The political hot-potato in terms of writing at the moment is independent writing. We have decided the tackle this subject head on by producing a mini-series of blog posts about how we have managed to create a writing community within our classroom which allows children to write independently every day.
We will cover all sorts of strategies we use to allow children to write high-quality assessed pieces independently. Some of them we have already discussed and you can find them here:
- Generating Original Ideas
- ‘Meeting Children Where They Are’ Using Pupil Conferencing Instead Of After The Event Written Feedback
- Functional Grammar Lessons
This particular post will talk about The Writing Process and how the explicit teaching of it is the most effective way to improve children’s independent writing attainment (Graham & Perin, 2007).
It would be good to start off by stating that writing involves both composition and transcription.
Frank Smith, (1982) in his book Writing & The Writer, uses the analogy of a writer and her secretary. This helps visualise the different processes that have to take place when one is writing alone. Remember, this is also what children have to negotiate when writing too.
The writer (composition) has to attend to the following:
- Generating ideas,
- Turning thoughts, opinions, feelings into words/sentences.
- Use of grammar for function,
- Word and tone choice,
- Keeping cohesion,
- Thinking of the purpose of the text,
- Keeping the reader in mind throughout.
The secretary (transcription) has to attend to the following:
- Physical effort of writing,
- How it will look (including multi-modality).
Frank Smith begins by talking about composing and transcription as if they were performed by two different people. This is simply to allow the reader to see the two broad aspects of writing separately. It is important to remember that we place this burden on children alone when we ask them to write in the classroom. However, consider this for a moment: Teachers often place further cognitive workload upon children. This can include:
- Being set a task you know little or nothing about,
- Writing about something you have no direct interest in,
- A need to use certain vocabulary or linguistic features whilst trying to produce a first draft,
- A time limit,
- A high-stakes working environment.
So when they are writing, children have to attend to all of the above and often at the same time. To help the children in our class, at the beginning of the year, we decided to separate the writing process for them and teach each stage explicitly. We call this our Real-World Literacy approach. We taught them how to attend to all the compositional aspects of writing – through what we call:
- Generating Ideas,
- Boxing Up,
- Vomit Drafting and
- The ‘Revision’ Stage.
We then taught them how to attend to the transcriptional aspects of writing:
I do a kind of pre-draft – what I call a ‘vomit-out’ – Calvin Trillin
This is because when children are asked to attend to the aspects of composition and transcription at the same time they both interfere with each other. What would be a collaboration between two people (the writer and the secretary) becomes an unnecessary yet profound conflict for children.
Let’s be clear: when children are learning to write, composition and transcription can interfere with each other. The more attention you give to one, the more the other is likely to suffer. The problem is essentially a competition for attention.
If thoughts are coming too fast, then the quality of children’s handwriting, spelling or punctuation is likely to decline. If we concentrate on the transcription, the inserting of linguistic features or the appearance of what we write, then composition will be affected; children are likely to produce impeccable nonsense. To avoid either of these occurring, we separate the two processes for the children.
The rule in our class is simple: composition and transcription must be separated and transcription must come last. Revising and editing are as important in our class as writing. Interestingly, as the year has progressed, we have noted that as the children have got better at composition, the less attention on transcription has been required by them at the end.
The children are now able to characterise themselves and their preferred writing process. We have the following types of writers in our class.
- The Vomitters
The most popular writing process. These children like to get their ideas down on paper and spend most of their time revising it and getting it ‘reader ready’ through proof reading and publishing.
2. The Paragraph Pilers
The second most popular process. These children like to vomit a paragraph, clean it up by revising it and editing it before they move on to the next part in their writing.
3. Sentence Stackers
The least popular process. These are children who vomit a sentence and attend to the transcription immediately afterwards.
Whatever process the children feel works best for them, at the end of the process all the children will publish a piece of interesting, neat and grammatically correct writing. Their edited drafts will show evidence that they have attended to spellings, provided evidence of certain linguistic features and punctuated fully. Their final published copy will also show they have attended to their handwriting in a focused way.
I think it is fair to say that the current state of writing-assessment is far from perfect. So how can we ensure that we at least assess children’s writing in a humane way? In our classroom, we currently undertake it in a low-stakes way where children are simply allowed to write through the writing process organically; at their own pace – producing a variety of pieces independently for pleasure.
The popular alternative currently employed in schools is the giving out of a writing stimulus and then given limited time and a high-stakes pressured environment in which to complete it. I know, as an adult, which way I’d rather be asked to write.
Incidentally, we should make clear that we are not advocating that every piece is assessed formally but it is comforting to know as a teacher that I have a whole raft of varied and interesting writing from which I can find evidence of good independent writing being undertaken.
To find out more about our approach to teaching writing, which we are calling ‘Real-World Literacy’, you can follow this link.
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