NATE: What can we learn from Writing for Pleasure teachers? for Primary Matters magazine

Authors Ross Young and Felicity Ferguson share their compelling research, equipping teachers with the knowledge to reshape their teaching of writing in transformative ways and help children become empowered writers who write with purpose, power, precision and pleasure.

What Is It Writing For Pleasure Teachers Do That Makes The Difference? (Young 2019) was a one-year research project funded by The Goldsmiths’ Company and supported by The University Of Sussex which investigated how Writing For Pleasure teachers secured outstanding academic achievement from their pupils whilst also attending to children’s affective needs (positive dispositions and feelings towards writing and being writers). This research comes at a time when we are seeing profound underachievement in writing
coupled with an increase in young people’s indifference to or dislike of writing (Young & Ferguson 2021).

It was a requirement that the practices of the teachers participating in the research should be based on what studies tell us are the most effective writing teaching, associated with high levels of pupil motivation, confidence, agency, independence, desire, writer-identity, enjoyment, satisfaction and pleasure. Teachers were also required to provide evidence and a track record of exceptional academic progress among their pupils.

From a rich literature review, we were able to identify the fourteen enduring and interconnected principles of world-class writing teaching. These practices have, for a long time, been associated with high levels of student achievement and feelings of pleasure in being a young writer. The literature review was based on:

  • Extensive research into the most effective writing instruction including meta-analyses of multiple studies.
  • Existing case studies of what the best performing teachers of writing do that makes the difference.
  • Research summaries from reputable literacy charities and associations.
The 14 Principles Of World-Class Writing Teaching
– Build a community of writers
– Treat every child as a writer
– Read, share, think and talk about writing
– Pursue authentic and purposeful writing projects
– Teach the writing processes
– Set writing goals
– Be reassuringly consistent
– Pursue personal writing projects
– Balance composition and transcription 
– Teach daily mini-lessons
– Be a writer-teacher
– Pupil-conference
– Connect reading and writing
– Interconnect the principles

(Young & Ferguson 2021)

So what can we learn from these teachers? Below we share what it was they were doing in their classrooms that was making the difference, including: the creation of a social environment and a positive culture for developing as a writer; high-quality teaching to produce authentic, confident, and independent writers; teachers writing, teaching, and giving feedback as writers, and teachers connecting writing with reading.

Create A Community Of Writers

  • Children saw their teachers as extraordinarily positive, caring, strict, fun, calm and interested in their lives and development as writers. 
  • Their classrooms felt like a rich mixture of creative writers’ workshop but also had the sharp focus of a professional publishing house (Young & Ferguson 2020). 
  • The teachers supported and encouraged children to bring and use their own ‘funds of knowledge’ into their writing projects, meaning that children could write from a position of strength (Young & Birchill 2021).
  • Classrooms were a shared and democratic space. 
  • The children talked of feeling confident and knowing that their teachers wanted them to try their best, take their time and to focus specifically on making their written pieces the highest quality they could be for their future readership.

Treat Every Child As A Writer

  • The teachers held high achievement expectations for all their writers.
  • All children felt like independent writers who were achieving writing goals with regularity. They were praised for the goals they achieved in the writing lesson.
  • The teachers ensured that all their writers remained part of the writing community.

Read, Share, Think And Talk About Writing

  • Children were given ample opportunity to share and discuss with others (including their writer-teacher) their own and others’ writing in order to give and receive constructive criticism, writerly advice and celebrate achievement.
  • Writing was seen as a social act, and dialogic talk was important at all stages of the writing process. 
  • Children were encouraged to talk about the content of their writing, their writing processes, and to share any techniques or strategies they thought were working particularly well for them. 
  • Whilst talk was an integral part of any writing time, so was maintaining a low level of noise to avoid disturbing fellow writers (Whittick 2020).

Purposeful & Authentic Writing Projects

  • Teachers and children together considered the purpose and future audiences for their class writing projects. Because children were given the opportunity to generate their own ideas and had a strong sense of a real reader and a clear distant goal for the writing to be published, the projects were seen as meaningful (The Writing For Pleasure Centre 2021).
  • Agency played an important role within class writing projects. Children were encouraged to either generate their own individual ideas, share and work on ideas in ‘clusters’ or, as a whole class, generate an idea that they could all pursue together (Young & Ferguson 2020).
  • It was striking that these teachers were regularly refocusing the children on considering the future readership and publication of their piece throughout their projects (James 2020). 
  • Class writing projects were worked on over a number of weeks.

The affective needs of young writers as identified by Young & Ferguson (2021)

Teach The Writing Processes

  • Teachers gave direct instruction in strategies for engaging in the different components of the writing process (how to generate an idea, plan, draft, revise, edit, publish). They scaffolded children’s understanding of these processes through demonstration, resources, displays, discussion, sharing self-written exemplars and also techniques children had used themselves.
  • Children were made to feel very knowledgeable about the writing process and confident in navigating it on their own. One way in which the teachers showed commitment to helping their children achieve independence was to allow them to develop and use a writing process which suited them best and to write at a pace which enabled them to produce their best writing (Hayden 2020).
  • The children were able to use the writing processes recursively and were not tied to a linear model.

Set Writing Goals

  • To maintain children’s commitment and motivation during a class writing project, teachers ensured that their classes understood the ‘distant goal’ for the project, that is to say, its audience and purpose (Hayden & Vasques 2020).
  • The class, as a community, also had a say in setting the ‘product goals’ for their project. This took place in the form of discussions as to what they would have to do, and what it was writers did, to ensure their writing was successful and meaningful in the context of the project’s aims (Young & Ferguson 2020).
  • The teachers would often share a piece of their own writing, in keeping with the project, to initiate a discussion about writing decisions. The children then used the outcomes of these discussions as an aid to setting product goals for their own writing. The product goals were similar to success criteria, but importantly they also included more overarching goals linked directly to purpose and audience (Ferguson 2020).
  • Product goals were put on display and were repeatedly referred to by the children and the teachers throughout their class writing projects.
  • The teachers set loose ‘process goals’ for writing time to help the class generally stay on track, without forcing children to keep to a certain pace or writing process.

Be Reassuringly Consistent

  • The teachers showed excellent classroom organisation and behaviour management. There was strong emphasis on routines, promoting self-regulation, expectations and focused collaborative learning among the children.
  • Teachers had a clear routine of mini-lesson (10 to 20 minutes), writing time (30-40 minutes) and class sharing/author’s chair (10-15 minutes) (Young & Ferguson 2020).
  • The mini lessons were a short direct instruction on an aspect of writing which was likely to be useful to the children during that day’s writing. The teachers taught from their own craft, regularly  sharing their writing ‘tips, tricks and secrets’; alternatively, they would share examples from literature taken from the class library (The Writing For Pleasure Centre 2020).
  • In the class-sharing / author’s chair session, children would share their developing pieces and discuss with their peers the writing goals they had achieved that day (Harris 2020).   

Pursue Personal Writing Projects

  • The teachers understood how essential it is that children are given time to write for a sustained period every day and to work on both class and personal writing projects (Vasques 2020; Hayden & Vasques 2021). 
  • Children were given at least one timetabled hour a week to engage in personal writing projects.  However, the teachers also encouraged children to pursue personal writing in little pockets of time throughout the week. 
  • Children transferred knowledge and skills learnt in class writing projects and used them expertly and successfully in their personal ones.
  • The teachers set up routines where personal writing project books went to and fro between school and home every day. This meant that children could be in a constant state of composition.

Balance Composition And Transcription

  • The teachers focused on giving direct instruction in the ‘generalities’ of good writing. They taught writing lessons which would help that day but which would serve children in future writing projects too. 
  • They ensured that they taught the right lessons at the right time, with the emphasis on composition at the beginning of a writing project and more focus on teaching good transcriptional techniques and strategies later.
  • The teachers had high expectations for transcriptional accuracy, spelling and handwriting and wanted the children to take pride in their final written products. They encouraged children to concentrate on composing their piece (or part of their piece) before giving full attention to making it transcriptionally accurate.
  • They allocated specific time for children to focus on revising their pieces prior to editing them. Thus, revision and editing had separate and specific status.
  • They also asked children to regularly stop, re-read and share their work with their peers. By re-reading, the children had an opportunity to revise and edit their developing pieces as they were progressing (Whittick 2020).
  • There was a good balance between discussing what the content of the children’s writing projects might be, how the writing could be organised to be successful, and the explicit teaching of different writing processes.
  • The teachers were very aware that, if grammar was to be understood in a meaningful way, it must be taught functionally and applied and examined in the context of real composition (The Writing For Pleasure Centre 2020). 

Teach Daily Mini-Lessons

  • Children learned numerous strategies and techniques that they could employ independently. They were taught strategies for managing every part of the writing process and they knew how to use them across all class and personal writing projects.
  • Self-regulation strategies and resources were introduced carefully and given dedicated instructional time. In mini-lessons, the teachers would illustrate the benefit of a writing strategy or resource with personal reference to their own experience as a writer, before modelling and encouraging the children to use it that day if possible. The strategies and techniques were offered in the spirit of a fellow writer sharing their own writerly knowledge and their ‘tricks’ (Hayden 2020).
  • These teachers made use of their working walls for ‘advertising’ and sharing self-regulation strategies.

Be A Writer-Teacher

  • Teachers wrote for pleasure in their own lives outside the classroom. They used their literate lives as an education tool in the classroom (Bean 2020).
  • The teachers regularly wrote and shared their writing with their class. They would also share their own finished pieces in relation to the projects they were asking the children to engage in, and would take advice from the children on compositions they were in the process of developing.
  • The teachers would readily share the tricks, tips and ‘secret’ strategies that they habitually employed in their own writing and would invite children to give them a try too.

Pupil Conference: Meet Children Where They Are

  • The teachers believed that a rich response to children’s writing was crucial. Whilst they used both written and verbal feedback, they particularly emphasised the usefulness of ‘live’ verbal feedback, which they felt was immediate, relevant and allowed the child to reflect on and attend to learning points raised while still actually engaged in their writing (Young & Ferguson 2020). 
  • Conferences were short, friendly, supportive and incredibly positive. The children looked forward to these ‘conversations’ because they knew they would receive genuine praise for and celebration of the writing goals they were achieving and also good advice as to how they could improve their developing compositions further.
  • The teachers were able to undertake pupil-conferencing in a systematic way and were successful because their children and classrooms were settled, focused, highly-organised and self-regulating. Behavioural expectations were also made very clear.

Literacy For Pleasure: Connect Reading And Writing

  • The teachers looked to build a community of readers and writers concurrently. 
  • They taught using a reading for pleasure pedagogy (Cremin et al 2014).
  • They had print-rich classrooms which included stories, non-fiction, poetry, newspapers, magazines and the children’s own published texts. 
  • The teachers read aloud every day to their classes with pleasure and enthusiasm, including poetry, picture books, chapter books, non-fiction texts and sometimes their own writing. 
  • The teachers encouraged children to make links between what they were reading, their own lives and potential writing ideas. They discussed authors’ themes and analysed their craft, understanding and encouraging the use of intertextuality, and writing in personal response to texts read (Young & Ferguson 2020).
  • They understood that volitional reading can lead to volitional writing, ensuring that during independent reading time children could also write in their personal writing project books if they felt an urge to do so (Taylor & Clarke 2021). 
  • Children collected words, phrases and other good examples of a writer’s craft in the hope that they might come in useful at a later date.

Conclusion

What we have learned from these Writing For Pleasure teachers is that, through an intellectual and practical commitment to the fourteen principles of world-class writing teaching, it is possible to transform classroom practice in the most significant and positive ways. Children are empowered not only to achieve exceptionally well academically, but also to grow as writers who write with purpose, power, precision and pleasure.

I feel like if I never wrote – life would be a bit boring wouldn’t it – having loads of thoughts but never being able to show it. – Year 4 Child

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