What Is Writing? Why Do We Write?

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

– Frank Smith

Writing is the meeting point of experiences, language and society. It is intimately bound up in an individual’s intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual growth. Such patterns are complex draw on several disciplines (including psychology and sociology) (John Dixon, p.85)

Teachers all have different philosophies on what constitutes writing and therefore will respond differently to: children’s writing, organising instruction and representing children’s development accordingly. Here are some common and influential views on what writing is and why we do it.

  1. Frank Smith (1982) says ‘writing touches every part of our lives‘.
  • One of the first reasons we write is because it is a tool for communication in culture. It gives us the ability to share information over time and space with multiple individuals (explaining, recounting & opinion).
  • It can also be used as a permanent record or as a statement e.g. in history, geography  & science genres.
  • The third cultural aspect for writing is artistry (narrative and poetry).
  • Finally, there is also the personal aspect to writing. Writing allows us all to reflect, express our perceptions of self, to socially dream or to be critical (memoir, diary, recount).

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

  1. Ivanic, in Writing & Identity (1998), states that writing is related to:
  • Writing about yourself (for yourself and others),
  • Writing so as to position yourself within an audience,
  • Writing just for yourself,
  • Realising who you are through writing.
  1. Gee (2004) points out that, in literacy, what is important is not merely language, and surely not grammar, but writing the ‘doing-being-valuing-believing combinations‘ which he called discourses. Discourses are the rules and standards of reason that organise:
  • Perceptions,
  • Ways of responding to the world,
  • The conceptions of ‘self, “

4. Kress (1997) & Dyson (1993, 2003) include representations such as:

  • Drawing,
  • Oral storytelling,
  • Model making,

An approach described as the “multimodal perspective”. Children come to writing and composing using an ensemble of resources that they then combine in written and oral forms.

5. Ruth Finnegan (1986, 2002) has looked at communication of all kinds, drawing on the broader conceptions of literacy and language of a variety of cultural groups and thereby questioning dominant literacy and linguistic cultural assumptions.

6. Ingold (2007) has taken writing quite out of the realm of schooled literacies by widening out the lens to things like:

  • Explorations,
  • Looking at lines,
  • Music notation and other entangled forms of inscription.

Included within that was writing within the tangled knitting on boats, within treaded lines on a footpath and within map making and drawn images.

7. Digital Literacy is communicating in digital environments. Digital literacy can include: technical-procedural, cognitive and emotional-social skills. For example:

  • Using a computer program as procedural skill (handling files and editing visuals) and cognitive skills (the ability to read visual messages like GIFs and emojis).
  • Data retrieval on the Internet (working with search engines, evaluating data, sorting out false and biased data, and distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant data).
  • Effective communication on social media platforms and blogs is conceived of as requiring the utilisation of certain social and emotional skills within writing.

7. Fairclough (1989) talks about writing being a tool for the production, maintenance and change of social relations and of power. Writing contributes to the domination of some people by others. Teaching this, according to Fairclough, is the first step to emancipation.

8. Martin & Rose (2008) define writing as the negotiating of different types of ‘meaning’ realised through language and the ways in which these meanings are typically written. They are focused on the genres of writing and the patterns that can appear in them. Learning these patterns gives you access to different types of writing and therefore different opportunities.

The National Curriculum (2013) has this to say about writing:

  • Children write so that they can communicate their ideas and emotions to others.
  • Writing is developed through spoken language and reading.
  • Pupils who do not have opportunity to write fluently and confidently are effectively disenfranchised.
  • Pupils need to understand grammar and linguistic conventions for writing (2013:3)
  • It is essential that teaching develops pupils’ competence in the two dimensions (composition and transcription). In addition, pupils should be taught how to plan, revise and [edit] their writing (DfE, 2013:5).

If you have time, you may want to read our article: What If Almost Everything We Thought About The Teaching Of Writing Was Wrong?

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

References:

  • Dyson, A.H. (1993). Social worlds of children learning to write in an urban primary school. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Dyson, A.H. (2003). The brothers and sisters learn to write: Popular literacies in childhood and school cultures. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Finnegan, R. (1986). The oral and the written: Doing things with words in Africa. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Finnegan, R. (2002). Communication. London: Routledge.
  • Flairclough, N., (1989) Language & Power Longman Group: Essex
  • Gee, J. K. (2004) Situated Language and Learning London: Routledge
  • Ingold, T. (2007). Lines: A brief history. London: Routledge.
  • Ivanic, R., (1998) Writing & Identity Lonson: John Benjamins Publishing Company
  • Kress, G. (1997). Before writing: Rethinking the paths to literacy. London: Routledge.
  • Martin & Rose (2008) Genre Relations London: Equinox
  • Smith, F., (1982) Writing And The Writer HEB: New York
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The Sea Of Writing Ideas: 10 Ways We Got Children Choosing Their Own Topics.

The Sea Of Writing Ideas

Writing ideas.

When you write, ideas crazily spill from your head, tumble down your arm, into your pen and out along the crisp, white page. To us, the only way to see ideas is scribbling them down – but ideas are more than just words on a page.They are colourful, squirming, squiggly things that slide and slip through the nooks and crannies of your brain. Some of them crash against the walls of your head in roaring waves. Others come more slowly – each droplet of water a letter. 

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

– Year 5 Child.

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

So, as part of our writing pedagogy Real-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.

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

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

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

You as teacher-writer should share your own Ideas Heart with the class. How you approach idea-generation should also be discussed during Writing Study sessions. This is discussed in a lot more detail in our Real-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.

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

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

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

    • Bearne, E., Marsh, J., (2007) Literacy & Social Inclusion London: Trentham Books
    • Bernstein, B. (1996) Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity, London, Taylor and Francis.
    • Canagarajah, S. (2004) ‘Subversive identities, pedagogical safe houses and critical learning’ in Norton, B. and Toohey, K. (eds) Critical Pedagogies and Language Learning, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
    • Cremin, T., (2011) Writing Voices: Creating Communities Of Writers London: Routledge
    • Feiler, L., et al (2007) Improving Primary Literacy: Linking Home & School London: Routledge
    • Flint, A. S., & Laman, T. T. (2012). Where Poems Hide: Finding Reflective, Critical Spaces Inside Writing Workshop In Theory Into Practice, 51(1), 12-19.
    • Gonzalez, N., Moll, L. & Amanti, C. (eds) (2005) Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classroom, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
    • Graham, L., Johnson, A., (2012) Children’s Writing Journals London: UKLA
    • Graham, S., Berninger, V., & Fan, W. (2007). The structural relationship between writing attitude and writing achievement in first and third grade students In Contemporary Educational Psychology, 32(3), 516-536
    • Gregory, E., Arju, T., Jessel, J., Kenner, C. and Ruby, M. (2007) ‘Snow White in different guises: interlingual and intercultural exchanges between grandparents and young children at home in East London’, Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, vol. 7, no. 5, pp. 5–25.
    • Guerra, J. C. (2008). Cultivating transcultural citizenship: A writing across communities model In Language Arts, 85(4), 296–304.
    • Gutiérrez, K. (2008) ‘Developing a sociocritical literacy in the Third Space’, Reading Research Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 148–64.
    • Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
    • Maybin. J. (2006) Children’s Voices: Talk, Knowledge & Identity London: Palgrave
    • Morpurgo, M., (2016) Such Stuff: A Story-Makers Inspiration London: Walker
    • Rosen, M., (2016) What is poetry? The essential guide to reading and writing poetry. London: Walker Books
    • Smith, Clint. (2016) The danger of silence Available Online: [http://www.ted.com/talks/clint_smith_the_danger_of_silence#t-242155]