A Cautionary Blog Post About Using Structure Strips

Please note that this blog-post is not anti structure-strip. As this post and the research that informs it will explain, they can be a highly-effective self-regulatory resource that children can certainly learn and build from!

When reading about writing, you are often faced with one of two extremes. At one end of a continuum is the belief that ‘language,’ including writing, cannot be effectively taught unless it is solely acquired through experiences and by being presented with a situation which causes an authentic reason to write.

At the other end is the idea that language is best learned through tutelage, rote-learning and explicit instruction in its structures, forms and conventions.

As is often the case with extremes, academic research and sensible practitioners suggest a moderate middle ground is required. Language is best learned through a combination of authentic experiences and explicit instruction.

Explicit teaching (in this case explicit teaching of particular text structures through structure-strips) can obviously improve composition of those taught structures. However, aside from text-structure research, structure-strips don’t by themselves account for research into providing authentic literacy activity and teaching children the processes of writing.

These genre ‘norms’ that we teach through the use of structure strips (or indeed through our own Genre-Booklets) we must remember are not actually static but change to reflect changing needs and contexts for writing. Written genre function (so the purpose and audience involved) will always drive the way a written genre is formed, manipulated and potentially hybrid by a writer.

The criticism of such approaches (if used too rigidly) is that they can become overly prescriptive and give children a static vision of genres. We must be careful that this doesn’t result in a return to skill and drill. Where we end up teaching empty genres with overly prescriptive structures which, over time, will block children’s writing development.

Please don’t get us wrong here! We too believe in teaching and making available to children the different forms and structures of the most powerful genres. Like we’ve said, we do so through our Genre-Booklets. We do it as a social justice issue; ensuring that all children have choice and are not limited in their knowledge of the different genres in writing and the different situations in which they can be used out in the real-world. But we simply must provide children with opportunity to use these learnt structures for their own reasons too. Once taught, children should be allowed to do two things with this new found genre/structure knowledge:

  1. Input their own writing topics into them; using them for themselves in their personal writing projects.
  2. Have opportunity to experiment with manipulating, deliberately contradicting and potentially hybriding these otherwise static structures.

‘Authentic writing activities are essential to genre learning.’ (Purcell-Gates, Duke & Martineau, 2007, p.12)

Even advocates of explicit teaching of writing agree that having the opportunity to write authentically is critical. Delpit (1988), a staunch advocate of explicit teaching of writing, argues that:

Merely adopting direct instruction is not the answer. Actual writing for real audiences and real purposes is a vital element in helping students to understand that they have an important voice in their own learning processes. (p. 289)

New London Group (1996) also state: ‘if one of our pedagogical goals is mastery of [writing] practice, then immersion in …authentic versions of such practice is necessary. (p. 84)

Children write effectively when they are afforded high levels of autonomy and agency in terms of topic choice alongside explicit teaching of genre features and structures (Purcell-Gates, Duke & Martineau, 2007).

What’s most important here though is Purcell-Gates, Duke & Martineau’s (2007) statement that learning structures and genres in a decontextualized and ‘school-only’ manner is not helpful. In fact, under these conditions, children develop the least.

When you look at research into effective writing instruction, instruction of genre function and structures should be combined with teaching writing process strategies.

In conclusion, explicit explanation of genre purpose and structures combined with teaching children the different processes involved in writing married with plenty of opportunity for children to authentic write in those genres constitutes the most effective writing instruction.

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***

This 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. 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.

**Please note that the views expressed on this blog are informed by educational research and writings but may not represent our employer.**

References:

  • Purcell-Gates, V.,  Duke, N., & Martineau, J., (2007) Learning to read and write genre-specific text: Roles of authentic experience and explicit teaching In Reading Research Quarterly Vol. 42, No. 1
  • Delpit, L., (1988). The silenced dialogue: Power and pedagogy in educating other people’s children. Harvard Educational Review, 58, 280–298.
  • New London Group,. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66, 60–92.
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