How writing approaches built on using stimuli are damaging children’s writing development

This article is firmly based on the findings of contemporary research into the most effective practices of world-class writing teachers (Young & Ferguson 2021). The issues discussed include: the importance of children’s motivation and its relation to achievement; agency of topic choice; the authenticity of class writing projects, and children explicitly learning about how writers generate their writing ideas. In the context of this article, stimuli should be understood as any teacher-assigned writing task which is set for the sole purpose of teacher evaluation. The prompts used in these tasks will typically be so narrowly defined that they leave no possibility for children to write a unique response to them, and so the teacher routinely receives a collection of depressingly similar and soulless manuscripts.

The importance of children’s motivation and its relation to achievement

Being moved to write is fundamentally the need, the will, the urge to write something. Motivation and academic achievement are invariably linked. In our book Real-World Writers, we consider how being moved to write should be the driving force behind children’s writing at school. Children may be moved to teach others by sharing their experience or their particular knowledge. Perhaps they are moved by the desire to persuade or influence others. They will sometimes be moved to entertain through the telling and writing of stories, or simply be moved to paint with words, showing their artistry and creating images in their readers’ minds to help them see things differently. Possibly they will be moved to reflect on something from their own lives, or something recently learned, in order to better understand it. Or moved to make a record of something which should not be forgotten by themselves or others. The National Literacy Trust (Clark & Teravainen 2017) links motivation to write and writing achievement in the clearest terms: children are seven times more likely to attain academic expectations in writing if they are motivated – moved – to write.

The reasons children are moved to write taken from ‘Real-World Writers’ by Young & Ferguson 2020

Agency over topic choice

Writing because you are moved to presupposes that you are interested in your subject and have an investment in it. Having agency over your writing topic is therefore of huge importance and is linked to better writing performance. Yet, according to research, in dominant writing practices, the stimulus is almost always chosen by the teacher or scheme-writer and not the child (Young & Ferguson 2021).

Authenticity of class writing projects 

Quality writing emerges when it has an underlying authentic intention and a real audience. Therefore, we need to make sure that in the context of class writing projects, children are always thinking about and crafting their writing with their own genuine purpose and real anticipated audience in mind.

Children explicitly learning about how writers generate their writing ideas

Finding your own stimulus and your own authentic reason for writing is probably the most important part of learning to be a writer. It is imperative therefore that we actively teach this often ignored part of a writer’s process. We shouldn’t do this important work for children because to do so would deny them a complete apprenticeship in being a writer. There are a number of writing approaches that are not built on giving children stimuli but rather focus their attention on teaching children to generate their own ideas within the parameters of class writing projects. For example, Atwell (2014), Shubitz & Dorfman (2019) and Calkins (2020) (USA), Young & Ferguson (2020) (UK), Loane (2016) and Gadd (2021) (NZ). In these approaches, stimuli are only used when appropriate: for the benefit of one-off low-stakes ‘quick-writes’.

The problems with writing approaches built on stimuli

  • The systematic use of teacher-assigned writing prompts, story starters and other stimuli are just a few destructive ways we communicate to children that they are not capable of writing or thinking for themselves. They encourage dependence, what Donald Graves (1982) called putting children on ‘writers’ welfare.’
  • Stimuli are nearly always used just to get children to write something for the purposes of teacher evaluation. Children therefore only ever learn to write inauthentically, for manufactured purposes, and for no genuine audience. Children who are repeatedly given no real and good reason to write will write to a lower standard (Young & Ferguson 2021).
  • It’s pure luck if you can find a stimulus which can launch everyone into writing with enthusiasm and investment, based as they are on a teacher’s assumptions of what will be motivating. As John Dixon says ‘ideally, no pupil should be given an assignment which does not yield them enough fruit in their own terms, so that he can feel it is worth doing’ (1967 p.78).
  • Teacher or scheme-assigned writing stimuli may appear exciting and motivating but, as Roger Beard says ‘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…such writing may only have short-term value’ (2000 p.89). 
  • Teachers or scheme-writers are doing the work that the children should be doing as a community of writers.
  • Providing a stimulus for class writing projects is often a very inefficient way of getting children onto the act of writing. It wastes an incredible amount of valuable instructional and writing time (Young & Ferguson 2020, 2021).

Conclusion

An apprenticeship in writing that asks children to respond only to banal and restrictive writing stimuli cannot compare with one which harnesses the innate and profound reasons they are moved to write. 

If our aim is to help children learn to be agentic writers, then we have to accept that the consequence of pre-selected stimuli customarily imposed upon them will be to make their writing outcomes less profitable and the achievement of becoming life-long writers less probable. In contrast, giving children ownership and personal responsibility over what they write; to find what interests and motivates them, what has amused or struck them, what they care about, love or hate, carries so many affective and academic benefits. 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, writing authentically and as real writers do. They will learn that they are producers of content, and not simply there to recite or consume other people’s writing ideas and desires (Young & Ferguson 2020, 2021). They also write better quality texts because they care about them doing well. Finally, there are benefits for you as their teacher. Not only will you have all the pleasure and excitement of reading such a wide variety of cared-for pieces, but you’ll get to know your young writers better as people too.

References:

  • Atwell, N., (2014) In The Middle (3rd Ed) Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
  • Beard, R., (2000) Developing Writing 3-13 London: Hodder & Stoughton
  • Calkins, L., (2020) Teaching writing USA: Heinnaman 
  • Clark, C., Teravainen, A., (2017) Writing for enjoyment and its link to wider writing National Literacy Trust: London
  • Dixon, J., (1967) Growth In English Oxford University Press: London
  • Gadd, M. (2021) Delivering an Effective Writing Programme [Available: murraygadd.co.nz/shop/resources-to-purchase/delivering-an-effective-writing-programme]
  • Graves, D., (1982) Break the welfare cycle: let writers choose their topics The English Composition Board 3(2) pp.75-78
  • Loane, G. (2016) Developing young writers in the classroom London: Routledge 
  • Shubitz, S., Dorfman, L., (2019) Welcome to writing workshop USA: Stenhouse
  • Young, R., & Ferguson, F. (2020) Real-World Writers London: Routledge
  • Young, R., & Ferguson, F. (2021) Writing For Pleasure: theory, research and practice London: Routledge

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