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.

Modeling topic selection is the best way to help children develop independent thinking and decision-making skills for composing (Heller, 1999, p.86).

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-World Literacy, at the beginning of the year, we have 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 in their lives.

‘Our best guides are the things pupils come up and talk about – their individual and group interests rather than an external ‘stimuli’ or book (which necessarily cannot know their particular circumstances or desires)…[therefore what is needed is] a questing exploratory atmosphere in a writing classroom.’ John Dixon (p.86)

We believe in this concept because when children write about what they already know, they already have the information at their fingertips – they are full of confidence. 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-World Literacy document. To view this document, please go here.

If you’ve been providing your children with writing stimuli each day, then they are likely to have difficult with choice at first. This is because choosing topics is a writing skills (and all the more reason to teach it). In other words, the more you do it, the better at it the children will become. Throughout the year, we have provided Writing-Study lessons that give students new strategies for finding topics. Does that mean that the children never feel stymied when it comes to finding an idea? No. Writers do experience writers block and often this just simply requires some thinking time. Thinking and time. That’s something that we have difficultly allowing for in classrooms. However, generating an idea is still faster than having to ‘teach’ the content of a stimulus you want the children to regurgitate (Jacobson, 2010, p.32).

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
    • Roald Dahl famously came up with the idea for Charlie And The Chocolate Factory by simply writing this what if… question ‘What if a crazy man ran a chocolate factory?
  3. Generating ‘When I was little…’ or Imagine a day when…’ 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.
    • Writing fan fiction using something from the book they are reading/have read.
    • Writing inspired by poems – taking a poem they like from the class-book-stock and using it to write their own poem.
  10. Deciding for themselves to use the topics from our foundation subjects in any way they wish including creating genre-hybrids.

We would also add that you can read aloud books and poems about everyday and universal experiences and that this will often spark in children their own idea for writing. We call this ‘universal theme to specific topic’.

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-World 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.
    • Heller, M., (1999) (2nd Ed) Reading-Writing Connections LEA: USA
    • 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]
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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.

 

Genre-Booklets: Helping Both Children & Teachers To Write

What Are Genre Booklets?

Genre-based approaches to teaching writing…achieve spectacular improvements in student outcomes, from twice to more than four times expected rates of learning’ (Martin & Rose, 2007, p.1)

Our booklets teach children the meaning and purposes behind certain text-types. They make this information explicitly available to teachers but are also really child friendly.

The booklets share with children the characteristics of the different text-types. They cover the most popular genres across the curriculum and also children’s favourite genres. They explain the social goals of the text type without telling children exactly what to do! Instead, they help children enjoy and develop their own ideas and make their writing academically successful.

I’ve used these genre booklets and think they are utter genius. Brilliant, so thank you!

These booklets are brilliant. They are a ‘show rather than tell’ of how to write.

What Genre Booklets Do:

  1. Explain the social purpose of the the text-type.
  2. Share with children what people usually write about.
  3. Explain how to interact with your reader.
  4. Suggest how to display your writing.
  5. Give hints about what grammar and linguistic features are going to be useful.
  6. Share exemplar texts of the genre in action.
  7. Provide a planning grid, showing the stages your writing can go through.

Our Current Genre-Booklets:

  • Narrative writing
    • How to write a memoir (personal narrative)
    • How to write a short story
      • How to write a fable
      • How to write a horror/scary story
      • How to write a vivid setting
      • How to write an interesting character
      • How to write a memorable and vivid story (advanced)
  • 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 discussion text
    • How to write persuasively
      • How to write a persuasive letter
      • How to write a persuasive leaflet and advert
  • How to write a newspaper article
    • How to write advocacy journalism
    • How to write a match report
    • Letter to the editor: responding to a newspaper article.
    • How to write a letter of complaint
  • History writing
    • How to write public history
    • How to explain the past
    • How to debate the past
    • How to write a biography
  • How to write a science report
  • How to write a free-verse poem

How To Use Our Genre Booklets:

Firstly, we use the Genre-Booklets to write our own exemplar to share with our class. Whilst sharing, we explain our intentions for the piece: why we wrote it, why we chose the topic and what impact we wanted it to have on our readers. The children then give their critique and ask questions. We then invite the children to have a go at writing their own piece – using the Genre-Booklet to help them.

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We recommend that our Genre-Booklets be used as part of our Real-Word Literacy approach. You can find out more by clicking here.

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.
  • Children’s writing is purposeful and always reflects 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’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 taking writing in the foundations subjects more seriously.
  • Children are reading more critically.
  • A sharp increase in children asking to take writing home.
  • A sharp increase in children purchasing writing-notebooks and writing at home for pleasure.
  • Children’s writing outcomes have so far been impressive across ability ranges.
  • Children are beginning to talk like real writers.

Why Did We Make These Genre-Booklets?

We wanted to share with children the variety of writing that is available to them even as apprentice writers. We wanted to move away from simply asking children to include ‘genre features’ and instead concentrate on the social aspects of their writing. We wanted them to learn how they can share their artistry, memories, knowledge and opinions with others.

Genre Booklets

  • To see all the booklets, just email us at literacyforpleasure@gmail.com

  • They are also available for purchase through our TES shop here. However, please get in touch through our email as we can provide them at a far cheaper price.

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

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To Learn More About Genre Booklets See Our 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)

Meeting Children Where They Are: Using Pupil Conferencing.

This article is based on, and written in relation to, findings of educational research (see end of article). The tenor of this article is simply to allow the reader to reflect on these findings and is in no way a criticism of any school(s) policy or teachers’ practice.

Why Written Feedback Might Not Be As Effective As Verbal Conferencing

Traditionally, the teaching of writing has been a thankless task. For the writing teacher, it has meant long, long hours of marking and commenting on student compositions, with little reason for confidence that this effort would have any positive effect.” – Bereiter & Scardmalia

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 et al, 2010, Jean, Tree, & Clark, 2013, Oxford University – Education Endowment Fund, 2016 ) seems to indicate 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 effective ways and it could be through teacher collaboration amongst students. As Corbett & Strong (2011) , Smith (1986), Atwell (2015), and Graves (2003) testify, a way to improve children’s writing outcomes is to write with children and not just sharing the product of your own writing 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 or adults have never actually seen a professional 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. According to Tompkins, (2011 p.13) when teachers act only as judges, children produce writing mainly to satisfy the teacher’s requirements, and the writing is nearly always tentative.

Famous writer-teacher Peter Elbow (2000) identifies the different ways we can respond to apprentice writers and that we should never focus on just one. Instead, we should look to use them in careful combination:

Zero Response: Lowest stakes
Supportive Response: No criticism, only praise ‘Your language is really lively here!’
Observational Response: I’ve noticed you’ve written a poem a bit like Allan Ahlberg’.
Non-Verbal Critical Response: Wavy line beneath a sentence with incorrect syntax.
Critical Response: Your writing would be better with more setting description in this paragraph.*

*Taken from Locke (2015) see references.

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 feeling a slavish kind of 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. Research indicates (Writing Is Primary, 2009), 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.

Consider and reflect that when children are required to write something they are not interested in they will also not be overly interested in any feedback and in any corrections that ensue. As a result, will they learn as effectively? However, our pedagogy, which we are calling Real-World Literacy, does seem to support 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 surely be continual possibilities? They do overlap and interlock – so this would make sense and research does seem to back this up. Therefore, at present, 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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**By Phil Ferguson*

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.
  • Bereiter, C., Scardamalia, M. In Beard, R., (1993) Teaching Literacy Balancing Perspectives Hodder & Stoughton: London
  • 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).
  • Elbow, P., (2000) Everyone Can Write New York: Oxford University Press
  • Fisher, R., Jones, S., Larkin, S. & Myhill, D., (2010) Using talk to support writing London: SAGE
  • Jean E., Tree, F., & Clark, B., (2013) Communicative Effectiveness of Written Versus Spoken Feedback In Discourse Processes, 50:5, 339-359
  • Locke, T., (2015) Developing Writing Teachers London: Routledge
  • 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
  • Wiliam, D., (2011) Embedded Formative Assessment Solution Tree Press: USA