive Literacy Program Unpublished: University of California, Berkeley
  • National Literacy Trust, The, (2017) Children’s and young people’s writing in 2016 London: National Literacy Trust
  • New London Group (2000) A pedagogy of multiliteracies: designing social futures In Harvard Education Review, vol.66, pp. 60–92.
  • Purcell-Gates , V. , Duke , N. K. , & Martineau , J. A. (2007). Learning to read and write genre- specific text: Roles of authentic experience and explicit teaching . Reading Research Quarterly , 42 ( 1 ), 8 – 45 .
  • Splitter , L. J. (2009). Authenticity and constructivism in education. Studies in Philosophy and Education , 28 , 135 – 151 .
  • Wenger, E., (1999) Communities Of Practice London: Cambridge University Press
  • Wray, D., Beard, R., Raban, B., Hall, N., Bloom, W., Robinson, A., Potter, F., Sands, H., Yates, I., (1988) Developing Children’s WritingLeamington Spa: Scholastic.
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