Response to: How ‘knowledge about language’ for schools could be so much better, by Michael Rosen

Response to: How ‘knowledge about language’ for schools could be so much better, by Michael Rosen

Michael is right when he says the government and the DfE should have spoken to practitioners like us. Phil and I, for example, are both in the very fortunate position of being applied linguists, teachers and two people who know about writing pedagogy.

Our passion for our work has resulted in our producing materials which we would argue begin to address the idea of teaching ‘knowledge about language.’ Our Real-World Literacy approach is built around the idea that children imitate, investigate, play and repeatedly practise writing and writerly behaviour alongside direct instruction from a sympathetic writer-teacher. We also agree that this kind of ‘knowledge about language’ teaching is helping and always has helped children to write well.

Michael’s first definition of ‘function’ is the one the DfE seem to advocate for. It is a fine description of ‘formal’ grammar teaching, which research tells us does not help improve children’s writing or their writerly behaviours. Michael’s second definition of function is completely in keeping with how we’ve always understood the term ‘functional’ in a Hallidayan sense – that the function of language is utterly related and connected to the social goals of the writing being produced. This is the side of functional grammar that seems neglected. Michael Halliday states that ‘the mastery of language…is not simply the ability to say what one means; rather, it is the ability to mean’.  This is what ‘function’ really means.

It was because of this realisation that Phil and I produced our Functional Grammar Table a few years ago. It was an attempt to persuade ourselves (and eventually other teachers) to move away from the temptations of teaching grammar in a formal way, which we felt was too far removed from the social decisions apprentice writers consider when using grammar for effect.

After considering grammar, we began reflecting on the same issue but on a genre level. From what we’ve observed, teachers, when teaching a form or genre, will often skip straight to the lexical features of a genre. They will focus on word-level items that might be an indicator of a certain type of writing. Sometimes these teachers will drift into some aspects of stylistics – for example types of sentences or sentence length – but it largely stops there.

Our Genre-Booklets are our attempt to counteract such teaching. Taking a top-down approach to teaching about forms/genres, our booklets start with the typical reasons someone might want to write in a certain form; what purpose the form can serve a writer like themselves; what enjoyment or satisfaction it might bring them and what are the potential audiences for such writing. It’s only after this kind of discussion that we even begin to consider what ‘fields’ (meaning topics/themes) can be placed in such a genre by us as a community of writers. Our focus on the tenor (the relationship between writer and reader) of typical genres touches lightly on Michael’s point about narratology, but certainly on reflection this is something we want to think deeper about and is quite an exciting idea. For example, when reading Michael’s reflections on narratology, it reminded me of a girl I taught last year:

She had many difficulties with writing. She found organising the sheer size of her ideas on the page really hard to do and her sentences were often jumbled and hard to follow. However, one day she asked to read the opening of a personal writing project she was working on and it was fascinating. She had decided to address us directly as a Native-American chief. He was speaking to us from beyond the grave and was reflecting on the events that were about to unfold in the story that followed – introducing the narrator at the end of what I can only really describe as a ‘preface’. This kind of understanding and play with narration – something I had certainly never explicitly taught – was a showstopper for the class when they received it.

Anyway, back to our work with our Genre-Booklets. An often justified criticism of genre-theory and the teaching of it is that it can be restrictive. That’s why we always encourage children to consider genre-hybridising and otherwise investigate and play with the genres they know and turn them on their heads. This includes encouraging intertextuality but also ideas like ‘faction‘, ‘fan fiction‘ and ‘metafiction‘.

 

We invite people to contribute to this discussion, and we thank Michael for extending our thinking – as he always does.

**By Phil Ferguson**

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You can find the article below amongst others in ‘Why Write? Why Read?

Original Article:

How ‘knowledge about language’ for schools could be so much better

By Michael Rosen

 

If you think of language as a whole, then ‘knowledge about language’ is made up of anything and everything that describes language or can explain why and how we use it in the ways that we do.

Over the last few years, ‘knowledge about language’ in the hands of the government, the DfE and Michael Gove has been reduced to ‘grammar’ and ‘grammar’ has been reduced to one model, one form of what ‘grammar’ might be – a so-called ‘structure and function’ model.

This single model of ‘grammar’ (treated as if it’s the only model) and enforced through the Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling test, then holds sway over primary education, and primary aged children.

First, to be clear, there are other models of grammar, which, say,  treat that word ‘function’, not as how words ‘function’ inside sentences (e.g. this noun is the subject of the sentence) but as social functions (e.g. why have so many of us started saying ‘So…’ at the beginning of our utterances).

For some reason, this form of grammar was not the one implemented and enforced.

There is, though, an even more important criticism to make. ‘Knowledge about language’ is a massive subject and can’t be reduced to ‘grammar’ of any kind. Since the time of Aristotle, linguists have tried to examine language, describe it and explain it. Aristotle was particularly interested in the ‘effects’ of particular uses of language and did a damned good job of it. We all know, for example, what ‘catharsis’ is, thanks to him, but he did more than that in his book ‘Poetics’.

Over the last 150 years, a huge amount of work has gone into examining how the many different uses of language work and have created disciplines such as narratology, stylistics, pragmatics and intertextuality. Though these are mostly written about in very academic ways, they can be broken down into very accessible (and enjoyable) ways for children and school students to use. To be clear: these are also ‘knowledge about language’, and because they are tied very closely to ‘language in specific uses’ and not ‘abstract ideals’, they are especially useful in helping children speak and write.

Narratology, for example, enables us to examine how stories (or any kind of writing) are ‘told’: e.g. who narrates? how does the narration change? what kind of narrator is narrating? what devices does the narrator use to ‘talk’ to us?

Narratology can help us look at how the narration enables us to know how characters think. There are several very different devices that have grown up, all the way from ‘she thought’ to the ‘free indirect discourse’ favoured by Jane Austen and many writers of children’s books.

Narratology can help us look at ‘foregrounding’ and ‘point of view’ – how these shift, favouring one or more characters and why?

Narratology is very useful at helping us with time frames which often change via flashback, flash forward and invocations of continuous time or continuous existence.

Stylistics can take us into how texts ‘sound’ (prosody) – showing us how repetition of structure and letter sounds make rhythms in texts.

Stylistics can draw attention to sentence length, sentence complexity or simplicity, how paragraphs are constructed across texts, why and how these change as the need to express different things change.

Stylistics can draw attention to ‘register’ – how informal/formal a text is? How much does it draw on modes of text from which sources – does the writing empty speech modes? Are there deliberate attempts to ‘borrow’ language from specific sources e.g. from a field different from the one in the text, e.g. from science in a novel?

Stylistics can draw attention to which class of words are repeated e.g. many adjectives, many adverbs – or none?

Pragmatics can draw attention to how dialogue is structured and where the narrator dialogues with the audience/readership. Dialogue can be structured in many different ways in fiction and pragmatics can help us make distinctions.

Intertextuality can help us with the matter of ‘borrowing’ that I mentioned earlier. In essence, all writing is borrowing in that it borrows the sounds, structures and meanings that have gone before in order to do whatever it does. However, some borrowings are more obvious than others and/or more significant. This can be at the level of a whole genre e.g. Hamlet as ‘revenge tragedy’ or at the level say of using literary motifs or tropes e.g. ‘the pathetic fallacy’. Or again allusion to writing or speech that comes before (as Dickens does in the opening pages of ‘A Christmas Carol’) and so on.

If the government and the DfE had been really interested in a holistic view of language and ‘knowledge about language’ it would have talked to applied linguists about all this, and then got hold of people who know about pedagogy and asked them to produce materials which applied this ‘knowledge about language’ in age-appropriate ways, using imitation, and practice and investigation as much as description and direct instruction, so that this ‘knowledge about language’ could have been applied directly to helping children write well.

But they didn’t.

The main reason why they didn’t is because the Bew Report of 2011 imposed the SPaG test instead. This was because Michael Gove told them to.

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A Cautionary Blog Post About Using Structure Strips

Please note that this blog-post is not anti structure-strip. As this post and the research that informs it will explain, they can be a highly-effective self-regulatory resource that children can certainly learn and build from!

When reading about writing, you are often faced with one of two extremes. At one end of a continuum is the belief that ‘language,’ including writing, cannot be effectively taught unless it is solely acquired through experiences and by being presented with a situation which causes an authentic reason to write.

At the other end is the idea that language is best learned through tutelage, rote-learning and explicit instruction in its structures, forms and conventions.

As is often the case with extremes, academic research and sensible practitioners suggest a moderate middle ground is required. Language is best learned through a combination of authentic experiences and explicit instruction.

Explicit teaching (in this case explicit teaching of particular text structures through structure-strips) can obviously improve composition of those taught structures. However, aside from text-structure research, structure-strips don’t by themselves account for research into providing authentic literacy activity and teaching children the processes of writing.

These genre ‘norms’ that we teach through the use of structure strips (or indeed through our own Genre-Booklets) we must remember are not actually static but change to reflect changing needs and contexts for writing. Written genre function (so the purpose and audience involved) will always drive the way a written genre is formed, manipulated and potentially hybrid by a writer.

The criticism of such approaches (if used too rigidly) is that they can become overly prescriptive and give children a static vision of genres. We must be careful that this doesn’t result in a return to skill and drill. Where we end up teaching empty genres with overly prescriptive structures which, over time, will block children’s writing development.

Please don’t get us wrong here! We too believe in teaching and making available to children the different forms and structures of the most powerful genres. Like we’ve said, we do so through our Genre-Booklets. We do it as a social justice issue; ensuring that all children have choice and are not limited in their knowledge of the different genres in writing and the different situations in which they can be used out in the real-world. But we simply must provide children with opportunity to use these learnt structures for their own reasons too. Once taught, children should be allowed to do two things with this new found genre/structure knowledge:

  1. Input their own writing topics into them; using them for themselves in their personal writing projects.
  2. Have opportunity to experiment with manipulating, deliberately contradicting and potentially hybriding these otherwise static structures.

‘Authentic writing activities are essential to genre learning.’ (Purcell-Gates, Duke & Martineau, 2007, p.12)

Even advocates of explicit teaching of writing agree that having the opportunity to write authentically is critical. Delpit (1988), a staunch advocate of explicit teaching of writing, argues that:

Merely adopting direct instruction is not the answer. Actual writing for real audiences and real purposes is a vital element in helping students to understand that they have an important voice in their own learning processes. (p. 289)

New London Group (1996) also state: ‘if one of our pedagogical goals is mastery of [writing] practice, then immersion in …authentic versions of such practice is necessary. (p. 84)

Children write effectively when they are afforded high levels of autonomy and agency in terms of topic choice alongside explicit teaching of genre features and structures (Purcell-Gates, Duke & Martineau, 2007).

What’s most important here though is Purcell-Gates, Duke & Martineau’s (2007) statement that learning structures and genres in a decontextualized and ‘school-only’ manner is not helpful. In fact, under these conditions, children develop the least.

When you look at research into effective writing instruction, instruction of genre function and structures should be combined with teaching writing process strategies.

In conclusion, explicit explanation of genre purpose and structures combined with teaching children the different processes involved in writing married with plenty of opportunity for children to authentic write in those genres constitutes the most effective writing instruction.

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

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This article is written with the intention to inform and provide interested parties with the opportunity for reflection. All approaches to the teaching of writing come with their own advantages and disadvantages. Being aware of certain limitations in some pedagogies is not to dismiss certain practices in schools nor those employed by teachers. Rather, this article is only looking to seek a clearer definition of the circumstances in which learning to write is likely to arise in classrooms.

**Please note that the views expressed on this blog are informed by educational research and writings but may not represent our employer.**

References:

  • Purcell-Gates, V.,  Duke, N., & Martineau, J., (2007) Learning to read and write genre-specific text: Roles of authentic experience and explicit teaching In Reading Research Quarterly Vol. 42, No. 1
  • Delpit, L., (1988). The silenced dialogue: Power and pedagogy in educating other people’s children. Harvard Educational Review, 58, 280–298.
  • New London Group,. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66, 60–92.

What The EEF’s ‘Improving Literacy in Key Stage Two’ Report Tells Us About Teaching Writing Effectively.

What The Education Endowment Fund’s ‘Improving Literacy in Key Stage Two‘ Report Tells Us About Teaching Writing Effectively. 

Here is a brief outline of the key messages from the Education Endowment Fund’s summary on effective writing at Key Stage Two. The summary produced by the EEF uses a number of meta-analysis based research papers to draw its conclusions. It says:

Reading For Writing

  • Children listening to texts being read aloud is important to both reading and writing development.
  • Children being given time to discuss the books they are reading with others is valuable.
  • Children should have freely available a wide-range of texts to read from.

Teaching The Writing Process

  1. The writing process should be explicitly taught using the ‘gradual release of responsibility’ otherwise known as the ‘repeated practice’ or ‘self-regulated strategy instruction’ model.
  2. Children need regular practice at writing and the writing process to become successful!
  3. To achieve this level of practice children need to be kept motivated and fully engaged in wanting to improve their writing.
  4. Teachers need to be on hand, providing feedback to help pupils focus their effort appropriately.
  5. Schools should focus first on developing core classroom teaching strategies that improve the literacy capabilities of the whole class. With this in place, the need for additional support should decrease.

Teaching Through Genre Topics

Generating Ideas And Planning

  • Children talking through their text with a partner before and during their writing will improve writing outcomes.

Vomit Drafting

  1. Although accurate spelling, grammar and handwriting are important, at this stage they are not the main focus. If these aspects mistakenly become the focus at the drafting stage,  writing becomes slow and effortful and therefore hinders progress in writing composition.
  2. Encouraging children to continuously re-read their texts as they write them can improve writing outcomes.

Revision & Editing

  • Revising should be encouraged and ‘it should be accepted that work may become messy but that at this stage the audience will be limited’. 
  • When editing, spelling and grammar assume greater importance, pupils will need to recognise that their work will need to be accurate if readers are to engage with it and extract the intended information from it.

Publishing

**By Phil Ferguson*

References:

Education Endowment Fund (2017) Improving Literacy In Key Stage Two EEF: London

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)