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 (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 (Grainger, 2013). I often wonder how these teachers come to know these features of children’s home lives? 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).

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 (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. 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, 2013, 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. 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 controlling the writing stimulus. The use of these external stimuli 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 (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.

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. Teach 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.

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.

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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
    • Edelsky, C. (2006) With Literacy and Justice for All: Rethinking the Social in
      Language and Education (3rd edition). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence
      Erlbaum.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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
    • 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]

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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