Time For Reflection: The Major Approaches Teachers Take To Teaching Writing & Their Limitations.

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. It should also be said that these advantages and disadvantages depend on what it is that is being measured.

In his book Growth Through English, John Dixon (1967) discusses the three common ‘types’ of writing teaching: skills, book planning/novel study and personal and community growth. 

1.Skills

A skills approach to teaching writing focuses on the learning of:

  • correct spelling,
  • cursive handwriting,
  • vocabulary,
  • correct grammar usage,
  • comprehending the use of longer and more complex sentence structures.

What Britton found in his research (1975) was that this type of writing made up 63% of the total writing undertaken by children in schools. We may recognise this as matching the current requirements of the National Curriculum – where there is a huge emphasis on transcription. You may of course find this ironic when you consider the argument for more skills is usually so that children can communicate better for unimpeded sharing. The teacher will give out writing assignments and tasks, ‘correct’ the class’ work and organise recurrent skills tests for grammar and spelling. The class will be disciplined in carrying out the exact task set by the teacher, and to work on whatever aspects they have ‘failed’ in the last time.

Limitations Of Such An Approach

  • The main limitation of the skills approach is not so much what it focuses on but rather the vast amount is chooses to ignore.
  • Whenever the so-called skill elements of language are divorced from the rest of writing learning (like composition, purpose, audience, agency, writing voice, identity-building), the means simply become the ends.
  • It invites teachers to make children produce writing along the lines of ‘drill’ exercises.

2. Book Planning / Novel Study

According to Dixon, this approach is some people’s response to the skills agenda and again Britton (1975) found that 18% of the total writing undertaken by students was in keeping with this type of writing. It looks to fill the vacuum left by the skills model. The concept is that teachers can be the gatekeepers of what is best in terms of literature and hand this down to a generation. They see that these ‘supposed’ great writers or great books for ‘topic’ offer a variety of models on which pupils’ writing could be hung. However, Dixon argues that this turns language into a one-way process: pupils are readers, receivers of the ‘master’s voice’. He asked how does such activity like novel study relate to the stream of public interaction through writing in which we are all involved every day? Can we agree then that this has in the past (and present) misled practitioners into focusing on the teaching of ‘the body of knowledge’ (the stimuli itself) at the expense of teaching the actual generalities of writing? This misconception has had very far-reaching consequences. By concentrating on the stimuli (the book), the teacher can either assume the relevance of what they are handing over – or more honestly, the question of relevance (for the children) never enters their head. Instead the tradition is accepted.

Limitations Of Such An Approach

  • The main limitation of course concerns ‘culture’. This model stresses culture as a given and one that is chosen by the teacher(s). Therefore, there is the constant and systematic ignoring of ‘culture’ as the pupils in the class may know it. A network of attitudes, experiences and personal reflections that children bring to the classroom are therefore largely ignored.
  • It perpetuates the concept that literature itself is a given, a ready made structure which children are simply asked to imitate and a content chosen as noble and rich enough by the teacher as being worthy of attention. Writing is a product handed over by the teacher.
  • This approach denies children exposure to compositional processes which are used throughout life. For example: generating and publishing original thoughts, ideas and concepts, reflecting on lived experiences, reactions to one’s own reading material, wanting to share something we know a lot about and wanting to make changes to the world. In other words, strategies which could show children how writing can and will relate to their own life and experiences are largely underdeveloped.
  • It therefore neglects the most fundamental aim of writing teaching – to promote interaction with one’s self (through reflection) or between people.
  • As a result, writing has been interpreted as the study of texts and ‘imitating’ them out. It deals largely in pre-formatted activities and writing-tasks.

3. Personal & Community Growth

The third type, personal and community growth, argues that teaching writing should be based on language ‘in operation’. Children who learn how to use language for their own purposes and on the behalf of other people. Learning through writing and learning that they have something worth sharing. Britton’s study (1975) found that this only made up 6% of the writing undertaken by children. According to Dixon, writing is about being in operation, not writing dummy runs chosen by the teacher. It is the teacher’s responsibility to prepare and allow opportunity for children to have such opportunities. Therefore, it is argued by Dixon that, the teacher needs to create an environment where differing voices, literature and experiences are stored. Each pupil can then take from the store what they can and what they need. It provides a liberation for pupils from the limits of their teachers’ vision.

Limitations Of Such An Approach

Though the personal and community growth model sounds reasonable it isn’t without its limitations. Limitations which need careful reflection:

  • If conventions and systems of written language aren’t central – where do they come? We simply can’t ignore them.
  • Children might remove themselves from classroom interactions (like sharing and publishing) because they feel they have ‘no friends’ there and their writing voice isn’t legitimate when compared to their peers.
  • Children choose writing subjects which may cause tensions or offence within the class ‘community’.
  • The tension between children expressing themselves and teachers being required to critique content.

In conclusion, 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.

In his book Research On Composition (1983), Hillocks describes what he considers the three dominant writing approaches used within the USA.

  1. Presentational

The presentational approach to writing concerns the teachers with imparting knowledge prior to writing. Topics are assigned by the teacher and the particular teaching strategies employed are the setting of tasks and marking outcomes.

The Limitations Of Such An Approach

It involves telling pupils what is strong and weak in writing performance, but it does not provide opportunities for pupils to learn procedures for putting this knowledge to work, e.g. showing pupils an information text and fastidiously marking pupil errors, but not teaching procedures to help pupils write information texts.

2. Natural Process

This involves engaging children in writing and fostering positive dispositions. Writing topics are chosen by the pupils and the key teaching strategies include providing general procedures e.g. revision of drafts and peer comments.

The Limitations Of Such An Approach

It prompts ideas and plans for incorporation in particular pieces of writing, but it does not ensure that pupils develop their own ideas and plans autonomously. This is especially so in the organisation of different kinds of writing. E.g. encouraging pupils to draft, discuss and receive feedback on information texts, but not procedures for correcting or avoiding problems – particularly conventions and transcription.

3. Environmental Approach

Involves inducing and supporting active learning of complex strategies that pupils are not capable of using on their own. Writing topics are negotiated between the teacher and children. The particular teaching strategies employed are the developing of materials and procedures to engage children in writing processes.

Hillock’s report on the meta-analysis of 73 studies was that the environmental approach was two to three times more effective than natural process and over four times more effective than the presentational approach. The environmental approach presents new forms, models and criteria and facilitates their use in all writing tasks. Problems are tackled in a spirit of inquiry and problem-solving e.g. drawing pupils’ attention to information texts, helping them to identify the features of such texts and provide writing opportunities in which they can apply this knowledge in their own writing.

If you’d like to read more about how the children writing independently in our class, you can go here.

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

  • Britton, J., et al (1975) The Development Of Writing Abilities (11-18) Basingstoke: Macmillan
  • Dixon, J., (1967) Growth In English Oxford University Press: London