What sort of writing teacher are you?

This article has three aims:

  1. To help you reflect on your own writerly education.
  2. To reflect on the writerly education children are receiving in our schools today.
  3. To think about what kind of teacher of writing you want to be.

To help you, in our book Writing For Pleasure: Theory, Research & Practice (Young & Ferguson 2021), we identified, labelled and described the most popular views teachers have on the teaching of writing.

The most common approaches are:

  1. The presentational-skills approach
  2. The literature-based approach
  3. The genre or ‘structuralist’ approach 
  4. The self-expressionist naturalistic approach
  5. The critical literacy approach
  6. The community or environmental approach

You may have observed schools who try to use a mixture of these approaches. However, we find one approach usually dominates. The approach a teacher or a school chooses to adopt reveals a lot about what they think a writing or indeed a writer education should be. For example, some approaches believe that the teacher’s role is simply to develop children’s writing while others believe they should also be developing the child as a living and working writer too. 

The approach a school chooses is influenced by a number things, including:

  • How their teachers were taught to write at school. 
    • For better or for worse, we know from research that teachers often copy the writing pedagogy they themselves received. 
  • How the teachers view themselves as writers and how they undertake the craft of writing in the here and now. 
    • Your own writer-identity and your ways of doing writing will affect how you teach it as a subject in profound ways.
  • What you choose to read on the subject of writing teaching.
  • Your school’s interpretations of governmental policy. 

We will now describe (albeit in a slightly caricatured way!) the different sorts of teachers you may have been taught by or the sorts of writing teachers you have encountered across your careers.

  1. The presentational-skills teacher

First up is the presentational teacher. They believe their role is to create a method which focuses solely on children presenting the objectives of assessment as efficiently as possible. Therefore, they try to remove from their teaching anything that is not directly related to what needs to be assessed. They don’t believe it’s a requirement for children to present their own voice, consider audience or purpose, show enthusiasm, variety or originality, and so they try to remove these things from their approach – because they are seen as getting in the way. Instead, they focus on children using certain linguistic features, neat handwriting, correct spellings, adventurous vocabulary, cohesiveness and correct punctuation and the use of Standard English.

Now the problem with this approach isn’t so much what they include. All of the things I’ve just described are pretty useful to learn about – but it’s what they choose to leave out that’s the major issue.

  • These teachers routinely use grammar worksheets, dictation exercises, fill in the blank and out-of-context sentence combining activities.
  • For writing tasks, they will construct the voice, purpose and audience on their class’ behalf. They will choose the topic and everyone will write about the same thing.
  • They will construct the plan for the writing and make the children follow it to the letter.
  • They will check each sentence or paragraph is ‘correct’ before children are allowed to move onto writing another one.
  • They will give children an example text to copy or get them to learn one off by heart which they can then pretty much copy – but in a way that hopefully no one will notice.
  • They will create success criteria on their children’s behalf which tells them what to include and where it needs to be included.
  • Ideally, they will get children to draft ‘neatly’ using their best handwriting.
  • They will give children a list of vocabulary that they want to be included in their writing.
  • They will often ask children to complete the writing task in a single sitting.

So this approach is all about the teacher controlling the writing almost like a factory-foreman will control a production line. These teachers get their satisfaction from finding a system that maneuvers children through a set of procedures that results in them presenting a text that gives the impression that children have met (independently) the requirements of the assessment framework.

Limitations of the approach

The main problem with this approach is that it doesn’t remotely resemble how writers work out in the real world. The teacher takes responsibility for so much of the writing that children fail to receive a true writerly apprenticeship. For example, children under such an approach, at its end, wouldn’t be able to generate their own idea for a piece of writing and independently see it through to publication or performance. They simply come to rely on the procedure their teacher has put in place. Surely, the basic aim of any writerly education – is that ultimately children can be independent writers once they leave?

2. The literature-based teacher

Next, the literature-based teacher believes their role is to create a method which focuses on preparing children for secondary school writing teaching – where the majority of their time is spent reading and writing to show their understanding of a set text. These teachers have a passion for English literature and for teaching reading. These teachers will often use their own secondary school teaching as the basis for primary school teaching and so they will use high-quality texts to come up with a series of pseudo-authentic (meaning ‘make believe’ or ‘pretend’) writing tasks that children are to work through and complete. Like their presentational colleagues, the teacher (or scheme) will construct the voice, purpose and audience on their class’ behalf. They will choose the book and associated writing tasks for the class and everyone will be required to write about the same thing.

These teachers gain satisfaction from seeing children engaging with their reading through the writing tasks they’ve come up with.

Limitations of the approach

Again, the teacher takes responsibility for so much of the writing that children fail to receive a true writerly apprenticeship. Children don’t get to write in personal response to the texts they like. Finally, children can grow up with the misunderstanding that writing and being a writer is just about responding to other people’s ideas around a set text. They fail to write ‘for real’ (Young 2019).

3. The structuralist genre teacher

Not too long ago this was the most popular teacher, the genre teacher believes their role is to teach children about as many different types of writing as possible. These teachers typically give children an example text and then set a task where their pupils have to write a text in as similar a way as possible to the example. Again, the teacher will choose the topic and everyone will write about the same thing.

The teacher gains satisfaction from seeing children apply the features of different types of writing.

Limitations of the approach

Again, the teacher takes responsibility for so much of the writing that children aren’t invited to think about how they might want to use any taught genres for their own purposes or reasons. It’s always the teacher that’s in control of the genre and the writing idea. Children are simply there to follow a routine, a set of instructions that’s similar to what academic Harold Rosen called ‘painting by numbers’.

4. The self-expression naturalistic teacher

Never really an approach that’s enjoyed any kind of serious popularity, these teachers believe that children should largely be allowed to develop as writers in a natural and unobtrusive way. These teachers are ‘romantics’. They believe their role is to create a classroom where children can come in every single day and spend copious amounts of time writing freely and happily. It’s a bit of a hippie free-for-all. The teacher only teaches when a child (or the class) identifies their learning needs for themselves first.

As you might imagine, such teachers dislike the use of any schemes which would try to control children’s writerly intentions. The teacher gains satisfaction from observing and nurturing children’s self-discovery, creativity and their personal growth as writers. They also seem to like it when children write about heartfelt, personal or sensitive subjects.

Limitations of the approach

The obvious problem with this approach is what happens to children who don’t come naturally to writing. Another problem with the approach is that children tend to only write in genres they already know or are successful at. They also tend to write about the same thing, in the same way, time and time again. Children often write just for themselves and so can become asocial and individualistic. The creative effort that goes into the writing is often seen as more important by the teacher than the final product (the journey is seen as more important than the destination). Finally, some say, only the so-called ‘brightest and middle-class children’ do well through this kind of approach while other children are set up to fail because of its lack of focus on direct teaching.

5. The critical-literacy teacher

An approach which is becoming ever more popular, particularly in the United States, these teachers are teaching writing from a social-justice perspective. 

These teachers believe that writing in schools can often oppress minority or marginalised groups and that children’s lives, perspectives and experiences and children’s existing cultural capital, knowledge and identities are too often ignored, suppressed, and replaced by their teacher’s wants and desires.

These teachers also see their role as being to equip children as writers who consider the politics behind their writing. For example, children are asked to think about who they typically represent in their writing, what they typically write about and how they typically write it? Who is excluded in the texts they produce? How can they write as a way to take social action and fight injustice? How can they celebrate the things that make us different but also the same? How can they write so as to share about who they are, what they think and what they believe? (As opposed to what their teacher has imagined, thought or believes). Finally, these teachers think carefully about how they can use emerging technologies to help children write and publish their manuscripts.

The teacher gains satisfaction from seeing children’s ability to work and write with a collective voice, celebrating and validating who they are, sharing and appreciating their multiple and developing individual voices, identities, knowledge and experiences, and, through student-led activism, fight for and critically reflect on issues of social justice, inequality, and prejudice at a local and global level.

Limitations of the approach

Because writing is always framed through critical literacy, it can make some children fearful to compose texts in case they offend someone. Indeed, children may well craft texts which create conflict or cause offence. They may write texts which are seen as sexist, racist, classist, ableist, or may rely on stereotypes. As a result, these things will need to be discussed and unpicked in the classroom.

You also need to consider how much political understanding is required by children to take part in such an approach. When and how is this to be taught? Also should teachers be engaging in politics? Should schooling and politics be kept separate? (If this is even possible?)

6. The community environmental teacher

These teachers see writing as a way and means to participate with the world. They believe children should be writing ‘real’ texts for ‘real’ reasons and for ‘real’ audiences. The classroom acts like a ‘writing workshop’ or ‘publishing house’ where children and teachers work as a community of writers to produce and publish texts for others to read or see performed. These teachers don’t believe in assigning ‘pretend’ writing tasks but rather plan authentic class writing projects. They believe writing should ‘get to work’ and should be published or performed to the highest standards that is possible for each individual child. The teacher sees their role as inviting children to participate in the choosing of their own writing ideas within the parameters of a class writing project. They give children instruction in genre (for example, they discuss the purpose and future audience for the writing and together they think about what they are going to have to do, and what they are going to have to include, to create a successful and meaningful text) and they learn the processes writers go through to craft and publish texts out into the community. And so these children come into the classroom every day to live, work and learn as real writers and they are there to learn from a real writer – a writer-teacher. The children are expected to produce writing that is (developmentally appropriate) but also comparable with professional standards.

These teachers gain satisfaction from seeing children living the writer’s life and in developing their own writer’s process. Finally, their satisfaction derives from seeing children write successful and meaningful texts which fulfil their own intentions and are taken seriously by genuine audiences. And actually the argument is that if children are writing real texts for real people, they naturally have to exceed the requirements of the curriculum.

Limitations of the approach

There can be limitations to this approach. For example, children can sometimes not feel part of the writing community and that people don’t tend to like the things they choose to write about.

Conclusion

Research suggests that as teachers we need to adopt a multidimensional
approach to the teaching of writing (Young & Ferguson 2021; Young & Ferguson in press; Young & Ferguson in press). It’s important that we take the strengths of each of these approaches and try to mitigate their limitations. The research would suggest that we need an approach to writing which combines rigorous instruction in the processes and craft of writing with principles which contribute significantly to children’s enjoyment and satisfaction. An approach which is neither teacher centred nor child centred but rather one centred around creating successful writers.

We term such a model as Writing For Pleasure, which brings together the very best aspects of all the orientations described above to form a rigorous, fresh, holistic, and inclusive philosophy and pedagogy for writing.

The aim of this article was to: 

  • Help you reflect on your own writerly education. What approach did you receive at school?
  • Help you reflect on the writerly education children are receiving in schools today. What type of writing teacher are you seeing in schools (your school)?
  • Help you think about what kind of writing teacher you want to be.

Activity

Here is an interesting reflection activity. You have ten counters. With your colleagues, consider how many counters you would place next to each of the writing perspectives shared in this article. Each counter shows how much you think your teaching aligns with that approach. This could lead to some rich discussions with your colleagues.

References

  • Young & Ferguson (2021) Writing For Pleasure: Theory, Research & Practice London: Routledge
  • Young & Ferguson (in press) The Writing For Pleasure Centre’s Handbook Of Research On Teaching Young Writers Brighton: The Writing For Pleasure Centre
  • Young & Ferguson (in press) The Science Of Teaching Primary Writing Brighton: The Writing For Pleasure Centre

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