Why effective writing instruction requires a writer-teacher

By Ross Young & Benjamin Harris

Delivering effective writing instruction most effectively requires teachers to be writers. (Young & Ferguson 2021 p.200)

In our book Writing For Pleasure: theory, research and practice, we conclude that a writer-teacher is simultaneously a writer who knows how to teach writing and a teacher who identifies as a writer.

Being a writer-teacher involves teaching and demonstrating, from a position of expertise, the processes, procedures, craft knowledge, strategies, and techniques writers use to create successful and meaningful texts. It also involves crafting writing just for yourself. Finally, it’s about role-modelling for children the environment and behaviours of a writer and how to live the writer’s life.

I immersed myself in writing for pleasure, and I brought my pleasure into the classroom. The effect was palpable. (Kaufman cited in Young & Ferguson 2021 p.199)

Below is a table which summarizes what educational research and case studies from the world’s most exceptional teachers of writing conclude about the link between effective instruction and being a writer-teacher.

Teaching and demonstratingCrafting and role modelling
Teachers write to gain a better understanding of the processes, procedures, and craft knowledge children require if they are to produce meaningful and successful writing. If you need more guidance, see our handbook Real-World Writers or our Class Writing Projects.

Teachers write to build up a repertoire of useful and responsive writing-study mini-lessons. If you want more information, see the writing-study mini-lessons examples which accompany our Class Writing Projects.

Teachers write to produce excellent mentor texts which help students better understand the goals for a class writing project. In addition, they undertake their own writing within the class writing project and write alongside their pupils towards publication or performance. If you need guidance on writing mentor texts, see our Class Writing Projects or our handbook Real-World Writers.

Teachers write in order to show how writers use their own reading as inspiration and mentor. To read more about the connection between reading and writing teaching, please see the writing-study mini-lessons in our Class Writing Projects or our handbook Real-World Writers.
Teachers write to better understand how to build a community of writers in their classrooms – a community which reflects how writers live and work together. For more insights into building a community of writers, see our handbook Real-World Writers.

Teachers write to ensure they can read, think, and talk authentically to children about writing and being a writer from a position of empathy and expertise. For more, see our handbook Real-World Writers.

Teachers write to share their own writing goals and ambitions. They write to showcase the enjoyment and satisfaction they feel when writing beyond the purposes of school. For more on personal writing projects, see our handbook Real-World Writers.      

Teachers write in order to give effective pupil conferences whilst children are in the act of writing. For more on pupil-conferencing, please see our handbook Real-World Writers.
This table is adapted from Young & Ferguson 2021 (p.199-200)

Practical advice from the research

Children do not just learn about writing from their teacher, they also learn about what it means to be a writer. (Young & Ferguson 2020 p.70)
  • Being a writer-teacher is more than simply demonstrating or undertaking ‘shared writing’. It’s about being a role-model and giving children an apprenticeship in how to live the writer’s life. For example, writer-teachers have their trusty writer’s notebook within touching distance at all times and find themselves in a constant state of composition.
  • Don’t overload children by modelling multiple processes in a single writing session. For example, a writer-teacher will just model an idea generation technique and that will be it.
  • Don’t model for long periods of time. Try to keep your mini-lessons to less than 15 minutes.
  • Model one process, procedure, strategy, technique or literary feature before inviting your class to try it out for themselves during that day’s writing time. For example, showcase how you crafted some character-description in your short story before inviting children to try the same with their own stories.
There is no greater feeling than having children enter your classroom every day seeing themselves as a close-knit community of apprentice writers. They know that every day, when they enter the writing workshop that is your classroom, it’s going to start with you giving them a valuable writing lesson – a writing lesson from their very own writer-teacher. (Young & Ferguson 2020, preface)
  • Teach writing-study and functional grammar mini-lessons from your perspective as a writer. Show examples from your own writing journal. For example, show your class how you’ve usefully and genuinely used fronted adverbials in a piece you’ve written before inviting them to give it a try during that day’s writing time.
  • Don’t focus disproportionately on modelling the drafting process. Model all aspects of a writer’s process including: generating ideas, planning, drafting, revising, proof-reading and publishing/performing. There are also processes such as: playing, abandoning, reimagining, returning, and updating which you should model too. For example, you might discuss how you’ve gone back to a piece of writing you started crafting months ago. Or you might explain how you’ve written a quick ‘discovery draft’ to use as a plan for a more formal first draft.
  • You don’t have to be ‘the sage on the stage’ and only write live in front of your class. Instead, you can share your writing (at its different stages), and invite children to ask questions about your process and discuss what you’re trying to achieve. For example, you might write quietly at your desk before school and share what you’ve been working on with your class later that day.
Just as it would be difficult to teach children the tuba if you’ve never played one, so it is difficult to teach children to be writers if you never write. Become a writer-teacher who writes for and with pleasure and use your literate life as a learning tool in the classroom. Children gain from knowing that their teacher faces the same writing challenges that they do. (Young & Ferguson 2020 p.23)
  • Write amongst your class with regularity. Choose a table to sit at and write with the children for five minutes at the beginning of writing time. Let the class know that you’re not to be disturbed during this time because it’s important to you. You might not always want to share what you’ve written but it’s good to regularly talk with the other young writers at your table and ask their opinion on your piece. You can offer to give them advice in exchange!
  • Write mentor texts which match what children will be trying to achieve in their class writing project. Write mentor texts away from the pressure of writing live. For example, write them for pleasure at home or with colleagues after school in a writing group. You can then share these texts with your class and invite children to discuss their strengths and weaknesses. These sorts of discussions can be useful when devising your product goals/success criteria for a class writing project.
Writer-teachers are better able to advise and give feedback because they understand from personal experience the issues children encounter when writing. (Young & Ferguson 2020 p.24)
  • Share what you’ve been working on outside of school in your personal time. This shows them how you live the writer’s life beyond school and children will see that they can too. Apart from enhancing your teaching practice, writing recreationally can improve your mental health and well-being and can become an intoxicating and pleasurable part of your life. 
  • Talk about your writing with children. Tell them a bit about your own writing struggles and ask your class for their advice and suggestions. Show that you are there to learn from them too. It’s important to discuss your own excitement, enjoyment and satisfaction when your writing is going well. This can promote what’s called situational motivation in the writing classroom. For example, tell children when you’ve been inspired to write because of something they’ve said or written themselves.
  • Offer your own writerly advice and talk writer-to-writer with children when pupil conferencing. For example, when children run into difficulties, share how you solve those typical writing problems yourself and encourage them to try it out for themselves.
  • Discuss with your class what everyone’s favoured writing processes might be. For example, use the processes shared in our book Real-World Writers: discoverer, planner, vomiter, paragraph piler and sentence stacker.
  • Share with children the different routines and disciplines famous writers have. You might like to use this website to help you.
  • Think about the relationship between your reading and writing and discuss with your class the concept of intertextuality. For example, make sure you have your writer’s notebook to hand when reading and write when you feel inspired to do so.
  • Participate in writer-teacher groups to better understand how writers talk, share and craft socially. You can then reflect on whether this experience matches how you expect children to write in the community of writers that is your classroom. For example, you could join a NWPUK writing group.
Teachers who perceive themselves as writers offer richer classroom writing experiences and generate increased enjoyment, motivation and tenacity among their students than non-writers. (Cremin & Baker cited in Young & Ferguson 2020 p.133)

References:

  • Young, R., Ferguson, F. (2020) Real-World Writers: a handbook for teaching writing with 7-11 year olds London: Routledge
  • Young, R., Ferguson, F. (2021) Writing For Pleasure: theory, research and practice London: Routledge

Further reading:

Getting The Nation Writing: Lifeline

In our forthcoming book Writing For Pleasure: theory research and practice (Young & Ferguson 2021), Getting The Nation Writing is one of the points on our action plan for a national transformation in how writing is perceived and taught in the UK. We managed to get this going in a small way, some weeks into lockdown, by inviting a number of people living in sheltered housing in our local area to write and then share a short story or personal memoir. They responded with huge enthusiasm to the idea of writing and then sharing their pieces, and, as you will see, what they wrote was accomplished, entertaining and heartfelt. We are publishing four of their stories and memoirs on the website for you to enjoy.

Karen Bowlas, the project manager for Lifelines, with whom we collaborated in bringing this writing project about, has shared her thoughts as follows:

‘Lockdown provided an opportunity to revisit some creativity, and with some initial guidance from The Writing For Pleasure Centre, we, Lifelines – a local service in Brighton, kick-started a new creative writing project. As with all our Lifelines activities, creative writing was aimed at older people in the community to come together (virtually!) and explore ideas and stories they had previously had or to enjoy developing new ones. In a time when all our face-to-face activities had stopped, we reached for support locally to help us get activities made virtual or invent new ones to keep us connected. Our organisation works closely with volunteers supporting different communities and, in this case, really amazing local volunteers stepped forward to encourage ideas and help people get their compositions finalised by ringing the participants to talk through their pieces. The Writing For Pleasure Centre had put together an initial writing project, with tips & examples to help people see what was possible and a springboard from which to start. An all-round enjoyable project, and the best part was then hearing some of those written stories, read by the authors, bringing it all to life. I would recommend giving writing a go and getting some of those hidden ideas out there!’

One of the participants writes:

‘My creative writing experience has been a great deal of fun, stretching my imagination to new heights. Even waking very early one morning, on the day we were sharing stories online, to have a completely different story fil my head, that needed releasing. So a replacement was born and the original retired. My mentor is wonderful, full of great story ideas and discussion, and always ready for a good old chat about other things when he phones me. It has been a joy to be involved in the creative writing project.’ – Sue.

You can download the participants’ published pieces here.

They won’t have anything to write about: The dangers of believing children are ‘culturally deprived’

They Won't Have Anything To Write About: The Dangers Of Believing Pupils  Are 'Culturally Deprived'. – Literacy For Pleasure

Children too often see themselves as passive receivers of writing subjects and as a result become disengaged and feel disenfranchised.  (Young & Ferguson 2021 p.116)

‘They won’t have anything to write about’ is a frequently heard response to the idea that children might choose their own topics for writing. It is interesting to note, however, that teachers in the Early Years know that very young children have a ready and spontaneous fund of topics to write about. The work of researchers such as Dyson (2003) and Kress (1997) supports these observations, suggesting that even pre-schoolers have the ability to choose their own writing topics with ease. And in author Willa Cather’s view, childhood provides all the material a writer will ever need.

So when and why does this fountain run dry? Do children lose the ability to come up with their own ideas as part of a natural process? It is our belief that in fact this is not the case, but what does happen is that the potential to find their own writing subjects is suppressed by the dominant writing pedagogies used in schools (Young & Ferguson 2020, 2021). To give an example, the generation of ideas, which is how all writers begin their projects, is a process entirely omitted from National Curriculum recommendations. Therefore, the assumption by teachers that it’s their job to supply ideas (because children can’t be trusted to do it) would seem to be officially supported.

Our view is that it is hard to imagine a lower expectation than this of children’s capabilities. While it seems that children in general are not to be trusted to choose their own topics, the most harmful aspect of this kind of thinking is embedded in the particular beliefs about ‘the  socially and culturally deprived child’, most often defined as working-class and in the category labelled ‘pupil- premium’. These beliefs usually include some stereotyped view of the barrenness of a ‘pupil-premium’ child’s life (enshrined in comments such as ‘they only ever sit at home and play on the computer’) that is reductive, dismissive, and has no basis in reality. In fact, as Dyson (2003) and Grainger et al (2003) have shown, the ‘deprived child’ has, like anyone else, resources and life experiences which deserve acknowledgment and representation and which they can learn how to mine as writing ideas (Young & Ferguson 2020, 2021; Young et al in press).

‘Most of my classmates came from low-income families, and many grew up in broken homes, lived with relatives or in foster care. We defined ourselves as a class of writers. I relished our classroom culture and told anyone who would listen – Jacky’ (Leung & Hicks 2014)

Below are examples of just some things children have chosen to write about in schools we have worked with in economically deprived areas:

– Girls’ skateboarding
– The Chinese dynasty
– The physics involved in the workings of a lift
– How to pass the London taxi drivers’ test
– Going to the dentist 
– The food in hospitals
– Cutting my hair off for charity
– My little sister being born
– Visiting Nigeria
– Poking my eye with a pencil
– How to change a beer keg
– How to make your friend laugh
– Tribute to Chadwick Boseman
– My pregnant rabbit
– The Iranian revolution
– Being old enough to babysit your brother 
– Baking cupcakes
– Tearing my hamstring
– Catching a crab
– Cracking my head open
– Meeting my cousins from Albania 
– How to wash your dog without stress
– Understanding the offside trap in football

These children’s teachers refuse to routinely rely on administering teacher or scheme-assigned stimuli but rather focus their attention on teaching children how to generate their own ideas within the parameters of whole class writing projects.

If you remain sceptical, we urge you to read Anne Haas Dyson’s paper, in which she demonstrates how what she calls children’s ‘textual toys’ (which include TV, video, singing, play and the words and images of the adults and children around them at home) can be brought into the literacy classroom and remixed with school literacy practices to create something new.

We can’t give children rich lives, but we can give them the lens to appreciate the richness that is already there. (Lucy Calkins in Young & Ferguson 2020 p.142)

Believing that the experiences of a particular group of children can never be valid and valuable subjects for writing in school has serious and far-reaching consequences. What teachers really mean when they say things like ‘they won’t have anything to write about’ is – they won’t write about things I (and the school) think are legitimate or relevant. They won’t write about things I can control, or they won’t write about things I have a reference to, and the written product won’t be good enough. Such ideas have serious and negative results on children’s writing performance (Young & Ferguson 2021). Teachers’ perceptions of legitimate writing and subjects for writing are the dominant culture in classrooms and are powerful and over-valued, while children’s cultures, and particularly those of the ‘deprived’ child, are persistently and systematically undervalued (Grainger et al 2003). By asking our pupils to leave their own cultural capital, thoughts, opinions and knowledge outside the writing classroom door, we are requiring them to take on an ‘approved’, sterile and mono-cultural identity that doesn’t honour or take advantage of the richness of their lives. Their own voices go unheard. They develop neither a personal sense of selfhood in their writing, nor do they have the feeling of contributing to a collective writing identity (Young et al in press). 

Writing is a means for children to develop a sense of self, find meaning in the world, and impose themselves upon it. (Young & Ferguson 2020 p.7)

The teacher’s capacity to choose the writing stimulus means that children are not given any autonomy or control over learning how to personally act out on the world through writing. Instead, they quickly learn the life lesson that writing is to be consumed or imitated, and in accordance with someone else’s desires. This is no less than a form of linguistic oppression perpetrated on young writers, and, according to research (Young & Ferguson 2021), it is happening more than we dare to think, and is part of the reason why so many children leave school mystified, intimidated and believing that writing and being a writer is not for them.

However, it is in our power to change this depressing state of affairs.

  • Believe that children will discover what they want to write about if you give them the right support. Every child can find their own ideas for writing if they are taught the kinds of idea generation techniques we describe in our book Real-World Writers. As we have said, this is how all writers begin their process, and it’s therefore among the essential first steps in a child’s writerly education.
  • Interest them in why they might want to write. To write well and meaningfully, children need to have the feeling of being moved to do it. For example, they might be moved to teach, entertain or persuade, perhaps to paint with words and be poetic, maybe to reflect on an experience, or to record something that shouldn’t be forgotten (Young & Ferguson 2020). They need to write in personally important ways, and by helping them find their own writing urges and ideas, you will be ensuring that they have personal investment in the writing. And as we know, greater motivation and engagement on the part of the writer results in their writing better texts (Young & Ferguson 2021). Therefore, giving children strategies to identify for themselves what and why they want to write is a highly effective instructional decision.
  • ‘When we shape our writing curriculum around genre, we give children access to the world and the fundamental reasons we are all moved to write’ (Young & Ferguson 2020 p.39). Teach an array of genres in which to write and give time for children to practise and become competent in using the linguistic features and conventions which typically govern them. For more practical advice on this please see our Class Writing Projects and Genre Booklets. Instead of setting the topic, let children find and place their own writing idea into the genre being studied. This crucial teaching decision stops writing from simply being the reproduction of generic conventions which, ironically, is often what happens when teachers choose the topic. By having agency over their writing idea, children learn to use the genre for themselves, creating meaning in their own way and for their own purposes.
  • Allow children’s writer-identities to develop and flourish. If the act of writing is to be meaningful and successful, all young writers must be able to express their identity – who they are – in their writing. In our book Writing For Pleasure: theory, research and practice, we suggest that writer-identities are influenced by many factors, of which socio-economic circumstances are only one. We show that teachers who promote children’s ‘funds of knowledge’ (Gonzalez et al 2005) and ‘funds of identity’ (Subero et al 2016) in the writing classroom give children opportunities to use their outside school learning experiences, life style, interests, objects, artefacts, activities, talents, popular cultures and knowledge, powerfully connecting them with what they are learning about the craft of writing and being a writer in school.
  • We invite you to consider what is possible and not typical in writing classrooms. We want you to examine your own assumptions and biases in relation to children and families living in economically disadvantaged communities. For more information on how to do just that see Laman et al (2018).
  • Watch your classroom change and see how children now approach their writing. Through our school residency programme, we have found it amazing to watch children go from producing pieces which were depressingly identical and without social and personal significance to writing meaningfully, with motivation, confidence and precision, on their own chosen topic.

In conclusion, we maintain that so-called ‘deprived’ children have, in common with all their peers, valid and valuable ideas for writing, and that we as teachers must show them how to mine their lives and experiences for those ideas. In the many and varied pieces which will result from this instruction, they will draw on their own funds of knowledge, cultural capital and identities, and their compositions will be a rich resource and contribution to the whole writing community of the classroom.

References

  • Dyson, A., (2003) Popular Literacies and the ‘all’ children: rethinking literacy development for contemporary childhoods Language Arts 81:100-9
  • Gonzalez, N., Moll, L. & Amanti, C. (eds) (2005) Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classroom, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
  • Grainger, T., Goouch, K., Lambirth, A., (2003) Playing the game called writing: children’s views and voices. English in Education, 37(2):4-15
  • Gregory, G., (1984) Community publishing working class writing in context In Changing English: Essays for Harold Rosen London: Heinemann
  • Kress, G., (1997) Before Writing: Rethinking the Paths to Literacy London: Routledge
  • Laman, T., Davis, T., Henderson, J., (2018) “My Hair has a Lot of Stories!”: Unpacking Culturally Sustaining Writing Pedagogies in an Elementary Mediated Field Experience for Teacher Candidates, Action in Teacher Education, 40:4, 374-390
  • Leung, C., Hicks, J., (2014) Writer Identity and Writing Workshop A Future Teacher and Teacher Educator Critically Reflect In Writing & Pedagogy Vol. 6 583-605
  • Subero, D., Vujasinović E., Esteban-Guitart, M., (2016) Mobilising funds of identity in and out of school Cambridge Journal of Education 47(2) pp.247-263
  • Young, R., Ferguson, F., (2020) Real-World Writers London: Routledge
  • Young, R., Ferguson, F., (2021) Writing For Pleasure: theory, research and practice London: Routledge
  • Young, R., Govender, N., Kaufman, D., (in press) Writing Realities Leicester: UKLA 

What makes children want to write?

If it’s always you dictating the topic for pupils’ writing, you may never see the powerful results of letting them express what really matters to them.

I recently had the privilege of reading a piece written during lockdown by a year 4 girl. Her teacher had  involved the children in a writing project in which he invited them, over ten writing sessions, to craft a biography about a close family member or someone from the immediate community. The girl’s piece was about her father, who had died two years previously, and she was moved to write it both in memory of and in homage to him. She wrote it for herself, for her family, and for the friends and teachers whom she trusted and of whose appreciation and sympathetic interest she was assured. It was engaged writing, infused with feeling and written in her own clear voice. Her closing words were: ‘As you can see, my dad was an amazing, kind, honest person who made me the person I am today.’  And as her teacher rightly said, in writing her dad’s personal journey, she was writing her own. 

Being moved to write is, for any and all of us, fundamentally the need, the will, the urge to write something, and there are many reasons why this happens. In our book Real-World Writers, we consider how being moved to write can and should drive children’s writing in school. They may, for example, be moved to teach others by sharing their experience or particular knowledge of something. Perhaps they are moved by the desire to persuade or influence others, sharing their thoughts and opinions about a topic and sometimes hoping to bring about change. They will sometimes be moved to entertain through the telling and writing of stories, both real and imagined, or simply be moved to paint with words, showing their artistry and creating images in their readers’ minds to help them see things differently. Possibly they will be moved to reflect on something from their own lives, or something recently learned, in order to better understand it. Or moved to make a record of something which should not be forgotten by themselves or others. Writing because you are moved to do it presupposes that you are interested in your subject and have some kind of investment in it, and that you have in mind a clear and authentic purpose and a real audience for your writing. Having agency over your writing topic is therefore of huge importance.

In the current high stakes environment it is all too easy for us to lose sight of the reasons why children  may feel moved to write. It seems that, as a result, we have forgotten how to give them the opportunity to be genuinely moved to write. What so often happens is that we as teachers attempt to motivate our young writers by assigning them topics we favour and supplying them with stimuli of our own choice, rather than showing them how they can write with intrinsic motivation on subjects they have selected themselves and with which they are authentically engaged. The result is that a class’s written pieces can be lack-lustre and depressingly similar to each other.

There is a way out of this situation, which hinges on the idea of why children write. Think about devising  genre-based class writing projects which are authentic and purposeful. Teach craft knowledge and the typical features of the genre, then show your children how to find their own writing idea to place in it. The results will be striking. For example, in one information project children wrote to teach each other about things they were in some way expert in, topics as various as girls’ skateboarding, the Chinese Dynasty, the physics involved in the workings of a lift, and how to pass the London Taxi Drivers’ test. In a personal memoir project, children were moved to write about and share with others in the class their personal experiences, a time or a moment in their life they would never forget – sad, happy or funny. Writing advocacy journalism, they chose individually to champion a charity which had significance for them or their family. This project gave them the means of expressing their support for an organisation seeking to make a particular improvement or change. In all these projects, agency over the topic allowed the children to want, to be moved to write, and ultimately to produce personal and committed pieces.

Make it possible for children to find their own motivation and their own reason to write, and you and they will reap rewards. You’ll find they will write with more ‘flow’,concentration, persistence and pleasure. You won’t receive thirty identical texts; each one will be unique. The writing will be significantly better and better organised because you’ve also taught them how to do it. Not surprisingly, research will tell you that true motivation has a very positive effect on feelings of well-being, self-confidence, self-worth, and, in this case, writer-identity, Thus, as our book says, if children aren’t moved to write, you’ve got a problem. But by showing them how to find the things they are moved by, you will be allowing them to find the motivation to write to a high standard all the way through to publication. What’s more, they will write to say what they really mean, and also to show who they really are.

Sidebar

There are so many ways to put children off writing, but here are six of the prime culprits:

  • Never allow children to choose their own topic, make their own writerly decisions and therefore be self-motivating.
  • Assume that the topic you choose to assign will motivate all children. It won’t, and the writing will only have short-term value. Also, don’t assign a topic children know little about.
  • Fail to teach them craft knowledge and self-regulation strategies.
  • In non-fiction writing, don’t allow them to use their own voice or respond personally to the topic. Children need to be able to make a personal response to any topic in their writing, including to literature; it is a vital part of learning.      
  • Assign a writing topic which has neither purpose nor a clearly defined audience who will receive the published piece at the project’s end.
  • Convey to the children that you are primarily interested in evaluating their piece and are not really interested in what it is they have to say.

What The Research Says: The Most Effective Ways To Improve Children’s Writing.

Effective Writing Teaching: What The Research Says

The aim of this article is to share with you the enduring principles of effective writing teaching. For the past fifty years research has been consistent about what world-class writing teaching involves. Despite this, we as teachers can be inundated by a variety of approaches and training, all promising a lot but often lacking the necessary grounding to be successful in the long-term. This article is based on extensive scientific research looking specifically at the most effective writing instruction. We focus in particular on the results of highly influential meta-analyses.

Warning! Terms and conditions apply…

When researchers look to group scientific studies on a particular subject (in this case writing teaching), it’s called a meta-analysis. They will look to identify any recurring themes across 100s of studies before calculating their overall effectiveness. It’s important to note that not all researchers agree on the overall effectiveness of certain writing instruction nor is it a good idea to focus too hard on the effect size a researcher has assigned a particular writing treatment. Instead, teachers should use what they learn from this booklet in a way which reflects the context in which they work, what they personally know to be true about effective practice (including from their own experience and expertise) and what they can learn from case-studies of the best performing writing teachers (Young & Ferguson 2021). Finally, it’s important to acknowledge there is still a lot we don’t know about the teaching of writing and that new discoveries are being made all the time.

Meta-analyses

This table, adapted from our book Writing For Pleasure: theory, research and practice (Young & Ferguson 2021 p.76) lists the types of instruction that are repeatedly identified as the most effective writing practices teachers can employ. They are what we call the enduring principles of world-class writing teaching. The table represents the largest collection of writing research ever pooled. The researchers analysed all the contemporary research into the teaching of writing and looked for significant patterning. They were then able to determine an ‘effect size’.

We provide the effect size to show you how powerful the particular type of instruction is across the multiple studies analysed. Anything above a 0.4 is deemed to be significantly and positively effective. Anything at -0.32 or below is deemed to be significantly ineffective or indeed damaging. Here you can see that formal grammar teaching is the only treatment which has been repeatedly shown to have a negative impact on children’s writing outcomes.

Below, we provide a short summary for each of the identified teaching practices highlighted in the table, including what you can do in your classroom to make a difference.

Set writing goals (+2.03)

Practical things you can do:

  • Identify the distant goal for a writing project with your class. Establish what the genuine purpose for the writing is and who is going to receive the writing when it is published or performed.
  • Identify product goals for a project (what your writing will have to do or include to be successful & meaningful) with your class. Together, use effective and ineffective exemplar texts to help you establish these goals.
  • Make sure the product goals are on display, can be read, and are understood by the class.
  • Plan mini-lessons which will help children in their pursuit of the product goals.
  • Set realistic process goals (writing deadlines) as milestones for children to achieve on their way towards formal publication or performance of their writing. Remind children of these deadlines but also remain flexible.
Writing For Pleasure Centre resources:
For examples of class writing projects and how to write your own exemplar texts: writing4pleasure.com/class-writing-projects/

For advice on planning class writing projects: Real-World Writers: A Handbook for Teaching Writing with 7-11 Year Olds

A contemporary writing workshop approach  (+1.75)

Practical things you can do:

  • Ensure you establish a reassuringly consistent routine for writing sessions. A regular routine of mini-lesson, writing-time and class sharing is recommended.
  • Mini-lessons should be taught which will be helpful to pupils during that day’s writing time.
  • It’s essential that mini-lessons follow the highly-effective self-regulation strategy development routine of:

                         Introduce -> Share -> Provide Information -> Invite

  • Mini-lessons should be planned in response to what you are noticing your students need instruction in most.
  • Mini-lessons should be focused on teaching writerly techniques, strategies, processes and literary features which children will find useful time and time again.
  • Mini-lessons should be focused on helping pupils produce meaningful and successful texts.
  • Students should have time to write meaningfully and purposefully every day.
Writing For Pleasure Centre resources:
For 100s of mini-lessons, see our class writing projects:
writing4pleasure.com/class-writing-projects/
 
To learn more, see our Real-World Writing approach based on a
contemporary writing workshop routine: Real-World Writers: A Handbook for Teaching Writing with 7-11 Year Olds

Teach the writing processes  (+1.26)

Practical things you can do:

  • Have on display a poster which shows the flexible, creative, and recursive nature of the writing process.
  • Ensure students know that writing can include a set of processes such as generating ideas, planning (prewriting), drafting, revising (evaluating), editing (proof-reading), publishing, and performing.
  • Once they are experienced enough, allow students to develop and use a writing process that suits them best.
  • Allow pupils to write at their own pace and to monitor their own writing deadlines.
  • Encourage fluency whilst drafting and don’t overburden students as they undertake for the first time the difficult task of translating their ideas into sentences, paragraphs, and a whole text.
  • Encourage separate and dedicated time for children to revise and then to proofread their compositions in preparation for publishing or performance.
  • Ensure that publishing or performing is part of any class writing project.
Writing For Pleasure Centre resources:
See our class writing projects for advice and mini-lessons on how to navigate the different writing processes: writing4pleasure.com/class-writing-projects/

Pursue authentic and purposeful writing projects (1.07)

Practical things you can do:

  • Discuss with students what they believe to be the authentic reasons we are moved to write.
  • Plan class writing projects around a future purpose, audience, and the production of a handwritten or electronic writing product.
  • Ensure there is variety in who pupils publish for. They should publish both for people they will meet and those they will never meet. Younger audiences and older ones, informed audiences, and ignorant ones, readers in authority and positions of power and those who need support and a voice.
  • Ensure that students’ published writing is accessible in the class or school library or elsewhere in the school or local community. Make sure the writing isn’t simply there for display purposes but is actually going to ‘get to work’ and meet readers.
  • Reflect on whether you are actually setting pseudo-authentic tasks which don’t need a real audience. How might you be able to adapt these tasks to serve a legitimate purpose and audience instead?
Writing For Pleasure Centre resources:
For example class writing projects:
writing4pleasure.com/class-writing-projects/

Reading, sharing, thinking & talking about writing (+0.89)

Practical things you can do:

  • Give students ample opportunity to talk to one another and to you as writer-to-writer.
  • Ensure that talk takes place throughout a writing project and not only during the production of idea generation, planning or first drafts.
  • Pupils can be encouraged to take notes of anything their peers have recommended to be changed or attended to in their piece.
  • It’s important that teachers model how to talk about writing.
  • Encourage students to reflect together on how their developing compositions are attending to the distant and product goals for the class writing project.
  • Allow pupils opportunities to read, respond, and be inspired by each other’s published works.
  • Discuss ground rules for talking and make these rules into a poster.
  • Encourage periodic reading aloud to selves, teacher, or peer during writing time.
  • Establish Author’s Chair.
  • Teach a metalanguage for talking about writing.
Writing For Pleasure Centre resources:
See our Real-World Writers approach for advice on setting up a social community of writers: Real-World Writers: A Handbook for Teaching Writing with 7-11 Year Olds

Feedback from teachers and peers (+0.80)

Practical things you can do:

  • Engage in daily pupil-conferencing and establish a systematic and organised system for delivering them.
  • Respond first and foremost as a genuine reader.
  • Keep mental or brief written notes of repeated whole-class or individual writing issues. This can then inform your future planning of mini-lessons.
  • Disruptions can negatively impact on pupil-conferencing during writing time. Share the expectation with your class that you are not to be disturbed during conferencing and that the atmosphere must be quiet and orderly.
  • Ensure that any adult helpers or assistant teachers are trained in delivering pupil-conferences.
  • Over time, model and train your pupils on how to peer conference.
  • Continue to engage in your own writing and so boost your ability to provide effective pupil-conferences from a position of expertise and understanding.
  • If you’re going to provide written feedback, ensure pupils have enough time to attend to your comments.
Writing For Pleasure Centre resources:
For advice on pupil-conferencing, see our Real-World Writers book: Real-World Writers: A Handbook for Teaching Writing with 7-11 Year Olds

Genre-study (+0.76)

Practical things you can do:

  • Whenever you are planning a class writing project, consider whether you have exemplar texts from the world outside school.
  • Don’t share an exemplar text you have written at home without spending time explaining the processes, procedures, strategies, and techniques you employed to craft it.
  • Invite students to ask questions about the exemplar texts you’re crafting and have crafted.
  • Construct product goals for a project in conjunction with your class and in response to reading and discussing effective exemplar texts.
  • Spend time discussing what not to do in your own texts by looking at ineffective examples.
  • At the end of each writing project, collect great examples of students’ texts to show to your pupils the following year.
Writing For Pleasure Centre resources:
See our child-facing Genre-Booklets: writing4pleasure.com/class-writing-projects/
 
Read our book Real-World Writers for advice on how to conduct genre-study weeks: Real-World Writers: A Handbook for Teaching Writing with 7-11 Year Olds

Time spent revising (+0.58)

Practical things you can do:

  • As a class, set your product goals for the class writing project. Students can then use these goals to help them when crafting their writing but particularly when revising.
  • When revising, pupils need to know what they are looking to achieve. Therefore, create a pupil-friendly rubrics based on the class product goals. Students can then use these rubrics as they are revising their compositions.
  • Give pupils ample and dedicated time in which to revise their drafted texts.
  • Don’t ask pupils to revise and proof-read their texts at the same time.
  • Through mini-lessons and repeated purposeful practice, pupils need to be taught and invited to use techniques for revising.
  • Pupils revise their compositions to a higher-standard and with greater care and attention when they know the writing is going to be published or performed.
Writing For Pleasure Centre resources:
See our class writing projects for our revision-checklists and revision mini-lessons: writing4pleasure.com/class-writing-projects/
 
For advice on how to teach revision, see our book Real-World Writers:
Real-World Writers: A Handbook for Teaching Writing with 7-11 Year Olds

Time spent generating ideas and planning (+0.50)

Practical things you can do:

  • Understand that generating and choosing an idea to write about is part of the writing process and precedes formal or informal planning.
  • Writing ideas can be generated as a whole class, in groups, or individually.
  • Appreciate that planning strategies are many and varied and can include: talking, drawing, physical and dramatic play, thinking, daydreaming, observing, reading, gathering notes from the internet, mind mapping, webbing, drawing diagrams or maps, tables, lists, writing notes and possible phrases, writing an outline, creating or filling in a planning grid, free writing, or discovery drafting.
  • Provide children with a variety of planning strategies and techniques and give children ample time to plan.
Writing For Pleasure Centre resources:
Follow the link to see our student-facing idea generation techniques, planning-grids, and other planning mini-lessons: writing4pleasure.com/class-writing-projects/
 
Our book Real-World Writers gives advice on how generate writing ideas with your students and how to teach planning: Real-World Writers: A Handbook for Teaching Writing with 7-11 Year Olds

Children writing in response to their reading (+0.50)

Practical things you can do:

  • Giving students ample time to read enhances the quality of their writing.
  • The more students are given an opportunity to write, the more their reading comprehension improves.
  • Instruction in writing supports reading; instruction in reading supports writing.
  • Pupils who read and listen to high-quality texts include more literary features and write better texts.
  • Students who read poetry include more imagery and other poetic devices in their own writing.
  • Children who read for pleasure write more and write better.
Writing For Pleasure Centre resources:
Following this link for dozens of mini-lessons which encourage pupils to use their fiction and non-fiction reading to enhance their writing:
writing4pleasure.com/class-writing-projects/
 
For advice on how to connect reading and writing instruction, see our book
Real-World Writers: Real-World Writers: A Handbook for Teaching Writing with 7-11 Year Olds

Functional grammar teaching (+0.46)

Practical things you can do:

  • Teach a particulargrammatical or linguistic feature, discuss it in terms of its function, andinvite pupils to try it out in their writing that day.
  • Teach how basic sentences can be combined into complex or compound sentences, with children being invited to try it out during that day’s writing time.

Introduce -> Share -> Provide Information -> Invite

  • Teach about the function of grammar in the context of the genre pupils are engaged in as part of the class writing project.
Writing For Pleasure Centre resources:
Read hundreds of example functional grammar mini-lessons as part of our class writing projects: writing4pleasure.com/class-writing-projects/
 
Improve your own subject by downloading our functional grammar table:
writing4pleasure.com/resources/

Further Reading

  • Young, R., Ferguson, F., (2021) Writing For Pleasure: theory, research and practice London: Routledge
  • Young, R., Ferguson, F., (2020) Real-World Writers: a handbook for teaching writing with 7-11 year olds London: Routledge
And finally… If you’re interested in developing your writing teaching further, we offer a wide-range of evidence-informed CPD including our popular school residency programme, teacher workshops and multi-day institutes. Find out more at www.writing4pleasure.com/training
Join us
Connect with other fantastic writer-teachers who use our approach on Facebook search ‘Writing For Pleasure in schools’ or on Twitter @WritingRocks_17

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How writing approaches built on using stimuli are damaging children’s writing development

This article is firmly based on the findings of contemporary research into the most effective practices of world-class writing teachers (Young & Ferguson 2021). The issues discussed include: the importance of children’s motivation and its relation to achievement; agency of topic choice; the authenticity of class writing projects, and children explicitly learning about how writers generate their writing ideas. In the context of this article, stimuli should be understood as any teacher-assigned writing task which is set for the sole purpose of teacher evaluation. The prompts used in these tasks will typically be so narrowly defined that they leave no possibility for children to write a unique response to them, and so the teacher routinely receives a collection of depressingly similar and soulless manuscripts.

The importance of children’s motivation and its relation to achievement

Being moved to write is fundamentally the need, the will, the urge to write something. Motivation and academic achievement are invariably linked. In our book Real-World Writers, we consider how being moved to write should be the driving force behind children’s writing at school. Children may be moved to teach others by sharing their experience or their particular knowledge. Perhaps they are moved by the desire to persuade or influence others. They will sometimes be moved to entertain through the telling and writing of stories, or simply be moved to paint with words, showing their artistry and creating images in their readers’ minds to help them see things differently. Possibly they will be moved to reflect on something from their own lives, or something recently learned, in order to better understand it. Or moved to make a record of something which should not be forgotten by themselves or others. The National Literacy Trust (Clark & Teravainen 2017) links motivation to write and writing achievement in the clearest terms: children are seven times more likely to attain academic expectations in writing if they are motivated – moved – to write.

The reasons children are moved to write taken from ‘Real-World Writers’ by Young & Ferguson 2020

Agency over topic choice

Writing because you are moved to presupposes that you are interested in your subject and have an investment in it. Having agency over your writing topic is therefore of huge importance and is linked to better writing performance. Yet, according to research, in dominant writing practices, the stimulus is almost always chosen by the teacher or scheme-writer and not the child (Young & Ferguson 2021).

Authenticity of class writing projects 

Quality writing emerges when it has an underlying authentic intention and a real audience. Therefore, we need to make sure that in the context of class writing projects, children are always thinking about and crafting their writing with their own genuine purpose and real anticipated audience in mind.

Children explicitly learning about how writers generate their writing ideas

Finding your own stimulus and your own authentic reason for writing is probably the most important part of learning to be a writer. It is imperative therefore that we actively teach this often ignored part of a writer’s process. We shouldn’t do this important work for children because to do so would deny them a complete apprenticeship in being a writer. There are a number of writing approaches that are not built on giving children stimuli but rather focus their attention on teaching children to generate their own ideas within the parameters of class writing projects. For example, Atwell (2014), Shubitz & Dorfman (2019) and Calkins (2020) (USA), Young & Ferguson (2020) (UK), Loane (2016) and Gadd (2021) (NZ). In these approaches, stimuli are only used when appropriate: for the benefit of one-off low-stakes ‘quick-writes’.

The problems with writing approaches built on stimuli

  • The systematic use of teacher-assigned writing prompts, story starters and other stimuli are just a few destructive ways we communicate to children that they are not capable of writing or thinking for themselves. They encourage dependence, what Donald Graves (1982) called putting children on ‘writers’ welfare.’
  • Stimuli are nearly always used just to get children to write something for the purposes of teacher evaluation. Children therefore only ever learn to write inauthentically, for manufactured purposes, and for no genuine audience. Children who are repeatedly given no real and good reason to write will write to a lower standard (Young & Ferguson 2021).
  • It’s pure luck if you can find a stimulus which can launch everyone into writing with enthusiasm and investment, based as they are on a teacher’s assumptions of what will be motivating. As John Dixon says ‘ideally, no pupil should be given an assignment which does not yield them enough fruit in their own terms, so that he can feel it is worth doing’ (1967 p.78).
  • Teacher or scheme-assigned writing stimuli may appear exciting and motivating but, as Roger Beard says ‘children can write letters to the man on the moon. They can write a diary of the classroom hamster. They can write warning notices designed for sites of nuclear waste. The outcomes from such tasks may look effective and may provide useful practice in following conventions. Nevertheless, without the use of an underlying rationale…such writing may only have short-term value’ (2000 p.89). 
  • Teachers or scheme-writers are doing the work that the children should be doing as a community of writers.
  • Providing a stimulus for class writing projects is often a very inefficient way of getting children onto the act of writing. It wastes an incredible amount of valuable instructional and writing time (Young & Ferguson 2020, 2021).

Conclusion

An apprenticeship in writing that asks children to respond only to banal and restrictive writing stimuli cannot compare with one which harnesses the innate and profound reasons they are moved to write. 

If our aim is to help children learn to be agentic writers, then we have to accept that the consequence of pre-selected stimuli customarily imposed upon them will be to make their writing outcomes less profitable and the achievement of becoming life-long writers less probable. In contrast, giving children ownership and personal responsibility over what they write; to find what interests and motivates them, what has amused or struck them, what they care about, love or hate, carries so many affective and academic benefits. They come to understand all the functions of writing – to share and communicate, explore issues, explain or persuade, entertain and inform, get through a hard time, re-live a good time or work out a problem, writing authentically and as real writers do. They will learn that they are producers of content, and not simply there to recite or consume other people’s writing ideas and desires (Young & Ferguson 2020, 2021). They also write better quality texts because they care about them doing well. Finally, there are benefits for you as their teacher. Not only will you have all the pleasure and excitement of reading such a wide variety of cared-for pieces, but you’ll get to know your young writers better as people too.

References:

  • Atwell, N., (2014) In The Middle (3rd Ed) Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
  • Beard, R., (2000) Developing Writing 3-13 London: Hodder & Stoughton
  • Calkins, L., (2020) Teaching writing USA: Heinnaman 
  • Clark, C., Teravainen, A., (2017) Writing for enjoyment and its link to wider writing National Literacy Trust: London
  • Dixon, J., (1967) Growth In English Oxford University Press: London
  • Gadd, M. (2021) Delivering an Effective Writing Programme [Available: murraygadd.co.nz/shop/resources-to-purchase/delivering-an-effective-writing-programme]
  • Graves, D., (1982) Break the welfare cycle: let writers choose their topics The English Composition Board 3(2) pp.75-78
  • Loane, G. (2016) Developing young writers in the classroom London: Routledge 
  • Shubitz, S., Dorfman, L., (2019) Welcome to writing workshop USA: Stenhouse
  • Young, R., & Ferguson, F. (2020) Real-World Writers London: Routledge
  • Young, R., & Ferguson, F. (2021) Writing For Pleasure: theory, research and practice London: Routledge

10 reasons why you should sign up to our virtual writing retreat this half-term.

  1. It’s inclusive and friendly

It’s being run by some of the loveliest writer-teachers. I know Jonny, Jo, Adisa and Felicity to be some of the kindest people in the game.  

2. It’s flexible

You can drop in on as many sessions as you like but also know that any sessions you miss have been recorded. You won’t miss out.

3. You’ll learn how to teach the processes involved in writing effectively

We are going to do a session on finding a writing process that suits you and how you can teach the processes involved in writing to the children in your class too.

4. You’ll learn how to teach effective writing lessons

We will talk you through how to teach writing lessons in such a way that children learn something useful and write meaningfully everyday.

5. You’ll learn how to share writing with your class

We’ll show you how you can share your own writing with your class without feeling a pressure and a need to perform.

6. You’ll learn how to talk to children about their writing and how to give them effective feedback writer-to-writer

We’ll share with you how you can talk about writing with children every day and how this can help them craft better texts.

7. You’ll learn how you can build a community of writers in your classroom

We’ll share our expertise on how you can create a classroom that feels like a creative writing workshop and a serious and professional publishing house.

8. We’ll give you £35’s worth of poetry resources for free!

To help you with your writing and teaching of poetry, we’ll give you our Poetry Class Writing Projects (worth £35) for free.

9. You get over 20 hours of CPD for only £60

Otherwise Education and The Writing For Pleasure have a great reputation for wanting to provide affordable CPD that everyone can access.

10. Writing for pleasure is good for you and your pupils

By becoming a better writer-teacher, you’ll not only be doing something good for yourself but you’ll also be doing some good for the children you teach.

Join our Virtual Poetry Retreat (this time, for adults).

What better way to spend a half-term?!

Hello friends,

After having shared about our poetry retreats at lots of conferences, offline and online, I always have people coming up asking when we plan on doing one for adults. It seems like now is the right time to get into this groove!

It is with great pleasure that I can share a link to our first Virtual Poetry Retreat – click here.

From Monday 26th to Friday 30th October, the retreat will run as a partnership between OtherWise and the Writing for Pleasure Centre. On each of the five days, I will be running a creative writing poetry session, and Ross and Felicity will be sharing a masterclass in being a writing teacher.

We know this is a holiday for us all, and our sessions are designed to give you space to think, reflect and write – a bit of headspace that we have all earned, and that we all deserve.

Adisa the Verbaliser will be joining as a Guest Poet and we are simply very excited to write with you in the holidays. 

If you cannot make the time to attend all of the sessions live, don’t worry – all of them will be recorded and a private link will be shared for you.

Check out the link to our event page here for more detailed info about the kinds of writing exercises and approaches we will take. 

Treat yourself to the gift of time! This could be something you do for yourself, or it could be something that you and some friends sign up to as a shared project.

We have had our first few sign-ups already, and the first ten will be receiving a free LUXURIOUS OtherWise Education notepad in the post to get them started.

So sign up everyone, and if you don’t fancy it, please forward this on to three friends who might be interested.

For more info on what we do, why not watch this video in which Adisa and I explain our approach.

You can learn more here about our brilliant friends Ross and Phil, from the Writing for Pleasure Centre.

Be well, everyone. These times are hard for all of us – let’s stay connected.


– Jonny Walker

Going Virtual in October Half Term…The Poetry Retreat

Virtual Poetry Retreat

Led by Jonny Walker and Ross & Felicity from The Writing for Pleasure Centre

Monday 26th – Friday 30th October 2020

We are very excited to launch our first Poetry Retreats for adults – and this is one is virtual!

Many of us might have wanted a getaway in October half-term, but with things being as they are, this is difficult.

Do not fear. We can provide you with a week of enjoyment, creativity, reflection and connectedness, even over Zoom!

You will be able to join in with as much or as little as you like, and all sessions will be recorded, so you can access them later. Live is, of course, better, as you can then connect with others in our writing community.

Our retreat runs from Monday to Friday and has three main elements. Each day contains:

  • Two hours of poetry retreat activities, led by Jonny Walker. These are designed to build your confidence to write, to think differently, to focus on small and significant details, and to enjoy the playfulness of toying with language. Jonny will be joined by a guest poet on Wednesday and a headteacher on Friday.
  • An hour and a half workshop led by Ross Young and Felicity Ferguson, from The Writing For Pleasure Centre. Their five ‘Living the Writer-Teacher Life’ sessions explore ways in which we can create a genuine community of writers in our classrooms.
  • As a little extra, on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, we are offering a very relaxed and leisurely ‘Open Mic’ space online, where we can chat, share our writing, develop our ideas and idle away our time with tea and (cyber)biscuits.

The session overview can be found below – you are welcome to attend all sessions, but are not obliged to do so; each of them is standalone.

All you will need is a stable internet connection, the ability to get onto Zoom, some paper to write on, some pens and a bit of time. 

In total then, this gives you the chance to access nearly 20 hours of time just for you – time to think, time to reflect, time to laugh, time to learn, and time to write.

The cost is just £60 per person, and we cannot wait to build a writers’ community with you.

The Week

  • Ross and Felicity’s ‘Living the Writer Teacher Life’ Workshops – 10:30- 12:00
  • Jonny’s ‘Poetry Retreat’ sessions – 13:00 – 15:00
  • The Writers’ Lounge – 21:00 – 22:00 (Tues, Thurs and Fri)

Day One – Monday 26th October

  • 10:30 – 12:00 – Teaching Writing: Teaching the Writing Process
  • 13:00 – 15:00 – Poetry Retreat: Opening Ourselves To Poetry

Day Two – Tuesday 27th October

  • 10:30 – 12:00 – Teaching Writing: Using your own writing as a mini-lesson
  • 13:00 – 15:00 – Poetry Retreat: Seeing Things Differently
  • 21:00 – 22:00 – The Writers’ Lounge and Open Mic

Day Three – Wednesday 28th October

  • 10:30 – 12:00 – Teaching Writing: Sharing mentor texts
  • 13:00 – 15:00 – Poetry Retreat: The anecdote as a poetic seed (with Adisa the Verbalizer)

Day Four – Thursday 29th October

  • 10:30 – 12:00 – Teaching Writing: Read, Share, Think and Talk About Writing in Class
  • 13:00 – 15:00 – Poetry Retreat: Rhyme, Rhythm, Structure and Freedom
  • 21:00 – 22:00 – The Writers’ Lounge and Open Mic

Day Five – Friday 30th October

  • 10:30 – 12:00 – Teaching Writing: Create a community of writers
  • 13:00 – 15:00 – Poetry Retreat: Nature, People, The World Outside
  • 21:00 – 22:00 – The Final Writers’ Lounge and Open Mic

To sign up, click here to go to our Eventbrite page

The DfE and Writing For Pleasure: What happened and what should happen next?

When I was undertaking some reading recently, I came across a Department for Education paper titled What is the research evidence on writing? (2012). While there have been other papers produced such as Moving English Forward (2012) and Excellence in English (2011) this is the most recent example which has an emphasis solely on writing. Its aim was to:

‘Report on the statistics and research evidence on writing both in and out of school, covering pupils in primary and secondary schools.’

It sought to answer several questions, but the ones which struck me were: 

  1. What does effective teaching of writing look like? 
  2. What are pupils’ attitudes toward writing, including enjoyment and confidence?
  3. In which types of writing activity do pupils engage out of school? 

The practices highlighted came from research reviews of international evidence including:

What I read reminded me that the approaches outlined then elide so smoothly with many of the principles of a Writing for Pleasure approach being articulated today (Young & Ferguson 2021).

The research-informed practices that were suggested were listed as follows: 

Music to the ears of Writing for Pleasure advocates for sure, as these approaches strike many of the same notes. And, perhaps not that surprising when you consider that a Writing for Pleasure approach, while being a newly-realised pedagogy (Gusevik 2020), is in fact based on many decades of scientific research and case studies of the best performing writing teachers (Young & Ferguson 2021). 

Additionally, the DfE paper also highlighted a study by Myhill and her colleagues (2011) looking at the effect of contextualised grammar teaching on pupils’ writing development. The study showed a significant positive effect for pupils in the intervention group, taught in lessons using the principles outlined above. By contextualised grammar teaching the researchers referred to: 

  • Introducing grammatical constructions and terminology at a point which is relevant to the focus of the children’s developing writing. 
  • Placing emphasis on effects and sharing meaning, not on the feature or terminology itself.
  • Grammar teaching opening up a ‘repertoire of possibilities’. 

I draw attention to this in such detail because teaching grammar functionally and illuminating a suite of options for children to use in their writing is a fundamental element of a Writing for Pleasure approach; however, this sits in contrast to the so-called ‘skill and drill’ decontextualised and exercise-based approaches to teaching grammar which still hold sway across many school curricula. Young & Ferguson’s review of the writing research reviews (2021) amply demonstrates that the formal teaching of grammar has always negatively impacted on children’s writing. So why does this practice persist? Perhaps the answer lies in the presence of the high-stakes Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar test in Year Six. It has had a deleterious percolating effect as schools have tended to isolate the teaching of grammatical terminology and divorce it from the act of meaningful writing at an ever younger age. 

Despite the negative repercussions of the Key Stage 2 SATS, and their distorting nature, in my experience there is another significant issue: there is a distinct lack of awareness in the teaching profession at all levels of what makes for effective and affecting writing practice. This leaves me wondering:

  1. How do we draw attention to these principles and push them further by undertaking additional research?
  2. How do we influence powerful stakeholders (DfE, Ofsted), the teaching profession and literacy organisations, all of whom have a key role in defining the kind of practice that takes place in schools?

The answer to the first question has already been amply answered by Young (2019) and Young & Ferguson’s (2021 and here) work. I know from experience that once you begin teaching writing effectively and affectively, you quickly develop an understanding of the interconnectedness and transformative nature of the approach. These principles are knitted together like your favourite cosy jumper, and once you start wearing it you don’t want to take off.

But the second question is more challenging. Should Ofsted be using its role to promote more effective and affecting models of teaching writing? Do they have the desire to do so? What assessment has been made of what impact national curriculum changes have had on the teaching of writing in primary schools? How can teachers find the time and inclination to develop their own practice? If we want to ensure teaching stays a vocation and a profession then we have to engage more honestly with the research and challenge the prevailing orthodoxy especially around writing. Why are other professional organisations not pointing to the evidence but rather promoting what sometimes feels like solely a book-planning and novel study approach to writing teaching? A review by the Department of Education is surely long overdue.

We also know that recruitment and retention is a perennial problem, certainly in English schools, and is particularly acute concerning early career teachers with ‘over 20% of new teachers leav[ing] the profession within their first 2 years of teaching, and 33% leav[ing] within their first 5 years’ (DfE 2019). However, I would contend that it is not just owing to a ‘decline in the position of the teachers’ pay framework in the labour market for graduate professions’ (NEU 2019), or a burdensome workload, but it is at least partly  due to the very nature of some aspects of the work itself. I believe that schools will better attract and retain staff if they can offer a different experience; one which challenges teachers to develop their practice in a framework of classroom-based action research (see here, here and here), which can be both transformational for the children they teach as well as for themselves and their own motivation to remain in the classroom. 

Being part of a community of Writing for Pleasure teachers within your own school, but also one which extends beyond the school boundary, creates solidarity with other teachers through the publication and sharing of examples of practice. This process itself contributes to a feeling of moving a pedagogy forward as a community of practitioners rather than being required to teach someone else’s ideas and choices. Working in this way would contribute significantly to restoring the primacy of human relationships to the teaching process and help repel the feelings of alienation engendered by ‘off the shelf’ writing schemes, which require little imagination or creative capacity on the part of the teacher or students as a collective. 

A teacher’s essential product is their ability to meld their subject, curriculum and pedagogical knowledge with the needs of their pupils, and while this can often be contorted to fit the demands of the national curriculum and the individual school interpretation of this, often there is little or no place for the expression of personal values or communal construction. What happens then?  Motivation, professional pride and satisfaction wane sometimes to the point where, when combined with pay and workload issues, enough is enough. 

Working within a Writing for Pleasure approach encourages us to meet the human needs of our pupils, their development as agentive writers, and ultimately is an expression of our own human essence. Being a writer-teacher develops our sense of involvement and inserts our literary experiences into the classroom by teaching through our own craft. Writing for Pleasure is teaching for pleasure and has motivated me to see a long-term future in the classroom.

Reading for Pleasure has gained significant traction over the last few years and is now almost universally accepted as having a fundamental role in motivating children to become readers as well as developing teachers’ pedagogical knowledge of effective practice. Now it is time for Writing for Pleasure to become the beating heart of our education system too – for the benefit of all concerned.

By Tobias Hayden Twitter: @TobiasHayden

References:

  • Andrews, R., & Torgerson, C., Low, G., & McGuinn, Nick., (2009) Teaching argument writing to 7- to 14-year-olds: An international review of the evidence of successful practice Cambridge Journal of Education 39. pp.291-310. 10.1080/03057640903103751. 
  • DfE (2012) What is the research evidence on writing? Education Standards Research Team, Department for Education: London
  • DfE (2019) Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy Department for Education: London
  • Graham, S., Bollinger, A., Olson, C. B, D’Aoust, C., MacArthur, C., McCutchen, D. & Olinghouse, N. (2012). Teaching elementary school students to be effective writers 1-103 United States of America: Institute of Education Sciences
  • Graham, S., & Gillespie, A., & Mckeown, D., (2012) Writing: Importance, development, and instruction Reading and Writing 26
  • Gusevik, R., (2020) Writing for Pleasure and the Teaching of Writing at the Primary Level: A Teacher Cognition Case Study Unpublished dissertation University of Stavanger
  • Myhill, D., Jones, S., Lines, H., & Watson, A., (2012) Re-thinking grammar: The impact of embedded grammar teaching on students’ writing and students’ metalinguistic understanding Research Papers in Education 27 pp.139-166
  • NEU (2019) Teacher recruitment and retention [Available online: https://neu.org.uk/policy/teacher-recruitment-and-retention%5D 
  • Ofsted (2011) Excellence in English London: Ofsted
  • Ofsted (2012) Moving English forward London: Ofsted
  • Santangelo, T., & Olinghouse, N., (2009) Effective Writing Instruction for Students Who Have Writing Difficulties Focus on Exceptional Children 42 pp.1-20
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  • Young, R., Ferguson, F., (2021) Writing for pleasure: theory, research and practice London: Routledge