Some years ago, we were teaching at our local primary school and we came to the conclusion that we were probably the worst teachers of writing in the whole entire world. We hated doing it, we hated teaching it, and our students got terrible results. Our students also hated writing and they hated us teaching it too!
Research has since confirmed why this was, and it appears that we are far from alone. Many of you might feel like this too. The fact is that many of us didn’t receive the writerly education we should have had while we were at school. We know this because research shows that a great number of teachers feel deep shame about their own writing abilities. On top of this, many teachers have grown up to dislike writing. A friend of ours, Paul Gardner, conducted some research and found that less than 2% of teachers wrote with or for pleasure – half reported that they had never felt any pleasure from writing in their lives (Gardner 2014). The cherry on the cake is the research surrounding ITE. The majority of teachers around the world leave their teacher training feeling ill-prepared to teach writing (Young & Ferguson 2022).
This is a serious problem, because how we were taught writing at school has a strong influence on how we feel about the subject, how we think it should be taught and what we know about the subject – our writerly knowledge. Unfortunately, it appears from the research that, as teachers, we regularly copy the same failed writing teaching that we once received (Young & Ferguson 2021, 2022a). We should point out that there is of course a significant minority of teachers to whom this doesn’t apply – but it certainly applied to us.
We tried all the popular approaches in the UK at the time and none of them worked. We were frustrated. We wanted to do something about it. We decided that we would build a writing pedagogy from scratch and base it on what the science and research evidence said was the most effective and affecting practice (Young & Ferguson 2021, 2022a, 2022b). We were no longer going to leave things to chance.
We conducted 23 literature reviews in total, spanning over 50 years of scientific research. First, we started with the meta-analyses. For those who might not be familiar with the term, a meta-analysis is where a researcher will group many scientific studies on a particular subject, for example writing teaching, in order to identify recurring patterns of effectiveness. We then read what case studies tell us about what the best performing writing teachers do in their classrooms which makes the difference.
We discovered that there are 14 enduring principles which represent the most effective teaching practice. These principles all have a track record of raising standards and accelerating progress in writing. The principles are:
- Build a community of writers
- Treat every child as a writer
- Read, share, think and talk about writing
- Pursue purposeful and authentic class writing projects
- Teach the writing processes
- Set writing goals
- Be reassuringly consistent
- Pursue personal writing projects
- Balance composition & transcription
- Teach daily mini-lessons
- Be a writer-teacher
- Pupil-conference: meet children where they are
- Connect reading & writing
- Interconnect the principles
Interestingly, we noted that there were also six affective needs (what can be called emotional needs) that teachers need to attend to so that they can help children write happily and successfully. These needs are:
Young & Ferguson’s (2021) hierarchy of emotional writing needs
Once these principles and affective needs were identified, each was given its own research review to help us better understand what we could be doing in our classroom that would actually make the difference. In the end, we decided to call our approach the Writing For Pleasure approach. And now, for us, Writing For Pleasure is nothing more than a synonym for pursuing world-class writing teaching.
We began using our approach and it was having a transformative impact on our students. We moved to another school to see if it would work in another context, and it did. We then started to write about the pedagogy online and other teachers started reporting that they were getting the same great results that we were.
Fast forward to 2019, and we were lucky enough to be given a research grant in conjunction with the Goldsmiths’ Company and University Of Sussex. We went to see what it was these other ‘Writing For Pleasure’ teachers were doing. What was special about this study was that, to participate, the teachers had to show that they had a track record for accelerating children’s progress, and their students had to report that they loved to write and that they felt their affective writerly needs were being met.
What we found out from all this work has since been published as a book called Writing For Pleasure: Theory, Research & Practice (Young & Ferguson 2021) and the establishment of The Writing For Pleasure Centre.
The Writing For Pleasure Centre is now informed by over 600 pieces of literature, case study work, action research by teachers in our affiliate schools, and empirical research on the subject of teaching writing (Young & Ferguson 2022a).
The Writing For Pleasure approach involves children and teachers writing together every single day. They write for many different purposes, and for a variety of audiences. They are moved to write about what they are most knowledgeable and passionate about. They also write to deepen their responses and understandings of what they read. They write to transform their own (and others’) thinking about what they learn in the wider curriculum subjects. They write to entertain, to paint with words, to persuade and share their opinions, to teach others, to make a record of things they don’t want to forget, and to reflect on their own thoughts and personal experiences. They write about themselves and their cultures. They also write to reflect and sustain the cultures of people they might not have met. They share their writing and discuss their development with their peers, teachers and caregivers. They learn how to live the writer’s life.
Pupils explore new genres of writing through whole class writing projects. Together, they discuss the purpose of the writing project, explore its basic features, and study mentor texts together. Whilst doing this, they consider who they would like to write their pieces for and what they would like to write about most. Students are taught how to use the same features and expert techniques they identified from the mentor texts in their own compositions. They learn how to attend to their spellings, handwriting, grammar, and sentence construction. This helps them write happily and fluently. Pupils learn a whole host of craft knowledge – what we call craft moves. This includes writerly strategies and techniques for negotiating the writing processes. We want children to know how they can take a germ of an idea and see it through to publication independently and successfully. Students are supported by providing them with clear processes and ambitious writing goals. They are given ample time and instruction in how to plan and how to improve on what they have already written through specific revision and proof-reading sessions.
Pupils receive daily in-the-moment verbal feedback and responsive assessment-based individualised instruction through teacher-pupil conferencing. These conversations are designed to push the writer and move their writing forward. Pupils are given many opportunities to discuss their compositions with their teachers and their peers. At least one hour a day is devoted to the explicit teaching of writing, and children write meaningfully for a sustained period every single day. We believe this is the only way they can learn about the discipline of writing and of being a writer. Across a school day, children also have opportunities to write about their reading and in response to their learning in other subjects. Importantly, pupils have access to personal writing journals which travel freely between home and school. We want children to live the writer’s life and to be in a constant state of composition.
Genuine writing communities are created in classrooms. Children write in positive and enthusiastic writing environments which are headed up by passionate writer-teachers. Classrooms feel like a mixture of creative writing workshops and professional publishing houses. They are rigorous, highly-organised and reassuringly consistent. Pupils are encouraged to take risks and to be innovative, but also to write with focus and serious intent. Teaching is responsive – depending on what individual children need instruction in most. Whether they are in Nursery or Year Six and regardless of where they are in their language development or writerly experience, all children are treated as writers and are helped not only to write pieces which are successful in terms of the objectives of the curriculum but also meaningful to them as young authors.
Why not become a member of the Writing For Pleasure community? You can access our complete programme of study for EYFS-KS2 here.