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? They actually don’t and in terms of writing they really don’t want to find out either (Grainger et al 2003, 2005, Fisher, 2006). 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 (Dyson, 2003, Krees, 1997).

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.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.

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
    • 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
    • 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]

What If Almost Everything We Thought About The Teaching Of Writing Was Wrong?

Why Do We Write?

Language merely reflects our way of trying to make sense of the world. – Frank Smith

Frank Smith (1982) says ‘writing touches every part of our lives‘.

  1. One of the first reasons we write is because it is a tool for communication in culture. It gives us the ability the share information over time and space with multiple individuals (explaining, recounting & opinion).
  2. It can also be used as a permanent record or as a statement e.g. in history, geography  & science genres.
  3. The third cultural aspect for writing is artistry (narrative and poetry).
  4. Finally, there is also the personal aspect to writing. Writing allows us all to reflect, express our perceptions of self, to socially dream or to be critical (memoir).

By writing, we find out what we know; what we think. Writing is an extremely efficient way of gaining access to that knowledge that we cannot explore directly. – Frank Smith (1982, p.33)

For us, writing is a relationship between thought and language. When we write a first draft, we rehearse what is otherwise on our minds – whether we are conscious of this or not. Writing simply provides us with an opportunity to discover and then revise these thoughts in ways that we could not have imagined ourselves capable of when we first began our writing pursuit.

We, but also children, use writing to separate ourselves from our writing ‘work’ and so become more objective. Alternatively, we can use writing to do things that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. – this is what Gutierrez (2008) calls ‘social dreaming’.

Ultimately though, writing is a means for us to express ourselves in the world, make sense of the world or impose ourselves upon it.

Writing does more than reflect underlying thought, it liberates and develops it.- Frank Smith (1982, p.33)

Why Is There A Difference In Children’s Writing?

The question now is why do children write at school? For these purposes? – Not often. There is a massive discrepancy between the writing done in the real-world and that of the classroom. Why is this so? – Is it the case that we are just doing what has always been done and never reflected on the purpose of writing and thus the teaching of writing?

Donald Graves says ‘all children want to write’. It is just a case of allowing them to write about the things they are interested in. As Frank Smith says, ‘all children can write if they can speak it.’ If they can talk about it, they can write it down.

Most current writing pedagogy seems to be deliberately withholding from children the role of language in empowering and changing social relations. We believe teachers need to increase their consciousness, and the consciousness of their pupils, of how language contributes to their lives.

The current political agenda is clear for all to see:

These examples embody the ‘commonsense’ assumptions which claim an authority which is supposedly natural and unshakable. Through current writing pedagogies, teachers are perpetuating the idea that we as teachers know, while children do not; that we as teachers are in a position to determine, while children are not and that children should simply comply, adapt to or cooperate with our writing tasks.

The above ideologies around writing consciously avoid giving prominence to language’s social origins; that language is both socially developed and socially developing. It is this perspective that is all too often missing in schools. The result is schools supporting the devaluing and neutralising of most children’s identities. We are producing writers as consumers (or at best imitators) when really we need to be encouraging a generation of producers. Producers who know early on in their lives that they have a writing-voice and know how best to use it. The current ways of representing language, listed earlier, inhibit children from coming to conceptualize language as an object for critical consciousness – that is, they prevent children from having a genuinely educational and educated orientation of language.

Writing in classrooms at present isn’t seen by children as important work. It fails to speak to the real needs pressing on the young. It doesn’t currently answer the burning question which day-to-day experiences force upon young minds. At present, problems encountered outside school walls are treated as peripheral when surely they should be central. The current effect of making writing abstract – subject centred – external to individual longings, fears, experiences, and questions, is to render children listless and indifferent. As John Taylor Gatto testifies, the widespread understanding among the young is that writing isn’t about them (and their interests, curiosities and futures), but exclusively about the wishes of other people. Writing pedagogy is, at present, built around the self-interest of others and this, in our view, is wrong.

Why There Shouldn’t Be A Difference.

Children generally start out their lives enjoying mark making and writing until they become discouraged or disinterested. This only begins to happen when children are restricted by  classroom pedagogy which inhibits children’s free and natural expression. The current state of writing pedagogy causes children to write about things they do not know a lot about and have no natural experience of – all of a sudden, writing is made even harder than it needs to be. Children also quickly become aware that their writing will not have a readership beyond their teacher; has no purpose, achieves nothing and will often live forever within the dark pages of their literacy book. Beyond this, children are made to become self-conscious of error at the earliest stages of the writing process which makes them less likely to take risks and makes their writing tentative and dull. Their risk taking diminishes alongside their enthusiasm and children eventually feel like they no longer want to ‘perform’ – because of a perceived inability to achieve certain external and often arbitrary standards.

The Good News

The good news is that change is not only possible but it is continuously happening. We need to help increase children’s consciousness of language . It needs to be this, rather than just experiencing it externally or ‘playing’ at it. 

To want to write, a child must simply see writing done and see what writing can do. How much writing do most children see being done at school is also an issue – a topic we discuss here.

The question is why does the writing activity children engage in seem so far removed from the real intentions of writing? This is the question LiteracyForPleasure has tried to answer in our pedagogical approach to writing, which we are calling Real Word Literacy. To read more about this new approach please click here. 

Real-Word Literacy argues that children engage in language awareness. That children should be conscious of the different genres which can bring about change and how to use grammar functionally to achieve their social goals effectively. The main reason for this choice of focus is of course due to its current relevance, given the major changes in educational policy and practice as outlined in the first paragraph. This of course doesn’t go far enough.  We should provide children with the freedom to write about subjects which matter to them whilst also raising their consciousness of how they can share it effectively. These two concepts are dialectically related.  

Real-Word Literacy develops a child’s critical consciousness of their environment and their critical self-consciousness, and their capacity to contribute to the shaping and reshaping of the social world. We advocate for pupil choice as opposed to writing-task assignments because the latter plays little part in presenting children with any element of their humanly produced and humanly changeable social environment. Currently, children will instead grow up feeling part of an environment over which they have no control or say.

The point of language education is not awareness for its own sake, but awareness as a necessary accompaniment to the development of the capabilities of children as producers and interpreters of writing. We hope to give children the tools that will allow them to challenge, break through and ultimately transform the dominant orders of writing – not simply copy them or imitate them from/for the teacher.

Children’s experiences + the teaching of language awareness & providing opportunity for purposeful writing production = language capability potential.

Developing children’s language potential depends on the partnering of language awareness and practice through purposeful writing. Purposeful writing comes if we provide children with ‘language awareness’ in which they can build on their experiences. Language awareness includes the teaching of the writing process, functional grammar activity, genre study and genuine publication to the outside community.

Please scroll up to the top of this page a press ‘Follow’ to receive regular updates from our blog. Alternatively, you can follow us on twitter at @lit4pleasure

Go here to read more about Real Word Literacy.

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
  • 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
  • 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.
  • Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Maybin. J. (2006) Children’s Voices: Talk, Knowledge & Identity London: Palgrave
  • Rogoff, B., Moore, L., Najafi, B., Dexter, A., Correa-Chavez, M. and Solis, J. (2007) Children’s development of cultural repertoires through participation in everyday routines and practices In J. E. Grusec and P. D. Hastings (eds) Handbook of Socialization: Theory & Research (pp.490-515) New York: Guildford Press
  • 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

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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A Functional Grammar Table: CPD Subject Knowledge With A Difference

Before we start, it is important to point out that Functional Grammar makes up only a small part of LiteracyForPleasure’s writing approach, to read more about this approach we are calling Real-Word Literacy please go here. Alternatively, you can receive email updates from our blog by clicking the follow button in the top right hand corner of this page.

Functional Grammar?

It would do children and teachers the world of good if they shifted their understanding of grammar and punctuation away from ‘rules to be followed’ to one that looked at its function. What can grammar and punctuation do for us as writers and what does it already do for the texts our favourite authors write?

If children can spot grammar and punctuation in real texts written by real authors and if they can be given opportunity to use these ‘writing secrets’ in their real writing, they will not only produce better texts but they will be skilled in the exercise of name-and-identify which is so popular (for some reason) in grammar tests.

It is possible to create pupils who can be their own critics and also be interested and motivated in trying to make their writing as clear and creative as possible for their readers.

We made the Functional-Grammar-Table below because we were fed up with texts which told you the rules of a piece of grammar but didn’t tell children (or indeed adults) why and where you might want to use it and the effect grammar can have on your writing. We were also fed up with the concept of ‘grammar deficit’. This is the teaching practice of continually passing judgement on rule errors in grammar-exercises as opposed to talking critically about what value grammar can have on writing or the effect of its absence has on the effectiveness of a piece. This realisation has transformed our practice. We explain how we now approach grammar teaching below:

Teaching Grammar Through Daily ‘Writing Tricks’ Minilessons

What lessons will have a practical, lasting, positive influence on student writing? – Nancie Atwell

In many classes, minilessons precede daily writing lessons. Whether you’re teaching a grammar, writing-craft or genre study-point,  it is useful to follow Tompkins’ (2011, p.53) stages:

  1. Introduce the topic and its functional purpose ->
  2. Share examples ->
  3. Provide information ->
  4. Guided practice ->
  5. Assess learning.

Introduce the topic and functional purpose This can be anything from a writing strategy or skill, grammar function or a literary genre concept. Always share the purpose and the function with the class, before moving on to formalities or rules.

  • Share examples Look at examples from children’s or author’s real writing.
  • Provide information Provide information about the topic and how it can be used in ‘real’ writing. Clarify misconceptions and contrast a good and a poor example to see how the writing is affected.
  • Guided practice Children work individually or in pairs to practice what they are learning. Ideally this will be in the context of an authentic piece of writing a child is currently working on (See our Real-Word-Literacy approach for more details on how to do this).
  • Assess learning Teachers ask children to consider how they can use this information as they write. They can also reflect on their authentic use of it by leaving a comment in their book.

The Importance Of Giving ‘Writing Tricks’

Whatever you choose to do in these minilessons you should ensure that you teach in context and in a way that will empower children’s writing intentions. Calkins (1998, p.198) suggests that to successfully apply this attitude is to perceive minilessons as ‘quick tip’ giving before Process Writing begins. This changes your perception of these lessons, stops them turning into exercises and instead creates a climate where children feel instructed in and taught something valuable.

So What Actually Is A ‘Functional’ Grammar Lesson And Why Teach In That Way?

These mini-sessions are essential for showing children the hows of writing. The main premise is that the use of punctuation and grammar is a skill to be developed, not content to be taught.

Graham & Perin’s (2007) highly reliable meta-analysis into effective teaching of writing makes it clear that the formal teaching of grammar has always negatively impacted on children’s writing. Functional grammar teaching, on the other hand, shows children how understanding what words and structures ‘do’ – helps them achieve their meaning and intentions in their real writing.

Fearn & Farnan (2007, p.77) suggest teaching grammar in this order:

  • Teach the purpose of the grammar and share its meaning potential with your writers.
  • Follow this up by allowing them to apply it in their real writing.
  • Finally, ensure that children can formally ‘define-and-identify’ it out of context.

Fearn & Farnan (2007) make clear that this is not only the key to good writing, but teaching in this way results in a deeper understanding of grammar for formal testing. This approach is also fully supported by the DfE (2012) in their own research on effective teaching of grammar.

Please see the bottom of this post for our Functional Grammar Table. This table is designed with teachers in mind. It differs from many other grammar tables in that its major purpose is to inform teachers of the function different grammatical items have in writing. It is written in a way that should make these functions easily understood and applied by children.

A useful technique we advocate for is discussion of a prepared text which does achieve its intentions as a result of good grammar use – or sometimes doesn’t. The act of reading requires understanding how writers use grammar to enhance meaning. Children will learn that if they ignore grammatical conventions, readers will not understand their text. Therefore, you should still encourage a culture of speculation about grammar use. This not only makes the sessions more interesting but also allows children to think more deeply and thus gain an authentic understanding of grammar. With all minilessons, whether it be grammar, writing or genre study, you should avoid using worksheets and instead have the children apply their newly acquired learning in their own authentic writing.

Wide reading has a strong impact on personal writing. Explore and promote high-quality children’s literature to understand the grammatical and stylistic choices other writers make.

This approach to minilessons is one part of a much larger approach being devised by ‘Literacyforpleasure’. For more information on our approach to teaching writing, please go here.

DOWNLOAD our Functional Grammar Table here.

functional grammar table