DIY CPD for Writing For Pleasure 3. Pupils’ Writerly Identities

This is the third of a series of blogs, written by a teacher for teachers, aimed at helping you prepare yourself as a Writing For Pleasure practitioner.  This particular blog asks you to find out more about how the children perceive themselves as writers so that you can analyse the results and then consider how to tailor your teaching to meet your pupils’ writing needs.

Now that you have found out more about yourself as a writer and your pupils’ experiences and interests, it’s vital to ask the children directly how they feel about writing, and get to understand their writerly identities.  Before you start this next task, let your class know that you are reflecting on how you teach writing within your lessons and want to find out from them exactly how they feel about writing and how they view themselves as writers.  Stress that they will never have their answers used against them in any way and they should just answer truthfully.

Task 1: Conduct pupil surveys. 5 mins each time.  (As with the task in the previous blog, I suggest you do this every term and see how it changes once you adopt Writing for Pleasure within your classroom!)

See the appendix for a blank version that can be copied.
With younger children, you might want to do this in groups and read the questions to them before they answer.

When I first did this with a class, I found out that 56% of children in my class did not think positively about writing (with one child even writing “Oh God do I have to” when asked what goes through his head).  74% of children also never chose to write anything at home and a staggering 100% of them thought that I looked solely for either correct punctuation or good handwriting when I marked their work.

Your pupils’ responses:  is change needed?

It’s possible (or even, likely) that between 30-60% of children in your class will show some dislike towards writing. Please remember that this is not your fault, but is a symptom of a broader issue regarding a general and unfortunately well-established world-wide culture of teaching writing.  Children’s negative expressions about writing might range from mild physical discomfort (i.e. My hand hurts when I write) to more severe emotional and physical reactions (i.e. I absolutely HATE writing or I get a really bad headache and feel stressed).  It’s also likely that when you ask them what makes a good piece of writing they will simply list a range of grammatical terms and punctuation without referring to their function or their impact on the reader.  If that happens – don’t panic!  You’ve now got something to work with, and will be addressing all of these things as you introduce writing for pleasure with your class.  

Optional Task 2: Analyse your pupil surveys. 60-90 mins (this time varies according to the number of children in your class and the responses you get!)  Here is an example, with the answers typed into a spreadsheet and colour coded according to responses, but you can choose to analyse the responses in a way that is most helpful to you.

If your pupils say that they don’t enjoy writing, that is not necessarily something to be concerned about – the reason for this lack of enjoyment is key.  Writing can be painful (physically and emotionally); it can and often will be frustrating!  Following up the survey with a conversation with each child is crucial.  Don’t take this personally – be interested and open to criticism.  This may not always feel comfortable but this is when you know that real change and development can (and will) happen.

The collection of responses from yourself and your pupils will more than likely tell you that a change of approach is necessary – but why?  We can address some reasons for change based on the children’s likely responses.

  • If children refer to stress/ worry/ anxiety around writing – the first thing to do is have a conversation with them to find out more about why this might be.  

Sometimes we can overload children with information about ‘things we must include’ in a piece of writing – if they are having to attending to grammatical and literary features while also grappling with the content you have provided (e.g. trying to remember everything about the events of the Great Fire of London whilst also writing a really interesting report) they will be overloaded with a cognitive burden that can feel painful.  We can start to amend this by giving children agency to make their own choices concerning what they want to write about.  (Refer back to your notes from the previous task – your class knows about a lot of things already!)  Having choice over content is empowering, since your young writers will be writing from a position of strength. For our part we should respect a child’s choices and not allow them to be subject to disapproval from us.

The question of children using written language for their own purposes and of maintaining confidence in their own ‘voices’ is one that presents itself not only in the introductory stages but all through primary school.

Taken from ‘The Language of Primary School Children’ (Connie & Harold Rosen, 1973) p. 92.

  • If children do not think they are good at writing – again, let them write about the things they know so that they can focus on the craft of their writing, rather than the content. 

You could also ask your class to create their own ‘writing rivers’ too, reflecting on the earliest experiences of writing that they can remember up to the present day.  This can create a lovely starting point for discussions between the children and for you to have with each child about the types of writing that have been most motivating and/or memorable to them.  This activity can help them (and you) to identify what it is they need to enjoy writing.

  • If children are listing elements of grammar and punctuation without referring to their function or impact on the reader, when explaining what they think should be in a ‘good’ piece of writing – think about how you might be teaching this with your class.  

All too often, we can fall into the trap of teaching children about grammar and/or punctuation as checklists without any context and without relating it back to its function and impact on the reader.  If we start to teach these things within the context of a piece of writing that we are reading and/or crafting, linking it to audience and purpose, we show children the personal value of the grammar and punctuation choices we make.  

Next time, we’ll start thinking about how we can start adapting our teaching practice – thinking about initial adjustments and forming new habits within our writing classrooms.

By Ellen Counter. Ellen has been a primary teacher for the past 15 years, working in three different London boroughs.  She has enjoyed teaching every age group during that time – from Nursery to Year 6. She completed her MA in Children’s Literature in 2013. Ellen is currently the Strategic English Lead in a seven-form primary school in East London.


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