‘What do you call a boomerang that just won’t come back? A stick!’
I grinned around the room. I heard a low rumble of faint mirth from my bemused teaching assistants. Blank looks from everyone else in my Year 1/2 class.
‘What do you call a boomerang that just won’t come back? A stick!’
I grinned around the room. I heard a low rumble of faint mirth from my bemused teaching assistants. Blank looks from everyone else in my Year 1/2 class.
The goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of text (Barthes 1975, cited by Rosen 1985, p.385)
This article is written with the intention to inform and provide reflection. With the Book Trust’s ‘The Write Book‘ research summary coming out in March – we were excited to see what it concluded.
We have entitled our article after the saying that: you give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day – teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime. That is what we have tried to achieve through our own approach to the idea of traditional ‘Book Planning’ or ‘Novel Study’.
Ever since reading The Reader In The Writer, we have always advocated for children using books of their choice to inform their writing. There is no greater joy than showing children that through literature we can take and find signs from our own lives – either real or imagined. This is exactly what our favourite writers do – so why not teach children to do it too?
Perhaps, what we as teachers shouldn’t do is do this important work on behalf of our pupils. To feel those kind of relationships with books means to be deeply and personally involved in a text you have struck a connection with. This is different from being required to get involved in a text that your teacher has chosen.
For in most classrooms the chief and privileged story-teller (stories of any kind) is the teacher – Harold Rosen
If our students are to take lessons from literature, they need to be doing more of the legwork, having more of the fun, reaping more of the rewards – Shelley Harwayne
The real author of the narrative is not only he who tells it, but also, at times even more, he who hears it – Gérard Genette
This year, we have taught all the children in our class how a writer will use the books they’ve read to generating an original idea. This has included teaching them how real authors use their favourite texts to influence their own short-stories, poetry, ‘faction’ and non-fiction pieces. We haven’t asked them to use a single book on which they must hang their writing.
We taught them to consider the following when reading:
Because writing is a social act, we model how to do it as a class with the ultimate aim being that children begin to do it on their own – with their own texts.
We believe this approach is enabling. It takes children off what Donald Graves articulates perfectly as ‘writers’ welfare.’ Children, for once (maybe in a long time), have been shown and then encouraged to develop their own writing voice on a book or theme of their own choosing (the benefits of which can be seen in the research references below) and is a strategy they can use throughout their time at school and beyond.
It’s ironic that, when children are younger they are actively encouraged to write/mark-make about any text that may have inspired them, yet once they enter infant and primary school, this privilege is largely taken away.
In ‘Teachers As Readers: Building Communities Of Readers,’ it talks about teachers who undertake ‘novel study’ literacy units with their classes. It describes how read aloud sessions are usually followed by literacy work focused on developing word, sentence or text level skills linked to the reading. It states that this type of writing-teaching has serious potential consequences. The children in the study explain that whilst their teacher read aloud they often didn’t like it. This is because, in part, they knew it would involve subsequent written work. Teachers are inadvertently tethering writing tasks onto reading aloud and children don’t like it.
‘This process of [novel-study] can sap central enjoyment and satisfaction away from the act of reading and responding. There is widespread and self-defeating refusal to see that literature cannot be taught by a direct approach, and that the teacher who weighs in with talk or lecture [on a text of their choice] is more likely to kill a personal response than to support and develop it. (Dixon, 1967)
If we teach writing in this way, it could become all too easy for children to feel that their own responses to a book they would have chosen to be inspired by is unimportant.
Some may of course recognise this as sounding incredibly similar to the failed Literacy Strategy and the dreaded ‘Literacy Hour’. The dryness of schematic and systematic analysis of imagery, symbols, linguistic and grammatical features as well as structural relations killed any potential enthusiasm children would have had to respond, in writing, to the texts they were reading. It is personal written response to literature and not literary criticism which we should be looking to teach during writing lessons. Or as Parry & Taylor (2018) call it: ‘‘leisure reading equalling volitional writing’.
Incidentally, we too have spoken on the subject of the over use of writing-stimuli having negative effects on children’s writing potentials here; how it is dangerous to believe children are too ‘culturally deprived’ to choose an appropriate book topic of their own here and the importance of providing authentic and meaningful writing projects here.
Bodies of knowledge – about life, about books, about words – are among the products of [children’s] work. It is possible to regard these bodies of knowledge as the ‘content’ for a writing lesson (John Dixon, 1967 p.74)
You may find the following, taken from our article here, interesting reading too:
Book Planning / Novel Study
This approach is some people’s response to the skills approach. It looks to fill the vacuum left by the skills model. The concept is that teachers can be the gate-keepers of what is best in terms of literature and hand this down to a generation. In a happy way, they believe that the great writers can offer a variety of models on which pupils’ writing can be hung. However, this turns language into a one-way process: pupils are receivers of the master’s voice. How does an activity like novel study relate to the ways in which professional writers write every day? Novel study is misleading many teachers into focusing on the teaching of the stimuli itself at the expense of showing children how writers are informed and inspired by their reading and how they can do this too. This misconception of how writers work has very far-reaching consequences. By concentrating on the stimuli (the book), the teacher controls both the book and the relevance that is to be taken from the book. The question of relevance for the children rarely enters their head.
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 largely ignored.
- It perpetuates the concept that literature itself is a given, a ready made structure which children are simply asked to imitate. The content is chosen as noble and rich enough as being worthy of study.
- This approach denies children exposure to compositional processes which are used by writers. 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 hugely underdeveloped.
- It therefore neglects the most fundamental aim of writing teaching – to promote interaction with one’s self (through reflection) and between people.
- As a result, writing has been interpreted as the study of texts and ‘imitating’ it out by order of the teacher. It deals largely in pre-formatted activities and writing-tasks which are solely there for assessment purposes.
When we, as teachers, mine our favourite texts for potential ideas for writing, we get excited about sharing what we’ve liked or noticed with the children. We also learn a great deal about the book. Therefore shouldn’t we be teaching children the strategies we are employing when we plan novel study so that they can undertake such strategies on their own chosen texts instead? Can they be allowed to enjoy what we enjoy?
This year, we have taught the children in our class how they can successfully use any book in their writing that has had an impact on them. We have done this in a number of ways:
We have done this because the research on effective writing teaching points this way. Create a class of producers instead of consumers (or at best imitators) and writing outcomes and attitudes will improve dramatically. Let children be participants in class writing projects as opposed to recipients. We are fortunate in being able to see the research and theory come together in practice and succeed.
‘When published authors give advice about becoming writers they invariably tell their audience to read as much as possible. Ofsted’s survey of 12 outstanding schools revealed that visits to libraries, plentiful reading aloud by teachers and the provision of good-quality up-to-date texts stimulated pupils to read more and inspired them with ideas for their own writing (Ofsted, 2011).
Children who read more, write more and write better. Since the 1980s, research evidence has shown that reading and being read to help children to develop models for writing: children who read particular genres, such as stories using metafictive devices, can be inspired to create something of their own in that genre (Pantaleo, 2007b).
Stories they have read may also suggest events or predicaments for children to include in their own texts. Indeed for children as well as adults, all writing is intertextual.’ (Dombey/UKLA 2013, p.23)
Each new text written reflects, in some measure, the shadows of texts experienced in the past. (Cairney, 1990, p.484)
The goal of education in general, and any writing program in particular, is to help students gain independence. (Ted DeMille, p.145)
Children are ‘always in a high state of readiness to transform into story not only what [they] experience directly but also what they hear and read. (Rosen, 1985)
The increased attention placed on novel study or book planning as a single writing approach has led to the elimination of other approaches and for no good reason. Glenn (2007) & Rosen (2018) argue that, when we allow students to write fiction that’s unrelated to a specific text, their commitment to and resulting understanding of texts more generally is enhanced and encourages children to be more motivated writers.
Gay Su Pinnell (1989) reports on a successful programme with ‘at risk’ children. It showed how children were encouraged to make connections between their reading and writing as a way of boosting their academic achievement. The tasks were not a matter of imitating a book extract or completing a writing task related to a class novel – but instead the children were immersed in a community of rich texts. In response to having read something they felt was great, they had an eye on how they could write like their heroes and as a result learnt how to be better writers.
Imitating the masters is universal in all art and is often the first stage in any creative process. This is why our Genre-Booklets are proving to be so popular. They share with children: the patterns, the approach writers take and the linguistic features that can be deployed in story writing. Some people have recently asked, how do you get children to write their own unique stories without using a whole-class mentor text or any other kind of writing stimulus? We’ll look to explain how below.
No one should be in any doubt that it’s important to show children how other accomplished authors do what they do. It’s also important that children have time to enjoy, appreciate, discuss, understand and try imitating aspects of the books they are reading. And most importantly – we need to show children how they can do this for themselves.
Our Flash-Fiction Genre-Booklet is essentially a writing project designed to help children identify story patterns, use ‘author voice’ and create stories independently. The stories that are exemplars within the Genre-Booklet are deliberately short and show children that this type of writing is well within their grasp.
The exemplar texts showcase how a short story can be constructed using only 250/300 words. We try to keep this limit in the children’s minds as they write too, so as to avoid the inevitable ‘and then…‘ syndrome. Educator Nancie Atwell makes the point that even the children in her middle-school (12+) can find anything longer than 300 words difficult to handle and in our experience, working with children from 5-11, this can often be said about them too.
Our exemplar texts are there to showcase how the linguistic features of story telling can be used effectively. These include:
Once these features have been made explicit to the children, we encourage them to generate their very own writing ideas. This includes strategies like:
At this point, we should say that this approach is most effective if you adopt an approach to reading that is very similar to ours. To read about how our children are reading during DEAR time, follow this link. Essentially though, you need to be reading high-quality literature and poetry aloud, encouraging children to read independently and giving them plenty of time to do so.
Again, these collections come from the children’s reading during DEAR time. To read about ‘Writing-Tricks Books’ click here. Essentially though, this is a book which lives in their trays, encourages children to write down things they notice their favourite authors doing and the sentences and themes they like the most. Children are encouraged to dip into these collections when they are generating ideas for writing.
These are strategies that encourage children to write stories from personal interests, recounts, loves, hates, idiosyncrasies, hobbies and obsessions. These 10 strategies unearth a whole bouquet of potential topics for stories.
If a child is using a book or a ‘collection of great phrases’ as a means for a story idea, we ask them to try and integrate a personal experiences into their stories. We do this because children often find writing stories easier as a result. In our class, we call these types of stories ‘Inspired by…‘ stories, after the poem ‘My Yellow Dog’ in the book ‘Love That Dog‘. We’ve noticed that what begins as imitation or impersonation soon moves beyond that by the time the children have finished their writing.
And so we were pleased to read in the Book Trust’s ‘The Write Book‘ research summary that we are indeed on the right lines:
And so, in many ways, we are inviting you to combine the best of educational research. Use what ‘The Write Book,’ The Reader & The Writer and what the meta-analysis (here) says about the teaching of writing to create a truly effective, memorable and life-long writing curriculum.
If you’d like to read more about how the children writing independently in our class, you can go here.
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Writing For Pleasure: Setting Writing Goals
According to research, Writing For Pleasure teachers will scaffold new writing projects by setting both process and product oriented writing goals. This happens in a mastery based writing environment which has an atmosphere of inquiry, investigation and experimentation at its heart.
A little note about terminology here before we begin:
Therefore, Writing For Pleasure teachers will in all likelihood:
Set A Distant Writing Goal:
‘Our next writing project is to produce an instructional text about something we are really good at. I was thinking we could write them to share with one another in our class library’? Does anyone have any other ideas?
Setting Product Writing Goals:
Writing For Pleasure teachers will set writing goals for writing projects collaboratively with their apprentice writers. According to research (Ames & Archer 1988; Covington 2000; Rooke 2013), it is important for children’s pleasure in writing that they are afforded some participation and agency in the formation of learning goals for these projects. This not only builds the learner’s motivation and engagement in the act of writing, but also helps them to clarify what has to be undertaken to be successful. Children who are motivated and find pleasure in writing may also gain higher levels of self-efficacy as a result (Bandura & Schunk, 1981; Butler & Winnie, 1995; Rooke 2013). Gadd (2014) claims that this might require the teacher to ask questions like:
‘We’ve had a look at a few really good instructional texts from last year’s class. So, what might we have to think about to be successful at writing an excellent instructional text? Let’s write some product goals down on this flip-chart paper together.’
Over The Course Of The Project, Set Process Writing Goals:
The most effective type of writing goal, this means splitting up the different processes of writing to reduce children’s cognitive load, building their sense of self-efficacy and setting them further writing goals to achieve within these different processes. Writing For Pleasure teachers teach writing processes with a view to children applying them to class and personal projects and for individual mastery of them. This was the subject of our last #WritingRocks talk and you can view more about teaching the writing processes here.
Writing Goals, Over Time, Create Self-Regulating And Independent Writers
Distant goals (like completing a class writing project e.g. ‘let’s write stories for the year four classes’) will be sub-divided into more manageable ‘chunks,’ which allows not only for long-term progress to be monitored clearly and regularly, but also for children to feel a sense of satisfaction more frequently by completing these sub-goals (Bandura & Schunk, 1981; Butler & Winnie, 1995; Hmelo-Silver et al 2007). The cognitive load involved in writing is shared out across the writing processes, making the writing project feel more accessible and manageable to children. The ultimate aim is that, over time, these goals become automated and that children negotiate these cognitively challenging writing projects largely independently and using their own preferred writing process (see our last #WritingRocks chat). It also means that they can pursue personal writing projects in much the same way as they do their class ones.
If you set a process goal like ‘over the next three writing sessions, you must complete your revisions,’ why not consider that, once children have completed this goal, allowing them to pursue their personal writing projects whilst the rest of the class finish? Why not make this the expectation after any class writing goal has been completed? That way children are always engaged in purposeful writing.
The Types Of Learning Goals Writing For Pleasure Teachers Will Set:
Gadd (2014) suggests quite an open ended interpretation of writing process goals. They can be:
Therefore, once the writing processes are established with the children in the school/class and they are fluent or experienced writers, Writing For Pleasure teachers will allow their learners to work on their writing goals at their own level and at their own pace (Garrett & Moltzen 2011; Paratore & McCormack, 2009; Pollard et al., 1994; Reutzel, 2007; Rubie-Davies 2010; Schumm & Avalos, 2009; Wyse & Torgerson 2017).
They are likely to set children goals such as: ‘your writing goal is to describe the characters in the stories you write’ as opposed to ‘add a noun phrase to describe your character more’. Or ‘you need to take more care when proofreading, use your editing checklist to help you’ rather than ‘you have some capital letters missing in this piece – correct them’.
Obvious Links To Other Writing For Pleasure Manifesto Principles:
The setting of writing goals promotes Writing For Pleasure in a number of ways:
If you found this article interesting, you should also read:
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Planning Purposeful & Authentic Writing Projects
Have you heard of #WritingRocks, a truly welcoming special interest group open to anyone involved in any aspect of teaching writing in the Primary phase? It is aligned to the Literacy for Pleasure blog, which explores how theoretical ideas and research might inform practical ways by which to potentially improve children’s motivation and outcomes in literacy. I love their Real-World Literacy approach to teaching writing, underpinned by the 14 interconnected principles of their Writing for Pleasure Manifesto.
Each of their regular #WritingRocks Twitter chats is focused on one of these principles. As the founder of The Writing Web, I was incredibly flattered to be asked to host a chat earlier this month by Phil and Ross (the fabulous bodies behind for Literacy for Pleasure and #WritingRocks).
This blog post outlines what I learnt from the process and the key themes that arose from the chat on the 5th February 2018.
I drafted the questions in collaboration with Ross from Literacy for Pleasure. He was instrumental in ensuring the order of the questions was coherent and that they were phrased in such a way that invited diverse and honest responses from potential contributors.
I toyed with the idea of selecting pertinent images to encapsulate each question, as I find this is an effective method of raising the profile of tweets. However, after wasting several hours I chose to create a ‘postcard’, which summarised the session and could be used for regular promotion in the run up to the chat. I believe this was a successful approach, as was directing Twitter followers unfamiliar with Twitter chats to Literacy for Pleasure’s #WritingRocks Schedule and succinct How to Guide. Huge thanks to everyone who retweeted promotional materials to their followers!
Having taken part in #WritingRocks chats before, I know that I find it incredibly difficult to ‘keep up’ with the conversation, especially as I’m prone to typos and generally draft Tweets and responses in a Word document first. (There is simply nothing more cringeworthy as the notification that someone has liked a tweet that promotes a writing business revealing that said tweet is riddled with errors…) So, in preparation for the chat, I drafted some responses to the four questions, including the #WritingRocks hashtag in the responses. #WritingRocks kindly allowed me to take over their account but I was also keen to respond to contributors from my @thewritingweb account. I was stumped. But the Internet Explorer and Google Chrome short cut buttons at the bottom of my screen inspired a solution: run one account from each web browser and juggle these with the trusty ‘drafting space’ the Word document offered. Finally, I felt, with the invaluable support of #WritingRocks, that I could make this work.
I felt completely prepared for the session, so put the kettle on ready to go.
Suddenly, it was three minutes until #WritingRocks was live and I was not ready! I hadn’t even considered that each question would need to be ‘introduced’ with a brief preamble. Cue, serious panic! I rushed to draft some suitable words to accompany the ‘release’ of the first question and select an accompanying image to ensure it was high-profile; Monday night is a busy night for Twitter chats. (Note to self: send this from the #WritingRocks account.) And so, the heady sequence of juggling screens and ideas began in earnest.
At 8:05pm, no responses had been posted (with the exception of #WritingRocks) and I feared we were all alone! The all-encompassing magnitude of my panic was crushing, so I posted some of my pre-prepared contributions as a distraction. (Note to self: send this from the @thewritingweb account.) I refreshed the page and was overwhelmed by the response to the first question:
Q1) 8 to 8:15pm Is there a case for children choosing their own writing topics? What might be the benefits?
This question received the greatest response, I’m not sure whether this is the norm with Twitter chats. However, I was so engrossed in the related conversations that I neglected to glance at the clock until it was 8:15pm. Argh, time to release the second question (Note to self: send this from the #WritingRocks account.) and I hadn’t prepared a preamble! I was inundated with simultaneous actions to complete: juggling screens and juggling conversations, whilst attempting to maintain a professional tone as my sense of panic amplified. What an exhilarating, informative scenario! I have collated responses to all four questions at the end of this blog post.
By the time, 8:45pm arrived, time to release the final question, I felt as if I might finally be getting into the swing of things. Although, much of my time was still focused on threads related to the initial question and my cup of tea remained untouched. It was only during the aftermath, when I spent nearly three hours ‘pulling apart’ the conversations, that I felt that I had the head space to sincerely engage with every valued contribution. I searched for contributions using the #WritingRocks hashtag and copied these into a Word document. It took like what felt forever, as if I was disappearing down the rabbit hole at times. There must be any easier way!
Here is a summary of the conversation that took place on the night. Thank you to everyone who contributed at the time and joined the conversation after the event, using the #WritingRocks hashtag. I was encouraged to learn that those who participated in a Twitter chat for the very first time found it a valuable experience.
I have learnt that there is a real appetite for providing children with opportunities to write for their own audiences and purposes. It was fascinating to learn about others’ approaches to realising this in their classrooms and the associated challenges. Ultimately, the consensus appears to be that enabling children to choose the content of their own writing, increases their confidence, motivation and enjoyment. Children have to know that their ideas are valued and we, as teachers, need to employ relevant strategies to support them in developing child-generated content.
* Plug Alert! *
Hosting the Twitter chat in collaboration with #WritingRocks proved to be an invaluable way of promoting The Writing Web, a newly-developed service that supports Year 6 and 7 students in writing for their own audiences and purposes. Thank you #WritingRocks for the opportunity, I look forward to participating in your future Twitter chats!
Q1) Is there a case for children choosing their own writing topics? What might be the benefits?
Q2) How could we help children have confidence in self-choice? Would we as teachers feel a loss of control and would that be significant?
This question received a limited response, however:
Q3) How can we find safe and supportive audiences for children’s writing?
Q4) How can we successfully promote and value children’s Home Writing? Do Class Writing and Home Writing ever merge and if so, how is this managed in class?
If you liked this blog-post, you should also read: Teaching Writing: What Actually Is Authentic Writing?