Our 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.

 

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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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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.

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. 

**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]