Genre-Booklets: Helping Both Children & Teachers To Write

What Are Genre Booklets?

Genre-based approaches to teaching writing…achieve spectacular improvements in student outcomes, from twice to more than four times expected rates of learning’ (Martin & Rose, 2007, p.1)

Our booklets teach children the meaning and purposes behind certain text-types. They make this information explicitly available to teachers but are also really child friendly.

The booklets share with children the characteristics of the different text-types. They cover the most popular genres across the curriculum and also children’s favourite genres. They explain the social goals of the text type without telling children exactly what to do! Instead, they help children enjoy and develop their own ideas and make their writing academically successful.

I’ve used these genre booklets and think they are utter genius. Brilliant, so thank you!

These booklets are brilliant. They are a ‘show rather than tell’ of how to write.

What Genre Booklets Do:

  1. Explain the social purpose of the the text-type.
  2. Share with children what people usually write about.
  3. Explain how to interact with your reader.
  4. Suggest how to display your writing.
  5. Give hints about what grammar and linguistic features are going to be useful.
  6. Share exemplar texts of the genre in action.
  7. Provide a planning grid, showing the stages your writing can go through.

Our Current Genre-Booklets:

  • Narrative writing
    • How to write a memoir (personal narrative)
    • How to write a short story
      • How to write a fable
      • How to write a horror/scary story
      • How to write a vivid setting
      • How to write an interesting character
      • How to write a memorable and vivid story (advanced)
  • Non-fiction writing
    • How to write an information text
    • How to write a book review
    • How to write instructions
    • How to write rules
    • How to write an explanation
    • How to write a discussion text
    • How to write persuasively
      • How to write a persuasive letter
      • How to write a persuasive leaflet and advert
  • How to write a newspaper article
    • How to write advocacy journalism
    • How to write a match report
    • Letter to the editor: responding to a newspaper article.
    • How to write a letter of complaint
  • History writing
    • How to write public history
    • How to explain the past
    • How to debate the past
    • How to write a biography
  • How to write a science report
  • How to write a free-verse poem

How To Use Our Genre Booklets:

Firstly, we use the Genre-Booklets to write our own exemplar to share with our class. Whilst sharing, we explain our intentions for the piece: why we wrote it, why we chose the topic and what impact we wanted it to have on our readers. The children then give their critique and ask questions. We then invite the children to have a go at writing their own piece – using the Genre-Booklet to help them.

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We recommend that our Genre-Booklets be used as part of our Real-Word Literacy approach. You can find out more by clicking here.

These Are Our Main Reflections:

  • Children no longer seem to require so much support from us. They write more freely and happily.
  • Children are taking greater care when planning.
  • Children’s writing is purposeful and always reflects the genre being written.
  • Their writing is genuinely informative or entertaining and is often cohesively produced.
  • Children aren’t so tentative to begin writing.
  • Children’s motivation to write has increased dramatically.
  • Children’s motivation to research and undertake independent study in the foundation subjects has increased dramatically.
  • Children are taking writing in the foundations subjects more seriously.
  • Children are reading more critically.
  • A sharp increase in children asking to take writing home.
  • A sharp increase in children purchasing writing-notebooks and writing at home for pleasure.
  • Children’s writing outcomes have so far been impressive across ability ranges.
  • Children are beginning to talk like real writers.

Why Did We Make These Genre-Booklets?

We wanted to share with children the variety of writing that is available to them even as apprentice writers. We wanted to move away from simply asking children to include ‘genre features’ and instead concentrate on the social aspects of their writing. We wanted them to learn how they can share their artistry, memories, knowledge and opinions with others.

Genre Booklets

  • To see all the booklets, just email us at literacyforpleasure@gmail.com

  • They are also available for purchase through our TES shop here. However, please get in touch through our email as we can provide them at a far cheaper price.

For more updates and resources, please follow us by pressing the follow button at the top right-hand side of this webpage. Alternatively, you may want to follow and contact us through twitter at @Lit4pleasure

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To Learn More About Genre Booklets See Our References:

  • Coffin, C. (2006) Mapping subject-specific literacies In NALDIC Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 3, pp. 13–26.
  • Corbett, P., Strong, J., (2011) Talk For Writing Across The Curriculum. Maidenhead: Open University Press
  • Christie, F. and Martin, J. R (eds) (2007) Language, Knowledge and Pedagogy:Functional Linguistic & Sociological Perspectives, London: Continuum
  • Hyland, K.  (2007) Genre pedagogy: Language, literacy and L2 writing instruction In Journal of Second Language Writing 16: 148-164
  • Kerfoot., C & Van Heerden, M., (2015) Testing the waters:exploring the teaching of genres in a Cape Flats Primary School in South Africa In Language and Education, 29:3, 235-255.
  • Martin, J. R. (2009) Genre and language learning: a social semiotic perspective In Linguistics and Education, vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 10–21
  • Martin, J.,  Rose, D., (2008) Genre relations: Mapping culture. Equinox Publishing
  • Purcell-Gates, V., Duke, N. K., & Martineau, J. A. (2007). Learning to read and write genre-specific text: Roles of authentic experience and explicit teaching In Reading Research Quarterly, 42(1), 8-45.
  • Svalberg, A. (2009) Engagement with language: interrogating a construct In Language Awareness, 18: 242-258
  • Whittaker, R. (2010) Using systemic-functional linguistics in content and language integrated learning In NALDIC Quarterly, vol. 8, no. 10, pp. 31–6.
  • Bourne, J. (2008) Official pedagogic discourses and the construction of learners’ identities In Martin-Jones, M., de Mejia, A.M. and Hornberger, N.H. Encyclopaedia of language and education, Vol. 3 Discourse and Education, 2nd edn, New York, Springer.
  • Donovan, C.A. (2001). Children’s development and control of written story and informational genres: Insights from one elementary school In Research in the Teaching of English, 35, 452-497.
  • Donovan, C. A., & Smolkin, L. B. (2002). Children’s genre knowledge: An examination of K-5 students’ performance on multiple tasks providing differing levels of scaffolding In Reading Research Quarterly, 37(4), 428-465.
  • Graham, S., Harris, K. R., & Mason, L. (2005). Improving the writing performance, knowledge, and self-efficacy of struggling young writers: The effects of self-regulated strategy development In Contemporary Educational Psychology, 30(2), 207-241
  • Scott-Evans, A., Crilley, K., & Powell, E. (2004). A critical study of effective ways to teach instructional texts In Education 3-13, 32(1), 53-60
  • Thwaite, A., (2006) Genre writing in primary school: from theory to the classroom, via first steps In Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, Vol.29(2), p.95(20)
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Why The Over Use Of Writing Stimuli & Book Planning Could Be Damaging Children’s Writing Potential.

I should start out by stating quite clearly that this is not an article advocating for the removal of all stimuli or book inspired writing tasks from classrooms. I myself use them. However, this article looks to reflect on what contemporary writing and research is telling us about these dominant writing practices.

We begin with some wise words from Donald Graves, writer, teacher, researcher and thinker:

‘Children want to write’.

In this post, I want to suggest, through use of research findings, that the provision by teachers of cross-curricular ‘topics’ or ‘writing stimuli’ for writing in schools could be inhibiting children’s desire to write. As a result, this may effect the quality of their writing too. Is it the case that too few children are realising that they can do more with writing than simply imitate or produce ‘writing to order’? Is there another way of offering topic choice which can redress this?

“Ideally, no pupil should be given a writing task which does not yield them enough fruit in their own terms, so that they can feel it is worth doing” – John Dixon (p.78)

If you agree with John Dixon’s assertion, the question you will ask yourself is: what do children want to write? It is true that all children have experiences and interests in their own lives which they could bring to writing, and that teachers could make it possible for them to do so. An incident, a person, a preoccupation, an opinion, a question, a memory, a curiosity, a story – all these are personal resources available for children to draw on as valuable and valid subjects for writing in school. Yet, in the dominant writing practices, according to research (Dockrell, et al, 2015), the choice of topic is almost always chosen by the teacher. Dockrell states that ‘virtually no teacher reported not using them.‘  Therefore are children too often subjected to external ‘stimuli’? Stimuli such as:

  • Video or films,
  • Whole-class literature study, 
  • Talk-For-Writing (read our article about Talk For Writing here),
  • Pictures or excerpts from non-fiction texts.

“Children can write letters to the man on the moon. They can write a diary of the classroom hamster. They can write warning notices designed for sites of nuclear waste. The outcomes from such tasks may look effective and may provide useful practice in following conventions. Nevertheless, without the use of an underlying rationale and some attention to other aspects… such writing may only have short-term value.” – Roger Beard (2000).

Calkins (1998) describes the outcome when real reasons for writing are ignored:

After detouring around the authentic, human reasons for writing, we bury the students’ urge to write all the more with boxes, kits, and manuals full of synthetic writing stimulants. At best, they produce artificial and short-lived sputters of enthusiasm, which then fade away, leaving passivity… (p. 4)

Children are then expected to respond to these stimuli. There is obviously benefits to such approaches. However, if used too often, are children’s own desires not being realised? Do children learn they are only ever to be consumers of writing as opposed to authentic producers? Is it tough for children to find intrinsic motivation to grow as a writer when given too readily a series of arbitrary, inauthentic writing assignments?

According to The National Literacy Trust’s work (2017), this may well be the case particularly when a child asks ‘How much do I need to write’ or ‘How many sentences does it have to be’ or ‘I’ve finished!’. Do we know they have not been inspired to do the best writing they could do?

Incidentally, according to Jacobson (2010), writing stimuli tend to inspire ‘list writing’. She states that this is because we often ask children to write on demand. When children are asked to write on a topic they have just been presented with, where their funds of knowledge are low, they tend to brainstorm on the paper all that has been made available on the topic by the teacher. This list of everything that came to mind finds itself in the writing. Jacobson alludes that this will often result in a poor piece of writing which lacks organisation or quality detail. I guess a prompt will either interest a child or it won’t and the quality of writing will always reflect this. Another issue with prompts is that often we as teachers think them up and never actually try them out for ourselves…

The reality is that when children care about what they write, they bring an energy and will to the writing. They want it to succeed.

“When we assign topics we create a welfare system, putting children, our students on to writers’ welfare” – Donald Graves (1982)

“Bodies of knowledge – about life, about books, about words – are among the products of their work. It is possible to regard these bodies of knowledge as the ‘content’ for a writing lesson – though not everyone would be happy with this view” – John Dixon

An arbitrarily assigned topic, with an error-hunting teacher as the sole audience, may do little for the writer, whereas a topic the writers cares about and an audience responsive to what the writer has to say are the essential ingredients for a profitable experience” – Bereiter & Scardamalia (1986)

‘Children resent the imposition of having to write on preselected or teacher-selected topics about which they are not familiar or interested. While some teachers use “story starters’’ or ’’creative writing topics’’ as imaginative ploys to motivate students to begin writing, when used too often, children can begin to rely on their teachers for topics.’ Hoewisch (2001)

Research findings indicate that composition is impaired if a writer lacks sufficient background knowledge about topics and ideas. – Heller (1999)

Maybe this is why The Literacy Trust has recently stated that children’s attitudes towards writing is stagnating and that fewer children are writing at home or for pleasure? It’s well known that even very young children will ‘write’ spontaneously and readily about things which have made an impression on them in their daily lives. So how and why is it that we as teachers feel responsible for providing older children with a stimulus in which to write (inauthentically)?

To diminish the potential for individual meaningfulness in students’ work is a denial of their basic humanity – Willinsky (1990)

Writing tasks set by any teacher (including myself) are very often derived from the foundation subjects such as history or geography, and are thus termed ‘cross-curricular’ topics. What is the rationale for our thinking here? Is it simply to provide children with a subject on which to hang ‘practising writing’ in a particular genre – in effect, a form of writing exercise? It is possible that we as teachers see cross-curricular writing as an opportunity for children to show their understanding of a geographical location or an historical event(s). Maybe we see it as an opportunity for pupils to express a feeling of empathy for a character caught up in a particular moment in history, or simply a way to cram extra foundation subject work into the timetable? Unfortunately though, as a teacher who specialised in History & Geography before gaining an MA in Education with Linguistics,  when I plan these lessons, they produce neither a decent historical/geographical piece of writing nor a good literary one. This is because I’m effectively asking children to make an imaginative leap into someone else’s psyche or produce writing on the basis of a new and often very limited ‘fund of knowledge’. On top of this, I often have them negotiate this new found knowledge further through literary requirements such as noun phrases, relative clauses, the subjunctive mood, the passive voice and fronted adverbials. Now, a few children will occasionally be inspired by these topics; fewer will be able to produce a satisfying piece of writing. The reality is that all too often you receive a collection of stilted, inauthentic and depressingly similar pieces.

To not affirm and respect student voices is both morally wrong, because it disparages who students are and what they know, and strategically a mistake, because students will resist becoming active partners in teaching and learning. – Lensmire (2000)

‘Our best guides are the things pupils come up and talk about – their individual and group interests rather than an external ‘stimuli’ or book (which necessarily cannot know their particular circumstances or desires)…[therefore what is needed is] a questing exploratory atmosphere in a writing classroom.’ John Dixon (p.86)

Should the curriculum address the fact that children should be taught how to generate their own ideas for writing? If we don’t, would we be inadvertently training children in to be dependent rather than independent writers? Writing prompts, story starters and stimuli are just a few ways we communicate to children that they might not be capable of writing and thinking on their own. According to Jacobson (2010), stimuli are also incredibly inefficient ways of getting children to write. They waste valuable writing time.

The question we are asking here I guess is: why do we require pupils to jump through these hoops when we could be inviting them to write about what they are expert in, authentically, with engagement and interest, for a purpose and audience of their own choosing and in a (learned) genre which suits their intention- in short, what they are capable of doing from their own centre?

A Facebook post from a reader of this post said:

I agree with many points in this article, but what about those children that cannot think of anything to write about? The ones that do nothing on the weekend except watch TV or play on the computer? The ones that have very little life experience to bring to the table? Often the anxiety of having to generate ideas is the hardest part of writing for these children. Sometimes a teacher directed task or stimulus is the right thing to do for some of our children. It can’t be a one size fits all, need to differentiate!

Whilst reading our article, you may have been wondering the same thing. What could self-directed subject choice look like practically? Would it work in a real classroom?

Writing assignments without a background of discussion and shared experience are unlikely to elicit much response from many children – John Dixon (1966)

Well, a colleague and I have been working for some time on producing a new pedagogy for writing in the primary school which begins with children making their own choice of subject. You can read about it here.

We must stress at this point that we are in no way advocating the withdrawal of the teacher’s assistance when children are choosing a theme. There are many ways of supporting children to generate their own ideas, in the form of: 

  • Idea hearts or idea maps,
  • Asking themselves ‘What if..?’ questions
  • Generating ‘When I was little…’ statements 
  • ‘What makes me angry, scared, upset, happy’ lists, 
  • Deciding to use ideas from the books they have chosen and read,
  • Deciding for themselves to use the topic(s) they are studying/ have studied in foundation subjects.

To read about how this is done in our classroom, you may like to read our ‘The Sea Of Writing Ideas: How We Got Children Choosing Their Own Writing Ideas’ article here.

We regularly read children Michael Rosen poems. He takes the most boring and ordinary life events and makes them extraordinary. We get them to go home and write a list of ‘poems hide in‘ statements – this is where they run around their house and write down things that they could write poems about. Finally, with some of our most inexperienced writers, we ask them to bring artefacts in from home which they could write about. We ask them to draw pictures that they could then write about. No child is a floating blob in time and space – they all have experiences, passions and treasured objects – we just need to make them feel they are legitimate and that we want to hear about them in fun and creative ways!

In his review of 100 years of literacy research, Hillocks (2011) forcefully stated:

We know from a very wide variety of studies in English and out of it, that students who are authentically engaged with the tasks of their learning are likely to learn much more than those who are not” -John Hillocks

“Effects [are] most positive when the teacher gears the level of work to pupils’ needs but not where all pupils worked individually on exactly the same piece of writing” – Roger Beard (2000)

We appreciate that this shift from imposing tasks and themes for writing to allowing children to write about what they would like is an ideologically profound one – and you can read more about that here. We as teachers found it difficult to relinquish apparent control and pass the responsibility to our pupils (a question of trust). Teachers may fear that children’s self-chosen themes will be superficial or trivial (again, a lack of trust). They may even make the assumption that the resultant writing will not have the same ‘quality’ as a piece whose theme is secured by them. To allay these fears, I would ask us to consider the following observations made at the coal-face:

In our experience, children’s freedom to write about what interests and motivates them, what has amused or struck them, what they care about, love or hate, carries many benefits. Assisting a child with a theme is not the same as imposing a topic for children to write about. Imposing writing topics upon children is an act of linguistic oppression which shouldn’t be underesitmated. We believe that quality writing cannot emerge without an underlying authentic intention. That is not to say that in some circumstances there may be an adequate reason for requiring children to write to a given theme, to explore an issue in a particular subject area, for example. But if our aim is to help a child learn to write then we have to accept that the consequence of  selected themes being forced upon children is to make their writing less probable or profitable. It very often becomes an imposition and does not help children to become  real writers – just writers of writing exercises.

The children in our class, however, genuinely love making their own choice of topic. They have said so many times. They are intent on writing. Many have now acquired their very own notebooks in which they jot down ideas and try out pieces – often at home, at playtimes or in their free-time.

We believe the most direct and relevant way for a teacher to demonstrate to a pupil the power of writing is to write with them and give them the opporunity to write what is motivating to them. You can read about how we do this through Pupil Conferencing, here.

They come to understand all the functions of writing – to share and communicate, explore issues, explain or persuade, entertain and inform, get through a hard time, re-live a good time or work out a problem. They begin to write like real writers, readily sharing their work with their peers and giving and accepting helpful criticism. Not all topics will prove to be what Graves calls ‘hot topics’. But children will be practising the craft of writing until their hot topic comes along. They will learn that they are producers of content, not simply there to rehash or consume other people’s writing ideas and desires. You can read about why this is so important here.

As teachers, we positively look forward to reading such a wide variety of writing pieces. We feel the excitement and motivation ourselves too.

Because teachers are faced with the challenging task of balancing the demands of national standards and high-stakes writing exercises, authenticity should be a primary consideration when developing writing instruction. One reason to focus on authenticity even within the context of high-stakes accountability is because overly structured, teacher-directed writing instruction that constrains student expression are not supported by research on effective writing practices. Research has established that a process approach is the superior method to increase writing achievement (Cremin, 2011, DCSF, 2009, DfE, 2012, Education Endowment Fund, 2017, Graham & Perin, 2007, Ofsted, 2009, 2011, Writing Is Primary, 2009). It has been recognised too the pupils write more effectively if they have chosen an authentic context and have a clear purpose in their own minds (Beard, 2000). Therefore, writing instruction that neglects students’ personal, global, and community funds of knowledge related to writing has been shown to decrease student motivation and interest in writing (Au & Gourd, 2013; Dyson & Freedman, 2003; Ketter & Pool, 2001; Watanabe, 2007) with The National Literacy Trust (2017) linking motivation to write with writing achievement in the clearest terms. Children are seven times more likely to attain academic expectations in writing if they are motivated. It is clear then that motivation is the clearest way towards writing achievement and the biggest motivator is agency in topic choice.  

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**Please note that the views expressed on this blog are informed by the research and writings below and may not represent our employer.**

References:
  • Au, W., & Gourd, K. (2013). Asinine assessment: why high-stakes testing is bad for everyone, including English teachers. English Journal, 103(1), 14–19
  • Beard, R., (2000) Developing Writing 3-13 London: Hodder & Stoughton
  • Bereiter, C., Scardamalia, M. In Beard, R., (1993) Teaching Literacy Balancing Perspectives Hodder & Stoughton: London
  • 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
  • Dyson, A. H., & Freedman, S. W. (2003). Writing. In J. Flood, J. Jensen, D. Lapp, & R. J. Squire (Eds.), Handbook of research on teaching the English language arts (pp. 967–992). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • 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
  • Hoewisch, A. (2001) “Do I have to have a princess in my story?”: Supporting children’s writing of fairytales. Reading and Writing Quarterly 17: 249–277
  • 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.
  • Heller, M., (1999) (2nd Ed) Reading-Writing Connections LEA: USA
  • Hillocks, G., Jr. (2011). Commentary on “Research in secondary English, 1912-2011: Historical continuities and discontinuities in the NCTE imprint.” Research in the Teaching of English, 46(2), 187-192.
  • Ketter, J., & Pool, J. (2001). Exploring the impact of a high-stakes direct writing assessment in two high school classrooms. Research in the Teaching of English, 35, 344–391
  • Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Lensmire, T., (2000) Powerful Writing: Responsible Teaching Columbia University
  • Maybin. J. (2006) Children’s Voices: Talk, Knowledge & Identity London: Palgrave
  • Rogoff, B., Moore, L., Najafi, B., Dexter, A., Correa-Chavez, M. and Solis, J. (2007) Children’s development of cultural repertoires through participation in everyday routines and practices In J. E. Grusec and P. D. Hastings (eds) Handbook of Socialization: Theory & Research (pp.490-515) New York: Guildford Press
  • 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
  • Watanabe, M., (2007) Displaced Teacher & State Priorities In A High-Stakes Accountability Context In Educational Policy, Vol.21(2), p.311-368
  • Willinksy, J., (1990) New Literacy: Redefining Reading and Writing in Schools London: Routledge

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

This article is based on, and written in relation to, findings of educational research and writings (see end of article). The tenor of this article is to allow the reader to reflect on children’s writing and is in no way a criticism of any school(s) policy or teachers’ practice.

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 to 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 ‘basic skills’ assumptions held by successive governments since the late 80’s which claim an authority which is supposedly natural and unshakable. Through current writing pedagogies, we as 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 conceptualise 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.

To diminish the potential for individual meaningfulness in students’ work is a denial of their basic humanity – Willinsky (1990)

Why There Shouldn’t Be A Difference.

In his review of 100 years of literacy research, Hillocks (2011) forcefully stated, “We know from a very wide variety of studies in English and out of it, that students who are authentically engaged with the tasks of their learning are likely to learn much more than those who are not” (p. 189).

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 pedagogies which inhibit 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.

To not affirm and respect student voices is both morally wrong, because it disparages who students are and what they know, and strategically a mistake, because students will resist becoming active partners in teaching and learning. – Lensmire (2000)

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 a potential issue flagged up by research projects – 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 World Literacy. To read more about this new approach please click here. 

Real-World 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-World 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 World 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:

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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
  • Willinksy, J., (1990) New Literacy: Redefining Reading and Writing in Schools London: Routledge

Meeting Children Where They Are: Using Pupil Conferencing.

This article is based on, and written in relation to, findings of educational research (see end of article). The tenor of this article is simply to allow the reader to reflect on these findings and is in no way a criticism of any school(s) policy or teachers’ practice.

Why Written Feedback Might Not Be As Effective As Verbal Conferencing

Traditionally, the teaching of writing has been a thankless task. For the writing teacher, it has meant long, long hours of marking and commenting on student compositions, with little reason for confidence that this effort would have any positive effect.” – Bereiter & Scardmalia

As Frank Smith (1982, p.203) states: writing is not learned in steps. There is no ladder of separate and incremental skills that if written down for a child they will automatically apply and so ascend. Writing develops as an individual develops, in many directions, continually, usually inconspicuously, but occasionally in dramatic and unforeseeable spurts. And like individual human development, writing requires nourishment and encouragement rather than a rushed scribbled jointing on a pupil’s writing piece.

Research (Fisher et al, 2010, Jean, Tree, & Clark, 2013, Oxford University – Education Endowment Fund, 2016 ) seems to indicate that swathes of ‘after-the-event’ written feedback is neither efficient nor effective. As Dylan Wiliam says, feedback like this is often the equivalent of telling an unsuccessful comedian that they need to be funnier. So how are teachers meant to provide meaningful and accountable feedback to their pupils despite the pressures of ‘after-the-event’ written feedback?

Time To Consider Pupil Conference?

There appears to be effective ways and it could be through teacher collaboration amongst students. As Corbett & Strong (2011) , Smith (1986), Atwell (2015), and Graves (2003) testify, a way to improve children’s writing outcomes is to write with children and not just sharing the product of your own writing but actually joining the children whilst they are engaged in the process of writing. Help them, by advising them on their compositions in real time.

Unfortunately, most children or adults have never actually seen a professional writer writing. They can be afflicted by the misconception that writing springs fully formed from an author’s head. They are unaware of the drafts, the blocks, and the alternating frustration and exhilaration. Without allowing children to be in dialogue, in actual collaboration with a writer, in real time, they will find it difficult to learn about these essential tools of the trade. As Frank Smith states (1986, p.199):

‘A lecture or a set of exercises are not an alternative to an apprenticeship. Collaboration empowers students; instruction leaves them dependent.’

Through pupil-conferencing, you will be providing, on a daily basis, high quality teaching to individual students. You will be conducting not only assessment for learning but also assessment of learning. You must be a trusted adult in the eyes of your pupils. Children need to feel secure in a teacher’s presence and assume that they will be interested in their writing, responding  in the first place to what has been written and not to how it has been written. According to Tompkins, (2011 p.13) when teachers act only as judges, children produce writing mainly to satisfy the teacher’s requirements, and the writing is nearly always tentative.

Famous writer-teacher Peter Elbow (2000) identifies the different ways we can respond to apprentice writers and that we should never focus on just one. Instead, we should look to use them in careful combination:

Zero Response: Lowest stakes
Supportive Response: No criticism, only praise ‘Your language is really lively here!’
Observational Response: I’ve noticed you’ve written a poem a bit like Allan Ahlberg’.
Non-Verbal Critical Response: Wavy line beneath a sentence with incorrect syntax.
Critical Response: Your writing would be better with more setting description in this paragraph.*

*Taken from Locke (2015) see references.

The benefits of a conferencing approach however is that it can awaken you to the critical role of what John Gatto (2008, p.177) calls ‘feedback loops’. These loops between teacher and pupil create, what Gatto calls, a ‘customised circuit’ which promotes in children self-correction and self-development rather than feeling a slavish kind of need to follow the direction of a teacher’s responses. High quality composition, revision and editing comes when a child and a helpful adult work together on something the child is interested in producing – when the advantages are immediately apparent. Verbal feedback has maximum relevance to the child because the child, in effect, determines what is to be taught and what learning opportunities they require.

You literally can’t help but teach something – children can’t help but learn and apply something.

It’s important to note here that Pupil-Conferencing is only as small part of what LiteracyForPleasure’s writing approach consists of. Research indicates (Writing Is Primary, 2009), the most direct and relevant way for a teacher to demonstrate to a child the power of writing is to write with the child, not by requiring the child to engage in writing that you, the teacher, determines the child must do, but by helping to bring out of the child writing that the child would like to do.

Consider and reflect that when children are required to write something they are not interested in they will also not be overly interested in any feedback and in any corrections that ensue. As a result, will they learn as effectively? However, our pedagogy, which we are calling Real-World Literacy, does seem to support such an approach. The different aspects of a productive writing environment cannot be separated from each other and delivered to children one bit at a time. Reading, writing, talking and writing, and talking in order to write must surely be continual possibilities? They do overlap and interlock – so this would make sense and research does seem to back this up. Therefore, at present, this is what our approach advocates for. It can be read about in more detail – here. Alternatively, you can receive email updates from our blog by clicking the follow button in the top right hand corner of this page.

How To Conduct Conferences

Circulating the room – It is important to remember that an informal conference with a child need only be 40 seconds long, although it will take longer until the time when both you and the children are familiar with the idea. You should aim to see every writer at least twice a week, which, in experience, is quite manageable – even without the aid of a TA. Ask how the writing is going. Alternatively, ask the child what they feel they need particular help with. Do they have any ‘sticky’ places in the text? Finally, you should formulate a question or suggestion for the author, particularly if you sense that they lack confidence about their topic.

Ask how it is going -> Hear some of what is contained in the piece -> Formulate a question or a suggestion for the author. -> Leave.

A good technique is to play the naïve reader/listener and parrot back what you have learned from listening to an extract or skim reading the text. This shows your writer that, at this point, you are interested in the topic of their piece and not the transcription. When teachers point out mechanical errors during the drafting stage, they send a false message that mechanical correctness is more important than content (Tompkins, 2011, p.18). Your comments on transcription can wait until a ‘Revision Conference’.

All writers, no matter what their age, need to hear their own words coming back to them. Often, when you repeat back what you have learnt from their piece, children go on to give you more information verbally in response. This often finds it way into their writing. However, it’s important to realise you are not there to read the whole piece. Always be early in seeking out the children who seem lacking in confidence. Once children understand what a conference is, they may let you know that they do not require one at the present moment; in this case you simply move on to the next child.  

Things to remember: Don’t talk more than the writer. Don’t try to redirect the child onto something you find more interesting. Only direct the child onto a different course or subject if it’s clearly not working. Don’t ignore the writer’s original intention for the piece. Try not to supply words or phrases that you like, but if possible quietly guide the writer towards the means of expression.Don’t hesitate to say to a child that you don’t understand or that you’re confused by the subject choice. When you’ve finished a conference, simply mark the child’s book with ‘verbal feedback’.

Learning To Conference: Conferencing Prompt Cards

You may find these cards helpful when starting out on providing pupil conferences, or as an aid to classroom assistants or parent helpers participating in the process.

Revision Conferences

The purpose of revision is to find a significant meaning and make it clear – Donald Murray (2002, p.175).

Children soon come to know that you will talk with them while they are writing. It is a well-known fact that ‘after the event’ responses written in books come too late for children to do anything about them. Verbally conducted revision conferences, on the other hand, provide more opportunity for high quality teaching, alongside the child, in real time, and allow the child to act on the feedback immediately.

How To Prepare Feedback Ready For Revision Conferences

After school, in preparation for next day’s revision conferences, good writing teachers will step back from a child’s piece and look at the entire draft to see what it could become. They do not rush in and simply edit line by line. In fact it is the child who edits the piece. Teachers consider the content, the structure, the pace and the form of the piece.

These are the sorts of questions to be considered when receiving a child’s draft:

  • What is the subject?
  • What is the focus?
  • What is the best genre for them to explore their subject?
  • Where is the theme that will carry the reader through the piece?
  • Is it too general? Does the child need something specific to focus on?
  • Is it it too long or too short?
  • Where does the child achieve the most clear, consistent and appropriate writing?

After considering these points, simply write very brief notes at the bottom of their page (including any transcriptional problems), ready to share during the child’s  revision conference the next day. Take notes on what the child has done well and identify only one or two teaching points for discuss. Undertaking a revision conference requires skill on the part of the teacher, but this skill will come with practice. It should be noted that these conferences do take longer and you can only really fit up to three into a typical literacy hour, once you have completed your short conferencing commitments. 

Once a child has had their conference, they make the revisions and edits on the piece until they are ready to write a final copy. Remember, if it is a particularly strong piece, the child should seriously consider having it published into the class/school book stock.

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

**By Phil Ferguson*

Pupil Conferencing: The Research

Research References

  • Alexander, R. (2008) ‘Talking, teaching, learning’ in Alexander, R. Essays on Pedagogy, Abingdon, Routledge.
  • Alexander, R. (2008). Towards dialogic teaching. (4th ed). Cambridge: Dialogos.
  • Bereiter, C., Scardamalia, M. In Beard, R., (1993) Teaching Literacy Balancing Perspectives Hodder & Stoughton: London
  • Clark, J. (2010). Why talking in the classroom can be a good thing? In Literacy Today 63: 15 http://0-web.ebscohost.com.brum.beds.ac.uk/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?hid=107&sid=58116dfe-acf0-4bee-a203-199849af2570%40sessionmgr111&vid=3 (accessed May 2016).
  • Elbow, P., (2000) Everyone Can Write New York: Oxford University Press
  • Fisher, R., Jones, S., Larkin, S. & Myhill, D., (2010) Using talk to support writing London: SAGE
  • Jean E., Tree, F., & Clark, B., (2013) Communicative Effectiveness of Written Versus Spoken Feedback In Discourse Processes, 50:5, 339-359
  • Locke, T., (2015) Developing Writing Teachers London: Routledge
  • Maybin, J. (2006) Children’s Voices: Talk, Knowledge and Identity, Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan.
  • Mercer, N. and Littleton, K. (2007) Dialogue and the Development of Children’s Thinking: A Sociocultural Approach London:Routledge
  • Myhill, D., (2006). Talk, talk, talk: Teaching and learning in whole class discourse In Research Papers in Education 21, no. 1: 19–41.
  • Nguyen, H. (2007) Rapport building in language instruction: A microanalysis of the multiple resources in teacher talk In Language and Education 21: 284-303
  • Norton, B. (2000) ‘Claiming the right to speak in classrooms and communities’ in Identity And Language Learning: Gender, Ethnicity And Educational Change, London, Pearson Education.
  • Nystrand, M., (2006) Research on the role of classroom discourse as it affects reading comprehension In Research in the Teaching of English 40: 392-412
  • Wenger, E., (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Wertsch, J. V. (1994) The primacy of mediated action in sociocultural studies In Mind, Culture & Activity, 1: 202-208
  • Wiliam, D., (2011) Embedded Formative Assessment Solution Tree Press: USA