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)

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, 2013). 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, 2013). 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)

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, 2013). 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, Grainger 2013, 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 fuelld 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
    • 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.
    • 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
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    • Willinksy, J., (1990) New Literacy: Redefining Reading and Writing in Schools London: Routledge
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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

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

Trials & Triumphs: Teaching Memoir Writing.

Trials & Triumphs: Teaching Memoir Writing.

Week One

This half term we are focusing on teaching memoir. Memoir differs from what is commonly referred to as recount in a number of profound ways. Recount’s major role is often to ensure that chronological events are described within a conventional time order. However, memoir is very much in the business of storytelling.  A good memoir will have a topic which has meaning not only for you as the writer but also for your reader. This means children finding a subject which rouses emotions in them and which reaches out to their readers, creating the possibility of reflection and empathy. Memoir also affords young writers the opportunity to explore the literary qualities of stories they read through their writing about a personal experience. Memoir is a hugely rewarding genre to teach. It provides the best platform for children to feel they are experts in their topic before they begin writing, and gives them enough scope as a genre to be playful and try out many of the things they like writing best.

We had two objectives for our first week: for children to understand what the genre memoir is and what is required to create a great one, and to give children the resources and opportunity to generate their own memoir idea.  

Day 1

The children, in pairs read and discussed the first page of our Genre-Booklet memoir. I then shared with the class my own attempt at producing a memoir. We gathered in a circle, reading quietly together in pairs. Different children then read a paragraph each aloud,and I did a final reading myself.

No One’s Day But Ours.

chattri3

We’ll explain it and deal with the consequences after,  I thought.

Looking out the window and watching the bright sunshine reflect off my dad’s car and into my eyes, I felt a warm glow. Waving goodbye, I knew today was going to be just perfect. It was no coincidence perhaps that I could see the Chattri from that very same window. The promised land almost teasing me.  

I grabbed my backpack and met my friends by the post-box, just as we had planned. “Have you got the goodies?” I asked Joe excitedly. He assured me he had and from the rustle I could hear as we walked, I believed him with all my heart. Joe always had a way of making you feel reassured. Perhaps it was his height and frame. Joe was taller than the rest of us. He had sharp, almost white messy hair, which made him endearing and trustworthy to parents.

Looking back now, our impatience to get to the Chattri caused our ‘short-cut’ not to be so short at all. Negotiating all the fences and the barbed wire which came with them was trying. The barbed wire seemed, at times, to be like fighting against the ocean’s tide. “Maybe we should have just used the paths?” Dan suggested, sarcastically. Dan was the shortest in the group and at our age that meant something. He was also incredibly skinny and had comically thin, hairless legs. Legs that seemed to protrude from out of his shorts like twigs.

“Where would the adventure be in that?” I said in such a way that I didn’t even believe myself. We still had a way to go and it was cold and lonely in the shade of the valley. The warmth and the light shone on the Chattri – right at the top of the hill – but not on us.

When we finally got there, Joe opened his rucksack to reveal what we had all been waiting for. It was a feast to the eyes for any 11 year old boy. It was all the treasures a boy of that age could dream of: chewy strawberries and snakes by the bundle, the largest cola bottles you could get – and full sugar too! Not to mention what felt like endless packets of Haribos. We held them in our hands and raised them up to the clear blue skies – like savages – like a sacrifice – like a victory cry.

This was it. This was freedom. We were free, free to do what we wanted to do, and what we wanted was to be together and be alone. Alone to scream and shout, to holler and play highjinks and silly-fools. We played together that day like the clock had stopped. Today was our day.

My lasting impression will always be standing at the top of that hill, ripping at a chewy-snake, stretching it away from my back teeth, eyes shut, head back, hearing my friends rolling down the hill into the thick and welcoming grass and feeling king. King of my world, with my comrades there to support me. Soaking up the day, we didn’t need or want for anyone or anything – least of all our parents.

“We’ll explain it and deal with the consequences after,” I whispered into the silk of that afternoon breeze. I wonder where that afternoon breeze is now?

By LiteracyForPleasure


What followed was quite a lengthy and full discussion which included talking about the opening, the quality of the description, linking the characters of Joe and Dan to their physical descriptions (Joe’s hair almost a metaphor or a metonym). Children agreed that it was not a remarkable topic in itself that I had chosen, but that I had made it special and significant through description and feeling, and through making it like a story.
We have emphasised this point every day, and referred to how Michael Rosen does it in his prose poems which we regularly enjoy.

Children found instances of time references, simile and metaphor, repetition, poetic language, exaggeration. We reminded them constantly that they could use all these devices (‘tricks’) in their writing. We also emphasised the need to have one pebble to focus on. The concept of having one pebble is that children will often choose general topics when generating writing ideas, such as When I went to the football, When I went to Spain on holiday, or Our school trip to PGL. What we have had to teach children is that these topics contain almost a beach full of pebbles which they could write about. Each pebble is an idea for a piece of writing. They need to find one pebble – or one idea – from their topic ‘beach’. This has not always been easy but by the end of the week it was a hugely rewarding pursuit.

 

Day 2

I read the long version of Roald Dahl’s memoir – The Great Mouse Plot. Children discussed the description of Mrs Pratchett, found the simile, and the ‘pebble’ in this description i.e. her fingernails. I reminded them that Roald Dahl probably wrote this 30 years after the event, so how did he remember what everyone said? We told children that they can make up speech when they write, and that they can depart from the exact truth of the events, that it can be quite enjoyable to use hyperbole(exaggeration) in your memories and that in fact we do this all the time!

We then moved on to Anne Frank’s diary entry. This was probably the least successful of the memoir examples. I felt it was necessary to talk about the context in order for children to fully appreciate the writing. We looked at how she conveys anxiety, and located the parts that made us feel sad. (It is written in quite, a literary way, which isn’t always the case with diaries. I’ve later discovered that she had revised much of it, with a view to publication.)

 

Day 3

As part of our Genre-Book we included a bad memoir example. Children immediately spotted the lack of description, character development, pebble, story, as well as unexplained references. This confirmed that they have really internalised the essential ingredients of a good memoir. It was an enjoyable lesson to hear them be so critically engaged on a text.  

Some children even began to revise it themselves, writing on the typed copy; all chose to add description. Maybe in the future we could find a way of letting them revise the whole thing, to include events in time order, elements of a story, and a pebble…

After this we checked in with some on their own memoir ideas, and we worried that several had not yet thought of anything, or were coming up with ideas which had no depth at all, or were too general. We decided to put them on the spot the next day, and have everyone share their ideas with the whole class.

 

Day 4

Right at the start of the lesson, children were asked to focus on something with a strong feeling e.g. the happiest or saddest moments of their lives. Hearing other people’s ideas acted as a spark for some. Some changed their topic for a stronger one. Sometimes the class voted if one child couldn’t decide between two ideas. We rejected some ideas. Children had to identify the pebble for their writing. Once I modelled how I went from a general idea to having a one pebble moment it all of a sudden clicked. I discussed how in my writing notebook I had written that I want to write about my childhood holiday with my grandad in Spain, and that the pebble moment I will ‘zoom in on’ will be my grandfather teaching me how to float in the pool on my back, us looking like a couple of otters floating in the pool. I then explained that instead of writing about the PGL trip I could write about how myself and Mr. Green had a secret midnight snack. We ended up feeling far more confident about their topic choice, and so did they. This discussion seemed to turn things around significantly. We asked children to straightaway jot down the revised idea and what the pebble was going to be. There was a real buzz in the classroom and many children wanted the opportunity to use their free-writing time to write about other memoir ideas they were having.

 

In Conclusion

At the end of a week children know that to write a quality memoir they need to:

choose a topic which may be ‘everyday’ or unremarkable in itself, but which can be made memorable both for themselves and the reader by a genuine emotional investment in it; focus on one pebble, and use description, poetic language, feelings, good openings and endings, devices like repetition and a little exaggeration. They are now using literary terminology naturally in their discussions, and are reading the memoir examples like writers.
The memoir examples have been successful. Our own memoir examples were the best, because we conveyed them with enthusiasm and enjoyment well, and because we were able to talk to the children about the topic, how we came to write it, and our writing process. Children were really engaged to know and learn from this. We have the idea of collecting the best memoirs written by the children in our class, and using them as examples next year.

**

This is part of our Real-Word Literacy approach to writing. If you’d like to find out more about how this approach works, you can follow the link here.

If you are interested in knowing more about our Genre-Booklets you can follow the link here.

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

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 pedagogies.

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 the desire for children 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 adults? 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 pedagogies, 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).

Children are then expected to respond to these stimuli. There is obviously benefits to such approaches. However, if used to 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. 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 and turn this list of everything that came to mind into a piece of 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 think them up and never actually try them for ourselves before hand. 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 (p.74)

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

Maybe this is why The Literacy Trust has recently stated that children’s attitudes towards writing is worsening 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, embedded clauses, 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 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” (p. 189).

“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. And feel excitement and motivation ourselves.

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.**

References:
  • Au, W., & Gourd, K. (2013). Asinine assessment: why high-stakes testing is bad for everyone, including English teachers. English Journal, 103(1), 14–19
  • Beard, R., (2000) Developing Writing 3-13 London: Hodder & Stoughton
  • Bereiter, C., Scardamalia, M. In Beard, R., (1993) Teaching Literacy Balancing Perspectives Hodder & Stoughton: London
  • 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
  • Dockrell, J., Marshell, C., Wyse, D., (2015) Teacher’reported practices for teaching writing in England In Read Write 29:409-434
  • Dyson, A. H., & Freedman, S. W. (2003). Writing. In J. Flood, J. Jensen, D. Lapp, & R. J. Squire (Eds.), Handbook of research on teaching the English language arts (pp. 967–992). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • 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
  • Gee, J. P. (2008) A sociocultural perspective on opportunity to learn In P. Moss, D. Pulin, J. P. Gee, E. Haertel and L. Young (eds) Assessment, Equity, and Opportunity to Learn (pp.76-108) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Gonzalez, N., Moll, L. & Amanti, C. (eds) (2005) Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classroom, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
  • 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.
  • Hillocks, G., Jr. (2011). Commentary on “Research in secondary English, 1912-2011: Historical continuities and discontinuities in the NCTE imprint.” Research in the Teaching of English, 46(2), 187-192.
  • Ketter, J., & Pool, J. (2001). Exploring the impact of a high-stakes direct writing assessment in two high school classrooms. Research in the Teaching of English, 35, 344–391
  • Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Lensmire, T., (2000) Powerful Writing: Responsible Teaching Columbia University
  • Maybin. J. (2006) Children’s Voices: Talk, Knowledge & Identity London: Palgrave
  • Rogoff, B., Moore, L., Najafi, B., Dexter, A., Correa-Chavez, M. and Solis, J. (2007) Children’s development of cultural repertoires through participation in everyday routines and practices In J. E. Grusec and P. D. Hastings (eds) Handbook of Socialization: Theory & Research (pp.490-515) New York: Guildford Press
  • Tomasello, M. (2003) Constructing a Language: A usage-based Theory of Language Acquisition Cambridge: Harvard University Press
  • Tomasello, M. (2006) Acquiring linguistic constructions In R.S Siegler & D. Kuhn (eds), Handbook of Child Psychology: Cognitive Development (pp. 255-298) New York: Wiley
  • Watanabe, M., (2007) Displaced Teacher & State Priorities In A High-Stakes Accountability Context In Educational Policy, Vol.21(2), p.311-368
  • Willinksy, J., (1990) New Literacy: Redefining Reading and Writing in Schools London: Routledge

The Four Week Reading Programme

The 4-Week Reading Programme

A project carried out several times in one primary school by two SENCOs. Hard work, but very rewarding!

Why did it come about? The two teachers felt they wanted to inform parents more about their children’s reading and to involve them more meaningfully beyond the customary comment in the home school reading record book.

They were also attracted by the idea of carrying out a small piece of action research and by the possibility of enriching the reading experience for both parents and children.

The Aims: To see if regular reading sessions at home with a parent (every night for 4 weeks, day off on Sunday) would have an impact on children’s motivation, attitudes and possibly, performance.

The Participants: 12 children of different ages took part in each programme – some who were finding reading difficult, and some who read well but were not turning to books as a source of pleasure.

What Was Done:

  • Publicity posters put up in school
  • Children & staff briefed
  • Parents invited to attend meeting (100% did)
  • Aims explained; “best way to read” discussed i.e maintain interest of story, encourage and allow time to use all strategies, give word if necessary to keep the ‘flow’. Learn when to join in, when to hold back
  • Short video shown of SENCOs reading with children.

The Materials

  • Small booklet for record-keeping spaces for date, title and parent/child comment, for each family.
  • Book-baskets with variety of texts to suit 12 children of different abilities and tastes. Children changed books as often as they wished. Contents changed every week.

Evaluation

At the end of week 4, parents and children wrote a final reflection on the experience. Comments were invariably positive; all parents spoke of shared enjoyment and many reported increased fluency.

It seems therefore, that there is something special for a child in being in the ‘spotlight’ for a limited time, and that this may raise the quality of the reading.

The parents involved were 100% enthusiastic and supportive throughout. The SENCOs wrote up the project and it attracted considerable local interest at the time.

And finally… other children queued up to join in!

To contact me about setting up The 4 Week Reading Programme for children in your school. You can contact me here.

Picture books – who needs them?

Picture books – who needs them?

Babies need picture books. I recently watched a little boy, not much more than a year old, sitting in his buggy on the bus, poring over the pages of a board book edition of ‘Each, peach, pear,plum’. Pre-schoolers make a beeline for the picture book boxes in our local library. But do picture books take a back seat when reading scheme books become the major reading currency in many Infant classrooms? (In my experience, children can learn to read from picture books alone, given the necessary support.) And do picture books continue to be promoted all the way up the Primary School, or are they progressively disregarded and not seen as the complex literary genre which they certainly are?

What’s the big deal?

Picture books are surely for all ages.They can be a powerful way into important issues. They can illustrate a society’s values (and sometimes subvert them, as in’ Willy the Wimp’, for  example).Some can be read on different levels and have layers of meaning (Where the Wild Things Are). A key picture book can be instrumental in helping a child to read, which happened in my experience with a dyslexic boy, whose first real access to a text came when he encountered ‘Going West’, by Martin Waddell. In this book, which has deeply significant meanings, words and pictures work  so well together that he simply understood how the text was going to go and was word-perfect at his first reading. He read it every day for a week.

Reading a good picture book can be a very satisfying literary experience. You as reader have to learn to decode visual images as well as written text, and do plenty of gap-filling. And of course, looking at pictures is a pleasant activity in itself, and so is handling an art object, as so many picture books are!

Quick guide on how to identify the best

  • Good title and cover illustration.
  • High quality illustrations throughout.
  • Pictures don’t echo the text, but combine with the words to create meaning.
  • Pictures invite visual decoding to tell the story.
  • Book can be ‘read’ before written text is really mastered.
  • Pictures carry meaning & information not necessarily explicit in the text.
  • Language works on different levels. May offer a sub-text.
  • Can be interpreted in different ways.
  • Have something to say, and the power to entertain.

Here are some books which show many of these features and can be enjoyed by varying ages (3-99+).

  • John Brown, Rose & The Midnight Cat – Jenny Wagner, Ron Brooks
  • Leon & Bob – Simon James
  • Time To Get Out Of The Bath, Shirley – John Burningham
  • Don’t Forget The Bacon – Pat Hutchins
  • Farmer Duck – Martin Waddell, Helen Oxenbury
  • This Is Not My Hat – Jon Klassen
  • Home – Alex T Smith

We give you the titles only here. This is because we’d like you to identify the important features they have from the list above. Please note that just because these are picture books they are by no means always an easy read – they are hugely rich and multifaceted though. For more recommended titles please visit here.

Tired of Biff & Chip? Picture books can do the work better!

  • Good picture books are intrinsically more interesting and appealing.
  • These book will become important, well-loved and returned to. They will be enjoyed as literature.
  • Picture books create life-long lovers of books. Reading schemes don’t.
  • They offer the best possibility for a children to make meaning (the primary drive in learning to read!)
  • They allow children to behave as real readers, not just decoders of print.
  • You will enjoy them too.