From The Victorian To Gove To Greening: How Far Has The English Curriculum Really Come?

From The Victorian To Gove To Greening: How Far Has The English Curriculum Really Come?

“We must not delay! Upon the speedy provision of elementary education depends our industrial prosperity. It is of no use trying to give technical teaching to our artizans without elementary education….If we leave our workfolk any longer unskilled, notwithstanding their strong sinews and determined energy, they will become over-matched in the competition of the world. If we are to hold our position among men of our own race or among the nations of the world we must make up the smallness of our numbers by increasing the intellectual force of the individual.”

In 1870, an Education Act was passed which paved the way for the achievement by the end of the century of compulsory free state education for children between the ages of five and thirteen. The driving force behind the Act was clearly articulated above by W.E. Forster in his speech to the House in February of that year. The education of the masses came also to be seen as a possible and desirable solution to problems of social unrest and rising crime, and to carry the important function of socialization, to be achieved through the inculcation of such moral values as piety, honesty, industry and, significantly, obedience. These principles are surely held good in schools today, though promoted in a different vocabulary.

What has changed, and what remains the same? It’s hardly necessary to point to the similarity between the annual testing carried out by the Victorian inspectorate to enable children to progress through a series of narrowly defined Standards in literacy and numeracy, and today’s high-stakes SATS testing, in both cases linked to payment by results and indicative of political control. This blog post will focus on the state of literacy teaching in the newly established Board Schools of the 1870s, and what primary schools are directed to do in this field a century and a half later.

There is no doubt that the literacy curriculum at the beginning of the 1870s was essentially utilitarian and limited, as defined by the Revised Code of 1861. The Code had set up benchmarks in reading which are depressingly reductionist in nature.

  • Standard 2: Read a short paragraph from an elementary reading book.
  • Standard 4: Read a few lines of poetry or prose (chosen by the Inspector)
  • Standard 5: Read a short paragraph in a newspaper or other modern narrative.
  • Standard 6: Read with fluency and expression.

However, as the decade progressed, the Inspectorate began to complain about the mechanical nature of children’s reading (the legacy of payment by results), and so the Standards were modified to include the phrase ‘read with intelligence’. What I found surprising is that, in a popular series of reading textbooks called the’ Royal Readers’, written for a highly specific audience, mention is made of reading for pleasure:

The lessons are designed so to interest young people as to induce them to read, not as task-work merely, but for the pleasure of the thing. The pieces are calculated to allure the children to read, and to make them delight in the power of reading.

The use of the word ‘allure’ is significant here, and demonstrates a degree of awareness absent from the updated National Curriculum of 2014, which refers (for the first time in its history) to reading for pleasure, but states that it should be taught. How do you teach children to enjoy reading? Creating the conditions for children to realise the ‘allure’ and ‘delight’ of reading is far more to the point. And that is best achieved through the kind of reciprocal relationships which can be established between pupils as readers and teachers as readers themselves, described in ‘Building Communities of Engaged Readers’ (Cremin et al, 2014).

You can read our article on creating a Reading for Pleasure pedagogy here. Incidentally, the requirement in the National Curriculum that children should read ‘fluently and with confidence’ by the end of KS2 ‘in preparation for reading in secondary school subjects’  is very close linguistically to the reductionist Standard 6 quoted above. One might also draw attention to the fact that the Reading Programme of Study for 2014 identifies only two ‘dimensions’ of reading –  comprehension and word-reading.

It is worth mentioning here an article in the Guardian by Michael Rosen, in which he expresses concern that reading “has come to mean something narrow and functional, no more than evidence that a child can read”.  He points to the SATS as “producing a way of reading that is dominated by the ‘facts’ of a piece of writing and knowing the ‘right ’order of events in a story”. Some classroom materials which purport to ‘teach’ and ‘test’ reading comprehension surely contribute to this effect. They use as their tools short extracts or excerpts, albeit from well-known stories, which may well not give encouragement to the reading of whole books. The reading anthologies of the 1870s used widely in Board schools are comprised precisely of such extracts, and are sometimes similarly followed by questions to ascertain the extent of comprehension.   

The Standards for writing in 1870 are equally pared-down and are directed towards what might be strictly useful to the young working-class male, such as, perhaps, composing a letter of application for employment:

  • Standard 1: Copy in manuscript character a line of print; write a few dictated words.
  • Standard 2 : A sentence from an elementary reading book, slowly read once and then dictated in single words.
  • Standard 5: A short paragraph from a newspaper…slowly dictated once, a few words at a time.
  • Standard 6: A short theme or letter, or an easy paraphrase.

The criteria for assessment included correct spelling and punctuation, exemplary handwriting and a demonstration of some knowledge of grammatical terms. My own grandmother, a later beneficiary of the 1870 Act, recalled ‘parsing ‘ in her lessons – the ‘taking apart’ of a sentence and the naming of the constituent parts. The emphasis of the literacy lessons was on transcription, grammatical terminology and a simplistic description of grammatical functions. Despite there being no research to support the view that this kind of formal, terminology-driven teaching of grammar has a positive impact on the quality of children’s writing, and with some research claiming it has a negative impact (Graham & Perin, 2007), the English curriculum of today demonstrates a marked similarity to nineteenth century thinking. In connection with the focus on transcription in the modern curriculum, in 1967 John Dixon made the point, so resonant of today’s practice, that ‘a sense of the social system of writing has so inhibited and overawed many teachers that they have never given a pupil the feeling that what he writes is his own’. Original composition did not feature at all in the Board School conception of writing. It doesn’t feature in today’s  National Curriculum either. Generating an original idea gets no mention at all. In the Programmes of Study for Key Stage 2, transcription takes precedence over composition, and the teacher’s main job is to “consolidate writing skills, vocabulary, grasp of sentence structure and knowledge of linguistic terminology” and to insist on joined cursive handwriting.

Within the context of Empire in the late 19th century, roles needed to be defined for all levels of society. Cecil Reddie, headmaster of Abbotsholme (public) School, linked them to the objectives of  a class-based three-level education system. There should be, he asserted,

  1. The school for the Briton who will be one of the muscle-workers…
  2. The school for the Briton whose work requires knowledge of the modern world…
  3. The school for the Briton who… is to be a leader…’.

We can discern strong elements of this structure alive today, in both our cultural and political life. The authoritarian class-based stance typical of the Victorian educators is still very much in evidence in our own time, as the observations in the next paragraph will show.

In the area of school literacy in 1870, the prevailing belief was that working-class children were not able to comprehend ‘literature’, hence the absence from school textbooks of the work of established writers of fiction. Dickens, one of the most popular writers of the time, is not included in the’ Royal Readers’, even in extract form. Perhaps he was considered subversive by the editors of the series because of his championing of the poor? Thus, these school-children were effectively denied a place at the literature table. In our blog ‘They won’t have anything to write about’, which we recommend you to read here, we reveal similar assumptions about class in our own day and age. We believe that those children deemed to be at a social and cultural disadvantage are more likely than others to be deprived of the chance to choose their own writing topics and have them validated as legitimate subjects for writing in school. By denying the validity of the cultural reference points of these twenty-first century children and assigning to them teacher-chosen subjects for writing, we as teachers effectively withhold from them, now and in the future, the possibility of having the agency and empowerment to express their own concerns, passions and preoccupations, and of making changes for themselves and others through the writing of their own texts. We as teachers are also under-valuing the importance of children’s own lives and experiences. This is morally and socially dangerous. Current pedagogy is producing writers as consumers (or at best imitators) of other people’s ideas, when we as teachers should really be producing a generation of writers of original content who come to realise early on that they have a  writing voice and a script of their own and how to use it. That we are not doing this is part of an ideology of the teacher as the controller and regulator of production. It is the main indicator that we have not, in one hundred and fifty years, come anything like as far in our thinking about the function of writing and reading in school (and after) as we would like to believe.

**By Phil Ferguson**

References

  • Cremin,T., Mottram, M., Collins, F.M., Powell, S., Safford, K., (2014) Building Communities of Engaged Readers, London: Routledge.
  • Dixon, J.(1969) Growth through English, NATE,Oxford.
  • Ferguson, F. (2005) Learning to Know their Place, M.A. dissertation, pub.in Children’s Literature in Education, Sept. 2006, Vol.37, No.3.
  • Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007) Writing Next: Effective Strategies To Improve Writing Of Adolescents In Middle School & High Schools Alliance For Excellent Education
  • Loane, G., (2010, revised 2017) Developing Young Writers in the Classroom, Routledge.
  • Rosen, M., (2008)  Death of the Bookworm, guardian.co.uk, 16th September 2008.
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They Won’t Have Anything To Write About: The Dangers Of Believing Pupils Are ‘Culturally Deprived’.

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

We can’t give children rich lives, but we can give them the lens to appreciate the richness that is already there – Lucy Calkins (1991)

As teachers, our job is to help children claim more control over their own lives. One of the ways people most lack control over their own lives is through lacking control over words. Especially written words. – Peter Elbow (1998)

Think about it. Is there any lower expectation than thinking children will have nothing to write about?

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 (Dyson, 2003; Grainger et al, 2003). 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 (Dyson, 2003; Grainger et al, 2003). I often wonder how these teachers come to know these features of children’s home lives? According o research (Grainger et al 2003, 2005, Fisher, 2006), 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 is 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.

When we assign topics we create a welfare system, putting children, our students on to writers’ welfare – Donald Graves (1982)

To diminish the potential for individual meaningfulness in students’ work is a denial of their basic humanity – Willinsky (1990)

To not affirm and respect student voices is both morally wrong, because it disparages who students are and what they know, and strategically a mistake, because students will resist becoming active partners in teaching and learning. – Lensmire (2000)

Writing assignments without a background of discussion and shared experience are unlikely to elicit much response from many children. – Dixon (1966)

Research findings indicate that composition is impaired if a writer lacks sufficient background knowledge about topics and ideas. – Heller (1999)

Youngsters, supposedly verbally deprived, are expert story-tellers Labov (1972 cited in Rosen 1985)

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). Research also suggests that even pre-schoolers have the ability to choose their own writing topics with ease (Dyson, 2003, Krees, 1997) and only lose it once it has been extinguished by the dominant writing pedagogies used in schools.

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 (Dyson, 2003, Grainger et al, 2003). 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 (Grainger et al 2003). 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 et al 2003, 2005, Fisher, 2006, 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. It’s artificial writing. For example, 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).

In his review of 100 years of literacy research, Hillocks (2011) forcefully stated, “We know from a very wide variety of studies in English and out of it, that students who are authentically engaged with the tasks of their learning are likely to learn much more than those who are not” (p. 189).

Bodies of knowledge – about life, about books, about words – are among the products of their work. It is possible to regard these bodies of knowledge as the ‘content’ for a writing lesson – though not everyone would be happy with this view (John Dixon, p.74)

The children are often happy because they know no different, and this enjoyment seems to validate the teacher’s choice of  choosing and controlling the artificial writing stimulus. The use of artificial writing 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 (Dyson, 2003, 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.

You either learn your way towards writing your own script in life, or you unwittingly become an actor in someone else’s script. – John Taylor Gatto

There is always the danger of a closed, behaviourist solution. By the teacher giving the writing topic as well as the general or specific expressions that should be used, children may learn at once a style of seeing and feeling. And the writing will for a time appear good to us (the teachers), though somehow less varied and personal. There is a sense of limitation, falseness, a restrictiveness that all of us who care for imaginative and life-long uses of the written language must be concerned about (Dixon, 1966).

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. A significant factor in school genre teaching is that they emphasize a power relationship
between the teacher and the writer, with the teacher:

  • Knowing the conventions of the genre,
  • Often acting as the determiner of the title and content,
  • Being the arbiter of the finished piece of writing.

We believe in making available the conventions of a genre and providing substantial time for children to engage and practice these genres through the use of our use of Genre-Booklets.

By providing the children with the Genre tools, teaching them how they can use their cultural reference points and by giving them extended and regular periods in which to practise the writing of them means that children whose home background hasn’t socioculturally prepared them for production of these written genres are not at a disadvantage (Myhill, 2005).

‘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)

It’s about teaching 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 – for now and for their futures.

Gerald Gregory, for example, in 1984 described the emergence of a small ‘community publishing’ movement among working class groups in Britain who have taken up the writing, editing and publishing of voices otherwise unheard. Although there is just as great a temptation to romanticise the writing of workers as there is with apprentice writers, Gregory speaks of the factors that motivate this writing and publishing as deeply felt and highly communal:

“Passionate conviction about the intrinsic value of working-class culture, especially those solitaries that underpin its outstanding and unique achievements (e.g. trade union, political and mutual help associations); a determined refusal to stay marginalised; indignation and impatience at being represented, misrepresented, patronised and abused by outsiders; these have fulled the drive to write rather than be written about (or not), publish rather than be published (or not) and, increasingly, to theorise rather than be theorised” – Gregory (1984, pp.222-23)

Finally then, through our Real-World 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.

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**Please note that the views expressed on this blog are our own and may not represent our employer.**

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
    • Dixon, J., (1967) Growth Through English Oxford University Press: London
    • Dockrell, J., Marshell, C., Wyse, D., (2015) Teacher’reported practices for teaching writing in England In Read Write 29:409-434
    • Dyson, A., (2003) Popular Literacies and the ‘all’ children: rethinking literacy development for contemport childhoods Language Arts 81:100-9
    • Edelsky, C. (2006) With Literacy and Justice for All: Rethinking the Social in
      Language and Education (3rd edition). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence
      Erlbaum.
    • Fisher, T., (2006) Whose writing is it anyway? Issues of control in the teaching of writing. Cambridge Journal Of Education 36(2):193-206
    • 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, G., (1984) Community publishing working class writing in context In Changing English: Essays for Harold Rosen London: Heinemann
    • 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.
    • Grainger, T., Goouch, K., Lambirth, A., (2003) Playing the game called writing: children’s views and voices. English in Education, 37(2):4-15
    • Grainger, T., Goouch, K., Lambirth, A., (2005) Creativity and Writing: developing voice and verse in the classroom London: Routledge.
    • 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
    • Kress, G., (1997) Before Writing: Rethinking the Paths to Literacy London: Routledge
    • 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.
    • Lensmire, T., (2000) Powerful Writing: Responsible Teaching Columbia University
    • 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
    • Myhill, D., (2005) Testing times: the impact of prior knowledge on written genres produced in examination settings In Assessment in Education
      Vol. 12, No. 3, November 2005, pp. 289–300
    • 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]
    • Willinksy, J., (1990) New Literacy: Redefining Reading and Writing in Schools London: Routledge

Children Writing Memoir : A Great Literacy Topic.

As you may have read here, this half term we focused on the teaching of memoir.

In our first week we discussed the genre using our genre-booklets and this created a buzz for the rest of the project. Focusing on the genre and why people write memoir allowed the generating of ideas to happen fairly quickly.

We used around three techniques for generating memoir ideas. These included:

  1. Questions for memoirists – Children answer questions to jog their memories for potential memoir ideas (see our article about memoir writing).
  2. 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.
  3. Creating an Ideas Heart and allow children to add to it throughout the year.This includes: What makes me happy, angry, scared or upsetlists.

The children are well aware of these techniques which published authors often use to generate original writing ideas.

Here are some of the topics the children chose to write about:

  • Meeting a new pet for the first time,
  • Moments from holidays,
  • The birth of siblings,
  • Learning to do something new for the first time,
  • The death of a loved one – including pets,
  • Family separations,
  • Meeting distant relatives for the first time,
  • Special times spent with family,
  • Meeting a hero,
  • Taking part in sporting competitions,
  • Injuries!

Because we asked children to focus on just a small moment in time – what we call a ‘pebble moment’ (taken from Nancie Atwell’s book In The Middle) the drafting of these pieces came very quickly for the children. We suspect that this was also due to the fact that the children were writing on a topic in which they felt an expert. 

Our writing-study lessons were a real success. We focused on how the children can use narrative devices to improve their memoirs. During the revision stage, we again used the genre-booklets and the children looked for opportunities to explore in more detail the following:

  • Strong openings,
  • Setting description,
  • Character development,
  • Poetic and figurative language to describe,
  • Interesting endings which carry a message for the reader.

Again, we believe the children were able to take on this kind of linguistic burden due to the fact they were writing about a topic they were sure of. They could see where, when and how to use these devices in their pieces to good effect.

Our functional-grammar study was based on the use of time-openers and paragraphing as a means to move time forward and expanded-noun phrases to provide additional details for the reader.

Below, we are pleased to share a variety of different memoirs from across the year group. These were produce by children in year 5 (9-10 years old).

If you have liked what you have read here and would like to read more about our approach to writing which we call ‘Real-Word Literacy’, you can follow the link here. If you’d like to view our Genre-Booklets, you can follow this link.

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

 

Why The Over Use Of Writing Stimuli & Book Planning Could Be Damaging Children’s Writing Potential.

I should start out by stating quite clearly that this is not an article advocating for the removal of all stimuli or book inspired writing tasks from classrooms. I myself use them. However, this article looks to reflect on what contemporary writing and research is telling us about these dominant writing practices.

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

‘Children want to write’.

In this post, I want to suggest, through use of research findings, that the provision by teachers of cross-curricular ‘topics’ or ‘writing stimuli’ for writing in schools could be inhibiting children’s desire to write. As a result, this may effect the quality of their writing too. Is it the case that too few children are realising that they can do more with writing than simply imitate or produce ‘writing to order’? Is there another way of offering topic choice which can redress this?

“Ideally, no pupil should be given a writing task which does not yield them enough fruit in their own terms, so that they can feel it is worth doing” – John Dixon (p.78)

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

  • Video or films,
  • Whole-class literature study, 
  • Talk-For-Writing (read our article about Talk For Writing here),
  • Pictures or excerpts from non-fiction texts.

“Children can write letters to the man on the moon. They can write a diary of the classroom hamster. They can write warning notices designed for sites of nuclear waste. The outcomes from such tasks may look effective and may provide useful practice in following conventions. Nevertheless, without the use of an underlying rationale and some attention to other aspects… such writing may only have short-term value.” – Roger Beard (2000).

Calkins (1998) describes the outcome when real reasons for writing are ignored:

After detouring around the authentic, human reasons for writing, we bury the students’ urge to write all the more with boxes, kits, and manuals full of synthetic writing stimulants. At best, they produce artificial and short-lived sputters of enthusiasm, which then fade away, leaving passivity… (p. 4)

Children are then expected to respond to these stimuli. There is obviously benefits to such approaches. However, if used too often, are children’s own desires not being realised? Do children learn they are only ever to be consumers of writing as opposed to authentic producers? Is it tough for children to find intrinsic motivation to grow as a writer when given too readily a series of arbitrary, inauthentic writing assignments?

According to The National Literacy Trust’s work (2017), this may well be the case particularly when a child asks ‘How much do I need to write’ or ‘How many sentences does it have to be’ or ‘I’ve finished!’. Do we know they have not been inspired to do the best writing they could do?

Incidentally, according to Jacobson (2010), writing stimuli tend to inspire ‘list writing’. She states that this is because we often ask children to write on demand. When children are asked to write on a topic they have just been presented with, where their funds of knowledge are low, they tend to brainstorm on the paper all that has been made available on the topic by the teacher. This list of everything that came to mind finds itself in the writing. Jacobson alludes that this will often result in a poor piece of writing which lacks organisation or quality detail. I guess a prompt will either interest a child or it won’t and the quality of writing will always reflect this. Another issue with prompts is that often we as teachers think them up and never actually try them out for ourselves…

The reality is that when children care about what they write, they bring an energy and will to the writing. They want it to succeed.

“When we assign topics we create a welfare system, putting children, our students on to writers’ welfare” – Donald Graves (1982)

“Bodies of knowledge – about life, about books, about words – are among the products of their work. It is possible to regard these bodies of knowledge as the ‘content’ for a writing lesson – though not everyone would be happy with this view” – John Dixon

An arbitrarily assigned topic, with an error-hunting teacher as the sole audience, may do little for the writer, whereas a topic the writers cares about and an audience responsive to what the writer has to say are the essential ingredients for a profitable experience” – Bereiter & Scardamalia (1986)

‘Children resent the imposition of having to write on preselected or teacher-selected topics about which they are not familiar or interested. While some teachers use “story starters’’ or ’’creative writing topics’’ as imaginative ploys to motivate students to begin writing, when used too often, children can begin to rely on their teachers for topics.’ Hoewisch (2001)

Research findings indicate that composition is impaired if a writer lacks sufficient background knowledge about topics and ideas. – Heller (1999)

Maybe this is why The Literacy Trust has recently stated that children’s attitudes towards writing is stagnating and that fewer children are writing at home or for pleasure? It’s well known that even very young children will ‘write’ spontaneously and readily about things which have made an impression on them in their daily lives. So how and why is it that we as teachers feel responsible for providing older children with a stimulus in which to write (inauthentically)?

To diminish the potential for individual meaningfulness in students’ work is a denial of their basic humanity – Willinsky (1990)

Writing tasks set by any teacher (including myself) are very often derived from the foundation subjects such as history or geography, and are thus termed ‘cross-curricular’ topics. What is the rationale for our thinking here? Is it simply to provide children with a subject on which to hang ‘practising writing’ in a particular genre – in effect, a form of writing exercise? It is possible that we as teachers see cross-curricular writing as an opportunity for children to show their understanding of a geographical location or an historical event(s). Maybe we see it as an opportunity for pupils to express a feeling of empathy for a character caught up in a particular moment in history, or simply a way to cram extra foundation subject work into the timetable? Unfortunately though, as a teacher who specialised in History & Geography before gaining an MA in Education with Linguistics,  when I plan these lessons, they produce neither a decent historical/geographical piece of writing nor a good literary one. This is because I’m effectively asking children to make an imaginative leap into someone else’s psyche or produce writing on the basis of a new and often very limited ‘fund of knowledge’. On top of this, I often have them negotiate this new found knowledge further through literary requirements such as noun phrases, relative clauses, the subjunctive mood, the passive voice and fronted adverbials. Now, a few children will occasionally be inspired by these topics; fewer will be able to produce a satisfying piece of writing. The reality is that all too often you receive a collection of stilted, inauthentic and depressingly similar pieces.

To not affirm and respect student voices is both morally wrong, because it disparages who students are and what they know, and strategically a mistake, because students will resist becoming active partners in teaching and learning. – Lensmire (2000)

‘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)

Should the curriculum address the fact that children should be taught how to generate their own ideas for writing? If we don’t, would we be inadvertently training children in to be dependent rather than independent writers? Writing prompts, story starters and stimuli are just a few ways we communicate to children that they might not be capable of writing and thinking on their own. According to Jacobson (2010), stimuli are also incredibly inefficient ways of getting children to write. They waste valuable writing time.

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

A Facebook post from a reader of this post said:

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

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

Writing assignments without a background of discussion and shared experience are unlikely to elicit much response from many children – John Dixon (1966)

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

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

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

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

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

In his review of 100 years of literacy research, Hillocks (2011) forcefully stated:

We know from a very wide variety of studies in English and out of it, that students who are authentically engaged with the tasks of their learning are likely to learn much more than those who are not” -John Hillocks

“Effects [are] most positive when the teacher gears the level of work to pupils’ needs but not where all pupils worked individually on exactly the same piece of writing” – Roger Beard (2000)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because teachers are faced with the challenging task of balancing the demands of national standards and high-stakes writing exercises, authenticity should be a primary consideration when developing writing instruction. One reason to focus on authenticity even within the context of high-stakes accountability is because overly structured, teacher-directed writing instruction that constrains student expression are not supported by research on effective writing practices. Research has established that a process approach is the superior method to increase writing achievement (Cremin, 2011, DCSF, 2009, DfE, 2012, Education Endowment Fund, 2017, Graham & Perin, 2007, Ofsted, 2009, 2011, Writing Is Primary, 2009). It has been recognised too the pupils write more effectively if they have chosen an authentic context and have a clear purpose in their own minds (Beard, 2000). Therefore, writing instruction that neglects students’ personal, global, and community funds of knowledge related to writing has been shown to decrease student motivation and interest in writing (Au & Gourd, 2013; Dyson & Freedman, 2003; Ketter & Pool, 2001; Watanabe, 2007) with The National Literacy Trust (2017) linking motivation to write with writing achievement in the clearest terms. Children are seven times more likely to attain academic expectations in writing if they are motivated. It is clear then that motivation is the clearest way towards writing achievement and the biggest motivator is agency in topic choice.  

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

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