They Won’t Have Anything To Write About: The Dangers Of Believing Pupils Are ‘Culturally Deprived’.

No teacher ever comes out and actually says it. They skirt around the issue. They bring up the ghost – the myth – of the so called ‘deprived child’. This is usually some stereotyped view of a ‘pupil-premium’ child’s life that has no basis in reality (Grainger, 2013). We often hear things like: they only ever sit at home and play on the computer or they won’t be able to think of anything. The worst we have heard is that supposedly some children don’t have a single positive thing which they could write about because their lives are seen as so arid.

These are the sorts of excuses that some teachers give when rejecting the idea of allowing children (regardless of background or circumstance) to choose their own writing topics. There is the assumption that these pupils are impoverished, lazy or come from solely violent or disturbed homes (Grainger, 2013). I often wonder how these teachers come to know these features of children’s home lives? They actually don’t and in terms of writing they really don’t want to find out either. And, as a result, they believe that only they can and should decide what it good for children and what they should write about. These children don’t deserve a choice in the matter. After all, they are not like us – they are culturally deprived and need saving. The reality is these children actually have the same basic vocabulary, possess the same capacity for conceptual learning and can use the same logic as anyone else who learns to write (Rosen, 1972).

They won’t have anything to write about – This kind of suggestion is dangerous. Dangerous because it diverts those teachers away from exploring the real problems with their writing pedagogy and instead focuses them on the imagined defects of ‘culturally neglected’ children (Grainger, 2013). What teachers really mean when they say things like ‘they won’t have anything to write about’ is: they won’t write about things I think are legitimate or relevant. They won’t write about things I can control or they won’t write about things I have a reference to. This of course will be true if you don’t show children how they can ‘mine’ their lives for interesting ideas for which they could write about.

‘Most of my classmates came from low-income families, and many grew up in broken homes, lived with relatives or in foster care. We defined ourselves as a class of writers.
I relished our classroom culture and told anyone who would listen [about it].’ – Jacky (Leung & Hicks, 2014)

The fact is teachers’ perceptions of legitimate writing are the dominant culture in classrooms and are often over-valued while children’s cultures are persistently and systematically undervalued. This is actually nothing more than the linguistic oppression of school children and, according to research (Cummins, 2011, Dockrell et al, 2015, Edelsky, 2006, Grainger, 2013, Flint & Fisher, 2014, Samway, 2006) it’s a far more wide-spread notion amongst teachers than we dare to think. You can see it in the way many teachers set up their classrooms.

Because of the nature of the National Curriculum, much, if not all, of the writing opportunities afforded to children are transmitted to them; placed upon them and they are simply subjected to it. The National Curriculum makes no mention of the fact that children should be taught and given opportunity to generate an original idea. This is a whole aspect of the writing process which is completely missing from the curriculum. It comes before even the planning stage of writing (which the curriculum does attend to).

The children are often happy because they know no different, and this enjoyment seems to validate the teacher’s choice of controlling the writing stimulus. The use of these external stimuli such as: whole-class book topics, writing-exercises, replicating a piece of writing, and the use of pictures and films means that children are not given any say or control in learning how to create a sense of self or how to act out on the world through writing. Instead, they quickly learn the life lesson that writing is to be consumed or imitated at best. They will leave school mystified, intimidated and believing that writing is immutable – certainly by them. Due to this linguistic oppression, children are being brought up to live in a ‘culture of silence’. As teachers, we need to accept and embrace that children acquire all different kinds of cultural identity and have different responses to it (Grainger, 2013). They should be given the opportunity to find the relevance and power in understanding themselves, others and the world in their writing. We discuss this in more detail in this article.

We don’t believe children are lacking in anything (Rosen, 1972). It is our belief that children should first be taught how to identify their writing urges, passions and interests and then place them successfully into the dominant genres of our day. Teach children how they can take their values and their cultural reference points and use them in the typical genres used by society to create changes for themselves and others.

Through our Real-Word Literacy approach, it has been amazing to watch children go from writing which is almost zero in terms of social and personal significance to children writing on their own chosen topic and seeing them all of a sudden become highly articulate and motivated to write.

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

Research References

    • Ball, S., (2013) Foucault, Power & Education London: Routledge
    • Bearne, E., Marsh, J., (2007) Literacy & Social Inclusion London: Trentham Books
    • 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.
    • Cummins, J. (2011). Identity matters: From evidence-free to evidence-based policies for promoting achievement among students from marginalized social groups.In Writing & Pedagogy 3(2): 189–216. http://dx.doi.org/10.1558/wap. v3i2.189.
    • 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
    • Edelsky, C. (2006) With Literacy and Justice for All: Rethinking the Social in
      Language and Education (3rd edition). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence
      Erlbaum.
    • Flint, A. S., Fisher, T., (2014) Writing Their Worlds: Young English Language Learners Navigate Writing Workshop In Writing & Pedagogy 1756-5839
    • Feiler, L., et al (2007) Improving Primary Literacy: Linking Home & School 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.
    • Gonzalez, N., Moll, L. & Amanti, C. (eds) (2005) Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classroom, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
    • Graham, L., Johnson, A., (2012) Children’s Writing Journals London: UKLA
    • 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.
    • Labov, W., (1971) Variation in language in The learning of language Appleton-Century-Crofts
    • Labov, W., (1972) The logic of nonstandard english in Language and social context Penguin
    • Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
    • Leung, C., Hicks, J., (2014) Writer Identity and Writing Workshop A Future Teacher and Teacher Educator Critically Reflect In Writing & Pedagogy Vol. 6 583-605
    • Maybin. J. (2006) Children’s Voices: Talk, Knowledge & Identity London: Palgrave
    • Morpurgo, M., (2016) Such Stuff: A Story-Makers Inspiration London: Walker
    • Rosen, H., (1972) Language & Class: A Critical Look At The Theories Of Basil Bernstein London: Falling Wall Press
    • Rosen, M., (2016) What is poetry? The essential guide to reading and writing poetry. London: Walker Books
    • Smith, Clint. (2016) The danger of silence Available Online: [http://www.ted.com/talks/clint_smith_the_danger_of_silence#t-242155]

The Sea Of Writing Ideas: 10 Ways We Got Children Choosing Their Own Topics.

The Sea Of Writing Ideas

Writing ideas.

When you write, ideas crazily spill from your head, tumble down your arm, into your pen and out along the crisp, white page.

To us, the only way to see ideas is scribbling them down – but ideas are more than just words on a page.

They are colourful, squirming, squiggly things that slide and slip through the nooks and crannies of your brain.

Some of them crash against the walls of your head in roaring waves.

Others come more slowly – each droplet of water a letter.

Once you gain control of the sea – the droplets make out your idea.

– Year 5 Child.

Research clearly shows that if children get to choose their topics; this strongly influences their enjoyment of writing and therefore the progress they make. Children may need initially to generate a whole raft of topics and ideas that they feel they could write about.

So, as part of our writing pedagogy Real-Word Literacy, at the beginning of the year we had children filling in an ‘Ideas Heart’.It is also advantageous for a teacher to write down what topics children consider themselves to be an expert in. Get children to collect on paper the people, places, games, hobbies and interests they know well as well as the things they love and care about.

We believe in this concept because, when children write about what they already know, they already have the information at their fingertips. This allows them to think about how to write it instead of having to concentrate on what it is they are being asked to write.

It is often the case that a teacher will use a book studied by the whole class as a stimulus for writing. We believe that such an approach can be restricting, especially if children are not motivated by the content of the book. In our view, surely, it is more logical that children be allowed to draw on their own reading of: picture books, novels and poetry from the class/school library or from home. Always bear in mind that:

what children write reflects the nature and quality of their reading,’ (CLPE, 2012) p.35.

You as teacher-writer should share your own Ideas Heart with the class. How you approach idea-generation should also be discussed during Writing Study sessions. This is discussed in a lot more detail in our Real-Word Literacy document. To view this document, please go 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:

  1. Creating an Ideas Heart and allow children to add to it throughout the year.
  2. Asking themselves ‘What if..?’ questions
  3. Generating ‘When I was little…’ statements
  4. What makes me happy, angry, scared or upsetlists
  5. Donald Murray said ‘problems make good subjects.’ What itch needs scratching list – a list of issues that need solving, correcting, explaining or exploring. Topics that make you curious, furious or confused.
  6. Questions for memoirists – Children answer questions to jog their memories for potential memoir ideas (see our article about memoir writing).
  7. Using the ‘Michael Rosen’ effect. This is where children can take an otherwise ordinary moment and make it extraordinary. This can be an alternative to memoir writing for children who would much rather not write about anything overly heartfelt or emotive – which we can occasionally come across.
  8. Create a ‘Where Poetry Hides’ list. This is where children run around their house looking for objects they could write about. (see our Poetry genre-booklet).
  9. Deciding to use ideas from the books they have chosen and read. To aid them we teach them to note the theme, setting and characters from two different books they have enjoyed, and look to create something new from that.
  10. Deciding for themselves to use the topics from our foundation subjects in any way they wish including creating genre-hybrids.

Use of these strategies facilitates children’s choice of writing topic. No longer do you have to fear that some children will have nothing to write about.

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

If you like the sound of this type of teaching, you can read our document Real-Word Literacy by click here. 

For research conducted on the theme of ‘topic choice’, please see the references below:

    • Bearne, E., Marsh, J., (2007) Literacy & Social Inclusion London: Trentham Books
    • 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
    • Feiler, L., et al (2007) Improving Primary Literacy: Linking Home & School 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.
    • Gonzalez, N., Moll, L. & Amanti, C. (eds) (2005) Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classroom, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
    • Graham, L., Johnson, A., (2012) Children’s Writing Journals London: UKLA
    • 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
    • Morpurgo, M., (2016) Such Stuff: A Story-Makers Inspiration London: Walker
    • Rosen, M., (2016) What is poetry? The essential guide to reading and writing poetry. London: Walker Books
    • Smith, Clint. (2016) The danger of silence Available Online: [http://www.ted.com/talks/clint_smith_the_danger_of_silence#t-242155]

Trials & Triumphs: Teaching Memoir Writing.

Trials & Triumphs: Teaching Memoir Writing.

Week One

This half term we are focusing on teaching memoir. Memoir differs from what is commonly referred to as recount in a number of profound ways. Recount’s major role is often to ensure that chronological events are described within a conventional time order. However, memoir is very much in the business of storytelling.  A good memoir will have a topic which has meaning not only for you as the writer but also for your reader. This means children finding a subject which rouses emotions in them and which reaches out to their readers, creating the possibility of reflection and empathy. Memoir also affords young writers the opportunity to explore the literary qualities of stories they read through their writing about a personal experience. Memoir is a hugely rewarding genre to teach. It provides the best platform for children to feel they are experts in their topic before they begin writing, and gives them enough scope as a genre to be playful and try out many of the things they like writing best.

We had two objectives for our first week: for children to understand what the genre memoir is and what is required to create a great one, and to give children the resources and opportunity to generate their own memoir idea.  

Day 1

The children, in pairs read and discussed the first page of our Genre-Booklet memoir. I then shared with the class my own attempt at producing a memoir. We gathered in a circle, reading quietly together in pairs. Different children then read a paragraph each aloud,and I did a final reading myself.

No One’s Day But Ours.

chattri3

We’ll explain it and deal with the consequences after,  I thought.

Looking out the window and watching the bright sunshine reflect off my dad’s car and into my eyes, I felt a warm glow. Waving goodbye, I knew today was going to be just perfect. It was no coincidence perhaps that I could see the Chattri from that very same window. The promised land almost teasing me.  

I grabbed my backpack and met my friends by the post-box, just as we had planned. “Have you got the goodies?” I asked Joe excitedly. He assured me he had and from the rustle I could hear as we walked, I believed him with all my heart. Joe always had a way of making you feel reassured. Perhaps it was his height and frame. Joe was taller than the rest of us. He had sharp, almost white messy hair, which made him endearing and trustworthy to parents.

Looking back now, our impatience to get to the Chattri caused our ‘short-cut’ not to be so short at all. Negotiating all the fences and the barbed wire which came with them was trying. The barbed wire seemed, at times, to be like fighting against the ocean’s tide. “Maybe we should have just used the paths?” Dan suggested, sarcastically. Dan was the shortest in the group and at our age that meant something. He was also incredibly skinny and had comically thin, hairless legs. Legs that seemed to protrude from out of his shorts like twigs.

“Where would the adventure be in that?” I said in such a way that I didn’t even believe myself. We still had a way to go and it was cold and lonely in the shade of the valley. The warmth and the light shone on the Chattri – right at the top of the hill – but not on us.

When we finally got there, Joe opened his rucksack to reveal what we had all been waiting for. It was a feast to the eyes for any 11 year old boy. It was all the treasures a boy of that age could dream of: chewy strawberries and snakes by the bundle, the largest cola bottles you could get – and full sugar too! Not to mention what felt like endless packets of Haribos. We held them in our hands and raised them up to the clear blue skies – like savages – like a sacrifice – like a victory cry.

This was it. This was freedom. We were free, free to do what we wanted to do, and what we wanted was to be together and be alone. Alone to scream and shout, to holler and play highjinks and silly-fools. We played together that day like the clock had stopped. Today was our day.

My lasting impression will always be standing at the top of that hill, ripping at a chewy-snake, stretching it away from my back teeth, eyes shut, head back, hearing my friends rolling down the hill into the thick and welcoming grass and feeling king. King of my world, with my comrades there to support me. Soaking up the day, we didn’t need or want for anyone or anything – least of all our parents.

“We’ll explain it and deal with the consequences after,” I whispered into the silk of that afternoon breeze. I wonder where that afternoon breeze is now?

By LiteracyForPleasure


What followed was quite a lengthy and full discussion which included talking about the opening, the quality of the description, linking the characters of Joe and Dan to their physical descriptions (Joe’s hair almost a metaphor or a metonym). Children agreed that it was not a remarkable topic in itself that I had chosen, but that I had made it special and significant through description and feeling, and through making it like a story.
We have emphasised this point every day, and referred to how Michael Rosen does it in his prose poems which we regularly enjoy.

Children found instances of time references, simile and metaphor, repetition, poetic language, exaggeration. We reminded them constantly that they could use all these devices (‘tricks’) in their writing. We also emphasised the need to have one pebble to focus on. The concept of having one pebble is that children will often choose general topics when generating writing ideas, such as When I went to the football, When I went to Spain on holiday, or Our school trip to PGL. What we have had to teach children is that these topics contain almost a beach full of pebbles which they could write about. Each pebble is an idea for a piece of writing. They need to find one pebble – or one idea – from their topic ‘beach’. This has not always been easy but by the end of the week it was a hugely rewarding pursuit.

 

Day 2

I read the long version of Roald Dahl’s memoir – The Great Mouse Plot. Children discussed the description of Mrs Pratchett, found the simile, and the ‘pebble’ in this description i.e. her fingernails. I reminded them that Roald Dahl probably wrote this 30 years after the event, so how did he remember what everyone said? We told children that they can make up speech when they write, and that they can depart from the exact truth of the events, that it can be quite enjoyable to use hyperbole(exaggeration) in your memories and that in fact we do this all the time!

We then moved on to Anne Frank’s diary entry. This was probably the least successful of the memoir examples. I felt it was necessary to talk about the context in order for children to fully appreciate the writing. We looked at how she conveys anxiety, and located the parts that made us feel sad. (It is written in quite, a literary way, which isn’t always the case with diaries. I’ve later discovered that she had revised much of it, with a view to publication.)

 

Day 3

As part of our Genre-Book we included a bad memoir example. Children immediately spotted the lack of description, character development, pebble, story, as well as unexplained references. This confirmed that they have really internalised the essential ingredients of a good memoir. It was an enjoyable lesson to hear them be so critically engaged on a text.  

Some children even began to revise it themselves, writing on the typed copy; all chose to add description. Maybe in the future we could find a way of letting them revise the whole thing, to include events in time order, elements of a story, and a pebble…

After this we checked in with some on their own memoir ideas, and we worried that several had not yet thought of anything, or were coming up with ideas which had no depth at all, or were too general. We decided to put them on the spot the next day, and have everyone share their ideas with the whole class.

 

Day 4

Right at the start of the lesson, children were asked to focus on something with a strong feeling e.g. the happiest or saddest moments of their lives. Hearing other people’s ideas acted as a spark for some. Some changed their topic for a stronger one. Sometimes the class voted if one child couldn’t decide between two ideas. We rejected some ideas. Children had to identify the pebble for their writing. Once I modelled how I went from a general idea to having a one pebble moment it all of a sudden clicked. I discussed how in my writing notebook I had written that I want to write about my childhood holiday with my grandad in Spain, and that the pebble moment I will ‘zoom in on’ will be my grandfather teaching me how to float in the pool on my back, us looking like a couple of otters floating in the pool. I then explained that instead of writing about the PGL trip I could write about how myself and Mr. Green had a secret midnight snack. We ended up feeling far more confident about their topic choice, and so did they. This discussion seemed to turn things around significantly. We asked children to straightaway jot down the revised idea and what the pebble was going to be. There was a real buzz in the classroom and many children wanted the opportunity to use their free-writing time to write about other memoir ideas they were having.

 

In Conclusion

At the end of a week children know that to write a quality memoir they need to:

choose a topic which may be ‘everyday’ or unremarkable in itself, but which can be made memorable both for themselves and the reader by a genuine emotional investment in it; focus on one pebble, and use description, poetic language, feelings, good openings and endings, devices like repetition and a little exaggeration. They are now using literary terminology naturally in their discussions, and are reading the memoir examples like writers.
The memoir examples have been successful. Our own memoir examples were the best, because we conveyed them with enthusiasm and enjoyment well, and because we were able to talk to the children about the topic, how we came to write it, and our writing process. Children were really engaged to know and learn from this. We have the idea of collecting the best memoirs written by the children in our class, and using them as examples next year.

**

This is part of our Real-Word Literacy approach to writing. If you’d like to find out more about how this approach works, you can follow the link here.

If you are interested in knowing more about our Genre-Booklets you can follow the link here.

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)

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