Issues with the book planning approach and how they can be addressed


What we know about the connection between reading & writing

If we want to attract children like bees to the idea of writing, we must treat our classroom as a field and fill it with the sweetest of nectar – good literature (Young & Ferguson 2020 p.91)

This is not an article about teaching reading. It is an article about writers’ relationships with reading. This is what we currently know, from educational research and from case-studies of exceptional writing teachers, about the interconnections between writing and reading in the classroom:

  • When young writers read, ideas for writing occur.
  • Children learn much about the craft of writing and develop an ‘inner ear’ for language if they are given regular, sustained and wide opportunities to read. 
  • Children who read and listen to high-quality texts include more literary features and write better texts.
  • Children who read poetry include more imagery and other poetic devices in their own writing. 
  • Young writers often develop strong affective bonds with the things they have read and use aspects of these texts in their own writing.
  • Children who write in response to the texts they have read significantly enhance their comprehension of those texts.
  • Children having ample time to read is fundamental to their writing development. (Young & Ferguson 2021)

We can therefore conclude, in agreement with Dombey (2013 p.30), that ‘children who read more write more and write better’.

Published authors, looking back on their own development as writers, overwhelmingly subscribe to this view, and as literate adults we might look at our own writing processes and see how what we read can be both an inspiration and a mentor, helping us improve our writing craft and technical fluency and encouraging us to tackle different kinds of writing. And how writing in response to the literature we read offers myriad opportunities, such as developing empathy, seeing our world through a different lens, connecting with and going beyond our own experience, taking on someone else’s writing style and voice and in the process enriching our own. It would therefore be foolish not to place high-quality texts at the heart of the literacy curriculum and – most importantly – not to put that literature firmly into children’s hands (Young & Ferguson 2020, 2021).

‘Book planning’ (also known as novel-study, basalisation, literature as a unit of study, the manufactured approach, the formalist approach, the analysis-paralysis approach or the echo approach) is currently a very popular way of teaching writing (Young & Ferguson 2021). However, in our view, the rationale behind its present manifestation is fundamentally flawed. 

How has this approach misunderstood how a writer uses their reading, and how has it failed resoundingly to give such an apprenticeship to children?

Where book planning can go wrong in the teaching of writing

It is as if what could be a rich wildflower meadow of interpretation and response is instead turned into a field of artificially cultivated and identical crops (Young & Ferguson 2021 p.9)

A lack of dedicated writing instruction

Study any number of commercial schemes and you’ll find that, in the units which form their content, little rational or explicit connection is made between the reading of the text and how that could offer lessons in the craft of writing. No practical writing instruction is typically given, and there seems to be simply an assumption – or perhaps just an undefined hope – that the prescribed writing tasks tethered to the text will be successfully carried out without a need for teaching about writing. This goes against what we know children need to become successful writers. Writers need explicit, daily, and world-class writing instruction (Young & Ferguson 2021).

Essential components of writing pedagogy are missing

As far as writing instruction is concerned, it is simply not attended to. For example, the three most powerful teaching practices identified by research are typically missing. Teachers receive no guidance on how to teach about the processes involved in writing. There is nothing about strategy instruction and typically no subsequent suggestions for craft study and functional grammar teaching. Finally, there is no advice about how to set distant, product and process writing goals (Young & Ferguson 2021). 

Reading instruction ends up dominating the writing classroom

In these units of work, writing is largely appropriated to serve reading and reading comprehension. The claim made by the authors of these commercial schemes that reading and writing are attended to equally is, in our view, simply not true. Most worryingly, they promote the misconception that teachers can use the materials to teach writing effectively. Research has pointed this out as a major flaw of a book planning approach (Young & Ferguson 2021).

Children spend most of their time being taught the content for the assigned writing tasks, and not how writers write

An essential part of the book planning pedagogy is to subject children to a close and sometimes  laborious ‘analysis paralysis’, reading of the text (Grainger et al. 2005). Even a cursory look at some units of work is enough to see that what the scheme writers are pushing is the comprehension of the text that they have arrived at, and that it is their interpretation which is, in effect, the only one offered and taught. They put themselves between the child and the text. This happens because the scheme writer needs children to obtain enough ‘content knowledge’ of the book so that they can go on to successfully carry out the devised writing tasks. For example, a teacher sets the class the task of writing a letter to Dumbledore. She asks them to write in role as Harry, who must persuade the wizard that another character, Snape, is evil. The problem with this task is that the teacher spends the lesson teaching and discussing the content (drawn from the book) that needs to be included in the letter. This lesson time would be better spent teaching about the craft of writing (Young & Ferguson 2021).

Novels are not the best mentor texts

Unless you’re teaching children to write a novel, it’s inappropriate to use novels as mentor texts for writing. This is not to say that teachers shouldn’t teach how writers use novels to learn about literary technique. However, children need to study mentor texts which match the genres they are being invited to use for themselves (see our Class Writing Projects). For example, if the class writing project is to write information texts, children should study information texts. If they are going to craft short stories,they should read short stories as mentor texts. If, for whatever strange reason, they are being asked to write a diary entry, they should study diary entries (Young & Ferguson 2020, 2021).

Children don’t learn how writers really use their reading to inform their writing

In book planning, writing in personal response and using intertextuality are not made central pillars of the writing classroom, despite the fact that they are the cornerstones of how writers really use their reading to inform their writing. Intertextuality is the theory that what we write is influenced by our reading, the things we watch and listen to, the video games we play, and by our ‘life texts’ (Young & Ferguson 2020). This means our reading identities, life experiences, culture, funds of knowledge and funds of identity have a profound influence on what we write, how we write it, and who we are as writers (Young & Ferguson 2021; Young et al. in press). However, in our experience, personal response and intertextuality are largely not promoted in book planning schemes.

Writers spend a lot of time reading. They investigate the craft moves of other authors in a variety of books. They note and write down examples of good craft as they read, but children aren’t taught this discipline. Instead, it’s the teacher or scheme who mostly does this important work for them. Writers also consult their reading when they spot gaps in their craft knowledge. However, in the book planning approach, children are not taught how to do this for themselves. They do not learn self-regulation strategies and instead are dependent on their teacher. Book planning does not fairly or sincerely represent how we read and write. Therefore, book planning, as an approach, is not an adequate apprenticeship in how to live a literate life.

Children don’t read and write as a community        

In a community of writers, children collectively use their reading to find subjects for writing, and will share their ideas and compositions with one another. You will notice that this opportunity is not offered by book planning schemes. Children are not invited to contribute to or devise their own writing projects as a whole class. We also know that multiple responses are probable across a writing community. Children bring their own knowledge and experiences to a text, and this diversity of response should contribute to and deepen their own and others’ understandings of it (Young & Ferguson 2021; Young et al. in press). However, in the list of laborious and prescribed writing assignments set in book planning schemes, it is hard to find more than the casual and occasional nod to children’s own funds of knowledge and identities, and no acknowledgment that these are a crucial part of the response children will make in their writing. Writers of the units would do well to remember what Harold Rosen (2017) said about making and taking new meanings from a text: ‘this is only feasible in classrooms where there is space for the collaborative production of meaning, where the pupils’ experience is acknowledged to be necessary and relevant’. The book-planners’ authoritative interpretation of a text does not invite a class (including the teacher) to produce, through writing, a variety of new meanings, as a genuine community of writers would do.

Children are not asked to write authentically or purposefully 

The explicit claim made by many material creators that their writing tasks are purposeful and authentic only reveals the extraordinary extent of their self-deception or misunderstanding (Young & Ferguson 2021). Nearly all the assignments are arbitrarily tethered to the text. They regularly appear contrived with no genuine future audience identified. In relation to progression across an academic year and across year groups, they appear to be incoherent. Finally, they are constructed for the purpose of teacher evaluation alone and thus offer little long-term value or learning. This goes against what we know from research makes for great writing teaching.

Children fail to learn about the reasons we are moved to write

Because in this approach children are directed to write in prescribed ways and on pre-selected topics  related to the text being studied, they don’t learn about the reasons we are all moved to write in our real writing lives. For example: 

  • Responding to something we’ve read for ourselves. 
  • Communicating to others some of the original thoughts and ideas we’ve had  
  • Thinking about and recording our own experiences. 
  • Teaching others about something we know a lot about. 
  • Writing to teach ourselves and understand a subject better.
  • Entertaining ourselves and others.
  • Giving an opinion and wanting to make changes to the world. 

Writing in response to someone else’s interpretation of a book only represents a very small part of being a writer. However, it is given almost exclusive priority under a book planning approach.

These charts are a visual metaphor to illustrate a point.

Children are asked to take on the culture of the scheme writer and are not asked to share their own

In book planning, teachers or scheme writers choose the text to be studied. The favoured text is likely to be one which accords with their own personal and cultural taste, but this will not be shared by all children. The message many children receive is that their own cultures, attitudes, experiences, artefacts, and the funds of knowledge that they bring into the classroom daily have no part to play in how they are taught to be writers (Young et al. in press). The book planning approach does not acknowledge that children’s own cultures and the books that they like must be allowed to shape and enrich the present and future writing they will share with others.

Children are not meeting writer-teachers, only reading teachers

As part of the pedagogy, teachers are asked to highlight very specific aspects of quality composition in the book being studied, but are not asked to show and discuss with children how they might craft it for themselves. The writing classroom is therefore directed by reading teachers, and not by writer-teachers who know how to write their own texts and can share their craft knowledge with their class. We know that craft knowledge is essential in world-class writing teaching (Young & Ferguson 2021). 

Children have a mistaken conception of what a writer is

Finally, children grow up with a warped understanding of what a writer is. For example, they may believe that you can only be an author if you are formally and commercially published (Young & Ferguson 2021). Because, in the book planning approach, children are meeting texts which are almost exclusively literary, they don’t understand that writers can be many and various: hobbyists, historians, scientists, activists, reviewers, columnists, journalists, diarists, biographers or memoirists, and of course themselves.

How to establish a more sincere approach to the reading/writing connection

Children don’t only show their comprehension when they write in response to the books they’re reading; they give something of themselves to the text too. A fair exchange of ideas is made between the reader and what’s read (Young & Ferguson 2020 p.91)

This will require a significant shift away from what currently happens. The key is to put literature, the reading of it and the writing in response to it, back into the hands of children while supporting them as readers and writers. It means putting in what book planning indisputably leaves out: explicitly teaching the craft of writing, which includes showing children how writers behave and work with the texts they read. Below, we share what we believe needs to be changed so that teachers can begin to deliver world-class writing teaching using high-quality texts.

  1. Start providing dedicated writing instruction

Stop delivering content or procedural instruction in how to complete a specific writing task. Instead provide genuine instruction in the processes, strategies and techniques writers employ when they craft texts.

  1. Start applying the essential components of effective writing teaching

Book planning schemes fail to give teachers information or guidance on how to teach the processes involved in crafting writing. They also provide little or no advice on how to give strategy or functional grammar instruction, nor do they explain the importance of setting distant, process and product goals with the community of writers. Research suggests these three elements are essential to children’s learning in the writing classroom (Young & Ferguson 2021).

  1. Don’t allow reading instruction to encroach on lessons about writing

Don’t fall into the trap of believing that lessons in reading or lessons focused on literary criticism and comprehension of a text are the same as lessons in the craft of writing.

  1. Start studying mentor texts that match the writing children are actually going to do

Teach how writers genuinely use their reading to inform their writing. For example by:

  • reading a variety of mentor texts.
  • admiring, noting down and copying their favourite craft moves by other authors.
  • reading genuine high-quality examples of the sorts of things they are looking to write themselves in the class writing project.

If children are going to write an information text, they should be reading other information texts. If they are writing short stories, then read great short stories.

Teachers should share the texts which helped them craft their own exemplar, and give their pupils an apprenticeship in how to do the same. Children’s own writing, both past and present, can be offered as mentor texts too. If teachers don’t provide a variety of texts like this, they run the risk of creating a culture in the classroom where children experience a sense of intimidation, inadequacy, imposter syndrome and failure if they feel they can’t craft texts to the same level as those written by highly experienced professional writers.

  1. Stop using predetermined writing tasks or devising writing assignments on your class’ behalf

In the book planning approach writing tasks are decided upon by the scheme writer, the teacher, and by the content of the book itself. Do it differently. Devise projects together on the basis of personal and collective response, and teach children how writers use intertextuality whilst they read. Young & Ferguson (2020 p.95), influenced by Michael Rosen’s work, provide examples of how this can be done very practically through discussion:

  • Does this writing remind you of anything from your lives?
  • Does it remind you of anything else you’ve seen or read?
  • What do you have in common with this writing?
  • Why might the author have been moved to write?
  • Does anyone have any questions they would like to ask the class?
  • What’s the one thing I want to write about this book?
  • Cor, I would love to nick that for my writing…
  • I would love to have a go at writing something like this…
  • That’s reminded me of something… and I’m going to write about it…
  • Why don’t I draw, jot and dabble with ideas that come to mind as I’m reading or listening. Maybe it’ll turn into some writing….

Young & Ferguson (2020) suggest that children can and should generate writing ideas as a community of writers. Answers to the sorts of questions listed above will give a community of writers more writing ideas than they would ever know what to do with. Children can generate these writing ideas individually, in groups, or as a whole class – listing their ideas onto a large sheet of paper. The point being that children and teachers are utterly capable of conceiving their very own ‘book planning’. 

Through such an approach, the teacher will get a collection of different written responses and perspectives, which, when shared, would, as Harold Rosen (2017) states, help children to see how a single text can carry many different values and meanings through hearing how others interpreted it through their writing. How much better than to receive thirty depressingly similar pieces written in response to a scheme writer’s preferred conception and comprehension of a book.

  1. Children need to be writing as writers do, for genuine purposes and audiences.

Children’s writing suffers if it lacks a genuine purpose and an anticipated audience beyond the teacher’s evaluation. Start assessing children’s ability to write meaningful and successful texts for an identified audience (for example, an information text for others to read on something the writer is genuinely passionate about) rather than their capacity to retain information about a book and regurgitate it in an arbitrary writing assignment.

  1. Children need to start learning about writing from a writer-teacher

Popular schemes fail to advise on how teachers should write with and for their class. Instead, they only provide texts written by someone who won’t be present in the classroom to explain how they went about crafting it. As a result, children hear about writing almost exclusively from a reading teacher who can only critique and point toward examples of good craft, as opposed to a writer-teacher who can show from direct experience how such writing can be crafted. 

  1. Give more time to regular and sustained reading.

Scheme writers have not answered the question of what happens if a child doesn’t like the book they have designated for study. Such children can be subjected to a single book for six to twelve weeks! This is time which children might more profitably spend reading something they have chosen for themselves from the varied and high-quality selection in the class library, and letting their response feed into their writing. Ironically, time spent on teaching through a book planning scheme can seriously affect children’s access to independent and group reading time. And as we know, the more opportunities and time children get to read, the better readers and writers they become (Young & Ferguson 2021). 

  1. Continue to read aloud and talk about authors’ writing regularly

One of the main benefits of book planning is that children get to hear books read aloud with regularity. They are also encouraged to talk about books. This needs to continue with gusto. 

  1. Ensure children are receiving a rich writing diet  

To give children a truly rounded apprenticeship in writing, scheme writers should emphasise that not all writing tasks they suggest should be tethered to books. They must provide teachers and children with an opportunity to write about and use their own thoughts, opinions, concerns, their local community, funds of knowledge, funds of identity and cultures – things that might not be found in texts but nonetheless are essential resources that writers use (Young et al in press). Teachers can do this by ensuring that children are aware of all the reasons we are moved to write (Young & Ferguson 2020).

Frequently asked questions & answers to them

Before you begin reading this section, answers to all of these questions hinge on what is meant by teaching young writers effectively. Many approaches, including book planning, have only a very partial and sometimes even a misguided understanding of it.

What are you saying? That literature isn’t important in the teaching of writing?

Absolutely not. We know from research that children who read more write more and write better. But literature needs to be put firmly in the hands of children rather than appropriated so completely by scheme writers in terms of interpretation, comprehension and response – ‘this is how you should understand this book, this is what you should take from it, this is how you should write in response to it.’ What happened to multiple and collective responses deepening comprehension of the literature? What happened to trusting children with it? After all, it’s written for them.

My class produces great writing using a scheme like the ones you describe, so what’s the problem?

Writing done in the  book planning approach may have good features copied from the literary text, but this cannot be compared to a true apprenticeship in being a writer. You must be sure that children have learned craft knowledge, strategies and techniques, both general and specific, which they will be able to use in the future as part of their repertoire as a writer. Book planning does not teach children to be lifelong self-directed writers who write with purpose, independence and with personal and collective responsibility, generating their own ideas and using the writing processes in ways that suit them. Book planning is too often product-focused and superficial since it does not develop or reveal the child as an agentic writer. Unfortunately, children learn to write without ever being asked to compose. The lack of a genuine purpose and audience and the fact that children are given no choice of topic or form misses the point of writing and why we are moved to write in the first place. Finally, and sadly, children leave school unable to take a germ of an idea and see it through to publication or performance independently (Young & Ferguson 2020).

If book planning isn’t effective in teaching writing, why is it so popular?

We’re not sure. However, teachers may have been persuaded that a close reading of a text can also be the perfect writing teacher. And maybe it’s popular because it appeals to the many teachers who are more oriented to reading than writing (Young & Ferguson 2021). If you are one of these, an approach which advertises itself as centring around literature and reading will be immediately sympathetic to you.

As far as the (much smaller) writing component is concerned, it will be liked because it’s all thought out for you in a ’comprehensive’ literacy pedagogy. Children are provided with something to write about and enough time is spent teaching the content knowledge to ensure they can complete the necessary writing tasks. Completing the assigned tasks seems to be more important than the deep learning about writing and being a writer which should certainly be offered in any approach which claims to be as much concerned with raising writing standards as it is with reading.

What do you mean I’m only teaching reading? Surely, if we are analysing a text, we are learning about writing?

Yes, you may be learning something about writing. You may not be teaching writing though. Analysing a text isn’t all there is to it. When is the craft that produces text to be taught and who is going to teach it? For effective writing teaching to be at its most effective it needs to be taught by a writer-teacher, someone who can demonstrate and give advice on techniques, strategies and problem solving. A text alone can’t do this. A skilled writer-teacher is a necessary partner in the process of teaching writing (Young & Ferguson 2021).

You don’t seem to think that the teacher’s or the scheme writer’s comprehension of the text is important – only the children’s. Why? 

That’s not true. The teacher’s voice and their comprehension of a text is an essential one in any reading or writing classroom. We are not saying it isn’t. But why should they or the scheme writer get to have all the fun with the text and get to devise the subsequent writing projects which come as a result of reading it? How a community of young readers and writers explore and understand a text using their own lives, experiences and funds of knowledge is just as important as the adult’s (Young & Ferguson 2021; Young et al. in press). Should there be only one interpretation? Why should a scheme writer dominate and direct the writing of children they have never met? In this way, pupils become subservient to their authoritative viewpoint and desire and can never challenge it without being judged as having failed to understand the text! They become consumers of text rather than legitimate producers. We believe the adult voice should only be one among many. This is for the benefit of everyone in the classroom – including the teachers themselves.

References:

  • Dombey, H. (2013) Teaching Writing: What the Evidence Says UKLA Argues for An Evidence-informed Approach to Teaching and Testing Young Children’s Writing Leicester: UKLA
  • Grainger, T., Goouch, K., and Lambirth, A. (2005) Creativity and Writing: Developing Voice and Verve in the Classroom London: Routledge
  • Rosen, H. (2017) The politics of writing. In Harold Rosen Writings on Life, Language and Learning 1958–2008, Richmond, J. (Ed.) (pp. 347–361). London: UCL IOE Press
  • Young, R., & Ferguson, F. (2020) Real-World Writers London: Routledge
  • Young, R., & Ferguson, F. (2021) Writing For Pleasure: theory, research and practice London: Routledge
  • Young, R., Govender, N., & Kaufman, D. (in press) Writing Realities Leicester: UKLA

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