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
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  • 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.
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  • 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
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  • 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.
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  • 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
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Talk-For-Writing Is Excellent But Does It Go Far Enough?

We are convinced that Talk-For-Writing is one of the best ways to teach children how to write in different genres. Like many of you, we had considerable success. However, we were aware that, no matter how independent the independent phase of Talk-For-Writing was, it still had a certain feeling of ‘writing exercise’ about it. For us, it didn’t feel like Talk-For-Writing went far enough, in the sense that children were often not being given the opportunity to go on to use these newly acquired genres in writing about what they personally know, love and care about. They don’t get to use the genre for their purposes and after all, this is what writing is all about. As the psycholinguist Frank Smith says, ‘the environment in which a child will want to write is an environment of demonstrations, not just of ‘this is the way we do things’ but also ‘these are things that can be done’. As a result, Talk-For-Writing is just the beginning of any writing topic and our Real-Word Literacy pedagogy goes well beyond it.

Talk For Writing: The Precursor To Process Writing

Talk For Writing is an approach to language and literacy learning developed by Pie Corbett and Julia Strong, described in detail in their book Talk For Writing Across The Curriculum (2011). It is concerned with children’s composing and writing of non-fiction texts and demonstrates how focused talking and oral activities together with shared planning and writing can help children internalise the linguistic structures and patterns necessary for the successful writing of such texts.

An intensely practical approach, it is nevertheless based on a sound and influential body of research, notably the work of Halliday (1975) in formulating a model of language in social context within the discipline he termed Systemic Functional Linguistics, and on the subsequent work of Martin (2007) who developed a pedagogical approach to literacy learning informed by genre theory. Martin (2007) asserted that a focus on literary genre would reveal the contexts which influence texts, and that these, if taught, would enable students to write culturally informed texts and thus have entry to a society’s particular cultural norms.

The Talk For Writing (2011) project makes an equally strong claim for the inclusion of all children in the learning and development of writing and what this means in terms of their place in society. The teaching sequences are essentially interactive and encourage collaboration between teacher and students and between students and their peers, wherein the students accomplish a piece of writing that is more successful than one they would produce on their own. The teacher’s role is to draw out, model and scaffold. Ongoing formative assessment is seen as central to pupil progress, with feedback to pupils at every stage both offering and eliciting from them sensitive suggestions for improvement, involving them in their own learning and raising their expectations of what they can achieve.

Martin (2007) expands on the genre-based model of literacy learning. He posits a three-stage pedagogical process in relation to a text: deconstruction, joint construction and individual construction. The interactive element is exemplified and stressed in his description of the process. In Talk For Writing the stages are referred to as Imitation, Innovation and Independent. Literacy For Pleasure’s Writing approach (read here) proposes that teachers treat the introduction of any new genre, which includes using language to produce or consume texts, as a matter best served by Talk-For-Writing and these three elements.

It is envisaged that, by systematically building on children’s knowledge of genres over the years of primary schooling, the linguistic features shaping each genre will be embedded in the children’s repertoire and can be employed both across the curriculum and beyond the school gates. However this doesn’t always seem to be the case.

What Should Come After Talk For Writing?

Writing assignments in a traditional curriculum often require explicit replication or transference of what the teacher has taught. Thus, something like the independent stage would be the end of a writing activity. We believe, however, that Talk-For-Writing’s independent stage is only the beginning. What Talk-For-Writing does so well is attend to the ‘vertical’ forms of learning. Children move from immaturity and inexperience to maturity and competence. However, we have a more expansive view of development and our approach is also concerned with the horizontal forms of learning, that of expanding children’s real-world, outside literacies. We believe that Real-Word Literacy captures both vertical and horizontal forms of expertise. It includes not only what students learn in formal learning environments but also what they learn by participating in a range of activities outside of school. After Talk-For-Writing, children should develop from it and use it as a guide in subsequent writing.

The rationale for the instructional routines within Talk-For-Writing is that they allow for a gradual release of responsibility from teacher to child (Higgins, Miller & Wegemann, 2006). Our approach, Real-Word Literacy, also allows for this. Children apply the linguistic features learned in Talk-For-Writing to the topics and themes they actually want to write about.

Currently, even in the independent phase, children are rarely, if ever, given an opportunity to follow their own ‘writing desires’ through the newly learnt genre. (This is either an issue of T4W not being clear or teachers simply not having trust in the children) The topic is nearly always in the control of the teacher and therefore just becomes another ‘writing exercise’. T4W states that only the highest-ability should be allowed to negotiate their very own writing-topic through the genre. We believe this to be mistaken. Why should the lowest ability regularly have to negotiate a teacher-chosen-topic of which they often have a very limited knowledge when compared with being an absolute expert in their own interests and experiences? This tackling of a subject not known well to the child actually makes the writing process even harder than it needs to be.

This kind of writing is more authentic because it is not simply a response to an assignment or exercise set by the teacher (a piece of literature, a film-clip or the class topic). Unfortunately, drills and exercises teach children that writing is a nonsensical activity. The language of their exercises will often be purposeless, decontextualised and trivial when compared to their lived experiences or their ‘social dreaming‘. Children begin to believe that the only evident reason for writing is to get it over with, to get it marked or because the teacher says so and that their experiences or ideas are not worthy of writing. To move away from this is a profound shift.

The transition to a Real-Word Literacy means children can constructively critique a genre, account for its cultural purpose, know and apply the grammar involved, creatively extend the genre, and go on to innovate writing on their own to serve real purposes. Through this approach, children can begin to understand how writing can help them steer their own social and academic future.

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