Kat Vallely is a practitioner in Primary Teacher Education at the University of Greenwich
A classroom project creating a community of writers where the teacher writes alongside the children to foster writing as a meaningful, purposeful and enjoyable activity.
If nurtured and encouraged in a supportive way, writing can propel children to a world where they are able to explore, problem solve, express themselves and make sense of their lives. However, the act of writing itself often evokes confusion and frustration and requires time, space, and a particular relationship between the teacher and the young writer. Sadly, this relationship is often compromised as we find ourselves caught in an education system where excessive, extrinsic motivation and pressure to perform has the potential to drown a child’s intrinsic desire to write (Cremin et al. 2017).
This is a guest blog by Sadie Phillips. You can read more by visiting her blog here.
If reading is the key to learning, then writing is the lock.
Or rather, writing is the medium through which we unlock potential and empower children (and adults). We still depend on writing as the largest indicator of success and progress in learning. Therefore, it should have just as much emphasis as reading in school. For example, if we are Reading for Pleasure daily, should we not also be Writing for Pleasure daily too? If we are explicitly teaching children how to read, are we explicitly modelling the writing process to them too?
According to research, Writing For Pleasure teachers will scaffold new writing projects by setting both process and product oriented writing goals. This happens in a mastery based writing environment which has an atmosphere of inquiry, investigation and experimentation at its heart.
A little note about terminology here before we begin:
Distant Writing Goals – often the end goal of a writing project. The final writing ‘product’. The purpose and audience for the writing is revealed, considered and discussed at this point.
Product Writing Goals – often writers will talk about their finished writing being their ‘product’. The thing that is created. Product writing goals then are the intentions we have for the writing. What will we have to do to make this an effective product…? This is very different to success criteria which don’t always attend to the intentions for the writing nor are they always authentically generated alongside the children.
Process Writing Goals – these are goals we often set ourselves as writers. We will often give ourselves mini-deadlines. Rarely do we take on a large project in one go. Rather, we take it a step at a time. For example, ‘We need to try and finish this draft in the next couple of days’. This doesn’t mean you don’t or can’t do two processes at the same time sometimes. For example, some of us, as ‘paragraph pilers,’ will often write a paragraph, read it through, maybe revise it a bit, maybe even proof-read it a little before moving onto our next paragraph. This doesn’t mean we won’t also put time aside to revise and edit it explicitly at a later stage.
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.
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.
When children are in author mode they are concerned with generating ideas, organising thoughts, and arranging selected words and sentences appropriately and effectively.
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).
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.
As you may have read here, this half term we focused on the teaching of memoir.
In our first week we discussed the genre using our genre-booklets and this created a buzz for the rest of the project. Focusing on the genre and why people write memoir allowed the generating of ideas to happen fairly quickly.
We used around three techniques for generating memoir ideas. These included:
Questions for memoirists – Children answer questions to jog their memories for potential memoir ideas (see our article about memoir writing).
Using the ‘Michael Rosen’ effect. This is where children can take an otherwise ordinary moment and make it extraordinary. This can be an alternative to memoir writing for children who would much rather not write about anything overly heartfelt or emotive – which we can occasionally come across.
Creating an Ideas Heart and allow children to add to it throughout the year.This includes: ‘What makes me happy, angry, scared or upset’ lists.
When you write, ideas crazily spill from your head, tumble down your arm, into your pen and out along the crisp, white page. To us, the only way to see ideas is scribbling them down – but ideas are more than just words on a page.They are colourful, squirming, squiggly things that slide and slip through the nooks and crannies of your brain. Some of them crash against the walls of your head in roaring waves. Others come more slowly – each droplet of water a letter.
Once you gain control of the sea – the droplets make out your idea.
– Year 5 Child.
Modeling topic selection is the best way to help children develop independent thinking and decision-making skills for composing – Heller (1999, p.86).
Research clearly shows that if children get to choose their topics, this strongly influences their enjoyment of writing and therefore the progress they make. Children may need initially to generate a whole raft of topics and ideas that they feel they could write about.
This half term we are focusing on teaching memoir. Memoir differs from what is commonly referred to as recount in a number of profound ways. Recount’s major role is often to ensure that chronological events are described within a conventional time order. However, memoir is very much in the business of storytelling. A good memoir will have a topic which has meaning not only for you as the writer but also for your reader. This means children finding a subject which rouses emotions in them and which reaches out to their readers, creating the possibility of reflection and empathy. Memoir also affords young writers the opportunity to explore the literary qualities of stories they read through their writing about a personal experience. Memoir is a hugely rewarding genre to teach. It provides the best platform for children to feel they are experts in their topic before they begin writing, and gives them enough scope as a genre to be playful and try out many of the things they like writing best.