“All Children Can Write”: A Tribute To Donald Graves

All Children Can Write

Donald Graves: 1930 – 2010

The following article by Donald Graves (written in 1985), considered by many to be the “father” of the process approach to writing, is a classic piece on the need for a change in the way writing has typically been taught in schools. This article helped spark the movement now known as ‘The Writer’s Workshop’ or ‘Process Writing’ approach and has influenced our modern interpretation called ‘Real-World Literacy‘.

This article is excellent because Graves discusses the challenges and needs of students, clearly lays out how teachers can establish a community of writers and the writing process, and provides examples of teachers and students working together.

Donald H. Graves University of New Hampshire Learning Disabilities Focus, 1985

Many children who have learning disabilities are poor writers. They equate their struggles with handwriting, spelling, and language conventions with a lack of ideas and information worth sharing. The writing-process approach to teaching first emphasizes what children know, then the conventions that will help them share their meaning with others in the class. This approach has led to major breakthroughs for young writers, particularly those who have learning problems.

This article reexamines writing as communication for oneself and for other audiences. This process occurs in classrooms where children see how teachers demonstrate their own learning in the midst of a highly structured environment.

Four essentials to a successful writing-process program are described: the adequate provision of time (at least 4 days per week), child choice of writing topic, response to child meaning, and the establishment of a community of learners.

Continued success in teaching writing depends on teacher’s work with their own writing. Study programs, as well as additional reading materials, are suggested.

I stood at the side of Ms. Richards’ third grade classroom watching the children write. We were at the beginning of our 2-year National Institute of Education study of children’s composing processes. The school had diagnosed two of the children in Ms. Richards’ room as having severe visual-motor problems. They were not hard to find.

Both leaned over their papers, their elbows crooked at right angles to their bodies to protect the appearance of their papers. I walked over to take a closer look at one of the two children’s papers. Billy’s paper was smudged, wrinkled, letters blackened; in several instances, his paper was thinned and blackened still more where he had gone through several spelling trials on the same work. The more serious aspect of Billy’s writing profile was not his visual-motor difficulty, the appearance of his paper, or his numerous misspellings. Billy was a self-diagnosed poor writer. He connected his writing problems with a lack of worthwhile ideas and experiences. In addition, he was well-versed in what he couldn’t do.

Billy had been in a separate program emphasizing visual-motor skills, letter formation, and various fine-motor tasks. No question, using a pencil was painful and arduous for him. Teachers complained that Billy rarely completed his work and was constantly behind the others, though he seemed to be articulate. Billy’s program was skill-based, disconnected from meaning, and filled with positive reinforcement about his ability to form letters on good days. There was not attempt to connect his writing with the communication of ideas.

Children with learning disabilities often work on skills in isolation, disconnected from learning itself, and therefore disconnected from themselves as persons. Therefore, like Billy, though their skills may improve slightly in isolation, the children do not perceive the function of the skill. Worse, they do not see the skill as a means to show what they know. Skills work merely supplies additional evidence for the misconception that they are less intelligent than other children.

Billy was in a classroom that stressed writing as a process. This meant the children received help from the time they chose a topic to the time they completed their final work. Ms. Richards played the believing game, starting with what Billy knew, particularly his experiences. In fact, Billy’s breakthrough as a writer came when his teacher discovered his interest in and knowledge of gardening. As Ms. Richards helped him to teach her about this subject, she learned how to plant, cultivate, water, fertilize, and provide special care for certain varieties of tomatoes. Although Billy wrote more slowly than the other children, he became lost in his subject, forgot about his poor spelling and handwriting, ceased to cover his paper, and wrote a piece filled with solid information about gardening. Once Billy connected writing with knowing-his knowing- it was then possible to work with his visual motor and spelling problems, but as incidental to communicating information.

Ms. Richards is now one of the thousands of teachers who teach writing as a process in the United States and the English speaking world. New research and publications, university courses, and numerous summer institutes, are now helping teachers and administrators to find out for themselves what students can do when they focus on the meaning of their writing. Much of the focus of these institutes and courses is on the teachers’ own writings: most of us had to rediscover the power of writing for ourselves before we could learn to hear what these young writers had to teach us.

Although writing-process work helps all writers, it seems to be particularly successful with people who see themselves as disenfranchised from literacy. I place in this group learners like Billy who have diagnosed learning disabilities and the accompanying “I-don’t-know-anything” syndrome.

The writing-process approach to teaching focuses on children’s ideas and helps children teach the teacher or other children in the class what they know, with emphasis first given to ideas and clarifying. This is the first experience many children have with other humans who work hard to point to what they know, instead of what is lacking in the message. Small wonder then that the writing process works best with the disenfranchised, who become a bit giddy at the prospect of seeing their words on paper affecting the thinking of others.

Understanding writing as communication is the heart of teaching the writing process. This article will first focus on the nature of writing, look in greater detail at research on the writing process itself, examine two principles in teaching writing, and then describe four basics in establishing a writing program. It also has a brief section on further reading and recommendations for summer programs for people interested in continuing their study of the writing process.

What Is Writing?

Writing is a medium with which people communicate with themselves and with others at other places and times. When I write, I write to learn what I know because I don’t know fully what I mean until I order the words on paper. Then I see … and know. Writers’ first attempts to make sense are crude, rough approximations of what they mean. Writing makes sense of things for oneself, then for others.

Children can share their writing with others by reading aloud, by chatting with friends while writing, or (in more permanent form) by publishing. Billy found that writing carried a different authority from spoken words. When he took the gardening piece out in December, he found that words written in September could be savored 3 months later. Furthermore, when he read the published books of other children in his room, he began to realize that his book on gardening was read by others when he wasn’t present.

Written language is different from oral language. When Billy speaks, he reinforces his meaning by repeating words and phrases. Unlike when he writes, an audience is present; when the audience wanders or indicates disagreement, he changes his message with words, hand signals, facial expressions, and body posture. This is the luxury of oral discourse. “Error,” adjustment, and experimentation are an expected part of oral discourse.

There is a different tradition surrounding most teaching of writing. Only one attempt, one draft is allowed to communicate full meaning (without an audience response). Red-lined first drafts are the norm; we blanch at any misspellings or crudely formed letters.

Still worse, writing has been used as a form of punishment: “Write your misspelled worry 25 times.” (This is called reinforcement of visual-memory systems.); “Write one hundred times, I will not chew gum in school”‘, “Write a 300 word composition on how you will improve your attitude toward school.” Most teachers teaching in 1985 were bathed in the punishment syndrome when they were learning to write. Small wonder that most of us subtly communicate writing as a form of punishment. We have known no other model of teaching.

The Writing Process

When children use a meaning-centered approach to writing, they compose in idiosyncratic ways. Each child’s approach to composing is different from the next. Some draw first, write two words, and in 10 minutes or less announce, “I’m done.” Others draw after writing or do not write at all; instead, they speak with a neighbor about what they will write. Some stare out the window or at the blank page and write slowly after 20 minutes of reflection. At some point in their development, writers believe one picture and two words beneath the drawing contain an entire story. In the writer’s mind, the story is complete; members of the audience shake their heads and try to work from drawing to text and back to understand the author’s intent.

Such idiosyncratic approaches by children seem capricious to outsiders, confusing to children, and bewildering to us as teachers. We intervene with story starters to “get them going,” produce pictures as stimuli for writing, and consult language arts texts for language activities. The texts provide “systematic” approaches, often through the teaching of the sentence, advance to two sentences, and finally development of the paragraph. Our detailed observation of young children writing shows they simply don’t learn that way. Rather, they write three sentences in one in their first year, not understanding where one sentence ends and the other begins. Studies of children’s understanding and use of sentences show they don’t acquire full sentence sense until much later (about fifth grade).

The most pernicious aspect of teacher interventions is that children begin to learn early on that others need to supply topics because they come to the page with nothing in their heads. A focus on skills and form to the exclusion of child initiated meaning further confirms their lack of fit with the writing process.

Prepared materials seek to reduce the stress and the uncertainty that writers face when they encounter the blank page. But the attempt to produce certainty through standardization by-passes the opportunity for child growth. There is good reason to expect tension when a child first writes.

When writers write, they face themselves on the blank page. That clean white piece of paper is like a mirror. When I put words on the page, I construct an image of myself on that whiteness. I may not like my spelling, handwriting, choice of words, aesthetics, or general cleanliness of the page. Until I can begin to capture what I want to say, I have to be willing to accept imperfection and ambiguity. If I arrive at the blank page with a writing history filled with problems, I am already predisposed to run from what I see. I try to hide my paper, throw it away, or mumble to myself, “This is stupid.” But with every dangerous, demanding situation, there is an opportunity to learn. Teachers who follow and accompany children as they compose help them to deal with what they see on the page. The reason writing helps children with learning disabilities is that they do far more than learn to write: They learn to come to terms with a new image of themselves as thinkers-thinkers with a message to convey to the world.

Teaching Writing- Two Basic Principles

After 12 years of working with writing research and the teaching of writing, I have found two principles essential for effective teaching of writing:

  1. The teacher teaches most by showing how he/she learns, and
  2. the teacher provides a highly structured classroom.

The best demonstration of how teachers learn is through their gathering of information from the children. They place the children in the position of teaching them what they know, usually through conferences. “Now you say that you have to be careful how deep you plant lettuce, Billy. Can you tell me more about that? And do you think the precise depth should be in your piece for the other children? Will they want to know that?” Billy’s teacher has shown him how she learns and how he should learn to listen to questions he soon will be able to ask himself.

Ms. Richards, Billy’s teacher, has a basic lifestyle of learning from everyone. Whether seated next to someone on a plane, in the teachers’ room, or talking informally with children, she wants to be taught; in a lifetime she has learned how important it is to help others to teach her. People leave Ms. Richards’ presence surprised they knew so much about their subjects.

Ms. Richards’ classroom is a highly structured, predictable classroom. Children who learn to exercise choice and responsibility can function only in a structured room. Furthermore, the up-and-down nature of the writing process itself demands a carefully defined room. Predictability means that writing occurs daily, at set times, with the teacher moving in the midst of the children, listening to their intentions, worries, and concerns. They know she will be nearby attending to their work. She rarely addresses the entire class during writing time. She works hard to establish a studio atmosphere. Predictability also means she won’t solve problems for them. Rather, she asks how they might approach the problem. She listens, clarifies their intentions and their problems, and moves on.

Children learn to take responsibility not only for their topics, content of their drafts, and final copy, but also for carrying out classroom decisions. A structured classroom requires an organized teacher who has set the room up to run itself. The teacher has already made a list of the things to be done to help the room function. From September through June, he/she gradually passes on those duties to the children. Attendance, caring for room plants and animals, room cleanliness, lunch lines, desk supervision, and cleaning are but a few examples of these delegations. When room structure and routine do not function well, the teacher and students plan together for the best way to make it function more smoothly. Ms. Richards’ room is based on extensive preparation in room design and knowledge of materials, the children, and the process by which they learn to take responsibility.

Teachers who function well in teaching the writing process are interested in what children have to teach them. Writing-process teaching is responsive, demanding teaching that helps children solve problems in the writing process and in the classroom.

Carrying Out A Writing-Process Program

I am often asked, “What are the essentials to strong writing programs?” Although the list could be extensive, I think that if teachers understand the following four components, their writing programs will serve the children well. These components are adequate provision of time, child choice of topic, responsive teaching, and the establishment of a classroom community, a community that has learned to help itself.

Time

Our data show that children need to write a minimum of 4 days a week to see any appreciable change in the quality of their writing. It takes that amount of writing to contribute to their personal development as learners. Unless children write at least 4 days a week, they won’t like it. Once-a-week writing (the national average is about 1 day in 8) merely reminds them they can’t write; they never write often enough to listen to their writing. Worse, the teacher simply has no access to the children. He/she has to scurry madly around the room trying to reach each child. With little access to the children, the teacher can’t help them take responsibility, solve problems for them, or listen to their responses and questions. The very important connection between speaking and writing is lost.

Although teaching writing 4 to 5 times a week helps the teacher, it helps the children even more. When children write on a daily basis, we find they write when they aren’t writing. Children get into their subjects, thinking about their texts and topics when they are riding on buses, lying in bed, watching television, reading books, or taking trips. When they write regularly, papers accumulate. There is visible evidence they know and are growing. They gain experience in choosing topics and very soon have more topics to write about than class time can accommodate. Children with learning problems need even more time. They need to listen to themselves with help from the teacher. In summary, regular writing helps:

  1. Children choose topics,
  2. Children listen to their pieces and revise,
  3. Children help each other,
  4. Teachers listen to child texts,
  5. Skills develop in the context of child pieces,
  6. Teachers to have greater access to children.

Topic Choice

The most important thing children can learn is what they know and how they know it. Topic choice, a subject the child is aware that they know something about, is at the heart of success in writing. Billy struggled with handwriting and spelling and equated those problems with not knowing topics to write about. When his teacher helped him to discover his knowledge and interest in gardening, he began to write, first haltingly, then with greater flow. He was open to help with spelling and handwriting when he knew he had something to say. Skills are important; learning disabilities cannot be ignored, but neither can teachers or researchers forget that writing exists to communicate with self and others.

“How can I get the child to write? Do you have any good motivators?” are frequent questions asked of me in workshops. The word get embraces the problem. There are thousands of “motivators” on the market in the form of story starters, paragraph starters, computer software, animated figures, picture starters, and exciting “sure-fire” interest getters. We forget that children are very sophisticated consumers of motivators from Saturday morning television alone. Worse, motivators teach the child that the best stimulus comes from the outside. Writing actually demands dozens of motivators during the course of composing, but they are motivators that can only be supplied by the writer himself. All children have important experiences and interests they can learn to tap through writing. If children are to become independent learners, we have to help them know what they know; this process begins with helping children to choose their own topics.

Very young children, ages 5 through 7, have very little difficulty choosing topics, especially if they write every day. As children grow older and experience the early effects of audience, even under favorable learning conditions, they begin to doubt what they know. From that point on, all writers go through a kind of doubting game about the texts they produce. They learn to read better and are more aware of the discrepancy between their texts and their actual intentions. If, however, overly severe, doubting teachers are added to the internal doubts of the child, writing becomes still more difficult.

If children write every day and share their writing, we find they use each other as the chief stimulus for topic selection. If teachers write with their children, demonstrating the origin of their topics, and surround the children with literature, topic selection is even easier.

Topic selection is helped through daily journal writing where children take 10 minutes to record their thoughts. Teachers may also give 5- to 10-minute writing assignments, such as: “Write about how you think our room could be improved” just following a discussion about how the room could be improved with the entire class or “That upsets you? Well, blast away on paper with the first thoughts that come to mind. But write it for you; if you feel like showing it to me, okay.” The teacher finds many occasions where it is useful to record thoughts and opinions on paper. Each of these approaches demonstrates what writing is for, as well as helping the children to have access to what they know and think.

Response

People write to share, whether with themselves or others. Writers need audiences to respond to their messages. The response confirms for the writer that the text fits his/her intentions. First, the teacher provides an active audience for the writer by confirming what he/she understands in the text and then by asking a few clarifying questions. Second, the teacher helps the entire class to learn the same procedure during group share time. Each writing period ends with two or three children sharing their pieces with the group while the group follows the discipline of first pointing to what is in the text, then asking questions to learn more about the author’s subject. All of these responses, whether by the teacher or the other children, are geared to help writers learn to listen to their own texts.

While the children are writing, Billy’s teacher moves around the room, responding to their work in progress. Here is an interchange Ms. Richards had with Billy about his piece “My Garden.” (The child’s text is presented, followed by the conference with the teacher.)

My Grdan

I help my Dad with the grdan ferstyou have to dig it up an than you rake an get the racks out of it. Than you make ros an you haveto be cerfull to make it deep enuff so the letis will come up.

Ms. Richards first receives the piece by saying what she understands about what Billy has written. She may also have him read the writing aloud to her:

Ms. Richards: You’ve been working hard, Billy. I see that you work with your dad on your garden. You know just what you do; you dig it up, rake it to get the rocks out, and then you have to be careful how deep you plant things. Did I get that right?

Billy: Yup.

Ms. Richards: Well, I was wondering, Billy. You say that the lettuce has to be planted deep enough so the lettuce will come up. Could you tell me more about that? I haven’t planted a garden for a long time.

Billy: Well, If you plant it too deep, it won’t come up. Lettuce is just near the top.

Ms. Richards: Oh, I see and did you plant some other things in your garden?

Billy: Yup, carrots, beans, turnips (I hate ’em), spinach (that, too) beets, and tomatoes; I like tomatoes.

Ms. Richards: That’s quite a garden, Billy. And what will you be writing here next?

Billy: You have to water it once you plant it.

Ms. Richards: Then you already know what you’ll be doing, don’t you.

There are many problems with Billy’s text: misspelled words, run on sentences, missing capitalizations, and incomplete information. But Billy has just started writing his piece. Therefore, Ms. Richards works on word flow, helping Billy to know that he knows something about his subject and that he has a clear understanding of what he will do next. Later, when his piece is finished, she will choose one skill to teach within the context of his topic. Above all, she works hard to help Billy teach her about his subject, to keep control of the topic in his hands, no matter how uncertain Billy might feel about his subject.

Notice that Ms. Richards has spent no more than a minute and a half in response. She then moves to other children while responding in the same manner, receiving a text and asking questions. As she moves to different children in other parts of the room (she does not move in rotation or down rows; the movement appears to be random), the other children can hear that the teacher expects them to help her with what they know. Lengthy responses tend to take the writing away from the child. For example, if Ms. Richards were to say, “I had a garden once, Billy. I planted all kinds of things too: I planted cabbages, those same turnips, yellow beans, pole beans, and corn. Yes, It’s hard work,” she’d be identifying with Billy’s garden and the hard work that goes into it, but she’s now the informant. Such sharing should come only when his piece is completed and his authorship of this piece established.

Ms. Richards’ statement is specific. When she receives Billy’s text, she uses the actual words he has composed on the page. All writers need to know their words (the actual words on the page) affect other people. Notice that very little praise is given to Billy in this type of response. Instead, the listener, Ms. Richards, points with interest to the words; they are strong enough for her to understand and to remember them. The use of specifics, rather than the exclusive use of praise, is a fundamental issue in helping Billy to maintain control of his piece, as well as to take more responsibility for his text.

Establish A Community Of Writers

Writing is a social act. If social actions are to work, then the establishment of a community is essential. A highly predictable classroom is required if children are to learn to take responsibility and become a community of learners who help each other. Writing is an unpredictable act requiring predictable classrooms both in structure and response.

Children with learning disabilities often have histories of emotional problems. Many have become isolated and feel very little sense of community. They themselves may produce unpredictable classrooms. Their histories in taking responsibility are equally strewn with failure. Notions of choice and responsibility are threatening and require careful work on a broad front. The following ingredients help to build a structured, predictable community of more independent writers.

  1. Write daily, at the same time if possible, for a minimum of 30 minutes.
  2. Work to establish each child’s topical turf, an area of expertise for each writer.
  3. Collect writing in folders so that writers can see the accumulation of what they know. Papers do not go home; rather, the collected work is present in class for student, teacher, parent, and administrator to examine. Some writing is published in hardcover or some more durable form.
  4. Provide a predictable pattern of teacher participation by sharing your own writing, moving in the midst of students during writing time, and responding in predictable structure to your students’ writing.
  5. End each writing time with children responding to each other’s writing in a predictable format: receiving, questioning.
  6. Set up classroom routines in which you examine the entire day to see which responsibilities can be delegated to the children. Solve room problems in discussion. The group learns to negotiate, whether in working with a draft or solving a classroom problem.
  7. Continually point to the responsibilities assumed by the group, as well as the specifics of what they know.

The writing classroom is a structured, predictable room in which children learn to make decisions. The external structure is geared to produce a confident, internal thinking framework within which children learn what they know and develop their own Initiative.

Continuing Education Of Professionals

Most teachers have been drawn into process work because they have seen significant personal growth by their students with learning problems. Students who lacked confidence and initiative and were disenfranchised from literacy learn to write, share their writing with others, and take charge of their own learning. Although some teachers may wish to start work on the writing process based on this article, I suggest additional reading and work with their own writing.

The single most important help to teachers who work with young writers is work with the teacher’s own writing. Both the National Writing Project and our work here at the University of New Hampshire stress work with the teacher’s own writing. Thus teachers become acquainted with writing from the inside by actually doing it themselves. It would be unheard of for a piano teacher, a ceramicist, or an artist working with water colors to teach someone their craft without practising it themselves. Most of us have had little instruction in learning the craft of writing. We’ve written term papers, letter, and proposals, but we haven’t worked with someone who has helped us to know what we know, then showed us how that knowledge is increased through the writing process.

Final Reflection

Before children go to school, their urge to express is relentless. They learn to speak and to carry messages from one person to another. They burst into their homes to tell what just happened outside. They compose in blocks, play games, mark on sidewalks, and play with pencils or crayons. For most children, early audiences are receptive: adults struggle to make sense of the child’s early attempts to communicate.

When children enter school, their urge to express is still present. A few enter already scarred from attempts to communicate with others. But the urge to be, to make a mark on the universe, has not left them. As children grow older and spend more time in school, many become still more disenchanted with writing. They can’t keep up with the rest of the class and equate their struggles with handwriting, spelling, and early conventions as evidence that their ideas are unacceptable and that they are less intelligent than others. Even for these children, the urge to express, to make worthwhile contributions, to express a meaning that affects others, does not go away.

The most critical factor for children with learning disabilities is the meaning-making question. Teachers need to first believe they know important information, then work overtime to confirm for the child the importance of that information. The children see their teachers write; they see and hear them struggle for meaning on an easel or overhead projector as they compose before them. The children become apprentices to the use of words.

When children write, they make mistakes on the road to communicating their messages. The teacher’s first response is to the meaning. Before a piece is completed, the teacher chooses one skill that will enhance the meaning of the piece still further. From the beginning, the teacher works to build a strong history for writers through collections of all their work, some publishing, and the writers’ effective sharing with other members of the class.

Most teaching of writing is pointed toward the eradication of error, the mastery of minute, meaningless components that make little sense to the child. Small wonder. Most language arts texts, workbooks, computer software, and reams of behavioral objectives are directed toward the “easy” control of components that will show more specific growth. Although some growth may be evident on components, rarely does it result in the child’s use of writing as a tool for learning and enjoyment. Make no mistake, component skills are important; if children do not learn to spell or use a pencil to get words on paper, they won’t use writing for learning any more than the other children drilled on component skills. The writing-process approach simply stresses meaning first, and then skills in the context of meaning. Learning how to respond to meaning and to understand what teachers need to see in texts takes much preparation.

The writing process places high demands on the teacher. The room is carefully designed for developing student independence: Decisions are discussed, responsibilities assigned and assumed. Routines are carefully established with writing becoming a very important part of the room’s predictability. Initially, response to the child’s writing is predictable with receiving of the child’s text, followed by questions of clarification, and the child’s next step in the writing process.

Teachers who use the writing process to greatest advantage spend time working with their own writing. They read and become involved in many of the National Institutes that are helping teachers use writing as a tool for their own learning. Soon they find their students’ learning careers change as well.

If you’ve enjoyed this article and the wise words of Donald Graves, we highly recommend that you purchase his fantastic book Writing: Teachers & Children At Work

You can also watch him being interviewed here:

Article adapted from: http://www.ldonline.org/article/6204

Teaching The Writing Process Is The Best Way To Improve Children’s Writing.

 The Writing Process

Research clearly states that teaching children the writing process in an explicit way is the best way to improve their writing outcomes. So how is this done? As we have discussed briefly here, Frank Smith describes the two roles involved in writing as being: the author and the secretary.

The Author

When children are in author mode they are concerned with generating ideas, organising thoughts, and arranging selected words and sentences appropriately and effectively.

The Secretary

When in the secretary mode, the child is more concerned with the transcription of the writing (e.g. using correct spelling, capitalisation, handwriting and punctuation).

Process Writing – The Writing Workshop – Real World Literacy

The Real-World Literacy approach recognises the importance of both the author and secretary roles. In our approach, children nearly always choose their own topics, write for real audiences and purposes. It is this motivation which makes children want to develop the skills needed to write effectively, conventionally and creatively.

This Process Writing approach originated from the work of Donald Graves and has been moved forward and exemplified by The Writing Workshop model popularised by Nancie Atwell.

Here is a beautiful interview with the master, the legend, the original writer-teacher, Donald Graves:

The Real-World Literacy approach emphasizes writing fluency, including techniques that improve a student’s ability to get words down on paper. It promotes frequent writing in contexts that are meaningful and authentic to the children. The intended reader is emphasized as both peers and teachers provide feedback, either in writing or in Pupil Conferences.

Our approach encourages the use of the students’ or your own writing as mentor texts for the teaching of composition and conventions. In the process approach, a teacher cannot teach writing without use of a student’s or their own writing. Research consistently shows this to be vital in terms of children’s writing process.

The stages of the writing process are:

  1. Generating ideas,
  2. Planning,
  3. Vomit drafting,
  4. Revising,
  5. Editing,
  6. Publishing.

Due to the nature of writing, children quickly learn and can be taught that these stages may overlap.

  • In the generating ideas stage, students consider what will interest, motivate and stimulate them and their readers.
  • In the planning stage, students plan and organise their writing (e.g., brainstorming, drawing or boxing-up).
  • During the Vomit Drafting stage, students create drafts of their writing pieces -potentially many.
  • In the revising stage, (the often forgotten stage) teachers encourage their student writers to make substantial improvements to the piece (i.e., thinking about the reader, using certain linguistic and grammatical features and genre-features). Peers and others often provide feedback to the author during this stage.
  • The apprentice writers in your class then assume the secretary role during the editing stage, focusing on correcting mechanical errors such as punctuation, spelling, and capitalisation.
  • The publishing stage can take many forms ranging from: contributing to the class library, entering writing competitions and sending it through the post to other interested and relevant readers.

Again, students may progress through the stages linearly or they may return to
previous ones (e.g., even after “publishing,” a piece could go through revision again), alternating between the author and secretary roles fluidly, and, through our Real-World Literacy approach, independently.

I’m sure you already do most, if not all, of these stages in your classroom but research shows that actually taking time out of lessons to teach aspects of the writing process is the way of improving your children’s writing outcomes significantly.

This is because newly acquired learning in writing can only ever be maintained and developed if children connect it with regular free-writing opportunities. If new writing skills are given the chance to be reinforced in a variety of genres and situations, increased application and transformation of these new writing skills is likely. This basically means regularly teaching an aspect of the writing process and then allowing children to apply and use it in their (regular) writing time. This forms the basis of Real World Literacy.

Each stage of the writing process gives teachers an opportunity to implement instruction that will increase the likelihood of excellent writing outcomes.

Consider this: according to Baer (1999), “no one learns a generalised lesson unless a generalised lesson is taught“. For example, a student who successfully writes a short-story in October may not maintain that ability through June – not without deliberate efforts to provide opportunities for regular practice. This is why our Genre-Booklets are so important.

Genre-Booklets

These are booklets which children take from the class library whenever they want to and which show them how to write in a specific genre. All children are given time to practise writing in these common and popular genres every week. As a result, their ability to write them well and independently increases vastly.

Building into your classroom strategies for promoting generalised outcomes such as this is what Real-World Literacy is all about. It provides children with specific strategies for generalisation and application of all the skills a writer needs. They can be used quickly, often, independently, at school or at home and for pleasure. We have built these strategies into each stage of the writing process: generating ideas, vomit drafting, revising, editing, and publishing.

Some of which we have already shared on this blog:

Self-Regulated Strategy Instruction & Improvements In Our Children’s Writing.

The Self-Regulated Strategy Development model can help teachers incorporate self-regulatory training into their writing pedagogy.

Many children struggle to coordinate the multiple cognitive and self-regulatory demands
of the writing process. Below we describe how the Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) model of instruction, which combines the explicit teaching of writing strategies with instruction in self-regulatory skills has been used in our classroom this year to great effect.

Self-regulation can be learned:

  • by being taught directly through instruction,
  • through repeated practice,
  • indirectly through sheer experience and observation of others.

What Has Been Given ‘Self-Regulated Strategy Instruction’ In Our Writing Classroom This Year:

  • Generating Ideas (using the 10-Ideas Sheet)
  • Boxing-Up (using our Genre-Booklets)
  • Vomit Drafting (Using our Vomit Draft rules – checking for ‘unsure’ spellings, punctuation and ‘sticky bits’),
  • Revision Tips Sheet (using certain grammatical or linguistic features)
  • Editing Checklist (proof-reading for spellings, capitalisation and other punctuation)
  • Publishing (using  The Cursive Script Examplar)

How The ‘Self-Regulated Strategy Instruction’ Was Delivered

  • Discuss It (explain why authors use these techniques)
  • Model It (show them how it is done)
  • Support It (through Pupil-Conferencing)
  • Independent Performance (give children the resources to carry it out on their own for the whole year)
  • ‘Held’ understanding – adapt these resources in future year groups to make children’s transitions even easier. E.g. have ‘Boxing-Ups’, ‘The Vomit Draft Rules’, ‘Revision Tips Sheets’, ‘Editing Checklists’ and ‘Cursive Script Exemplars’ for every year group.

As a result of setting up these resources, the children can now see a piece of writing through from generating an original idea all the way to publish – completely independently. They will attend to all aspects of composition and transcription in the process.

If you have liked what you have read here and would like to read more about our approach to writing which we call ‘Real-World 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

References:

Teaching The Writing Process:

  • Atwell, N., (2015), In the middle USA: Heinemann
  • Bloodgood, J., (2002) Quintilian: A classical educator speaks to the writing process In Reading Research and Instruction, 42:1, 30-43
  • Calkins, L. (1998) The art of teaching writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Casey, M., & Hemenway, S. I. (2001). Structure and Freedom: Achieving a Balanced Writing Curriculum.The English Journal, 90(6), 68
  • Gardner, P (2011) The Reluctant Writer in the Primary Classroom: an investigation of mind mapping and other pre-writing strategies to overcome reluctance. Bedford: The Bedford Charity
  • Graham, S., & Sandmel, K. (2011). The Process Writing Approach: A Meta-analysi In The Journal of Educational Research, 104(6), 396-407
  • Graves, D., (2003), 20th Ed, Writing: Teachers & Children At WorkUSA: Heinemann
  • Jasmine, J., & Weiner, W. (2007). The Effects of Writing Workshop on Abilities of First Grade Students to Become Confident and Independent Writers In Early Childhood Education Journal Early Childhood, 35(2), 131-139
  • Levitt, R., Kramer-Vida, L., Palumbo, A., & Kelly, S. P. (2014). Professional Development: A Skills Approach to a Writing Workshop In.The New Educator, 10(3), 248-264.
  • McQuitty, V., (2014) Process-Oriented Writing Instruction in Elementary Classrooms Evidence of Effective Practices from the Research Literature In Writing & Pedagogy6.3 467-495
  • Porcaro, J. J., & Johnson, K. G. (2003). Building a Whole-Language Writing Program In Kappa Delta Pi Record, 39(2), 74-79.
  • Taylor, M. M. (2000). Nancie Atwell’s “In the Middle” and the Ongoing Transformation of the Writing Workshop In The English Journal, 90(1), 46.
  • Tompkins, G. E. (2011). Teaching writing: Balancing process and product. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Writing As A Craft – Writing Everyday

  • 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
  • National Commission on Writing (2003) The Neglected R: The Need For A Writing Revolution America’s Schools & Colleges
  • 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

Is The Trick In The Publishing? Reflecting On Why The Children Are Writing With Such Care & Attention.

Don’t Underestimate The Power Of Publishing: It’s The Key To High-Quality Independent Writing

As part of our independent writers blog series, we’ve been reflecting on why the children in our class write the way they do.

We recently asked the children why they take so much care over the editing of their pieces – particularly their spellings and it was interesting to hear their responses.

  • More people will read your work.
  • Improves my work for the people who read it.
  • I don’t do it for you – I do it for my readers.
  • I want my reader to read it all.
  • I want everyone in the class to understand it.

Then one of our students said this:

  • If I know it’s not going into the class-library, I wouldn’t bother to edit it so well.

Then the children started reflecting on how writing was taught to them in their previous years:

  • We were writing for nothing.
  • I would have been better if we’d been able to publish.
  • We couldn’t do anything with our writing.
  • We did neat copies but no one saw them.
  • I didn’t know what publishing was.

I then asked who would still edit their work carefully if they knew it wasn’t going to be published. Only 5/33 said they would. The reasons why they still would were that it would ‘help them for the future’ (as opposed to the present!) or that they would do it for their own sense of satisfaction. Worryingly though were the 28/33  that said they wouldn’t bother to edit so well. 25/33 said that they edited well because they knew their friends would be reading it. Perhaps this is why you’re not getting the writing outcomes you want from the children in your class?

Interestingly, 30/33 of my class wished they had been taught to proof-read, edit and publish earlier than year 5.

31/33 of my pupils believed it was important for their writing development that they be allowed to publish work into the class book stock. Only 2/33 said they didn’t mind if their work stayed within their literacy books alone.

We didn’t touch on the impact publishing must also have on their desire to compose great pieces, but if one takes the view that children generally consider editing to be the least enjoyable and interesting part of writing and yet they have such a conscientious attitude towards it when they are allowed to publish – then we can reasonably assume that publishing makes a massive difference to children’s writing outcomes more generally too.

So if you want your children to write with a bit more care and attention, you should consider allowing them to regularly publish their writing into your class library.

In our class, we have anthologies for the different genres the children tend to write in – these include:

  1. Flash-Fiction,
  2. Memoir,
  3. Poems,
  4. Information Texts,
  5. Book Reviews,
  6.  Match Reports.

You can read more about how we get the children to edit their work by going here.

To find out more about our approach to teaching writing, which we call ‘Real-World Literacy’, 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

If In Doubt, Circle It Out! How To Create A Class Of Independent Spellers

This is another post in our series on the topic of creating independent writers.

The Standards & Testing Agency have in some ways made the marking of spellings more problematic than it’s ever been. They state quite clearly, that individual spellings should no longer be pointed out to children if you wish to mark it as an independent piece. This, coupled with Ofsted’s move away from heavy amounts of marking needing to be seen in books, could make the marking of spelling seem tricky.

What the The Standards & Testing Agency do say is that you can tell a child, through marking, that there are spelling errors in certain paragraphs that they’ve written. I actually think this is quite sensible if we wish to develop children as independent spellers.

How we have tried to create a culture of independent spellers in our classroom is by splitting up the writing process for children – and you can read more about that here. Regardless of the particular style the children like to write in, Vomitter, Paragraph Piler or Sentence Stacker, they have to ensure they attend to their spellings.

We taught the children, at the very beginning of the year, that when they are writing and they get to a word they want to use but can’t spell, they are to:

Invent It -> Circle It -> Continue.

According to Burns et al, (1999), invented spellings plays an important role in helping children learn how to write. When children use invented spellings, that are in fact exercising their growing knowledge of phonemes, the letters of the alphabet, and their confidence in the alphabetic principle. It also indicates that the child is thinking on their own about the relationship between letters, sounds and words.

Once at the editing stage, they then attend to these spellings by looking them up on the computer, using a dictionary, their electronic speller checker or by using their vocab book. This has proved very successful in identifying maybe 80% of spelling errors within in a piece.

Untitled

If In Doubt, Circle It Out

Now, at the end of a writing session, we also give the children around 5 minutes to ‘If In Doubt, Circle It Out’. This is where the children, alongside their talk-partner, circle any ‘unsure’ spellings – spellings they think they might need to attend to at the editing stage. This takes care of a further 15% of spellings. Finally, we, as the teachers, will then look to identify where the last 5% spellings may be hiding!

We should add that the children in our class take the editing of their work quite seriously because they know they may well want to publish it into our class library. We talk about the importance of publishing in developing independent writers – here. 

To find out more about our approach to teaching writing, which we call ‘Real-World Literacy’, 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

They Won’t Have Anything To Write About: The Dangers Of Believing Pupils Are ‘Culturally Deprived’.

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 it 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.

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).

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

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 genre 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 disadvantaged (Myhill, 2005).

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.

Through our Real-Word 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.

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

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, 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.
    • 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
    • Smith, Clint. (2016) The danger of silence Available Online: [http://www.ted.com/talks/clint_smith_the_danger_of_silence#t-242155]

Why The Use Of Writing Stimuli & Class Book Topics Are Damaging Children’s Writing Potential.

Why The Use Of Writing Stimuli & Class Book Topics Are Damaging Children’s Writing Potential. 

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 that the provision by teachers of cross-curricular ‘topics’ or ‘writing stimuli’ for writing in school is often inhibiting the desire to write, which therefore affects the quality of the writing. Luckily, there is another way of offering topic choice which can redress this sad state of affairs.

If you agree with Donald Graves’ assertion, the question you will ask yourself is: what do children want to write? It is our belief that all children have experiences and interests in their own lives which they can bring to writing, and that teachers should 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 typical writing pedagogy, according to research (Dockrell, et al, 2015), the choice of topic is almost always chosen by the teacher. It states that ‘virtually no teacher reported not using them‘ Children are therefore all too often subjected to external ‘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 are then expected to respond. In this way, their own desires are not realised. They learn they are only ever to be consumers of writing as opposed to authentic producers. 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 teachers feel they must be responsible for providing older children with a stimulus in which to write (inauthentically)?

Writing tasks set by the teacher are very often derived from the foundation subjects such as history or geography, and are thus termed ‘cross-curricular’ topics. There is probably no rationale for this beyond simply providing 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 teachers may see cross-curricular writing as an opportunity for children to show their understanding of a geographical location or an historical event(s). Maybe they 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,  these lessons produce neither a decent historical/geographical piece of writing nor a good literary one. This is because children are effectively being asked to make an imaginative leap into someone else’s psyche or produce writing on the basis of new and very limited knowledge. On top of this they also have to 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.

The question we are asking is why 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?

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!

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. Teachers find it difficult to relinquish apparent control and pass the responsibility to their pupils (a question of trust). They fear that children’s self-chosen themes will be superficial or trivial (again, a lack of trust).They may 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 them 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.

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

Finally, if you are interested in the research which underpins our advocacy for authentic topic choice, you may want to peruse our references below:
References:
  • 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
  • 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
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In Teaching Writing – How Important Is It That Teachers Be Writers Too?

In drafting for this blog post I wrote down the following bullet points:

  • Do and should teachers write and share their own exemplars of texts they expect children to go on and write?
  • Do teachers take part in the writing process when they write; if so, do they share their process with their children? For example do they show children pages from their notebook? Their plans, their drafts, their revisions, their edits and their final publications?
  • Do teachers share hints and tips from their own writing process with children?

‘The main requirements are easily stated. We, as teachers, must provide an environment in which a child will want to write and in which a child can learn about writing. 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 ‘there are things that can be done.’ (Frank Smith, 1982, p.201)

I think it is important that teachers try to write in certain genres for themselves; particularly the ones they are asking children to write in. Children – like adults – read stories, poems, information differently when they see these texts as things they themselves could produce. This not only helps the teacher understand the writing they are asking the children to do – and so provide them with real advice but it also helps children view their teacher as a real author, with real experience. So:

  • Show children finished writing in the genre you are asking them to write in. Sometimes also share your plans and drafts.
  • Share with them how you followed the typical features in a genre.
  • Show them some of your writing tricks.
  • Share with children some texts that aren’t quite working out for you – seek their advice.
  • Regularly and systematically provide opportunity for children to talk to you about their writing in pupil-conferencing. Talk about their writing in real-time as opposed to leaving it to ‘after-the-event’ written feedback – which often comes too late for children to act on the advice given.
  • When giving writing conferences to children – you will talk to them and advise them like a real writer – because you will have been there yourself when you wrote your piece.

For children to see themselves as writers, they need to collaborate with someone who is more experienced than them to learn from.

Children tend not to write well if they are not interested or see themselves as writers. That is why it is our responsibility, as teachers, to demonstrate to children that writing is interesting, possible, achieves something and is worthwhile. There is no way of helping children if the teacher themselves is a fraud – who doesn’t believe writing is interesting, possible, achieves something or worthwhile.

As Frank Smith (1988) puts it: ‘Teachers who are not themselves members of the club cannot admit children to it’.

Teachers must read like writers, they must collaborate with their children who are willingly engaged in the enterprise of writing. For most teachers this should be easy – write with their own students and offer them writing conferences whilst they are writing. Share your own expertise. When I write poetry with children, I begin to read poetry differently. I’m reading like a member of the club of poets. And if we can make children feel like they are members of the club too, they can learn this too.