Kat Vallely is a practitioner in Primary Teacher Education at the University of Greenwich
A classroom project creating a community of writers where the teacher writes alongside the children to foster writing as a meaningful, purposeful and enjoyable activity.
If nurtured and encouraged in a supportive way, writing can propel children to a world where they are able to explore, problem solve, express themselves and make sense of their lives. However, the act of writing itself often evokes confusion and frustration and requires time, space, and a particular relationship between the teacher and the young writer. Sadly, this relationship is often compromised as we find ourselves caught in an education system where excessive, extrinsic motivation and pressure to perform has the potential to drown a child’s intrinsic desire to write (Cremin et al. 2017).
The dreaded realisation
Reflecting on the relationships I had formed with the children in my class, helped to confirm that I could name their interests, favourite superheroes, and had a good idea of the picture books that they cherished the most. But, if asked what intrinsic desires they had to write, or how they viewed themselves as writers, or even what they saw as important when writing, I would be shamefully silenced. I knew this needed to change if the classroom was to become a cultural environment, which valued the written word and demonstrated its pleasures and its practical application.
Becoming a fellow writer
Through studying the work of Cremin, Calkins and Smith, I learnt of the benefits that can be achieved when the class teacher takes on the role of fellow writer. After much consideration and deliberation over the positives and negatives, I made a conscious decision to take on this role, working alongside the children in the class, stepping away from my unintentional and previously adopted role of technical instructor and facilitator of writing. By writing alongside the children, I would avoid doing the writing for them, instead showing them the pleasures and delights, as well as the struggles, which can be experienced through one’s own writing.
The small scale study lasted a duration of four weeks, with interviews, mini-lessons, work time sessions and observations being used to evaluate and reflect on the responses of the Y1 writers. Six out of the thirty children were selected as the focus group for the research, based on their ability to articulate their thoughts. The study was not concerned with the quality of writing produced, rather the focus was on listening to the children as fellow writers, learning about their individual satisfactions and the personal benefits they gain from writing.
Setting the scene:
Prior to the research commencing, each of the six focus children took part in semi structured interviews, with each one aiming to explore their initial insights into writing. Reflection on the first set of interviews suggested that the children heavily favoured transcriptional factors (spelling, punctuation, handwriting and layout) over compositional factors (generating ideas, planning what to write, choosing appropriate vocabulary, and writing for a particular audience), often referring to the importance of performing skills correctly and accurately (see box 1). The children were aware of the ‘rules’ that must be adhered to when they wrote. Their answers indicated that that if the rules were not followed they would not be seen as good writers.
KV – Are you a good writer?
Alexia: ‘Yes, because I listen and I’m making sure that I do my best.’
Taylor: ‘I think so. I don’t always cross out my words. But I do sometimes cross out and that’s not good.’
Leo: ‘Yes…Well I know about how to make your writing make sense… like… you don’t always need to use ‘and’ all the time.’
Tia: ‘Yes because I always practise at home.’
Nancy: ‘Yes, because sometimes I do joined up handwriting.’
Whilst trying to disguise the mortified and heartbroken look on my face when hearing these answers, it was a reminder, albeit a rather harsh one that the writing culture for these children was not the one I had imagined it to be. Over occupied with transcriptional rules and getting things correct, these children were unable to see how their intrinsic motivations would help to build a gateway into writing for pleasure.
A recent curiosity in coyotes from one particular child sparked a domino effect of interest amongst the class. Google searches were being carried out, questions were being asked, animal encyclopaedias were being dusted off, and drawings from home were being brought in. This heightened interest formed the basis of our English topic for the next half term. Ideas were taken from Grainger et al, (2005) and the story of The Coyote and the Turtle was told to the children. Having heard the story, acted it out and retold it in their own words, the children were made aware that in a few weeks they would be writing their own versions of the story, and sharing these with their parents at a special Cakes and Coyotes Afternoon Tea Party. Over the duration of the four weeks the following themes were explored:
- Week 1 – listening to the story, retelling the story through drawings, children’s own words and collaborative drama work
- Week 2 – generating ideas for their own versions of the story, planning what to write, developing vocabulary, recording key words and events
- Week 3 – writing and recording initial ideas and thoughts, acting these out, thinking about the audience and purpose of writing
- Week 4 – sharing, editing, polishing to a finished piece, sharing and presenting.
Mini-lessons and work time
Adapting the work of Calkins (1994), mini-lessons and work time sessions were introduced to the children. Mini-lessons took place at the beginning of each English session and lasted between fifteen and twenty minutes.
Once I had reviewed the children’s previous work, the mini-lesson was a space for me to demonstrate the use of a particular skill that I felt would continue to help develop the children as writers. Most of the mini-lessons took place on the carpet where I stood at the interactive whiteboard and the children sat in front of me. Over the duration of the four-week period, a whole variety of mini-lessons were carried out, covering a wide range of skills. Although some of the skills focused on the technical elements of writing, most of the mini-lessons encouraged the children to engage in more expressive activities, where they were able generate ideas, plan what they wanted to write, empathise with characters and develop a deeper understanding of the story. These mini-lessons could not be planned in advance as they were responsive to the children’s varying needs, although time consuming to plan, and an inconvenience for SLT as the plans would only be available at the end of the week and not the beginning as expected, the children benefited as they were able to see examples of their own work being edited and reflected upon in a constructive way. As the research progressed this had a positive impact on the quality of their work. Rather than replying to a coloured comment that they could not read, the children were receiving on the spot verbal feedback and immediately applying this to their work.
The work time sessions were a secure period of the English lesson lasting between twenty and thirty minutes, where children engaged in writerly tasks. These tasks included: talking, planning, sharing, jotting, writing, reading, editing, polishing and publishing. During these work time sessions, I became a sociocultural facilitator of writing, writing alongside the children and experiencing the struggle and confusion that writing can often create. And my goodness did I find it hard to write when I was told to! However, when I was able to get pencil to paper I modelled and demonstrated the skill of crafting, shaping and creating through my own work. Each day I rotated my position, so that by the end of the week I wrote with all children in the class.
Observations were used to provide additional information and gain a better understanding of the children’s perceptions of writing. There were three observers, these included two teaching assistants and one PGCE Final School Experience placement student. Each of the observers used a premade template to record the following information: start time, end time, location and children involved. There was then a space for the observer to write a running commentary on what they had observed. This was carried out in a casual way by writing down exactly what they witnessed. To add rigour to the reliability of the study, a voice recorder during work time was also used as a method of capturing the dialogue being shared amongst the children.
During the first week of the study an observation was made by one of the teaching assistants that supported the responses given during the pre interviews. Having had time to think about my own story between weeks 1 and 2, I attempted to describe the urge I felt as a writer to begin writing and invited the children to watch as I started to record these thoughts. As I scribbled my ideas freely, a chorus of responses chimed back at me: ‘Don’t forget to use a capital letter’, ‘Remember to leave finger spaces between each word’, ‘You are not spelling the words right’. It seemed the children were constantly distracted by the technical elements of my writing. Believing that I was quite a conscientious and switched on teacher, I was amazed that I had not noticed comments like these before. However, as soon as I opened my ears to them, I began to see how the children’s overt focus on technical skills was restricting their authorial voices.
A few weeks later I was writing alongside a group of children when the following conversation was had:
Max: ‘Looks Miss Vallely isn’t writing anything!’
Tia: ‘Ohhh yer…… why are you not writing Miss Vallely?’
KV: ‘I’m actually finding it really hard to write today. Even though I have my plan and I have lots of ideas in my head I just can’t seem to get them out onto my paper. I feel very confused.’
Max: ‘But you are a grown up. All grownups write loads.’
KV: ‘You know, sometimes when we write it is really tough because we are so confused with what words to use, and what ideas we should include. But do you know all writers experience that at some point in their writing, even grownups.’
Max: ‘My mum always knows what to write when she goes to the shop and it’s always loads of writing.’
When this observation was made, I felt it really important to model the process of writing, so the children could begin to see that the perfect writer really does not exist. By demonstrating the struggle that writing presents in a real and meaningful context, the children were being shown what the process of writing involves, whilst at the same time experiencing this process for themselves.
As the research drew to a close, although a slight change in attitudes were noted, there were sadly no transformations in the children’s reactions and responses to writing. If a longer window of time had been available, changes in the children’s attitudes may have been more prominent. However, the post interviews did show that when asked if they were good writers, three children had moved away from an overt focus on transcriptional skills.
KV – Are you a good writer?
Taylor – ‘Yes…hmmm… because I can edit things that I have done that are wrong in my work, because if you are going to show your work in front of our mums and dads they won’t understand what you are saying.’
Tia – ‘Yes because I try my best and I discuss with my friends.’
Nancy – ‘Yes, because when I write I get to share my ideas from my head. Sometimes with people and sometimes just for me to see.’
The original responses that the children gave (see box 1) focused on handwriting, spelling and the presentation of their work. However, over a very short period of four weeks, half of these children gave much more authorial responses, which included reference to writing for a purpose, the need for an audience, social writing, sharing writing and autonomy (see bold italic print). I believe that through observation of a mirrored reflection of their own writerly behaviours, the children were encouraged to think beyond the transcriptional skills needed to write, focusing more of their attention on their ideas, their choice of language, and their intended audience. It was promising to see that some of the children were developing their own voices within their writing in order to communicate effectively. The responses below show that for Nancy and Alexia there was a growing awareness that their voices can, and should be heard, whilst being part of an environment that encouraged them to take ownership and make their own decisions within their writing.
KV – Do you like it when you get to choose what you write, or do you prefer it when you are told what to write?
Alexia – ‘When we choose like our own stories. Because there is no boss when you get to choose your own story.’
Nancy – ‘When I choose because then you are actually making your own story, so the story is actually yours.’
By working alongside the children as a fellow writer, I believe there was a shift in the classroom dynamic. For some children, they saw this an opportunity to explore and experiment with their own writing identities.
Writing teacher and teacher writer
Having had no previous experiences of a teacher sitting at their table and writing beside them whilst in KS1, I was curious to find out what the children thought of this approach to writing.
KV – What do you think when Miss Vallely sits beside you and writes?
Alexia – ‘Fantastic because some other children see you and it makes them want to write quicker. And I like it cos I see that sometimes adults make mistakes and that is okay.’
Nancy – ‘Well you see you like writing. You are not being a teacher when you sit next to us. You are acting like you are someone from the school, who is not a teacher. You are like a child writing. I think it’s good cos we are also learning stuff from you as well. You are not teaching but you are learning us new things. I think….. Miss Vallely……. that all teachers should do this so they can learn new stuff like us.’
Echoing a more mature awareness of writing, Nancy’s response shows an emerging understanding that writing is a process that has to be learned from others, not simply a skills based exercise completed in order to please the teacher. It could be suggested that for Nancy, writing is meaningful, purposeful and an enjoyable experience for both adults and children alike. It is hoped that if carried out over a longer period of time, Nancy’s viewpoint could be reflected in more of the children’s responses to their teacher becoming a fellow writer.
Carrying out the research helped me to acknowledge that I was caught up in an accountability culture, where much focus was placed on the development of technical writing skills, in order to produce polished work ready for assessment, at the expense of allowing the children time and space to express themselves. This lack of self-expression meant that for most children, their writing identities were largely built upon transcriptional skills, making writing a meaningless and technical activity that had to be done. I have come to learn that by allowing children’s writing identities to develop in this way, we fail at developing fluent writers whose individual satisfactions and personal benefits are met.
Although a longer research period was needed, it is hoped that the findings from this study will help trainee teachers, practitioners and teachers recognise the set of beliefs that children as young as five and six can hold about writing. When we are teaching children to write, wider appreciation and understanding of children as developing autonomous writers needs to be considered, if we are to grow fully independent and intrinsically motivated writers. By creating a community that fosters positive interactions and sees the teacher as a fellow writer, children’s understanding of, and attitude towards writing will become more self-assured and autonomous. If children are offered regular and consistent opportunities to write, and teachers make time to write alongside them, the act of writing will become less of a skills based task that is completed for the production of a finished and accurate piece of writing. If teachers adopt the position of fellow writer, a writing community will begin to flourish, where all members, both young and old, will see writing as a positive and meaningful form of self-expression, and one which encourages autonomy, authenticity and purpose.
This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Kat Vallely. It originally appeared in English 4-11 published by the UKLA. To subscribe to the magazine or join the UKLA, visit their website here.
- Calkins, L. (1994) The Art of Writing. Portsmouth: Heinemann.
- Cremin, T., Myhill, D., Eyres, I., Nash, T., Wilson, A., and Oliver, L. (2017) Teachers as Writers Executive Summary. Available at: http://www.arvon.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Arvon-Teachers-as-Writers.pdf (Accessed: 6 April 2017).
- Grainger, T., Goouch, K. and Lambirth, A. (2005) Creativity and Writing: Developing Voice and Verve in the Classroom. London: Routledge.