What do world-class writing teachers do that makes the difference? Seminar presentation UKLA National Conference 2021

What do world-class writing teachers do that makes the difference? Seminar presentation UKLA National Conference 2021

A good place to start talking about Writing For Pleasure is to explain what it actually is. It’s a phrase and an idea which is open to several different (and quite dissimilar) interpretations, but for us at least it has a very specific meaning. We’ve obviously written our book about it, called Writing for pleasure: theory research and practice, which explains what it means for us and how it can be realized as what we believe to be a much-needed pedagogy, a pedagogy which we also call ‘Writing for Pleasure’.

In our definition, a Writing For Pleasure pedagogy is nothing less than world-class writing teaching. We can say that because… When children are taught using world-class writing practices, we know they write for pleasure to a high degree.

So, how do we define world-class writing teaching?  When world -class writing teaching is happening, teachers and children together develop strong writer-identities in the classroom. When it’s happening, children feel confident and competent. It’s happening when children have a strong desire and urge to write. It’s happening when children feel they have personal control over their writing, and when children are deeply motivated to share their words and so work hard to craft meaningful and successful texts. World-class writing teaching is essentially the kind of teaching in which children’s affective needs are being met, when their emotions and feelings are seen as crucially important to their development as writers. When this happens, children go on to achieve exceptionally well academically.

So what gave us the impetus to take up the idea of writing for pleasure, and ultimately write the book?

We know from research carried out in the UK by the National Literacy Trust that, for many years now, there has been a decline in children’s enjoyment of writing, and in their motivation to write both in and out of school, with many children expressing indifference to or even an active dislike of writing. In fact, in 2020, the NLT reported that children’s enjoyment of writing was at its lowest since records began.

In addition, evidence has shown that too many students in England have been underachieving in writing.. As recently as 2019, for example, it was reported that only one in five children was achieving above the basic level in writing. So we feel confident in concluding that there is a significant link between lack of enjoyment and underachievement in writing.

From our own and others’ research, we have established that there are more specific connections to be made between children’s enjoyment, their achievement and their affective needs, with affective needs at the centre.

It seems that, for a long time, little attention has been paid by educators to the feelings, emotions and attitudes of young apprentice writers. And there’s no doubt that this negatively impacts on their enjoyment of writing. Children do not develop or see themselves as writers when their affective needs have not been met, and this in turn has a negative influence on their writing achievement. We see this as a really pernicious cycle of cause and effect, and so we were moved to write our book in the hope of taking the first step towards turning this tide of unhappiness and underachievement. 

In 2016, when we were still classroom teachers, we started to question our own writing teaching. In the course of our careers we had tried quite a few of the major approaches to writing teaching in our classroom. We’d tried: The presentational skills approach, The literature-based approach, The genre approach and what is rather appealingly called The naturalistic/romantic approach. Each had its strengths and weaknesses. We decided to focus on the strengths of each orientation and to work to minimize their weaknesses. In the process of doing this we felt we had created a whole new pedagogy. A Writing For pleasure pedagogy. Incidentally, if you want to know more about these various approaches, we describe them all in the first chapter of the book. We think you’d find it very interesting reading, and are sure you would recognize many aspects there of the way in which you were taught writing yourselves.

In the early days, we wrote what we called a Writing for Pleasure Manifesto in which we defined these two types of pleasure. We especially like the second one – Writing for pleasure, the type of pleasure that comes after the act of writing. Knowing you’ll get a response from your audience and that your writing will be put to work – sharing your memories, knowledge, ideas, thoughts, artistry or opinions with others. There can also be pleasure in hearing the meanings others might take from your text. Pleasure can also come from hearing your own writing voice, from knowing you said what you meant to say or from achieving what you meant your reader to feel. Writing for pleasure therefore gives children a sense of empowerment and the feeling that writing has enriched their lives and the lives of others.

So, initially, our main focus was on children writing as pleasure and writing for pleasure. This was because we had read that when children enjoy writing, they are seven times more likely to write above the expected standard than those who don’t. We had also read that children who don’t enjoy writing are eight times more likely to write below the expected standard. So writing for, as and with pleasure seemed massively important. 

What we wanted then, of course, was for the children in our class to write for and with enjoyment, and for the satisfaction and pride that comes from producing something significant, successful and meaningful. We also wanted to see if, at the same time, we could achieve exceptional academic progress. We were able to show that, indeed, when children wrote as and for pleasure, their academic performance did improve remarkably.

Over time, we deepened our understanding of children’s ‘affective needs’ and got a better handle on what enjoyment and satisfaction actually mean in the context of a writing classroom. Through our own action-research and from our reading of the research of others, we noted that the following affective domains were repeatedly mentioned as part of the most effective practices. Namely: self-efficacy, self-regulation, agency, motivation, volition and writer-identity. We continued to investigate and use writing practices which had a consistent reputation for attending to these needs, and began to write about it online. Gradually, other teachers began to reveal themselves as Writing For Pleasure teachers too. In 2019, we were given a grant to investigate what these other Writing For Pleasure teachers were doing in their classrooms that was making the difference (the difference being: having a track record of securing exceptional academic progress, with the children loving being writers). The study confirmed that the most exceptional teachers focused their instruction on addressing and developing children’s affective needs and these teachers used the most effective writing practices to do it. And finally, we became totally convinced -and remain totally convinced- that, if there isn’t a rich combination of both rigorous instruction in the craft of writing and attention to children’s affective needs, children will never become the confident and competent writers we want them to be. 

For example, children who are not confident can’t write for pleasure. Children who don’t know what to do or how to do it, can’t write for pleasure. Children who come into school everyday not knowing why they are doing the writing they are doing – can’t write for pleasure. Children who have no ownership or personability over their writing can’t write for pleasure. Children who have no desire to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard can’t write for pleasure. Finally, children who don’t see themselves as writers simply aren’t writing for pleasure. They are writing for something else and I’ll leave you to decide what they are writing for…  

As part of our work, we looked at many research studies, meta-analyses and case studies which described effective writing teaching. These 14 principles of world-class writing teaching emerged from that work.They are what drives a Writing for Pleasure pedagogy, and are what we saw Writing For Pleasure teachers use in their classrooms.The theory, research and practice which underpin each one is given its own dedicated chapter in our book.

What we’ve done in the book is:

  • Begin with an overview and critical reflection of all the major approaches to teaching writing and how aspects of all them inform a Writing For Pleasure pedagogy.
  • Then focus on each of the affective domains and their relationship to effective practice. 
  • Then introduce the enduring principles of world-class writing teaching, and give a detailed exploration of each principle.

 And finally, we have set out an extensive action plan for world-class writing teaching which we want to see gain ground in the UK, but which is as yet a long way from being realised.

We feel that our achievement has been to be the first in the UK to systematically draw together what so much research has been telling us for a long time about the most effective writing teaching practices, and to then use that research to develop the idea of Writing For Pleasure, and to show how, as a pedagogy, it can transform classroom practice in the most positive ways.

As I said at the beginning of this talk, the theory of Writing for Pleasure embodies everything we currently know about what constitutes world-class writing teaching. We don’t know it all yet, and so The Writing For Pleasure Centre will continue to read, observe, investigate, learn and write about it, always with a view to refining and improving our understanding. In the meantime, it’s our great hope that, through dissemination of the principles and practices of Writing for Pleasure, as many children as possible will come to receive world- class teaching and grow as a generation of extraordinary writers. This, after all, is what they deserve.

I thought I’d end by quoting a short passage from the preface to our book because it encapsulates our most profound beliefs about teaching both the writer and the writing, and also about the human relationships that are a part of doing just that.

Writing For Pleasure is a robust and rigorous pedagogy. It does not advocate for a ‘creative writing’ approach, though it encourages children to write creatively. It does not call for a return to a ‘growth’, ‘naturalistic’, or ‘romantic’ conception of writing, though it does want children to grow as writers. It wants children to learn about linguistic and literary features, grammar, and punctuation, but in such a way as to help them craft meaningful and successful texts. It wants children to write in an environment of collective responsibility but also to be able to develop their own individual voice. Finally, it wants children to learn the behaviours, dispositions, knowledge, skills, and techniques of writers, to write with purpose, power, precision, and pleasure, and to write for life. And running beneath it like an underground stream is the conviction that we as teachers should be helping children to see writing not as being directed solely towards a set of efficient outcomes, but as an enterprise in which they can and should express their values, ideals, and aspirations.

 So, I hope I’ve shown you what writing for pleasure means in the deepest sense, that’s to say in our sense, and that you’ll see why as practitioners we simply cannot afford to ignore all its implications for our teaching.

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