How to give your greater depth writers the teaching they deserve
When I was ten and a new pupil at secondary school, I wrote my first set homework assignment for R.E. – a recount of the one of the seven plagues of Egypt. After a few days my book came back with the comment (in a mean little script written in red pen): Is this all your own work? Mortified, because it was my own work and I’d written it like a story, with my usual enthusiasm and emotional investment, I approached the teacher on the pretext that I hadn’t been able to read her comment. “Well,” came the reply,” it was so vivid.” I said I had written it myself, but I could see she didn’t believe me. To this day I still feel the injury to my early strong sense of myself as a writer, and the need I had to own and assert my talent, though of course in those days, when the teacher was the ultimate authority figure, it didn’t make any difference to her judgment.
Having read the small body of research (Garrett & Moltzen 2011 & Gagne 2000 & 2003) on the topic of gifted and talented young writers, I think I would in the past have qualified as such. I was a self-styled Jo March, with a drive to write from a very early age. I wrote out of desire, with engagement, pleasure, absorption, satisfaction, as escapism too. I wrote a great deal at home – stories, unfinished novels, programmes for shows put on with friends in somebody’s backyard, started a magazine with me as editor – one issue a month, in which I remember trying to serialize ‘Coral Island’ for some reason. Also, aged six, a letter to the BBC (wireless!) asking for another series of ‘The Windjammers’ – swashbuckling adventures on the high seas, listened to avidly on Children’s Hour. My memory is that, in those days, we were never asked to do any of these different kinds of writing in primary school. Certainly, once I reached secondary, we were not required in English lessons to be imaginatively ‘creative’ or purposeful, but largely to write critical essays on the (classic) book we had spent a whole half-term reading aloud round the class. I hope it’s different now, but I do hear stories which make me think it may not necessarily be.
I have recently known several pupils who were clearly outstanding as writers.They were all highly motivated, persistent, committed and self-regulating, and all wrote extensively and with pleasure at home. So far, so good. But there is one interesting small piece of research which got me thinking about whether we are doing all we might in school for ’high ability’ young writers like these. It’s a definition of what ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ (two separate terms) could mean. According to Gagne (2000, 2003) giftedness is an individual’s potential or predisposition for outstanding achievement. His research also suggests that giftedness isn’t fixed but can be developed, which surely has ramifications for how we see and teach all apprentice writers. ‘Talents’ are defined simply as the manifestation of this potential. The conditions which are influential in the realisation of giftedness as talents are: intrapersonal – coming from inside, being intrinsically motivated, and environmental – particularly the support of parents and the home ethos, and that of teachers and the school. (Chance is also a possible factor). This research draws attention to the potential influence of the classroom on the writing lives of such children, and implies that some classroom strategies could actually have an adverse effect on their progress. So the question is, what kind of writing teaching would be the most valuable for gifted and talented writers? Do we in fact need to do anything to support them or, with the demands of getting other less able children to ‘met standard’, is it justifiable to praise and showcase their writing but then leave them to their own devices, trusting that they will always write something good? Our view is that it’s not. They need good teaching and writing that challenges them as much as everyone else does.
If you’re a regular reader of our blogs you’ll know that we are passionately committed to promoting and teaching a rigorous, research-informed, inclusive Writing for Pleasure pedagogy. You can read about it here. The basic idea is to make the classroom a place where children want to write. Consistent research results from the National Literacy Trust indicate that for many, including high ability writers, it clearly isn’t. Taking as read that the Writing for Pleasure pedagogy supports all young writers, this post is specifically about some of the ways in which it enables gifted writers to realise their talents fully in the writing classroom.
Being part of a classroom community of writers
In a community of writers, writing by teachers and pupils alike is shared, talked about, responded to, reflected on and presented, in a safe and positive atmosphere where all are seen as writers, and believe themselves to be. A talented writer, like anyone else, needs to feel part of and act in important social structures such as these, where children learn things of value from each other and help each other to learn.The alternative is to have all children writing in isolation, and so mutual benefits and huge opportunities for learning and making relationships are lost.
Learning the writing processes
Being explicitly taught the writing processes means that, paradoxical as it might seem, confident talented writers become free to think about and use a personal version of the processes which suits them better. They may even try out several different versions when writing in different genres, and gain more knowledge of themselves as writers. Many professional writers have reflected interestingly on their processes, and these could be shared and discussed.
Creating purposeful and authentic class writing projects
Children will be much more engaged and motivated if the class writing project is felt by them to be relevant to their lives and funds of knowledge, to have personal meaning for them. Putting their own idea into the genre being studied in the class writing project immediately creates an authentic purpose and a personal connection to the writing. In one piece of research, gifted writers specifically reported enhanced volition, enjoyment and satisfaction when given the opportunity to write about things of significance to themselves. As one young writer put it so well, the best and most supportive teachers are those who help you write ‘with ease.’
Having time, space and freedom for personal writing projects in school: writing every day
Writing daily and having agency to write on topics of their own choice, in their own way, for their own purposes, and at their own pace is the key to motivation, efficacy and pleasure. For gifted pupils, the opportunity to write in this way at school may be something like the experience of writing at home, where often much of their most creative, varied and successful writing takes place (though of course there will be differences). Having time and space on a daily basis satisfies the cognitive need of gifted writers to simply write, and allows them to practise and improve their craft (and writing is a craft!). Time, space, freedom and the interest of the teacher all contribute to a writer’s sense of self as someone engaged in important work, but this won’t be maintained if children are constantly forced into writing according to someone else’s design. Putting it bluntly, a diet of teacher-led, teacher-chosen topics may affect motivation adversely, and will certainly result in the writer losing the feeling that writing is a real-world activity ,has a personal point and is purposeful.
Being taught by a writer- teacher
A writer-teacher (a writer who happens to teach and a teacher who happens to write) is well placed to do a number of things to nurture gifted writers. A teacher’s passion for engaging in personal writing works to maintain pleasure, motivation and tenacity in the students, and makes it possible to share difficulties, give advice, suggest strategies and provide immediate feedback. Writing study lessons, which should take place regularly, can be differentiated for gifted writers. Why not get them to consider conveying several points of view in a piece of fiction, or experimenting with narrative structures and different kinds of narrator? Or revising drastically, judging what to take out rather than put in? (Hemingway describes this as an intense source of pleasure). Conferencing with gifted writers can be conducted at a high level, and these writing study lessons (which maybe demand another blog post!) can be recalled during the conference as a way of helping them move their writing on.
Reading for pleasure as well as writing for pleasure
These two are strongly interconnected. Gifted writers are likely to be committed readers, but it is still important for them to be provided with a high-quality and eclectic classroom library based on a teacher’s knowledge of children’s literature and on peer recommendations, and which contains plenty of challenging texts. They too, need to feel part of a community of readers with ample time to talk with others about their reading. Research suggests that children who read more write more and better, using their reading, often unconsciously, as mentor texts.Teachers need to take forward children’s experience of fiction and take advantage of the many opportunities for linking the way a particular book is written and the reader’s own writing. Plant an idea. Say ‘Why not try that out for yourself?’
Will those gifted writers write with the same pleasure and satisfaction as they progress up the education system? I don’t know. Maybe they will, if there can be a balance between the demands of the curriculum and assessment practices and the freedom and space to write with ease and affectively about personal experiences, thoughts and feelings. Agency and writing affectively was totally absent from the writing curriculum of my secondary school, and to a large extent from my primary school. But all that was a long time ago…… wasn’t it…?
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- Gagné, F. (2000). Understanding the complex choreography of talent development through DMGT-based analysis. In K. A. Heller, F. S. Monks & R. F. Subotnik (Eds.), The international handbook of giftedness and talent (2nd ed.) (pp. 67- 79). Oxford, England: Elsevier.
- Gagné, F. (2003). Transforming gifts into talents: The DMGT as a developmental theory. In N. Colangelo & G. A. Davis (Eds.), Handbook of gifted education (3rd ed.) (pp. 60-74). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon
- Garrett, L.& Moltzen, R.(2011) Writing because I want to, not because I have to: Young gifted writers’ perspectives on the factors that”matter” in developing expertise. English teaching:Practice and Critique, May, 2011, Volume 10, Number 1 pp.165-180