Introducing Our Genre Booklets To The Class & Their Impact.

Introducing Our Genre Booklets To The Class & Their Impact.

Genre-Booklets To Aid Children & Teachers In Writing Across The Curriculum

This article is about how, this year, we introduced little ‘genre-booklets’ to our year 5 classroom and how they have changed our writing pedagogy in profound ways.

  • An example of one of these Genre-Booklets can be seen at the bottom of this page.
  • If you’d like to see view all of our Genre-Booklets you are welcome to contact us at literacyforpleasure@gmail.com 

What Impact Have We Seen?

So far we have introduced just the following booklets:

  • Short-Story,
  • Information Text,
  • Persuasive Letter,
  • Book-Review,
  • Explaining The Past: Accounting For History,
  • Free-Verse Poetry.

We place these in plastic hanging-baskets on our literacy wall. When children have completed their class-writing, they are welcome to come and take a booklet from the display and write. Children know they have to follow the writing process – as set out here and use the booklet to support them.

We have also had a number of booklets go home – with children asking for addition genres which they feel they need to complete tasks outside of school. For example, a child requested to have the Biography Booklet to write his own footballing history so far. Other children have asked for the Memoir Booklet – so that they can practice it before they are formally taught it after Christmas. Finally, a number of boys have asked for the Match Report Booklet – so as they can formally recount the football matches they attend each weekend.

These Are Our Main Reflections:

  • Children no longer seem to require so much support from us. They write more freely and happily.
  • Children are taking greater care when planning a piece of writing.
  • Children’s writing is purposeful and always demonstrates features of the genre being written.
  • Their writing is genuinely informative or entertaining and is often cohesively produced.
  • Children aren’t so tentative to begin writing.
  • Children don’t want writing sessions to come to an end – it’s hard to get children to pack away.
  • Children’s motivation to write has increased dramatically.
  • Children’s motivation to research and undertake independent study in the foundation subjects has increased dramatically.
  • Children are reading more critically.
  • Children are taking writing in the foundations subjects more seriously.
  • A sharp increase in children taking writing home.
  • A sharp increase in children purchasing writing-notebooks and writing at home.
  • Children’s writing outcomes have so far been impressive across ability ranges.
  • Children are beginning to talk like real writers.

So, What Is Genre And How Did These Booklets Come About?

Genre is about ‘how we use language to live’ and it looks to share the ways in which language can be used functionally to achieve the things we want to achieve through our writing. Our culture has many systems of genres which we enact when we want to achieve something specific. A ‘genre is a staged goal-oriented social process.’ (Martin, 2009, p.13):

  • Staged: You usually have to move through more than one phase to achieve your writing goal.
  • Goal-orientated: There is something that the writing can achieve.
  • Social: Because every genre has an audience in mind.

Genre-based approaches to teaching writing have been widely adopted and have achieved spectacular improvements in student outcomes, from twice to more than four times expected rates of learning’ (Martin & Rose, 2007, p.1) (see also, Culican, 2005, Rose & Acevedo, 2006 & Rose, 2008).

Why Teach Genre?

Teaching genre allows children to understand that:

  • Writing is a social activity.
  • Learning to write is a social activity.
  • Writing fulfils our needs.
  • There are certain outcomes and expectations that come with certain genres of writing.
  • Learning to write involves learning to use language for your own purposes (Hyland, 2007, pp.152-153).

What Actually Are The Genre Booklets?

Genre-Booklets, and the inevitable genre-study that comes along with them, are based on the model of language in context known as Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), as produced by the linguistic Michael Halliday (2004). Halliday sees language as a meaning-making system. The distinctive features of this language system are that it focuses on the following:

  • Grammar as a meaning making resources (as opposed to formal grammar rules)
  • Texts are produced as a result of social context and semantic choices (Martin, 2009, p.11)

Halliday used this concept of grammar having a functional impact on texts as a way of analysing texts students were either expected to write or wanted to write. Martin went beyond this and started to teach children the meaning behind certain texts. Our genre-booklets have been able to make this information explicitly available to teachers but most importantly for children. The booklets are about sharing with children the unconscious and hidden rules which govern the types of writing we engage in every day. The booklets cover genres which are learned and taught across the curriculum but also provide children with the tools to also write in their own favourite ‘home’ genres. The social goals of this variety of genres are made available for children to peruse, enjoy, refine and maybe even change and develop for their own unique purposes.

How Were The Booklets Made?

The SFL model of language suggests that genres are made up of three interrelated meanings or ‘metafunctions,’ which affect the type of language we use in our writing, these are: the ideational, interpersonal and textual. This language, which aids our writing, is shared with both children and teachers in our genre-booklets.

  • Ideational is interested in expressing a reality or topic (whatever it may be).
  • Interpersonal is about negotiating this topic with others.
  • Textual is about how to best manage and present this information.

How this language impacts a text is through what Halliday terms ‘register’. These are called: field, tenor and mode and relate closely to the above metafunctions. Each genre has its own register which encompasses the field, tenor and mode. These can be seen and understood in every one of our genre-booklets in simple terms.

  • Field is about sharing the type of activity children will be engaging in within their chosen genre. The ‘what is going on’.
  • Tenor is about sharing, with children, their role as the writer and their possible obligations to their readership.
  • Mode is about how best to share their information in terms of structure and organisation.

Children ‘are generally more conscious of the meanings associated with register and genre, once you point them out, [more so than] grammatical meanings’ (Martin, 2010, p.24). We take a top-down perspective on writing, starting with the social functions of texts. So before any of the specifics involving register are discussed with children, the purpose of the genre is communicated and discussed. This helps them better understand the reason for such a type of writing and its potential impacts. Through ‘boxing-up’, a genre-process made available to children by Corbett & Strong (2011), children can see the stages of a specific genre. These are made available to the children in all our genre-booklets. The idea is that children understand that they cannot achieve the purpose of their text ‘all at once’ (Martin, 2009, p.12) but have to move through stages and by the end the process, the text will be more or less be where they want it to be.

Here is a summary of how the booklets are organised:

  • Genre – The purpose of the goal-orientated writing.
  • Field – Involves people doing things with their lives and sharing it.
  • Tenor – How to interact with the people you are sharing the writing with.
  • Mode – Making use of ways to channel your writing. (Martin, 2010, p.28)
  • At least one exemplar text of the register features in action
  • A ‘Boxing-Up’ planning sheet, showing the stages the genre goes through.

We have created these booklets to help children negotiate genres that are ‘immensely complex and involve [potentially] thousands of options in multiple systems’ (Martin & Rose, 2007, p.1). Our genre-booklets allow teachers and children to talk ‘holistically about the social purposes of [different] texts and the ways in which different [texts can be used and even manipulated] to achieve their goals’ (Martin, 2009, p.12). We share with them the ‘semantic patterns which can be found in texts’ of a certain genre (Martin & Rose, 2007, p.2)

Genre-booklets and Genre-Study itself prepare children for: ‘learning across the curriculum’, the writing they will be expected to do in specialised subjects in secondary school and perhaps most critically the ‘various community genres they [will] encounter’ in their lives (Martin, 2009, p.11).

We believe that our genre-booklets provided teachers with knowledge about genres that is ‘relatively easy to bring to consciousness’ and does not ‘demand a costly induction’ (Martin, 2009, p.12).

Here Is A List Of Our Current Genre-Booklets:

  • Narrative writing
    • How to write a memoir (recount)
      • How to write a match report
    • How to write a short-story
      • How to write a vivid setting
      • How to write an interesting character
      • How to write a memorable and vivid story (advanced)
    • How to write a newspaper article
      • How to write advocacy journalism
  • Non-fiction writing
    • How to write an information text
    • How to write a book review
    • How to write instructions
    • How to write rules
    • How to write an explanation
    • How to write a biography
    • Letter to the editor: responding to a newspaper article.
    • How to write a letter of compliant
    • How to write persuasively
      • How to write a persuasive letter
      • How to write a persuasive leaflet and advert
    • How to write a discussion text
  • How to write a free-verse poem

Book review has a particular important role in bridging reading comprehension to writing because the purpose of a book-review is to ‘interpret the message of a literary work and respond to its cultural values’ (Coffin, 2006, p.7). This develops children’s skills in reading for meaning.

How To Use The Genre Booklets

Traditional approaches assume that language must be taught as it is described in school grammars, as a set of decontextualized systems’ but the crucial skills that children actually need are to be able to recognise language patterns ‘at each level as they read real texts’, to discuss its function in relation to the genre’s goals, and to then use these language patterns (or grammar) flexibly and legitimately in their own writing (Martin & Rose, 2007, p.4).

As a result, after exposing children to the genre and its register and engaged in discussion of it, you have reached the point in the children’s apprenticeship that they are likely to understand ‘the basic staging structure of [a] genre’ (Martin, 2009, p.14). At this stage, they can either look at the exemplar texts formally and see how the genre is successful as a result of the register features or formally identify any grammar or language patterns from their Functional Grammar Lessons (see here for more info) or you can allow the children go on and apply the genre for themselves, for legitimate and productive reasons.

In this way children can use our Genre-Booklets do to the following:

  • Focus on developing their identification skills of both genre and grammar features.
  • See how certain register features make the exemplar text successful
  • Practice using the register features for themselves in a purposeful way.

To be used most successfully by children, these Genre-Booklets should be used as part of our writing approach we are calling Real-Word Literacy. For more details on this approach you can click here.

Reading Like A Writer: The Use Of Exemplars

According to Frank Smith, ‘writing requires an enormous fund of specialised knowledge that cannot possibly be acquired from lectures, drill or even from the exercise of writing itself.’ He goes on to say that ‘much more is required to become a competent and adaptable author of letters, reports, journals, poems or pieces of fiction’. ‘To learn how to write for newspapers you must read newspapers; to write poetry, read it’ (Smith, 1988, p.17-20)

We provide contextualised exemplar texts which make ‘the ground rules [of a genre] visible’. This makes clear to children ‘what the genre requires’ so that they can plan and organise their piece ‘under suitable headings’ (Coffin, 2006, p.13). Exemplars are part of our genre-booklets because we adopt a top-bottom approach to genre-study. We follow ‘the course of natural language learning, in which new language features are encountered in meaningful contexts’ these exemplars allow children, whether formally or informally, to learn from and discuss a high-quality contextualised example (Martin & Rose, 2007, p.2). Frank Smith (1982, p.201) sums it up beautifully, when he states: ‘the environment in which a child will want to write is an environment of demonstrations, not just of ‘this is the way we do things’ but also ‘these are things that can be done’.

Our Genre-Booklets can also be used as part of giving children pupil-conferences. Teachers can use our booklets as a way to provide guiding questions that can extend children’s text while they are writing it. It’s our opinion that teachers play an important supportive and guiding role in interaction with children. If done intelligently, pupil-conferences can enable children to accomplish more as a result of interaction than they would have been able to on their own (Martin & Rose, p.5). For more information on how to conduct pupil-conferences to improve children’s writing outcomes, see here.

The concept of pupil-conferences is ‘at odds with traditional language teaching methods, in which teachers may demonstrate language features as they show them on a [whiteboard]. Students will often then perform exercises using these features, and teachers evaluate their performance. These methods provide relatively little scaffolding support, leaving a gap between the teacher demonstration and the child’s writing (Martin & Rose, 2007, p.7). Children are often left to bridge this gap on their own. With our Genre-Booklets however children have a scaffold constantly available to them and this can be further supplemented through the pupil-conferencing we have mentioned.

The use of genre-booklets has resulted in some changes to Martin’s (1999, p.131) Teaching & Learning Model.

teaching-learning-cycle-300x300A Genre-Booklet’s description of field, tenor and mode, its exemplars and using them in genre-study sessions are all an aid for Martin’s ‘deconstruction stage’. The reinvention of this model is in combing the joint construction and individual construction phases. Through process-writing, children can engage in pupil-conferencing about their writing in real time, whilst they are producing their text in the independent phase. During pupil-conferencing, the teachers becomes a scaffold; ‘informer, guide and negotiator. Producing carefully thought out questions and comments that guide the students into constructing an appropriate text’ Coffin, 2006, p.13).

The Genre-Booklets, with their ‘boxing up’ of the stages a genre goes through will also allow children to move between the joint construction and independent construction stage by themselves. They can refer back to the booklet whenever they feel they need to. This reorganisation makes literacy lessons more efficient, giving children more time to practice the craft of writing through process-writing. Process-writing allows children to ‘revise and re-write their texts according to consultations and advice’, edit their pieces and publish for a wider audience (Coffin, 2006, p.14). To read more on pupil-conferencing go here, for process-writing, go here.

How To Use Genre-Booklets In The Foundation Subjects

Because we believe that process-writing is the best means for children to explore writing and the subjects they care about, so it should be the case for children to use process-writing in the foundation subjects to share the things they have learnt or already know about in a multitude of different ways. But to allow children to write in a multitude of ways they need to be exposed to and understand the different genres which are commonly used to express our meaning in subjects like science, history amongst others. For example ‘observations and experiments play a major role in school science and this affects the kinds of writing children are expected to undertake’ (Coffin, 2006, p.2). In history children have to sequence past events and often account for the significance of these events too. ‘School subjects each have their own specialised language’ and we believe that ‘academic disciplines should be re-contextualised’ within school subjects with the help from subject specific genre-booklets (Coffin, 2006, p.2). This is because they are different to the genres written in everyday life. Teachers often complain that their student’s writing in the foundation subjects is not as good as their writing in English. This is because ‘students have not developed control of the kinds of text and linguistics structures that serve the specific purposes’ of the foundation subject areas (Coffin, 2006, p.4). We ourselves are early into this exploration but the potential seems boundless. At present we provide genre-booklets for the following:

  • Science
    • Scientific enquiry report
    • How to explain a piece of science (identification of phenomena, factors of importance (implications, consequences)
    • How to debate a scientific idea (thesis, arguments)(issue, arguments, conclusion)
  • History
    • Recounting the past (public history)
    • How to debate the past
    • How to account for the past
    • How to write a historical biography
  • Geography
    • How to explain a geographical issue
    • How to persuade and discuss a geographic issue

You will have noticed that ‘some of these genres are common to all subject areas’. ‘However it is important to be aware that despite the commonality of some of the texts, aspects of language will often be quite distinct’ (Coffin, 2006, p.9).

It’s our belief that these subject specific genre-booklets could not only ‘improve language work in [foundation subjects], where it is currently ‘given little status’ by children, but also improve children’s understanding of what people in the foundation subjects actually do and why they do it (Creese, 2005, p.188). This is because they get to understand the genres these people use and the reasons why they engage in them. ‘Texts [can] become transformed as teachers and children attempt to meet both sets of aims’, that of understanding the foundation subject and learning to write to meet its needs (Creese, 2005, p.188). Creese (2005, p.189) believes that ‘educational success will come as a result of students learning the subject curriculum and associated language skills and literacies simultaneously’. This is what our genre-booklets look to help achieve. Our Real Word Literacy approach along with the use of genre-booklets aims to ‘eliminate the artificial separation between language instruction and subject matter classes which exist’ in most foundation subject topics. Through Real-Word Literacy, teachers will no longer have to ‘carry the linguistic burden of [their] class’ (Creese, 2005, p.191). For more information on our Real Word Literacy approach, go here.

In terms of history, could it be that children are exposed to some recounts of the past by the teacher and they are then allowed to decide how they would like to interpret these recounts. Could it be possible that after this subject knowledge has been negotiated between the teacher and the class, the class could be free to choose a historical genre in which to stamp their own perspective on the recounts? Could they be allowed to choose whether they wish to account for or debate the evidence? Could these finished pieces find their way into the class book-stock for others to read and could this lead to further research and debate by the children? Would this not result in children not only learning the disciplines of being a historian but also improve their literacy at the same time? The freedom that is now allowed as a result of the revised National Curriculum (2013) would suggest so.

It is clear that, ‘if students are to make sense of, and survive, secondary school’ and discover what they would like to do as part of their working life, ‘they will need to learn how to access and use the specialised genres and language that construct the different curriculum areas’ (Coffin, 2006, p.11)

Why Genre-Booklets Were Made?

We believe ‘bottom-up teaching programs assume a theory of learning, that language is learnt by studying and remembering lower level components of the language system, before applying them in writing’ (Martin & Rose, 2007, p.3). Skills like ‘recognising, interpreting and using written language patterns from texts are less often taught explicitly in bottom-up teaching programs’ and so these skills often have to be acquired by luck by the most successful students who are already most experienced at reading and writing texts but for those who are less experienced, they are unlikely to learn and apply these skills (Martin & Rose, 2007, p.3). The traditional approach to literacy teaching simply follows other academic traditions, in which the content of the subject (especially grammar) is separated out and given to students in the form of exercises to practice. Children’s memory of these features of our language system are then tested.

Our approach, particularly towards grammar teaching, but also in terms of genre comprehension and writing, believes that these features are best learnt as they are repeatedly experienced in contextualised writing. Children are best served in doing this through learning about and engaging in process-writing. To read more about our approach to ‘Process Writing’ go here.

We believe that genre-study opens up the possibility for teachers to allow their children to write through the act of process-writing because genre-study addresses the main criticism of process writing, that without genre knowledge, children will write in a ‘very narrow range of writing’ (Martin, 2009, p.11). Process writing allows children to write every day. It also shows children that knowledge about language is not useless or harmful to their writing but they can use it to harness and share the things they want to say and they can be successful in doing so. This point needs to be emphasised, because genres are a model for language and social context it means children will naturally engage in certain types of grammar and language use. As a result, ‘it provides a natural context for learning [many of the word, sentence and tense level] structures and other organisational structures’ (Martin, 2009, p.18) insisted on by The National Curriculum (2013).

Additionally, since both the genre is stable and made explicit to children it allows them ‘considerable freedom in determining just how they are to realise’ their piece of writing (Martin, 2010, p.27). The register is distributed over a whole text and so there children only have a few local constraints to abide by. ‘This does not mean that register and genre can be ignored. They cannot’ (Martin, 2010, p.27). The children have to use ‘enough signals of register’ from the booklet to ensure their reader can see where they are coming from. The point we are making here is that our booklets are not a ‘mechanical formulae, which stand in the way of a child’s creativity or self-expression’ (Martin, 2010, p.27). It is true to say that ‘you can’t write if you don’t control the appropriate register’ [of a genre], unfortunately, control of these systems is something that educators too often take for granted’ (Martin, 2010, p.27).

Finally then, it allows children the freedom and support to ‘move from one genre to another without having to take too much on board’ or remember back to a previous year’s teaching (Martin, 2009, p.15). The booklets create a zone of proximal development to support teachers and scaffold children’s need to ‘develop their literacy repertoire’ (Martin, 2009, p.15).

The only reason process-writing fails in schools is because organisers have not ‘clearly articulated [a] model of the relations between’ genre, grammar and contexts (Martin & Rose, 2007, p4). Our Real-Word Literacy pedagogy does this.

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To read about our Real Word Literacy pedagogy, go here.

If you’d like to see view all of our Genre-Booklets you are welcome to contact us at literacyforpleasure@gmail.com 

For more updates and resources, please follow us by pressing the follow button at the top-right hand side of this webpage. Alternatively, you may want to follow and contact us through twitter at @Lit4pleasure

References:

  • Coffin, C. (2006) Mapping subject-specific literacies In NALDIC Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 3, pp. 13–26.
  • Corbett, P., Strong, J., (2011) Talk For Writing Across The Curriculum. Maidenhead: Open University Press
  • Christie, F. and Martin, J. R (eds) (2007) Language, Knowledge and Pedagogy:Functional Linguistic & Sociological Perspectives, London: Continuum
  • Hyland, K.  (2007) Genre pedagogy: Language, literacy and L2 writing instruction In Journal of Second Language Writing 16: 148-164
  • Kerfoot., C & Van Heerden, M., (2015) Testing the waters:exploring the teaching of genres in a Cape Flats Primary School in South Africa In Language and Education, 29:3, 235-255.
  • Martin, J. R. (2009) Genre and language learning: a social semiotic perspective In Linguistics and Education, vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 10–21
  • Martin, J.,  Rose, D., (2008) Genre relations: Mapping culture. Equinox Publishing
  • 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 In Reading Research Quarterly, 42(1), 8-45.
  • Svalberg, A. (2009) Engagement with language: interrogating a construct In Language Awareness, 18: 242-258
  • Whittaker, R. (2010) Using systemic-functional linguistics in content and language integrated learning In NALDIC Quarterly, vol. 8, no. 10, pp. 31–6.
  • Bourne, J. (2008) Official pedagogic discourses and the construction of learners’ identities In Martin-Jones, M., de Mejia, A.M. and Hornberger, N.H. Encyclopaedia of language and education, Vol. 3 Discourse and Education, 2nd edn, New York, Springer.
  • Donovan, C.A. (2001). Children’s development and control of written story and informational genres: Insights from one elementary school In Research in the Teaching of English, 35, 452-497.
  • Donovan, C. A., & Smolkin, L. B. (2002). Children’s genre knowledge: An examination of K-5 students’ performance on multiple tasks providing differing levels of scaffolding In Reading Research Quarterly, 37(4), 428-465.
  • Graham, S., Harris, K. R., & Mason, L. (2005). Improving the writing performance, knowledge, and self-efficacy of struggling young writers: The effects of self-regulated strategy development In Contemporary Educational Psychology, 30(2), 207-241
  • Scott-Evans, A., Crilley, K., & Powell, E. (2004). A critical study of effective ways to teach instructional texts In Education 3-13, 32(1), 53-60
  • Thwaite, A., (2006) Genre writing in primary school: from theory to the classroom, via first steps In Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, Vol.29(2), p.95(20)

Why The Use Of Writing Stimuli & Class Book Topics Are Damaging Children’s Writing Potential.

Why The Use Of Writing Stimuli & Class Book Topics Are Damaging Children’s Writing Potential. 

We begin with some wise words from Donald Graves, writer, teacher, researcher and thinker:

‘Children want to write’.

In this post I want to suggest that the provision by teachers of cross-curricular ‘topics’ or ‘writing stimuli’ for writing in school is often inhibiting the desire to write, which therefore affects the quality of the writing. Luckily, there is another way of offering topic choice which can redress this sad state of affairs.

If you agree with Donald Graves’ assertion, the question you will ask yourself is: what do children want to write? It is our belief that all children have experiences and interests in their own lives which they can bring to writing, and that teachers should make it possible for them to do so. An incident, a person, a preoccupation, an opinion, a question, a memory, a curiosity, a story – all these are personal resources available for children to draw on as valuable and valid subjects for writing in school. Yet in the typical writing pedagogy, according to research (Dockrell, et al, 2015), the choice of topic is almost always chosen by the teacher. It states that ‘virtually no teacher reported not using them‘ Children are therefore all too often subjected to external ‘stimuli’ such as:

  • Video or films (such as those found on the popular website The Literacy Shed)
  • Whole-class literature study, 
  • Talk-For-Writing -read our article about Talk For Writing here,
  • Pictures or excerpts from non-fiction texts.

Children are then expected to respond. In this way, their own desires are not realised. They learn they are only ever to be consumers of writing as opposed to authentic producers. Maybe this is why The Literacy Trust has recently stated that children’s attitudes towards writing is worsening and that fewer children are writing at home or for pleasure. It’s well known that even very young children will ‘write’ spontaneously and readily about things which have made an impression on them in their daily lives. So how and why is it that teachers feel they must be responsible for providing older children with a stimulus in which to write (inauthentically)?

Writing tasks set by the teacher are very often derived from the foundation subjects such as history or geography, and are thus termed ‘cross-curricular’ topics. There is probably no rationale for this beyond simply providing children with a subject on which to hang practising writing in a particular genre – in effect, a form of writing exercise. It is possible that teachers may see cross-curricular writing as an opportunity for children to show their understanding of a geographical location or an historical event(s). Maybe they see it as an opportunity for pupils to express a feeling of empathy for a character caught up in a particular moment in history, or simply a way to cram extra foundation subject work into the timetable. Unfortunately though, as a teacher who specialised in History & Geography before gaining an MA in Education with Linguistics,  these lessons produce neither a decent historical/geographical piece of writing nor a good literary one. This is because children are effectively being asked to make an imaginative leap into someone else’s psyche or produce writing on the basis of new and very limited knowledge. On top of this they also have to negotiate this new found knowledge further through literary requirements such as noun phrases, embedded clauses, the passive voice and fronted adverbials. Now, a few children will occasionally be inspired by these topics; fewer will be able to produce a satisfying piece of writing. The reality is that all too often you receive a collection of stilted, inauthentic and depressingly similar pieces.

The question we are asking is why we require pupils to jump through these hoops when we could be inviting them to write about what they are expert in, authentically, with engagement and interest, for a purpose and audience of their own choosing and in a (learned) genre which suits their intention- in short, what they are capable of doing from their own centre.

A Facebook post from a reader of this post said:

I agree with many points in this article, but what about those children that cannot think of anything to write about? The ones that do nothing on the weekend except watch TV or play on the computer? The ones that have very little life experience to bring to the table? Often the anxiety of having to generate ideas is the hardest part of writing for these children. Sometimes a teacher directed task or stimulus is the right thing to do for some of our children. It can’t be a one size fits all, need to differentiate!

Whilst reading our article, you may have been wondering the same thing. What could self-directed subject choice look like practically? Would it work in a real classroom?

Well, a colleague and I have been working for some time on producing a new pedagogy for writing in the primary school which begins with children making their own choice of subject. You can read about it here.

We must stress at this point that we are in no way advocating the withdrawal of the teacher’s assistance when children are choosing a theme. There are many ways of supporting children to generate their own ideas, in the form of: 

  • Idea hearts or idea maps,
  • Asking themselves ‘What if..?’ questions
  • Generating ‘When I was little…’ statements 
  • ‘What makes me angry, scared, upset, happy’ lists, 
  • Deciding to use ideas from the books they have chosen and read,
  • Deciding for themselves to use the topic(s) they are studying/ have studied in foundation subjects.

 

To read about how this is done in our classroom, you may like to read our ‘The Sea Of Writing Ideas: How We Got Children Choosing Their Own Writing Ideas’ article here.

We regularly read children Michael Rosen poems. He takes the most boring and ordinary life events and makes them extraordinary. We get them to go home and write a list of ‘poems hide in‘ statements – this is where they run around their house and write down things that they could write poems about. Finally, with some of our most inexperienced writers, we ask them to bring artefacts in from home which they could write about. We ask them to draw pictures that they could then write about. No child is a floating blob in time and space – they all have experiences, passions and treasured objects – we just need to make them feel they are legitimate and that we want to hear about them in fun and creative ways!

We appreciate that this shift from imposing tasks and themes for writing to allowing children to write about what they would like is an ideologically profound one – and you can read more about that here. Teachers find it difficult to relinquish apparent control and pass the responsibility to their pupils (a question of trust). They fear that children’s self-chosen themes will be superficial or trivial (again, a lack of trust).They may make the assumption that the resultant writing will not have the same ‘quality’ as a piece whose theme is secured by them. To allay these fears, I would ask them to consider the following observations made at the coal-face:

In our experience, children’s freedom to write about what interests and motivates them, what has amused or struck them, what they care about, love or hate, carries many benefits. Assisting a child with a theme is not the same as imposing a topic for children to write about. Imposing writing topics upon children is an act of linguistic oppression which shouldn’t be underesitmated. We believe that quality writing cannot emerge without an underlying authentic intention. That is not to say that in some circumstances there may be an adequate reason for requiring children to write to a given theme, to explore an issue in a particular subject area, for example. But if our aim is to help a child learn to write then we have to accept that the consequence of  selected themes being forced upon children is to make their writing less probable or profitable. It very often becomes an imposition and does not help children to become  real writers – just writers of writing exercises.

The children in our class, however, genuinely love making their own choice of topic. They have said so many times. They are intent on writing. Many have now acquired their very own notebooks in which they jot down ideas and try out pieces – often at home, at playtimes or in their free-time.

We believe the most direct and relevant way for a teacher to demonstrate to a pupil the power of writing is to write with them and give them the opporunity to write what is motivating to them. You can read about how we do this through Pupil Conferencing, here.

They come to understand all the functions of writing – to share and communicate, explore issues, explain or persuade, entertain and inform, get through a hard time, re-live a good time or work out a problem. They begin to write like real writers, readily sharing their work with their peers and giving and accepting helpful criticism. Not all topics will prove to be what Graves calls ‘hot topics’. But children will be practising the craft of writing until their hot topic comes along. They will learn that they are producers of content, not simply there to rehash or consume other people’s writing ideas and desires. You can read about why this is so important here.

As teachers we positively look forward to reading such a wide variety of writing pieces. And feel excitement and motivation ourselves.

If you would like to receive updates from our blog, you can click the follow button in the top right-hand-corner of the page. Alternatively, you can follow us on twitter at @lit4pleasure

Finally, if you are interested in the research which underpins our advocacy for authentic topic choice, you may want to peruse our references below:
References:
  • Bernstein, B. (1996) Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity, London, Taylor and Francis.
  • Canagarajah, S. (2004) ‘Subversive identities, pedagogical safe houses and critical learning’ in Norton, B. and Toohey, K. (eds) Critical Pedagogies and Language Learning, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Cremin, T., (2011) Writing Voices: Creating Communities Of Writers London: Routledge
  • Dockrell, J., Marshell, C., Wyse, D., (2015) Teacher’reported practices for teaching writing in England In Read Write 29:409-434
  • 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
  • Gee, J. P. (2008) A sociocultural perspective on opportunity to learn In P. Moss, D. Pulin, J. P. Gee, E. Haertel and L. Young (eds) Assessment, Equity, and Opportunity to Learn (pp.76-108) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Gonzalez, N., Moll, L. & Amanti, C. (eds) (2005) Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classroom, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
  • Graham, S., Berninger, V., & Fan, W. (2007). The structural relationship between writing attitude and writing achievement in first and third grade students In Contemporary Educational Psychology, 32(3), 516-536
  • Gregory, E., Arju, T., Jessel, J., Kenner, C. and Ruby, M. (2007) ‘Snow White in different guises: interlingual and intercultural exchanges between grandparents and young children at home in East London’, Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, vol. 7, no. 5, pp. 5–25.
  • Guerra, J. C. (2008). Cultivating transcultural citizenship: A writing across communities model In Language Arts, 85(4), 296–304.
  • Gutiérrez, K. (2008) ‘Developing a sociocritical literacy in the Third Space’, Reading Research Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 148–64.
  • Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Maybin. J. (2006) Children’s Voices: Talk, Knowledge & Identity London: Palgrave
  • Rogoff, B., Moore, L., Najafi, B., Dexter, A., Correa-Chavez, M. and Solis, J. (2007) Children’s development of cultural repertoires through participation in everyday routines and practices In J. E. Grusec and P. D. Hastings (eds) Handbook of Socialization: Theory & Research (pp.490-515) New York: Guildford Press
  • Tomasello, M. (2003) Constructing a Language: A usage-based Theory of Language Acquisition Cambridge: Harvard University Press
  • Tomasello, M. (2006) Acquiring linguistic constructions In R.S Siegler & D. Kuhn (eds), Handbook of Child Psychology: Cognitive Development (pp. 255-298) New York: Wiley

What If Almost Everything We Thought About The Teaching Of Writing Was Wrong?

Why Do We Write?

Language merely reflects our way of trying to make sense of the world. – Frank Smith

Frank Smith (1982) says ‘writing touches every part of our lives‘.

  1. One of the first reasons we write is because it is a tool for communication in culture. It gives us the ability the share information over time and space with multiple individuals (explaining, recounting & opinion).
  2. It can also be used as a permanent record or as a statement e.g. in history, geography  & science genres.
  3. The third cultural aspect for writing is artistry (narrative and poetry).
  4. Finally, there is also the personal aspect to writing. Writing allows us all to reflect, express our perceptions of self, to socially dream or to be critical (memoir).

By writing, we find out what we know; what we think. Writing is an extremely efficient way of gaining access to that knowledge that we cannot explore directly. – Frank Smith (1982, p.33)

For us, writing is a relationship between thought and language. When we write a first draft, we rehearse what is otherwise on our minds – whether we are conscious of this or not. Writing simply provides us with an opportunity to discover and then revise these thoughts in ways that we could not have imagined ourselves capable of when we first began our writing pursuit.

We, but also children, use writing to separate ourselves from our writing ‘work’ and so become more objective. Alternatively, we can use writing to do things that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. – this is what Gutierrez (2008) calls ‘social dreaming’.

Ultimately though, writing is a means for us to express ourselves in the world, make sense of the world or impose ourselves upon it.

Writing does more than reflect underlying thought, it liberates and develops it.- Frank Smith (1982, p.33)

Why Is There A Difference In Children’s Writing?

The question now is why do children write at school? For these purposes? – Not often. There is a massive discrepancy between the writing done in the real-world and that of the classroom. Why is this so? – Is it the case that we are just doing what has always been done and never reflected on the purpose of writing and thus the teaching of writing?

Donald Graves says ‘all children want to write’. It is just a case of allowing them to write about the things they are interested in. As Frank Smith says, ‘all children can write if they can speak it.’ If they can talk about it, they can write it down.

Most current writing pedagogy seems to be deliberately withholding from children the role of language in empowering and changing social relations. We believe teachers need to increase their consciousness, and the consciousness of their pupils, of how language contributes to their lives.

The current political agenda is clear for all to see:

These examples embody the ‘commonsense’ assumptions which claim an authority which is supposedly natural and unshakable. Through current writing pedagogies, teachers are perpetuating the idea that we as teachers know, while children do not; that we as teachers are in a position to determine, while children are not and that children should simply comply, adapt to or cooperate with our writing tasks.

The above ideologies around writing consciously avoid giving prominence to language’s social origins; that language is both socially developed and socially developing. It is this perspective that is all too often missing in schools. The result is schools supporting the devaluing and neutralising of most children’s identities. We are producing writers as consumers (or at best imitators) when really we need to be encouraging a generation of producers. Producers who know early on in their lives that they have a writing-voice and know how best to use it. The current ways of representing language, listed earlier, inhibit children from coming to conceptualize language as an object for critical consciousness – that is, they prevent children from having a genuinely educational and educated orientation of language.

Writing in classrooms at present isn’t seen by children as important work. It fails to speak to the real needs pressing on the young. It doesn’t currently answer the burning question which day-to-day experiences force upon young minds. At present, problems encountered outside school walls are treated as peripheral when surely they should be central. The current effect of making writing abstract – subject centred – external to individual longings, fears, experiences, and questions, is to render children listless and indifferent. As John Taylor Gatto testifies, the widespread understanding among the young is that writing isn’t about them (and their interests, curiosities and futures), but exclusively about the wishes of other people. Writing pedagogy is, at present, built around the self-interest of others and this, in our view, is wrong.

Why There Shouldn’t Be A Difference.

Children generally start out their lives enjoying mark making and writing until they become discouraged or disinterested. This only begins to happen when children are restricted by  classroom pedagogy which inhibits children’s free and natural expression. The current state of writing pedagogy causes children to write about things they do not know a lot about and have no natural experience of – all of a sudden, writing is made even harder than it needs to be. Children also quickly become aware that their writing will not have a readership beyond their teacher; has no purpose, achieves nothing and will often live forever within the dark pages of their literacy book. Beyond this, children are made to become self-conscious of error at the earliest stages of the writing process which makes them less likely to take risks and makes their writing tentative and dull. Their risk taking diminishes alongside their enthusiasm and children eventually feel like they no longer want to ‘perform’ – because of a perceived inability to achieve certain external and often arbitrary standards.

The Good News

The good news is that change is not only possible but it is continuously happening. We need to help increase children’s consciousness of language . It needs to be this, rather than just experiencing it externally or ‘playing’ at it. 

To want to write, a child must simply see writing done and see what writing can do. How much writing do most children see being done at school is also an issue – a topic we discuss here.

The question is why does the writing activity children engage in seem so far removed from the real intentions of writing? This is the question LiteracyForPleasure has tried to answer in our pedagogical approach to writing, which we are calling Real Word Literacy. To read more about this new approach please click here. 

Real-Word Literacy argues that children engage in language awareness. That children should be conscious of the different genres which can bring about change and how to use grammar functionally to achieve their social goals effectively. The main reason for this choice of focus is of course due to its current relevance, given the major changes in educational policy and practice as outlined in the first paragraph. This of course doesn’t go far enough.  We should provide children with the freedom to write about subjects which matter to them whilst also raising their consciousness of how they can share it effectively. These two concepts are dialectically related.  

Real-Word Literacy develops a child’s critical consciousness of their environment and their critical self-consciousness, and their capacity to contribute to the shaping and reshaping of the social world. We advocate for pupil choice as opposed to writing-task assignments because the latter plays little part in presenting children with any element of their humanly produced and humanly changeable social environment. Currently, children will instead grow up feeling part of an environment over which they have no control or say.

The point of language education is not awareness for its own sake, but awareness as a necessary accompaniment to the development of the capabilities of children as producers and interpreters of writing. We hope to give children the tools that will allow them to challenge, break through and ultimately transform the dominant orders of writing – not simply copy them or imitate them from/for the teacher.

Children’s experiences + the teaching of language awareness & providing opportunity for purposeful writing production = language capability potential.

Developing children’s language potential depends on the partnering of language awareness and practice through purposeful writing. Purposeful writing comes if we provide children with ‘language awareness’ in which they can build on their experiences. Language awareness includes the teaching of the writing process, functional grammar activity, genre study and genuine publication to the outside community.

Please scroll up to the top of this page a press ‘Follow’ to receive regular updates from our blog. Alternatively, you can follow us on twitter at @lit4pleasure

Go here to read more about Real Word Literacy.

Finally, if you are interested in the research which underpins our advocacy for authentic topic choice you may want to peruse our references below:
.
References:
  • Bernstein, B. (1996) Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity, London, Taylor and Francis.
  • Canagarajah, S. (2004) ‘Subversive identities, pedagogical safe houses and critical learning’ in Norton, B. and Toohey, K. (eds) Critical Pedagogies and Language Learning, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Cremin, T., (2011) Writing Voices: Creating Communities Of Writers London: Routledge
  • 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
  • Gee, J. P. (2008) A sociocultural perspective on opportunity to learn In P. Moss, D. Pulin, J. P. Gee, E. Haertel and L. Young (eds) Assessment, Equity, and Opportunity to Learn (pp.76-108) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Gonzalez, N., Moll, L. & Amanti, C. (eds) (2005) Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classroom, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
  • Graham, S., Berninger, V., & Fan, W. (2007). The structural relationship between writing attitude and writing achievement in first and third grade students In Contemporary Educational Psychology, 32(3), 516-536
  • Gregory, E., Arju, T., Jessel, J., Kenner, C. and Ruby, M. (2007) ‘Snow White in different guises: interlingual and intercultural exchanges between grandparents and young children at home in East London’,Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, vol. 7, no. 5, pp. 5–25.
  • Guerra, J. C. (2008). Cultivating transcultural citizenship: A writing across communities model In Language Arts, 85(4), 296–304.
  • Gutiérrez, K. (2008) ‘Developing a sociocritical literacy in the Third Space’, Reading Research Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 148–64.
  • Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Maybin. J. (2006) Children’s Voices: Talk, Knowledge & Identity London: Palgrave
  • Rogoff, B., Moore, L., Najafi, B., Dexter, A., Correa-Chavez, M. and Solis, J. (2007) Children’s development of cultural repertoires through participation in everyday routines and practices In J. E. Grusec and P. D. Hastings (eds) Handbook of Socialization: Theory & Research (pp.490-515) New York: Guildford Press
  • Tomasello, M. (2003) Constructing a Language: A usage-based Theory of Language Acquisition Cambridge: Harvard University Press
  • Tomasello, M. (2006) Acquiring linguistic constructions In R.S Siegler & D. Kuhn (eds), Handbook of Child Psychology: Cognitive Development (pp. 255-298) New York: Wiley

Talk-For-Writing Is Excellent But Does It Go Far Enough?

We are convinced that Talk-For-Writing is one of the best ways to teach children how to write in different genres. Like many of you, we had considerable success. However, we were aware that, no matter how independent the independent phase of Talk-For-Writing was, it still had a certain feeling of ‘writing exercise’ about it. For us, it didn’t feel like Talk-For-Writing went far enough, in the sense that children were often not being given the opportunity to go on to use these newly acquired genres in writing about what they personally know, love and care about. They don’t get to use the genre for their purposes and after all, this is what writing is all about. As the psycholinguist Frank Smith says, ‘the environment in which a child will want to write is an environment of demonstrations, not just of ‘this is the way we do things’ but also ‘these are things that can be done’. As a result, Talk-For-Writing is just the beginning of any writing topic and our Real-Word Literacy pedagogy goes well beyond it.

Talk For Writing: The Precursor To Process Writing

Talk For Writing is an approach to language and literacy learning developed by Pie Corbett and Julia Strong, described in detail in their book Talk For Writing Across The Curriculum (2011). It is concerned with children’s composing and writing of non-fiction texts and demonstrates how focused talking and oral activities together with shared planning and writing can help children internalise the linguistic structures and patterns necessary for the successful writing of such texts.

An intensely practical approach, it is nevertheless based on a sound and influential body of research, notably the work of Halliday (1975) in formulating a model of language in social context within the discipline he termed Systemic Functional Linguistics, and on the subsequent work of Martin (2007) who developed a pedagogical approach to literacy learning informed by genre theory. Martin (2007) asserted that a focus on literary genre would reveal the contexts which influence texts, and that these, if taught, would enable students to write culturally informed texts and thus have entry to a society’s particular cultural norms.

The Talk For Writing (2011) project makes an equally strong claim for the inclusion of all children in the learning and development of writing and what this means in terms of their place in society. The teaching sequences are essentially interactive and encourage collaboration between teacher and students and between students and their peers, wherein the students accomplish a piece of writing that is more successful than one they would produce on their own. The teacher’s role is to draw out, model and scaffold. Ongoing formative assessment is seen as central to pupil progress, with feedback to pupils at every stage both offering and eliciting from them sensitive suggestions for improvement, involving them in their own learning and raising their expectations of what they can achieve.

Martin (2007) expands on the genre-based model of literacy learning. He posits a three-stage pedagogical process in relation to a text: deconstruction, joint construction and individual construction. The interactive element is exemplified and stressed in his description of the process. In Talk For Writing the stages are referred to as Imitation, Innovation and Independent. Literacy For Pleasure’s Writing approach (read here) proposes that teachers treat the introduction of any new genre, which includes using language to produce or consume texts, as a matter best served by Talk-For-Writing and these three elements.

It is envisaged that, by systematically building on children’s knowledge of genres over the years of primary schooling, the linguistic features shaping each genre will be embedded in the children’s repertoire and can be employed both across the curriculum and beyond the school gates. However this doesn’t always seem to be the case.

What Should Come After Talk For Writing?

Writing assignments in a traditional curriculum often require explicit replication or transference of what the teacher has taught. Thus, something like the independent stage would be the end of a writing activity. We believe, however, that Talk-For-Writing’s independent stage is only the beginning. What Talk-For-Writing does so well is attend to the ‘vertical’ forms of learning. Children move from immaturity and inexperience to maturity and competence. However, we have a more expansive view of development and our approach is also concerned with the horizontal forms of learning, that of expanding children’s real-world, outside literacies. We believe that Real-Word Literacy captures both vertical and horizontal forms of expertise. It includes not only what students learn in formal learning environments but also what they learn by participating in a range of activities outside of school. After Talk-For-Writing, children should develop from it and use it as a guide in subsequent writing.

The rationale for the instructional routines within Talk-For-Writing is that they allow for a gradual release of responsibility from teacher to child (Higgins, Miller & Wegemann, 2006). Our approach, Real-Word Literacy, also allows for this. Children apply the linguistic features learned in Talk-For-Writing to the topics and themes they actually want to write about.

Currently, even in the independent phase, children are rarely, if ever, given an opportunity to follow their own ‘writing desires’ through the newly learnt genre. (This is either an issue of T4W not being clear or teachers simply not having trust in the children) The topic is nearly always in the control of the teacher and therefore just becomes another ‘writing exercise’. T4W states that only the highest-ability should be allowed to negotiate their very own writing-topic through the genre. We believe this to be mistaken. Why should the lowest ability regularly have to negotiate a teacher-chosen-topic of which they often have a very limited knowledge when compared with being an absolute expert in their own interests and experiences? This tackling of a subject not known well to the child actually makes the writing process even harder than it needs to be.

This kind of writing is more authentic because it is not simply a response to an assignment or exercise set by the teacher (a piece of literature, a film-clip or the class topic). Unfortunately, drills and exercises teach children that writing is a nonsensical activity. The language of their exercises will often be purposeless, decontextualised and trivial when compared to their lived experiences or their ‘social dreaming‘. Children begin to believe that the only evident reason for writing is to get it over with, to get it marked or because the teacher says so and that their experiences or ideas are not worthy of writing. To move away from this is a profound shift.

The transition to a Real-Word Literacy means children can constructively critique a genre, account for its cultural purpose, know and apply the grammar involved, creatively extend the genre, and go on to innovate writing on their own to serve real purposes. Through this approach, children can begin to understand how writing can help them steer their own social and academic future.

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Meeting Children Where They Are: Using Pupil Conferencing To Replace After-The-Event Written Feedback.

Meeting Children Where They Are: Using Pupil Conferencing To Replace After-The-Event Written Feedback.

Why Written Feedback Isn’t As Effective As Verbal Conferencing

As Frank Smith (1982, p.203) states: writing is not learned in steps. There is no ladder of separate and incremental skills that if written down for a child they will automatically apply and so ascend. Writing develops as an individual develops, in many directions, continually, usually inconspicuously, but occasionally in dramatic and unforeseeable spurts. And like individual human development, writing requires nourishment and encouragement rather than a rushed scribbled jointing on a pupil’s writing piece.

Research (Fisher, 2010, Jean, Tree, & Clark, 2013, Oxford University – Education Endowment Fund, 2016 ) indicates that swathes of ‘after-the-event’ written feedback is neither efficient nor effective. As Dylan Wiliam says, feedback like this is often the equivalent of telling an unsuccessful comedian that they need to be funnier. So how are teachers meant to provide meaningful and accountable feedback to their pupils despite the pressures of ‘after-the-event’ written feedback?

Time To Consider Pupil Conference?

There appears to be one effective way and that is through teacher collaboration amongst students. However, being a collaborator with students is not the easiest thing for teachers to do. Many teachers do not find it easy. It is safer to detach oneself and work behind a barrier of distance. Maybe some teachers even prefer written-feedback. I don’t know – but as Corbett & Strong (2011) , Smith (1986), Atwell (2015), and Graves (2003) testify, a way to improve children’s writing outcomes is to write with childrennot just sharing the product of your own writing (though many teachers don’t even do that) but actually joining the children whilst they are engaged in the process of writing. Help them, by advising them on their compositions in real time.

Unfortunately, most children (and many teachers) have never actually seen a writer writing. They can be afflicted by the misconception that writing springs fully formed from an author’s head. They are unaware of the drafts, the blocks, and the alternating frustration and exhilaration. Without allowing children to be in dialogue, in actual collaboration with a writer, in real time, they will find it difficult to learn about these essential tools of the trade. As Frank Smith states (1986, p.199):

‘A lecture or a set of exercises are not an alternative to an apprenticeship. Collaboration empowers students; instruction leaves them dependent.’

Through pupil-conferencing you will be providing, on a daily basis, high quality teaching to individual students. You will be conducting not only assessment for learning but also assessment of learning. You must be a trusted adult in the eyes of your pupils. Children need to feel secure in a teacher’s presence and assume that they will be interested in their writing, responding  in the first place to what has been written and not to how it has been written. When teachers act only as judges, children produce writing mainly to satisfy the teacher’s requirements, and the writing is nearly always tentative (Tompkins, 2011 p.13).

The benefits of a conferencing approach however is that it can awaken you to the critical role of what John Gatto (2008, p.177) calls ‘feedback loops’. These loops between teacher and pupil create, what Gatto calls, a ‘customised circuit’ which promotes in children self-correction and self-development rather than a slavish need to follow the direction of a teacher’s responses. High quality composition, revision and editing comes when a child and a helpful adult work together on something the child is interested in producing – when the advantages are immediately apparent. Verbal feedback has maximum relevance to the child because the child, in effect, determines what is to be taught and what learning opportunities they require. You literally can’t help but teach something – children can’t help but learn and apply something.

It’s important to note here that Pupil-Conferencing is only as small part of what LiteracyForPleasure’s writing approach consists of. We believe the most direct and relevant way for a teacher to demonstrate to a child the power of writing is to write with the child, not by requiring the child to engage in writing that you, the teacher, determines the child must do, but by helping to bring out of the child writing that the child would like to do.

We say this strongly, because, in our experience, children when required to write something they are not interested in will also not be interested in any feedback, in any correction, that ensues. As a result, they will not learn. However, our pedagogy, which we are calling Real-Word Literacy, supports such an approach.The different aspects of a productive writing environment cannot be separated from each other and delivered to children one bit at a time. Reading, writing, talking and writing, and talking in order to write must be continual possibilities; they overlap and interlock. This is what our approach advocates for. It can be read about in more detail – here. Alternatively, you can receive email updates from our blog by clicking the follow button in the top right hand corner of this page.

How To Conduct Conferences

Circulating the room – It is important to remember that an informal conference with a child need only be 40 seconds long, although it will take longer until the time when both you and the children are familiar with the idea. You should aim to see every writer at least twice a week, which, in experience, is quite manageable – even without the aid of a TA. Ask how the writing is going. Alternatively, ask the child what they feel they need particular help with. Do they have any ‘sticky’ places in the text? Finally, you should formulate a question or suggestion for the author, particularly if you sense that they lack confidence about their topic.

Ask how it is going -> Hear some of what is contained in the piece -> Formulate a question or a suggestion for the author. -> Leave.

A good technique is to play the naïve reader/listener and parrot back what you have learned from listening to an extract or skim reading the text. This shows your writer that, at this point, you are interested in the topic of their piece and not the transcription. When teachers point out mechanical errors during the drafting stage, they send a false message that mechanical correctness is more important than content (Tompkins, 2011, p.18). Your comments on transcription can wait until a ‘Revision Conference’.

All writers, no matter what their age, need to hear their own words coming back to them. Often, when you repeat back what you have learnt from their piece, children go on to give you more information verbally in response. This often finds it way into their writing. However, it’s important to realise you are not there to read the whole piece. Always be early in seeking out the children who seem lacking in confidence. Once children understand what a conference is, they may let you know that they do not require one at the present moment; in this case you simply move on to the next child.  

Things to remember: Don’t talk more than the writer. Don’t try to redirect the child onto something you find more interesting. Only direct the child onto a different course or subject if it’s clearly not working. Don’t ignore the writer’s original intention for the piece. Try not to supply words or phrases that you like, but if possible quietly guide the writer towards the means of expression.Don’t hesitate to say to a child that you don’t understand or that you’re confused by the subject choice. When you’ve finished a conference, simply mark the child’s book with ‘verbal feedback’.

Learning To Conference: Conferencing Prompt Cards

You may find these cards helpful when starting out on providing pupil conferences, or as an aid to classroom assistants or parent helpers participating in the process.

Revision Conferences

The purpose of revision is to find a significant meaning and make it clear – Donald Murray (2002, p.175).

Children soon come to know that you will talk with them while they are writing. It is a well-known fact that ‘after the event’ responses written in books come too late for children to do anything about them. Verbally conducted revision conferences, on the other hand, provide more opportunity for high quality teaching, alongside the child, in real time, and allow the child to act on the feedback immediately.

How To Prepare Feedback Ready For Revision Conferences

After school, in preparation for next day’s revision conferences, good writing teachers will step back from a child’s piece and look at the entire draft to see what it could become. They do not rush in and simply edit line by line. In fact it is the child who edits the piece. Teachers consider the content, the structure, the pace and the form of the piece.

These are the sorts of questions to be considered when receiving a child’s draft:

  • What is the subject?
  • What is the focus?
  • What is the best genre for them to explore their subject?
  • Where is the theme that will carry the reader through the piece?
  • Is it too general? Does the child need something specific to focus on?
  • Is it it too long or too short?
  • Where does the child achieve the most clear, consistent and appropriate writing?

After considering these points, simply write very brief notes at the bottom of their page (including any transcriptional problems), ready to share during the child’s  revision conference the next day. Take notes on what the child has done well and identify only one or two teaching points for discuss. Undertaking a revision conference requires skill on the part of the teacher, but this skill will come with practice. It should be noted that these conferences do take longer and you can only really fit up to three into a typical literacy hour, once you have completed your short conferencing commitments. 

Once a child has had their conference, they make the revisions and edits on the piece until they are ready to write a final copy. Remember, if it is a particularly strong piece, the child should seriously consider having it published into the class/school book stock.

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Pupil Conferencing: The Research

Research References

  • Alexander, R. (2008) ‘Talking, teaching, learning’ in Alexander, R. Essays on Pedagogy, Abingdon, Routledge.
  • Alexander, R. (2008). Towards dialogic teaching. (4th ed). Cambridge: Dialogos.
  • Clark, J. (2010). Why talking in the classroom can be a good thing? In Literacy Today 63: 15 http://0-web.ebscohost.com.brum.beds.ac.uk/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?hid=107&sid=58116dfe-acf0-4bee-a203-199849af2570%40sessionmgr111&vid=3 (accessed May 2016).
  • Maybin, J. (2006) Children’s Voices: Talk, Knowledge and Identity, Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan.
  • Mercer, N. and Littleton, K. (2007) Dialogue and the Development of Children’s Thinking: A Sociocultural Approach London:Routledge
  • Myhill, D., (2006). Talk, talk, talk: Teaching and learning in whole class discourse In Research Papers in Education 21, no. 1: 19–41.
  • Nguyen, H. (2007) Rapport building in language instruction: A microanalysis of the multiple resources in teacher talk In Language and Education 21: 284-303
  • Norton, B. (2000) ‘Claiming the right to speak in classrooms and communities’ in Identity And Language Learning: Gender, Ethnicity And Educational Change, London, Pearson Education.
  • Nystrand, M., (2006) Research on the role of classroom discourse as it affects reading comprehension In Research in the Teaching of English 40: 392-412
  • Wenger, E., (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Wertsch, J. V. (1994) The primacy of mediated action in sociocultural studies In Mind, Culture & Activity, 1: 202-208

In Teaching Writing – How Important Is It That Teachers Be Writers Too?

In drafting for this blog post I wrote down the following bullet points:

  • Do and should teachers write and share their own exemplars of texts they expect children to go on and write?
  • Do teachers take part in the writing process when they write; if so, do they share their process with their children? For example do they show children pages from their notebook? Their plans, their drafts, their revisions, their edits and their final publications?
  • Do teachers share hints and tips from their own writing process with children?

‘The main requirements are easily stated. We, as teachers, must provide an environment in which a child will want to write and in which a child can learn about writing. The environment in which a child will want to write is an environment of demonstrations, not just of ‘this is the way we do things’ but also ‘there are things that can be done.’ (Frank Smith, 1982, p.201)

I think it is important that teachers try to write in certain genres for themselves; particularly the ones they are asking children to write in. Children – like adults – read stories, poems, information differently when they see these texts as things they themselves could produce. This not only helps the teacher understand the writing they are asking the children to do – and so provide them with real advice but it also helps children view their teacher as a real author, with real experience. So:

  • Show children finished writing in the genre you are asking them to write in. Sometimes also share your plans and drafts.
  • Share with them how you followed the typical features in a genre.
  • Show them some of your writing tricks.
  • Share with children some texts that aren’t quite working out for you – seek their advice.
  • Regularly and systematically provide opportunity for children to talk to you about their writing in pupil-conferencing. Talk about their writing in real-time as opposed to leaving it to ‘after-the-event’ written feedback – which often comes too late for children to act on the advice given.
  • When giving writing conferences to children – you will talk to them and advise them like a real writer – because you will have been there yourself when you wrote your piece.

For children to see themselves as writers, they need to collaborate with someone who is more experienced than them to learn from.

Children tend not to write well if they are not interested or see themselves as writers. That is why it is our responsibility, as teachers, to demonstrate to children that writing is interesting, possible, achieves something and is worthwhile. There is no way of helping children if the teacher themselves is a fraud – who doesn’t believe writing is interesting, possible, achieves something or worthwhile.

As Frank Smith (1988) puts it: ‘Teachers who are not themselves members of the club cannot admit children to it’.

Teachers must read like writers, they must collaborate with their children who are willingly engaged in the enterprise of writing. For most teachers this should be easy – write with their own students and offer them writing conferences whilst they are writing. Share your own expertise. When I write poetry with children, I begin to read poetry differently. I’m reading like a member of the club of poets. And if we can make children feel like they are members of the club too, they can learn this too.

A Functional Grammar Table: CPD Subject Knowledge With A Difference

Before we start, it is important to point out that Functional Grammar makes up only a small part of LiteracyForPleasure’s writing approach, to read more about this approach we are calling Real-Word Literacy please go here. Alternatively, you can receive email updates from our blog by clicking the follow button in the top right hand corner of this page.

Functional Grammar?

It would do children and teachers the world of good if they shifted their understanding of grammar and punctuation away from ‘rules to be followed’ to one that looked at its function. What can grammar and punctuation do for us as writers and what does it already do for the texts our favourite authors write?

If children can spot grammar and punctuation in real texts written by real authors and if they can be given opportunity to use these ‘writing secrets’ in their real writing, they will not only produce better texts but they will be skilled in the exercise of name-and-identify which is so popular (for some reason) in grammar tests.

It is possible to create pupils who can be their own critics and also be interested and motivated in trying to make their writing as clear and creative as possible for their readers.

We made the Functional-Grammar-Table below because we were fed up with texts which told you the rules of a piece of grammar but didn’t tell children (or indeed adults) why and where you might want to use it and the effect grammar can have on your writing. We were also fed up with the concept of ‘grammar deficit’. This is the teaching practice of continually passing judgement on rule errors in grammar-exercises as opposed to talking critically about what value grammar can have on writing or the effect of its absence has on the effectiveness of a piece. This realisation has transformed our practice. We explain how we now approach grammar teaching below:

Teaching Grammar Through Daily ‘Writing Tricks’ Minilessons

What lessons will have a practical, lasting, positive influence on student writing? – Nancie Atwell

In many classes, minilessons precede daily writing lessons. Whether you’re teaching a grammar, writing-craft or genre study-point,  it is useful to follow Tompkins’ (2011, p.53) stages:

  1. Introduce the topic and its functional purpose ->
  2. Share examples ->
  3. Provide information ->
  4. Guided practice ->
  5. Assess learning.

Introduce the topic and functional purpose This can be anything from a writing strategy or skill, grammar function or a literary genre concept. Always share the purpose and the function with the class, before moving on to formalities or rules.

  • Share examples Look at examples from children’s or author’s real writing.
  • Provide information Provide information about the topic and how it can be used in ‘real’ writing. Clarify misconceptions and contrast a good and a poor example to see how the writing is affected.
  • Guided practice Children work individually or in pairs to practice what they are learning. Ideally this will be in the context of an authentic piece of writing a child is currently working on (See our Real-Word-Literacy approach for more details on how to do this).
  • Assess learning Teachers ask children to consider how they can use this information as they write. They can also reflect on their authentic use of it by leaving a comment in their book.

The Importance Of Giving ‘Writing Tricks’

Whatever you choose to do in these minilessons you should ensure that you teach in context and in a way that will empower children’s writing intentions. Calkins (1998, p.198) suggests that to successfully apply this attitude is to perceive minilessons as ‘quick tip’ giving before Process Writing begins. This changes your perception of these lessons, stops them turning into exercises and instead creates a climate where children feel instructed in and taught something valuable.

So What Actually Is A ‘Functional’ Grammar Lesson And Why Teach In That Way?

These mini-sessions are essential for showing children the hows of writing. The main premise is that the use of punctuation and grammar is a skill to be developed, not content to be taught.

Graham & Perin’s (2007) highly reliable meta-analysis into effective teaching of writing makes it clear that the formal teaching of grammar has always negatively impacted on children’s writing. Functional grammar teaching, on the other hand, shows children how understanding what words and structures ‘do’ – helps them achieve their meaning and intentions in their real writing.

Fearn & Farnan (2007, p.77) suggest teaching grammar in this order:

  • Teach the purpose of the grammar and share its meaning potential with your writers.
  • Follow this up by allowing them to apply it in their real writing.
  • Finally, ensure that children can formally ‘define-and-identify’ it out of context.

Fearn & Farnan (2007) make clear that this is not only the key to good writing, but teaching in this way results in a deeper understanding of grammar for formal testing. This approach is also fully supported by the DfE (2012) in their own research on effective teaching of grammar.

Please see the bottom of this post for our Functional Grammar Table. This table is designed with teachers in mind. It differs from many other grammar tables in that its major purpose is to inform teachers of the function different grammatical items have in writing. It is written in a way that should make these functions easily understood and applied by children.

A useful technique we advocate for is discussion of a prepared text which does achieve its intentions as a result of good grammar use – or sometimes doesn’t. The act of reading requires understanding how writers use grammar to enhance meaning. Children will learn that if they ignore grammatical conventions, readers will not understand their text. Therefore, you should still encourage a culture of speculation about grammar use. This not only makes the sessions more interesting but also allows children to think more deeply and thus gain an authentic understanding of grammar. With all minilessons, whether it be grammar, writing or genre study, you should avoid using worksheets and instead have the children apply their newly acquired learning in their own authentic writing.

Wide reading has a strong impact on personal writing. Explore and promote high-quality children’s literature to understand the grammatical and stylistic choices other writers make.

This approach to minilessons is one part of a much larger approach being devised by ‘Literacyforpleasure’. For more information on our approach to teaching writing, please go here.

DOWNLOAD our Functional Grammar Table here.

functional grammar table