The goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of text (Barthes 1975, cited by Rosen 1985, p.385)
This article is written with the intention to inform and provide reflection. With the Book Trust’s ‘The Write Book‘ research summary coming out in March – we were excited to see what it concluded.
We have entitled our article after the saying that: you give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day – teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime. That is what we have tried to achieve through our own approach to the idea of traditional ‘Book Planning’ or ‘Novel Study’.
Ever since reading The Reader In The Writer, we have always advocated for children using books of their choice to inform their writing. There is no greater joy than showing children that through literature we can take and find signs from our own lives – either real or imagined. This is exactly what our favourite writers do – so why not teach children to do it too?
Perhaps, what we as teachers shouldn’t do is do this important work on behalf of our pupils. To feel those kind of relationships with books means to be deeply and personally involved in a text you have struck a connection with. This is different from being required to get involved in a text that your teacher has chosen. As early as 1921, George Sampson stated that it was inappropriate a procedure. For example the absurdity of demanding ‘that all boys in a class must be writing on the same subject at the same time…a common feature of disliked writing tasks was they they were imposed’.
For in most classrooms the chief and privileged story-teller (stories of any kind) is the teacher – Harold Rosen
Out of her class of thirty, I recall that twenty-nine wrote on the same topic…they had in the process become ‘false to themselves’. – Ted Hughes.
If our students are to take lessons from literature, they need to be doing more of the legwork, having more of the fun, reaping more of the rewards – Shelley Harwayne
The real author of the narrative is not only he who tells it, but also, at times even more, he who hears it – Gérard Genette
Encouraging pupils to write informally about their responses to texts, and asking them to refine these responses in their own way, puts the emphasis back onto the reader and the reading, and away from received opinions and the artifice of examination discourse. It takes pressure off the pupil to ‘perform’. Personal engagement and reflection are encouraged – Sue Hackman
We have to remain vigilant, lest literature becomes debased into material for a certain kind of manipulative teaching; lest children start reading the stimuli instead of the poems… – Paddy Creber
Often the problem in literature teaching is also one of interposition, where the teacher gets between the students and the text with which they are supposed to engage. – Paddy Creber
The reading self prompts the writing self with second thoughts and new ideas…the reading experience of the pupil is framed in the words she writes. – Paddy Creber
[There needs to be] sufficient space for the individual to explore his own responses; before considering the ideas of others. – Benton & Fox.
How a child reads reflects his whole person so that to read at all inevitably involves the stored experiences of the reader and his characteristic ways of being and acting. In the act of creating, what the reader brings to a story is as important as what the texts offers…. we fit the reading of a new story into the blend of our literacy and life experiences to date, drawing upon our knowledge of other fictions as well as upon analogies in the primary world, in order to make our own, unique meaning. – Benton & Fox.
This year, we have taught all the children in our class how a writer will use the books they’ve read to generating an original idea. This has included teaching them how real authors use their favourite texts to influence their own short-stories, poetry, ‘faction’ and non-fiction pieces. We haven’t asked them to use a single book on which they must hang their writing.
We taught them to consider the following when reading:
- Ask: does this book remind me of anything from my life?
- Ask: does this book remind me of anything else I’ve seen or read?
- Ask: what do I have in common with this book?
- Ask: why did I pick up this book?
- Collect: plot ideas, characters, favourite lines, settings and put them in their personal writing project books.
- Say: Cor, I would love to nick that…
- Say: I could have a go at writing something like that…
Because writing is a social act, we model how to do it as a class with the ultimate aim being that children begin to do it on their own – with their own texts.
We believe this approach is enabling. It takes children off what Donald Graves articulates perfectly as ‘writers’ welfare.’ Children, for once (maybe in a long time), have been shown and then encouraged to develop their own writing voice on a book or theme of their own choosing (the benefits of which can be seen in the research references below) and is a strategy they can use throughout their time at school and beyond.
It’s ironic that, when children are younger they are actively encouraged to write/mark-make about any text that may have inspired them, yet once they enter infant and primary school, this privilege is largely taken away.
In ‘Teachers As Readers: Building Communities Of Readers,’ it talks about teachers who undertake ‘novel study’ literacy units with their classes. It describes how read aloud sessions are usually followed by literacy work focused on developing word, sentence or text level skills linked to the reading. It states that this type of writing-teaching has serious potential consequences. The children in the study explain that whilst their teacher read aloud they often didn’t like it. This is because, in part, they knew it would involve subsequent written work. Teachers are inadvertently tethering writing tasks onto reading aloud and children don’t like it.
‘This process of [novel-study] can sap central enjoyment and satisfaction away from the act of reading and responding. There is widespread and self-defeating refusal to see that literature cannot be taught by a direct approach, and that the teacher who weighs in with talk or lecture [on a text of their choice] is more likely to kill a personal response than to support and develop it. (Dixon, 1967)
If we teach writing in this way, it could become all too easy for children to feel that their own responses to a book they would have chosen to be inspired by is unimportant.
Some may of course recognise this as sounding incredibly similar to the failed Literacy Strategy and the dreaded ‘Literacy Hour’. The dryness of schematic and systematic analysis of imagery, symbols, linguistic and grammatical features as well as structural relations killed any potential enthusiasm children would have had to respond, in writing, to the texts they were reading. It is personal written response to literature and not literary criticism which we should be looking to teach during writing lessons. Or as Parry & Taylor (2018) call it: ‘‘leisure reading equalling volitional writing’.
Incidentally, we too have spoken on the subject of the over use of writing-stimuli having negative effects on children’s writing potentials here; how it is dangerous to believe children are too ‘culturally deprived’ to choose an appropriate book topic of their own here and the importance of providing authentic and meaningful writing projects here.
Bodies of knowledge – about life, about books, about words – are among the products of [children’s] work. It is possible to regard these bodies of knowledge as the ‘content’ for a writing lesson (John Dixon, 1967 p.74)
You may find the following, taken from our article here, interesting reading too:
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 believe that the great writers can offer a variety of models on which pupils’ writing can be hung. However, this turns language into a one-way process: pupils are receivers of the master’s voice. How does an activity like novel study relate to the ways in which professional writers write every day? Novel study is misleading many teachers into focusing on the teaching of the stimuli itself at the expense of showing children how writers are informed and inspired by their reading and how they can do this too. This misconception of how writers work has very far-reaching consequences. By concentrating on the stimuli (the book), the teacher controls both the book and the relevance that is to be taken from the book. The question of relevance for the children rarely enters their head.
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 largely ignored.
- It perpetuates the concept that literature itself is a given, a ready made structure which children are simply asked to imitate. The content is chosen as noble and rich enough as being worthy of study.
- This approach denies children exposure to compositional processes which are used by writers. 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 hugely underdeveloped.
- It therefore neglects the most fundamental aim of writing teaching – to promote interaction with one’s self (through reflection) and between people.
- As a result, writing has been interpreted as the study of texts and ‘imitating’ it out by order of the teacher. It deals largely in pre-formatted activities and writing-tasks which are solely there for assessment purposes.
When we, as teachers, mine our favourite texts for potential ideas for writing, we get excited about sharing what we’ve liked or noticed with the children. We also learn a great deal about the book. Therefore shouldn’t we be teaching children the strategies we are employing when we plan novel study so that they can undertake such strategies on their own chosen texts instead? Can they be allowed to enjoy what we enjoy?
This year, we have taught the children in our class how they can successfully use any book in their writing that has had an impact on them. We have done this in a number of ways:
- Provided the children with a class library full of high-quality texts including poetry, classics and non-fiction.
- Afforded children the opportunity to bring books in from home into the class library or bring books in from the local library to share.
- Shown them how they can write ‘inspired by poems‘ and created regular time for them to engage in that kind of writing.
- Shown them how to dabble in their writer’s notebook as they are reading.
- Shown them how to appreciate certain character development, setting descriptions or beautifully crafted sentences in their reading, how to make a note of it in their ‘Writing Tricks Books’ and then use those jottings to inform their own story, flash-fiction, poetry, ‘faction’ or non-fiction writing.
- Shown them how to ‘hybrid’ two or more of their favourite books to look for themes that they could exploit for their own writing.
- Shown them how to ‘hybrid’ genres in new and unexpected ways using themes from their reading.
- Shared many exemplar texts written by children and ourselves that model how this has been done successfully and made these available to read in the class library.
- Shown them how to write ‘fan-fiction’.
- Having a book that is read as a ‘class-read’ which the children can be inspired by.
We have done this because the research on effective writing teaching points this way. Create a class of producers instead of consumers (or at best imitators) and writing outcomes and attitudes will improve dramatically. Let children be participants in class writing projects as opposed to recipients. We are fortunate in being able to see the research and theory come together in practice and succeed.
‘When published authors give advice about becoming writers they invariably tell their audience to read as much as possible. Ofsted’s survey of 12 outstanding schools revealed that visits to libraries, plentiful reading aloud by teachers and the provision of good-quality up-to-date texts stimulated pupils to read more and inspired them with ideas for their own writing (Ofsted, 2011).
Children who read more, write more and write better. Since the 1980s, research evidence has shown that reading and being read to help children to develop models for writing: children who read particular genres, such as stories using metafictive devices, can be inspired to create something of their own in that genre (Pantaleo, 2007b).
Stories they have read may also suggest events or predicaments for children to include in their own texts. Indeed for children as well as adults, all writing is intertextual.’ (Dombey/UKLA 2013, p.23)
Each new text written reflects, in some measure, the shadows of texts experienced in the past. (Cairney, 1990, p.484)
The goal of education in general, and any writing program in particular, is to help students gain independence. (Ted DeMille, p.145)
Children are ‘always in a high state of readiness to transform into story not only what [they] experience directly but also what they hear and read. (Rosen, 1985)
The increased attention placed on novel study or book planning as a single writing approach has led to the elimination of other approaches and for no good reason. Glenn (2007) & Rosen (2018) argue that, when we allow students to write fiction that’s unrelated to a specific text, their commitment to and resulting understanding of texts more generally is enhanced and encourages children to be more motivated writers.
Gay Su Pinnell (1989) reports on a successful programme with ‘at risk’ children. It showed how children were encouraged to make connections between their reading and writing as a way of boosting their academic achievement. The tasks were not a matter of imitating a book extract or completing a writing task related to a class novel – but instead the children were immersed in a community of rich texts. In response to having read something they felt was great, they had an eye on how they could write like their heroes and as a result learnt how to be better writers.
Imitating the masters is universal in all art and is often the first stage in any creative process. This is why our Genre-Booklets are proving to be so popular. They share with children: the patterns, the approach writers take and the linguistic features that can be deployed in story writing. Some people have recently asked, how do you get children to write their own unique stories without using a whole-class mentor text or any other kind of writing stimulus? We’ll look to explain how below.
No one should be in any doubt that it’s important to show children how other accomplished authors do what they do. It’s also important that children have time to enjoy, appreciate, discuss, understand and try imitating aspects of the books they are reading. And most importantly – we need to show children how they can do this for themselves.
Our Flash-Fiction Genre-Booklet is essentially a writing project designed to help children identify story patterns, use ‘author voice’ and create stories independently. The stories that are exemplars within the Genre-Booklet are deliberately short and show children that this type of writing is well within their grasp.
The exemplar texts showcase how a short story can be constructed using only 250/300 words. We try to keep this limit in the children’s minds as they write too, so as to avoid the inevitable ‘and then…‘ syndrome. Educator Nancie Atwell makes the point that even the children in her middle-school (12+) can find anything longer than 300 words difficult to handle and in our experience, working with children from 5-11, this can often be said about them too.
Our exemplar texts are there to showcase how the linguistic features of story telling can be used effectively. These include:
- How they can use the typical themes of literature,
- A clear and memorable telling of an event (including different types of openings and endings),
- Using inviting language,
- Thought provoking descriptions of characters, settings or special objects.
Once these features have been made explicit to the children, we encourage them to generate their very own writing ideas. This includes strategies like:
- Using the books they have read during DEAR time.
At this point, we should say that this approach is most effective if you adopt an approach to reading that is very similar to ours. To read about how our children are reading during DEAR time, follow this link. Essentially though, you need to be reading high-quality literature and poetry aloud, encouraging children to read independently and giving them plenty of time to do so.
- Using their ‘linguistic collections’ from their Writing-Tricks Books.
Again, these collections come from the children’s reading during DEAR time. To read about ‘Writing-Tricks Books’ click here. Essentially though, this is a book which lives in their trays, encourages children to write down things they notice their favourite authors doing and the sentences and themes they like the most. Children are encouraged to dip into these collections when they are generating ideas for writing.
- Our 10 strategies for idea-generating, which can be found here.
These are strategies that encourage children to write stories from personal interests, recounts, loves, hates, idiosyncrasies, hobbies and obsessions. These 10 strategies unearth a whole bouquet of potential topics for stories.
If a child is using a book or a ‘collection of great phrases’ as a means for a story idea, we ask them to try and integrate a personal experiences into their stories. We do this because children often find writing stories easier as a result. In our class, we call these types of stories ‘Inspired by…‘ stories, after the poem ‘My Yellow Dog’ in the book ‘Love That Dog‘. We’ve noticed that what begins as imitation or impersonation soon moves beyond that by the time the children have finished their writing.
And so we were pleased to read in the Book Trust’s ‘The Write Book‘ research summary that we are indeed on the right lines:
- Children enjoy writing more, and write better, when they’re inspired by a high quality book they’ve loved.
- Book choice is key in encouraging children’s creative response. (and who better to choose than the child themselves).
- Using high quality books to inspire and emulate writing encourages children to think of themselves as writers (even more so if you have taught them an idea generating strategy that is genuinely used by published authors).
- Improved the technical elements of their writing such as vocabulary, descriptive writing skills and sentence structure.
- Developed more interest in and enthusiasm for books and writing.
- Wrote voluntarily at home and in free time at school, often when they had never done so before.
And so, in many ways, we are inviting you to combine the best of educational research. Use what ‘The Write Book,’ The Reader & The Writer and what the meta-analysis (here) says about the teaching of writing to create a truly effective, memorable and life-long writing curriculum.
If you’d like to read more about how the children writing independently in our class, you can go here.
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