What if almost everything we thought about the teaching of writing was wrong?

In this article we ask and answer six important questions:

  • Why do any of us write?
  • Do the reasons we write drive the writing curricula in our schools? 
  • Are children helped to see that written language can make a rich contribution to their lives and the lives of others? 
  • Are we giving them the writing apprenticeship they deserve and need?
  • What are we actually teaching young writers in school?
  • Could writing in school be transformed from a pointless and irrelevant chore into an empowering, pleasurable and personally meaningful pursuit?

Begin with the central question: Why do any of us write? In our book Real-World Writers, we conclude there are a number of reasons we are moved to write. They include:

  • Teaching others by sharing our experiences and knowledge, or teaching ourselves through a process of ‘writing to learn’.
  • Entertaining ourselves or others by sharing stories – both real and imagined.
  • Reflecting in order to better understand ourselves, our place in the world or our response to a new subject.
  • Painting with words to show our artistry, our ability to paint images in our readers’ minds, to see things differently, to play around or to simply have fun.
  • Persuading or influencing others by sharing our thoughts and opinions.
  • Making a record of something to look back on that we don’t want to forget.

(Young & Ferguson 2020 p.4-7)

But this isn’t all. As Frank Smith has said: ‘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’ (1982 p.33). Thus, when we write a first draft, we see, perhaps for the first time, what is on our minds. We discover, develop and give substance to our thoughts, and then reconsider them in the process of revising what we have drafted. Through writing, we express ourselves in the world, try to make sense of it or impose order on it. Writing, as Frank Smith has memorably said, ‘touches every part of our lives’.

The next questions: Do the reasons we write drive the writing curricula in our schools?  Are children helped to see that written language can make a rich contribution to their lives and the lives of others, and are we giving them the writing apprenticeship they deserve and need? The answer could not be otherwise than a resounding ‘No,’ when current writing pedagogies so closely reflect a political agenda and ideology which promotes and allows:

  • The transmission of narrow decontextualized writing skills; that English is just a formal system to be learnt.
  • Task and high-stakes performance orientated writing.
  • The over use of teacher-imposed writing tasks.
  • The over use of external stimuli interpreted by the teacher (book-planning units, film-clips and topic-writing) at the expense of children’s personal and collective responses, knowledge, interests, loves, talents and idiosyncrasies.
  • The formal rather than the functional teaching of grammar.
  • Writing for the sole purpose of being evaluated.

(Young & Ferguson 2021)

Thus, through current dominant writing pedagogies, we as teachers are perpetuating the idea that we 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 with teacher or scheme-imposed writing tasks. Writing is not seen as something which is developed socially, and its empowering role is deliberately being withheld from children. How can we have allowed this to happen?

The fifth question: What are we actually teaching our young writers in school? Well, unfortunately, plenty. Firstly, we are teaching that writing is theoretical, removed from reality, and not a genuine or true pursuit. We refuse to allow it to connect with children’s individual lives, thoughts, knowledge, experiences and questions. This has far-reaching and serious consequences. Next, we are forcing children to write only to the wishes and desires of others. What this amounts to is that we are systematically:

  • Neutralising and devaluing children’s knowledge, identities and cultures.
  • Suppressing the development of their own writing voices.
  • Causing them to feel that writing is a pursuit unrelated to them and their lives.
  • Denying them knowledge of probably the most vital part of the writer’s process – how to generate ideas.
  • Depriving them of a readership beyond evaluation by their teacher.
  • Robbing them of a sense of authentic purpose and the chance for their writing to be put to work.
  • Inhibiting their natural desire to express themselves and communicate with others.
  • Creating a generation of children who are consumers and imitators of writing rather than producers of text.
  • Opening up a totally unnecessary and ever-widening chasm between writing that happens in school and how any writer crafts in the real world. Children simply do not receive an apprenticeship in the behaviours and knowledge involved in being a writer. Why do we do this? 

In Writing For Pleasure: theory, research and practice (2021), we sum up these points powerfully: 

‘In 1982, Donald Graves warned that when we assign topics we do no less than create a welfare system, putting children, our students, on to writers’ welfare. Willinsky (1990 p.209) goes as far as to say that to diminish the potential for individual meaningfulness in students’ work is a denial of their basic humanity, while Gutiérrez (2008) concludes that the imposition of such writing tasks can be acts of linguistic oppression.’

Lastly: Could writing in school be transformed from a pointless and ineffective chore into an empowering, pleasurable and personally meaningful pursuit? In our recent book entitled Real-World Writers (Young and Ferguson 2020) we have presented what international research and case-studies have repeatedly told us are the enduring elements of world-class writing teaching which (though many in the UK still steadfastly choose to ignore this evidence) can most effectively produce successful writers. Our book proposes that we apprentice children to the true craft of writing through:

  • Developing knowledge of all the writing processes.
  • Teaching grammar functionally.
  • Establishing genuine purposes and audiences.
  • Demanding high quality transcription to ensure the writing is ready for publication to the audience who will read it or see it performed.
  • Having children discuss and then choose their own ideas for writing.
  • Showing how they can use for themselves the dominant written genres in our society.

In the book we show how teachers could make these and many other transformations, change the entire climate of writing teaching, and at last allow apprentice writers to be competent and confident producers of their own texts rather than be eternally doomed to imitate and recite the writing of others and write according to others’ wishes and desires.


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