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A love letter to genre teaching

January 18th, 2021

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That’s the way I work: One child’s experience of a Writing For Pleasure pedagogy

December 23rd, 2020

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Closing out the year by giving the children a writer’s notebook

December 9th, 2020

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Writing and using a mentor text: Example of practice

December 8th, 2020

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Teachers’ Institute with The UKLA – Sunday 31st January

December 6th, 2020

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Issues with the book planning approach and how they can be addressed

November 29th, 2020

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Why effective writing instruction requires a writer-teacher

November 10th, 2020

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

November 4th, 2020

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What makes children want to write

October 22nd, 2020

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What the research says: the most effective ways to improve children’s writing

October 21st, 2020

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A guide to reading with children

October 12th, 2020

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

October 3rd, 2020

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Join our virtual poetry retreat (this time, for adults) this half-term

September 20th, 2020

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

September 10th, 2020

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Writing tests are not the answer you are looking for

August 17th, 2020

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What if almost everything we thought about the teaching of writing was wrong?

July 15th, 2020

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Supporting children writing at home

Mat 22nd, 2020

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The most common misconceptions about ‘Writing For Pleasure’ debunked

May 18th, 2020

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A love letter to genre teaching

After school one day in 2016, I scribbled the following into my notebook: when we shape our writing curriculum around genres, we give children access to the world and to the fundamental reasons we are all moved to write. For the past couple of years, I had been experimenting with the idea of merging three popular writing approaches, namely: genre teaching, writing workshop and a community of writers approach (Young & Ferguson 2021). The statement above was clearly a eureka moment, where everything started to fall into place. This little note went on to become an epigraph in the book I published with my colleague Felicity Ferguson. It’s a summary of our writing approach, an approach we’ve called Real-World Writers.

Every time I taught a Class Writing Project (which you can access for yourselves here), it was to give children another way in which to pursue the fundamental reasons we are all moved to write. Everything we did always came as a result of the children wanting to know more about how to entertain, reflect, persuade and influence, teach others and how to paint with words. These purposes still drive the resources and projects The Writing For Pleasure Centre creates with the children and teachers we work with today.

The reasons children are moved to write taken from Real-World Writers (2020 pp. 4–7).

The young writers I’ve worked with over the years have always known which genres will best serve their purposes, and how certain textual features and grammatical devices can work as a tool to enhance what it is they are so motivated to ‘get off their chest’ and share with others. I believe this can only come as a result of high-quality genre teaching.

What I realised at that time was how much I enjoyed introducing genres to my class. I don’t think anything brings me greater professional satisfaction than introducing and teaching about a genre and then seeing how children will choose to use it for themselves. Unfortunately, this kind of genre teaching is a very far cry from what has occurred in the recent past. Genre teaching has suffered a lot – harmed by how it was badly interpreted in The National Literacy Strategy. Poor genre teaching has resulted (justifiably by the way) in some terrible names being associated with it. For example: the conformity approach, the recipe approach, painting by numbers, the standardised approach, the ‘textual police’ approach and even the ‘strait-jacket’ approach (Young & Ferguson 2021).

Here are some things I’ve learnt about bad genre teaching:

  • Teachers too often see their role as being a genre ‘factory-foreman’ and their children as factory workers who all have to produce the same looking piece of writing. These teachers don’t invite children to use taught genres for their own purposes. Instead, they control the ideas for a writing project and children produce thirty largely identical pieces. In this way, the children learn little.
  • Teachers who don’t accept that genres change over time and according to circumstances, and  that they are often manipulated and hybridised by young writers, don’t do themselves any favours. The idea of ‘genre play’ through experimentation and exploration must be made available to children. Children should never be asked to simply and slavishly reproduce a genre.
  • Teachers too often fail to see that non-fiction texts can be enhanced when children are allowed to merge them with other more expressive genres. See our non-fiction Class Writing Projects for more information.
  • It is utterly possible that children know about and can already write successfully and creatively in the dominant genres of society. Lengthy and explicit teaching of linguistic ‘rules’ can sometimes contribute very little to children’s writing development.
  • Writing is too often judged as ‘successful’ just because of the inclusion of arbitrary ‘genre features’. This is wrong. In my view, it’s far more sensible to assess the piece in its own right and in terms of attention to purpose and audience – did the reader get out of it what the writer intended?
  • Children are too often taught a very large number of genres in a scattergun approach and without any kind of consideration for progression and with no kind of purposeful rationale.
  • There is often too little concern and attention given to children’s personal growth as writers.

(Young & Ferguson 2021 p.7-8)

I wanted my approach to writing to be different. I knew very early on (thanks to the work of Donald Graves) that children naturally love to write and they want to write what they mean. My job was to create the conditions and teach them important lessons about writing that could help them craft texts that were meaningful to them, successful according to their readership, and met or exceeded curriculum objectives. Luckily, the first two points naturally go hand in hand in achieving academic excellence.

It’s my conviction (and the research backs me up on this) that Class Writing Projects are most meaningful to children when they are given the opportunity to generate their own subject and purpose, write at their own pace, in their own way, with agency over how they want to use the genre, and with a clear sense of a real anticipated reader. 

At the beginning of any new writing project, we would have ‘genre-study’ sessions. As a merry band of writers, we discussed genre conventions, we read a variety of good real-life examples of the genre in action (including pieces I had written). We considered what we might have to do to create a successful and meaningful text of our own, we all thought about who we wanted to write for, and importantly, what we were moved to write about most. 

I encouraged my classes to manipulate and subvert any so-called genre conventions because – why not – and also because it’s fun. My job wasn’t to be the ‘genre police’ but rather to help them craft personally worthwhile and academically fruitful texts that their readers would appreciate and respond to. If this meant going against some arbitrary concept of a ‘pure’ genre – then so be it.

What was amazing (and what I’m so happy about when I visit schools who use our approach now), is how, once children have been invited to take their own germ of an idea and nurse it through to publication and performance, in a taught genre, the genre stays in their backpack of writing knowledge evermore. It becomes part of who they are and their writing repertoire. They can come back to it whenever they feel moved to use it. I saw this in my class’ Personal Writing Projects all the time. Children were undertaking their own projects at home and bringing them into school too. I even had parents coming up to the classroom after school to ask for a copy of one of our now famous Genre-Booklets so that they could write something for themselves at home. For the children, the genres had become something they felt they owned rather than something they simply had to rent for a while from their teacher. The children began to dictate what genres they wanted to learn about. Our Graphic Novel and Match Report writing projects came directly from children asking me during writing time if I had any good tips on how to write them.

If I may, I want to share a final anecdote dear to my heart. I’ll always remember Ben coming to see me during reading time to ask me if I knew how to write poetry for a funeral. He explained that he wanted to write something for his Grandpa who had just died. His parents suggested that he asked me – me being a writer. I told him how he could write a eulogy and that he could even use the things he already knew about poetry to help him. I’ll never forget how, when he was finished, he asked whether he could read it to the community of writers that was our classroom to see what his fellow writers thought of it, and I’ll never forget their kind and thoughtful responses he received from them.
And so I end this love letter (which isn’t a letter at all), by simply repeating my opening line: when we shape our writing curriculum around genres, we give children access to the world and the fundamental reasons we are all moved to write. Surely, the goal for any world-class writing teacher.

FREE Writing For Pleasure: theory, research and practice presentation and discussion session

Lancaster Literacy Research Centre are delighted to welcome Ross Young and Felicity Ferguson to discuss Writing for Pleasure.

About this event:

This talk will focus on their latest book which looks to explore what writing for pleasure means, and how it can be realised as a much-needed pedagogy whose aim is to develop children, young people, and their teachers as extraordinary and life-long writers. The approach described is grounded in what global research has long been telling us are the most effective ways of teaching writing and contains a description of the authors’ own research project into what exceptional teachers of writing do that makes the difference.

In the book, Young & Ferguson describe ways of building communities of committed and successful writers who write with purpose, power, and pleasure, and they underline the importance of the affective aspects of writing teaching, including promoting in apprentice writers a sense of self-efficacy, agency, self-regulation, volition, motivation, and writer-identity. They define and discuss 14 research-informed principles which constitute a Writing for Pleasure pedagogy and show how they are applied by teachers in classroom practice. Case studies of outstanding teachers across the globe further illustrate what world-class writing teaching is.

Their ground-breaking text is considered essential reading for anyone who is concerned about the current status and nature of writing teaching in schools. The rich Writing for Pleasure pedagogy presented by the authors is seen as a radical new conception of what it means to teach young writers effectively today.

Event schedule:

15:00pm – Welcomes & introductions (please enter the meeting with your ‘real’ name as your display name, and your camera switched on, to allow us to all put faces to each others’ names)

15:05pm – Presentation from Ross Young and Felicity Ferguson (please turn your camera off and mute your microphone during the presentation)

15:40pm – Discussion (please use the raise hand feature on Teams to indicate you would like to have a turn speaking and once asked to speak by an event facilitator, please un-mute your microphone and turn your camera on)

Presenter biographies:

Ross Young & Felicity Ferguson are the founders of The Writing For Pleasure Centre and authors of Writing For Pleasure: theory, research and practice. They are national representatives for The United Kingdom Literacy Association and the conveners of their international Teaching Writing Special Interest Group. The mission of The Writing For Pleasure Centre is to help all young people become passionate and successful writers.

That’s The Way I Work!: One Child’s Experience Of A Writing For Pleasure Pedagogy

My name is Samaira Islam and I am 9 years old. I have been in a Writing For Pleasure classroom for two years. It’s been exciting indeed and finding a talent that I never knew I had was awesome! Here is a little Q&A I made. ⬇

Q1. What is your favourite genre?

A1. That is a great question because it’s so hard! I’ll choose poems, because I just go ‘Few words, next line. Few words, next line’. I don’t really care about rhythm or rhyming. Sometimes, I find that I’ve rhymed somewhere, which is a coincidence! 

Q2. What’s your least favourite genre?

A2. I wouldn’t say I don’t like a genre, but I often get tricky on following one thing: keeping it short. My class once entered a 300 word competition and I ended up doing 1972 words! I often tend to write long pieces, but it’s not common for me to write a short story! But nowadays, at least I know how to write short stories! 

Q3. Are there any pieces you’re working on at the moment?

A3. I am handling two pieces of writing at the moment. One is about a girl who’s in a boarding school that holds the five elements (home project) and one about a teenager who lives in the 1900s in a village (school project). I also wrote a short story about a girl falling in a lake of rubies and seeing her dead mother and father. 

Q4. Can you tell us about your writing process?

A4. My writing process is a bit confusing. I am a discoverer, but at times I like to use a box-up and vomit from my plan. And this is where the confusing bit comes. I seem to have perfect grammar and punctuation because I am really good at that type of English as well. So when I edit, I have nothing to do! But I go with the flow. I get the idea, start drafting, revise a lot, check my C.U.P.S (Capital letters, Use of vocabulary, Punctuation and Spelling). Then I publish very carefully. I am often worried about using a pen, so I find it easier when publishing with a computer or with pencil.

Q5. What’s it like to get a ‘hot topic’?

A5. When I get a hot topic, I write it down. Then I think of how I will be going through my drafting process (if I’ll plan it out, or be a discoverer etc.) and what my Distant Publishing Goal will be. Often, one idea can turn into thousands, and I don’t know which to choose!

Q6. How have you developed as a writer?

A6. I’ve always tried to produce good pieces. But I’ve managed to advance in it. I revise, I edit, I publish. One year ago, my manuscripts used to be in an old exercise book. This year, my compositions have been somewhere extravagant! 

Q7. What’s it like to live your life like a writer?

A7. I often find the tiniest little diamond that sparkles and shines out of the entire stone. I wrote a memoir called ‘The Monstrosity Of The Iceland Onion Rings’ about disgusting onion rings. Look how tiny a moment that is! And another memoir was about knitted dolls I bought once. 

Q8. What are your home writing habits?

A8. My home writing habits are a bit different from my school ones. I always like to use my laptop instead of hand writing the pieces. My laptop is in my mum and dad’s bedroom. I often type when I get home. I may try to start using a pencil and paper for my manuscripts instead of using software.  That said, I’ve probably memorized the entire keyboard. 

Q9. Do you write with your family?

A9. My family don’t write as much as I do. But they’ve found their new talent from something my teacher made. It was called Writing With The Family, and of course, the aim of the game was to write with the family. 

Thank you for reading my blog. As a thank you, here are some top tips I’ve learnt during my time in a Writing For Pleasure classroom.

The Writing For Pleasure Centre’s Grammar Mini-Lessons

Grammar lessons are about children seeing how grammar is authentically used by writers and being invited to try it for themselves. Grammar lessons like this are essential for showing children the hows of writing. Punctuation and grammar use is a skill to be developed, not simply content to be taught. – Young & Ferguson 2020

Writers are passionate about people understanding what it is they want to say, and they use grammatical devices to help them. Ultimately, grammar helps us say what we truly mean and for our writing to be read how we intended.

Children enjoy learning about grammar when they find out how it can serve them as a writer. That’s why we teach grammar functionally. We know that formal grammar teaching has a negative effect on children’s writing (Young & Ferguson 2021). However, meaning-based grammar teaching, including sentence combining, is far more promising. That’s what this book is about – teaching grammar in such a way that children see how it helps them share their meaning with others. A bonus of course is that it also serves children very well in national assessments like the current SPAG test (Young & Ferguson 2020).

If we boil down our approach to teaching grammar, it is as simple as:

Teach -> Invite

  • Teach. Provide explicit and direct instruction to your class on an aspect of grammar you feel they need a better understanding of.
  • Invite. Invite children to try it out during that day’s writing time.

Why are they mini-lessons?

There are three fundamental things young apprentice writers need every day. Firstly, they need to receive some high-quality teaching. Secondly, they need an immediate and sustained opportunity to write meaningfully. Finally, they need time to read, share and then discuss how their writing is going (Young & Ferguson 2021). That’s why we recommend you follow this kind of consistent routine:

Mini-lesson -> Writing time -> Class sharing

Six top tips for teachers

  1. Have a ‘let’s see what this does’ and not a right/wrong attitude towards grammar teaching.
  2. Consider your instruction to be like giving children ‘tips, tricks and secrets’ of the writer’s craft.
  3. Don’t plan your lessons too far ahead. Be responsive and teach the things you see children need instruction in most.
  4. Repeat lessons if you need to.
  5. Encourage children to have a ‘trying things out page’ next to their drafting page. This way they can experiment with grammar and other literary techniques away from their developing draft. If they like what they’ve trialled, they can then add this to their developing composition.
  6. You know you’ve taught a good mini-lesson if, at the end, you can say: give it a try during today’s writing time. (Young & Ferguson 2020)

Navigating the book

Grammar is style – Patty McGee

The English National Curriculum’s programme of study for writing isn’t very well organised. At times, you get the impression that certain grammatical features and other devices have been plucked from the air and arbitrarily placed into certain year groups without rationale. This is a shame because, as we have described earlier, grammar is useful, and children find it interesting when they see it as enhancing their ability to write meaningful and successful texts. With this in mind, we have organised our grammar mini-lessons in such a way that they reflect what children are trying to achieve in their writing. This allows teachers to ask: what is it my class actually needs instruction in?

Our categories include: Cohesion, Word Choices, Elaboration, Voice, Rhythm & Intonation, and finally Conventions.

Grammatical features allow us to elaborate or add detail. They ensure that focus and ‘readability’ are maintained through the use of cohesive devices. Grammar can enhance our ability to write with the right voice, including with degrees of authority. Writers think about the rhythm and intonation they want their writing to be read with. They also carefully consider their word choices. Finally, writers try to adhere to the conventions that their readers have come to expect.

Children’s journey from early mark-making to writing starts with composing sentences and choosing and writing words others will be able to read and understand. This is why our diagram begins with Cohesion and Word Choices. Once children are writing short, simple and cohesive pieces fluently, they begin to focus on how they can Elaborate on their ideas, the Voice in which they speak to their readers, and the Rhythm & Intonation they want their ideas to be read with. Incidentally, as their ability to write more detailed texts develops, so their need to return to lessons on Cohesion and Word Choices becomes important again. And so their journey goes on. Conventions come last in our diagram. This isn’t because we don’t see conventions as essential to the development of the young writer, but because children are more willing to focus on them when they feel they are crafting something to be proud of and which they want to share publicly.

We believe orientating your grammar teaching to what your class is wanting (or struggling) to achieve is far healthier and more effective than simply following the chronology of the curriculum. For example, we hope that teachers will turn to our pages on Elaboration if they notice that their class lacks the ability to write with necessary detail. We want you to turn to our lessons on Word Choices if you feel children could benefit from giving more attention to their use of vocabulary. And we want you to teach mini-lessons about Conventions if the children’s writing needs to stand up and be taken seriously by their readers.

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Closing out the year by giving the children a writer’s notebook

End of year rituals are as important as the settling in period in any writing workshop. This year my class and I are parting ways at Christmas after four terms together. We have been through a lot. I’m happy to say that despite our ups and downs, many of them have well and truly caught the writing bug.

For a while now I have been thinking what better way to remember our time together than with the gift of a personalised notebook in which to ‘squirrel away’ their thoughts and ideas (Young & Ferguson 2020).

I commissioned a keen artist in the class to sketch a front cover. She came up with this little red squirrel which shares her own writerly touches. These were reproduced and now adorn thirty pocket-sized notebooks ready to be given out next week. 

Writers need a place to collect and scavenge; to store and gather. My only hope is that they continue living the writer’s life, and look back on our extended year together fondly.

My message to the children inside the notebook is heartfelt, and I truly believe I have learned just as much from them this year as they have from me. 

By Tobias Hayden  @TobiasHayden

Teachers’ Institute with The UKLA – Sunday 31st January (£10)

We are excited to announce that The Writing For Pleasure Centre is teaming up with The UKLA to offer our teachers’ institute: What is it world-class writing teachers do that makes the difference?

This full day institute is limited to only 30 serving teachers and costs only £10 when bought alongside a Saturday ticket. This will sell out so please book now to avoid disappointment.

The day will start with a presentation unpacking research and case studies of the best performing writing teachers from across the globe. Delegates will then have an opportunity to review and discuss their own practice against the 14 principles of effective writing teaching derived from The Writing For Pleasure Centre’s own research.

After lunch, delegates will learn about the importance of action research before being invited to read and discuss examples of practice written by other writer-teachers. They will then consider what aspect of practice they would like to investigate when they go back to their own classrooms. The day will end with a Q&A session with Ross & Felicity.


 Book Now: UKLA Website

Issues with the book planning approach and how they can be addressed


What we know about the connection between reading & writing

If we want to attract children like bees to the idea of writing, we must treat our classroom as a field and fill it with the sweetest of nectar – good literature (Young & Ferguson 2020 p.91)

This is not an article about teaching reading. It is an article about writers’ relationships with reading. This is what we currently know, from educational research and from case-studies of exceptional writing teachers, about the interconnections between writing and reading in the classroom:

  • When young writers read, ideas for writing occur.
  • Children learn much about the craft of writing and develop an ‘inner ear’ for language if they are given regular, sustained and wide opportunities to read. 
  • Children who read and listen to high-quality texts include more literary features and write better texts.
  • Children who read poetry include more imagery and other poetic devices in their own writing. 
  • Young writers often develop strong affective bonds with the things they have read and use aspects of these texts in their own writing.
  • Children who write in response to the texts they have read significantly enhance their comprehension of those texts.
  • Children having ample time to read is fundamental to their writing development. (Young & Ferguson 2021)

We can therefore conclude, in agreement with Dombey (2013 p.30), that ‘children who read more write more and write better’.

Published authors, looking back on their own development as writers, overwhelmingly subscribe to this view, and as literate adults we might look at our own writing processes and see how what we read can be both an inspiration and a mentor, helping us improve our writing craft and technical fluency and encouraging us to tackle different kinds of writing. And how writing in response to the literature we read offers myriad opportunities, such as developing empathy, seeing our world through a different lens, connecting with and going beyond our own experience, taking on someone else’s writing style and voice and in the process enriching our own. It would therefore be foolish not to place high-quality texts at the heart of the literacy curriculum and – most importantly – not to put that literature firmly into children’s hands (Young & Ferguson 2020, 2021).

‘Book planning’ (also known as novel-study, basalisation, literature as a unit of study, the manufactured approach, the formalist approach, the analysis-paralysis approach or the echo approach) is currently a very popular way of teaching writing (Young & Ferguson 2021). However, in our view, the rationale behind its present manifestation is fundamentally flawed. 

How has this approach misunderstood how a writer uses their reading, and how has it failed resoundingly to give such an apprenticeship to children?

Where book planning can go wrong in the teaching of writing

It is as if what could be a rich wildflower meadow of interpretation and response is instead turned into a field of artificially cultivated and identical crops (Young & Ferguson 2021 p.9)

A lack of dedicated writing instruction

Study any number of commercial schemes and you’ll find that, in the units which form their content, little rational or explicit connection is made between the reading of the text and how that could offer lessons in the craft of writing. No practical writing instruction is typically given, and there seems to be simply an assumption – or perhaps just an undefined hope – that the prescribed writing tasks tethered to the text will be successfully carried out without a need for teaching about writing. This goes against what we know children need to become successful writers. Writers need explicit, daily, and world-class writing instruction (Young & Ferguson 2021).

Essential components of writing pedagogy are missing

As far as writing instruction is concerned, it is simply not attended to. For example, the three most powerful teaching practices identified by research are typically missing. Teachers receive no guidance on how to teach about the processes involved in writing. There is nothing about strategy instruction and typically no subsequent suggestions for craft study and functional grammar teaching. Finally, there is no advice about how to set distant, product and process writing goals (Young & Ferguson 2021). 

Reading instruction ends up dominating the writing classroom

In these units of work, writing is largely appropriated to serve reading and reading comprehension. The claim made by the authors of these commercial schemes that reading and writing are attended to equally is, in our view, simply not true. Most worryingly, they promote the misconception that teachers can use the materials to teach writing effectively. Research has pointed this out as a major flaw of a book planning approach (Young & Ferguson 2021).

Children spend most of their time being taught the content for the assigned writing tasks, and not how writers write

An essential part of the book planning pedagogy is to subject children to a close and sometimes  laborious ‘analysis paralysis’, reading of the text (Grainger et al. 2005). Even a cursory look at some units of work is enough to see that what the scheme writers are pushing is the comprehension of the text that they have arrived at, and that it is their interpretation which is, in effect, the only one offered and taught. They put themselves between the child and the text. This happens because the scheme writer needs children to obtain enough ‘content knowledge’ of the book so that they can go on to successfully carry out the devised writing tasks. For example, a teacher sets the class the task of writing a letter to Dumbledore. She asks them to write in role as Harry, who must persuade the wizard that another character, Snape, is evil. The problem with this task is that the teacher spends the lesson teaching and discussing the content (drawn from the book) that needs to be included in the letter. This lesson time would be better spent teaching about the craft of writing (Young & Ferguson 2021).

Novels are not the best mentor texts

Unless you’re teaching children to write a novel, it’s inappropriate to use novels as mentor texts for writing. This is not to say that teachers shouldn’t teach how writers use novels to learn about literary technique. However, children need to study mentor texts which match the genres they are being invited to use for themselves (see our Class Writing Projects). For example, if the class writing project is to write information texts, children should study information texts. If they are going to craft short stories,they should read short stories as mentor texts. If, for whatever strange reason, they are being asked to write a diary entry, they should study diary entries (Young & Ferguson 2020, 2021).

Children don’t learn how writers really use their reading to inform their writing

In book planning, writing in personal response and using intertextuality are not made central pillars of the writing classroom, despite the fact that they are the cornerstones of how writers really use their reading to inform their writing. Intertextuality is the theory that what we write is influenced by our reading, the things we watch and listen to, the video games we play, and by our ‘life texts’ (Young & Ferguson 2020). This means our reading identities, life experiences, culture, funds of knowledge and funds of identity have a profound influence on what we write, how we write it, and who we are as writers (Young & Ferguson 2021; Young et al. in press). However, in our experience, personal response and intertextuality are largely not promoted in book planning schemes.

Writers spend a lot of time reading. They investigate the craft moves of other authors in a variety of books. They note and write down examples of good craft as they read, but children aren’t taught this discipline. Instead, it’s the teacher or scheme who mostly does this important work for them. Writers also consult their reading when they spot gaps in their craft knowledge. However, in the book planning approach, children are not taught how to do this for themselves. They do not learn self-regulation strategies and instead are dependent on their teacher. Book planning does not fairly or sincerely represent how we read and write. Therefore, book planning, as an approach, is not an adequate apprenticeship in how to live a literate life.

Children don’t read and write as a community        

In a community of writers, children collectively use their reading to find subjects for writing, and will share their ideas and compositions with one another. You will notice that this opportunity is not offered by book planning schemes. Children are not invited to contribute to or devise their own writing projects as a whole class. We also know that multiple responses are probable across a writing community. Children bring their own knowledge and experiences to a text, and this diversity of response should contribute to and deepen their own and others’ understandings of it (Young & Ferguson 2021; Young et al. in press). However, in the list of laborious and prescribed writing assignments set in book planning schemes, it is hard to find more than the casual and occasional nod to children’s own funds of knowledge and identities, and no acknowledgment that these are a crucial part of the response children will make in their writing. Writers of the units would do well to remember what Harold Rosen (2017) said about making and taking new meanings from a text: ‘this is only feasible in classrooms where there is space for the collaborative production of meaning, where the pupils’ experience is acknowledged to be necessary and relevant’. The book-planners’ authoritative interpretation of a text does not invite a class (including the teacher) to produce, through writing, a variety of new meanings, as a genuine community of writers would do.

Children are not asked to write authentically or purposefully 

The explicit claim made by many material creators that their writing tasks are purposeful and authentic only reveals the extraordinary extent of their self-deception or misunderstanding (Young & Ferguson 2021). Nearly all the assignments are arbitrarily tethered to the text. They regularly appear contrived with no genuine future audience identified. In relation to progression across an academic year and across year groups, they appear to be incoherent. Finally, they are constructed for the purpose of teacher evaluation alone and thus offer little long-term value or learning. This goes against what we know from research makes for great writing teaching.

Children fail to learn about the reasons we are moved to write

Because in this approach children are directed to write in prescribed ways and on pre-selected topics  related to the text being studied, they don’t learn about the reasons we are all moved to write in our real writing lives. For example: 

  • Responding to something we’ve read for ourselves. 
  • Communicating to others some of the original thoughts and ideas we’ve had  
  • Thinking about and recording our own experiences. 
  • Teaching others about something we know a lot about. 
  • Writing to teach ourselves and understand a subject better.
  • Entertaining ourselves and others.
  • Giving an opinion and wanting to make changes to the world. 

Writing in response to someone else’s interpretation of a book only represents a very small part of being a writer. However, it is given almost exclusive priority under a book planning approach.

These charts are a visual metaphor to illustrate a point.

Children are asked to take on the culture of the scheme writer and are not asked to share their own

In book planning, teachers or scheme writers choose the text to be studied. The favoured text is likely to be one which accords with their own personal and cultural taste, but this will not be shared by all children. The message many children receive is that their own cultures, attitudes, experiences, artefacts, and the funds of knowledge that they bring into the classroom daily have no part to play in how they are taught to be writers (Young et al. in press). The book planning approach does not acknowledge that children’s own cultures and the books that they like must be allowed to shape and enrich the present and future writing they will share with others.

Children are not meeting writer-teachers, only reading teachers

As part of the pedagogy, teachers are asked to highlight very specific aspects of quality composition in the book being studied, but are not asked to show and discuss with children how they might craft it for themselves. The writing classroom is therefore directed by reading teachers, and not by writer-teachers who know how to write their own texts and can share their craft knowledge with their class. We know that craft knowledge is essential in world-class writing teaching (Young & Ferguson 2021). 

Children have a mistaken conception of what a writer is

Finally, children grow up with a warped understanding of what a writer is. For example, they may believe that you can only be an author if you are formally and commercially published (Young & Ferguson 2021). Because, in the book planning approach, children are meeting texts which are almost exclusively literary, they don’t understand that writers can be many and various: hobbyists, historians, scientists, activists, reviewers, columnists, journalists, diarists, biographers or memoirists, and of course themselves.

How to establish a more sincere approach to the reading/writing connection

Children don’t only show their comprehension when they write in response to the books they’re reading; they give something of themselves to the text too. A fair exchange of ideas is made between the reader and what’s read (Young & Ferguson 2020 p.91)

This will require a significant shift away from what currently happens. The key is to put literature, the reading of it and the writing in response to it, back into the hands of children while supporting them as readers and writers. It means putting in what book planning indisputably leaves out: explicitly teaching the craft of writing, which includes showing children how writers behave and work with the texts they read. Below, we share what we believe needs to be changed so that teachers can begin to deliver world-class writing teaching using high-quality texts.

  1. Start providing dedicated writing instruction

Stop delivering content or procedural instruction in how to complete a specific writing task. Instead provide genuine instruction in the processes, strategies and techniques writers employ when they craft texts.

  1. Start applying the essential components of effective writing teaching

Book planning schemes fail to give teachers information or guidance on how to teach the processes involved in crafting writing. They also provide little or no advice on how to give strategy or functional grammar instruction, nor do they explain the importance of setting distant, process and product goals with the community of writers. Research suggests these three elements are essential to children’s learning in the writing classroom (Young & Ferguson 2021).

  1. Don’t allow reading instruction to encroach on lessons about writing

Don’t fall into the trap of believing that lessons in reading or lessons focused on literary criticism and comprehension of a text are the same as lessons in the craft of writing.

  1. Start studying mentor texts that match the writing children are actually going to do

Teach how writers genuinely use their reading to inform their writing. For example by:

  • reading a variety of mentor texts.
  • admiring, noting down and copying their favourite craft moves by other authors.
  • reading genuine high-quality examples of the sorts of things they are looking to write themselves in the class writing project.

If children are going to write an information text, they should be reading other information texts. If they are writing short stories, then read great short stories.

Teachers should share the texts which helped them craft their own exemplar, and give their pupils an apprenticeship in how to do the same. Children’s own writing, both past and present, can be offered as mentor texts too. If teachers don’t provide a variety of texts like this, they run the risk of creating a culture in the classroom where children experience a sense of intimidation, inadequacy, imposter syndrome and failure if they feel they can’t craft texts to the same level as those written by highly experienced professional writers.

  1. Stop using predetermined writing tasks or devising writing assignments on your class’ behalf

In the book planning approach writing tasks are decided upon by the scheme writer, the teacher, and by the content of the book itself. Do it differently. Devise projects together on the basis of personal and collective response, and teach children how writers use intertextuality whilst they read. Young & Ferguson (2020 p.95), influenced by Michael Rosen’s work, provide examples of how this can be done very practically through discussion:

  • Does this writing remind you of anything from your lives?
  • Does it remind you of anything else you’ve seen or read?
  • What do you have in common with this writing?
  • Why might the author have been moved to write?
  • Does anyone have any questions they would like to ask the class?
  • What’s the one thing I want to write about this book?
  • Cor, I would love to nick that for my writing…
  • I would love to have a go at writing something like this…
  • That’s reminded me of something… and I’m going to write about it…
  • Why don’t I draw, jot and dabble with ideas that come to mind as I’m reading or listening. Maybe it’ll turn into some writing….

Young & Ferguson (2020) suggest that children can and should generate writing ideas as a community of writers. Answers to the sorts of questions listed above will give a community of writers more writing ideas than they would ever know what to do with. Children can generate these writing ideas individually, in groups, or as a whole class – listing their ideas onto a large sheet of paper. The point being that children and teachers are utterly capable of conceiving their very own ‘book planning’. 

Through such an approach, the teacher will get a collection of different written responses and perspectives, which, when shared, would, as Harold Rosen (2017) states, help children to see how a single text can carry many different values and meanings through hearing how others interpreted it through their writing. How much better than to receive thirty depressingly similar pieces written in response to a scheme writer’s preferred conception and comprehension of a book.

  1. Children need to be writing as writers do, for genuine purposes and audiences.

Children’s writing suffers if it lacks a genuine purpose and an anticipated audience beyond the teacher’s evaluation. Start assessing children’s ability to write meaningful and successful texts for an identified audience (for example, an information text for others to read on something the writer is genuinely passionate about) rather than their capacity to retain information about a book and regurgitate it in an arbitrary writing assignment.

  1. Children need to start learning about writing from a writer-teacher

Popular schemes fail to advise on how teachers should write with and for their class. Instead, they only provide texts written by someone who won’t be present in the classroom to explain how they went about crafting it. As a result, children hear about writing almost exclusively from a reading teacher who can only critique and point toward examples of good craft, as opposed to a writer-teacher who can show from direct experience how such writing can be crafted. 

  1. Give more time to regular and sustained reading.

Scheme writers have not answered the question of what happens if a child doesn’t like the book they have designated for study. Such children can be subjected to a single book for six to twelve weeks! This is time which children might more profitably spend reading something they have chosen for themselves from the varied and high-quality selection in the class library, and letting their response feed into their writing. Ironically, time spent on teaching through a book planning scheme can seriously affect children’s access to independent and group reading time. And as we know, the more opportunities and time children get to read, the better readers and writers they become (Young & Ferguson 2021). 

  1. Continue to read aloud and talk about authors’ writing regularly

One of the main benefits of book planning is that children get to hear books read aloud with regularity. They are also encouraged to talk about books. This needs to continue with gusto. 

  1. Ensure children are receiving a rich writing diet  

To give children a truly rounded apprenticeship in writing, scheme writers should emphasise that not all writing tasks they suggest should be tethered to books. They must provide teachers and children with an opportunity to write about and use their own thoughts, opinions, concerns, their local community, funds of knowledge, funds of identity and cultures – things that might not be found in texts but nonetheless are essential resources that writers use (Young et al in press). Teachers can do this by ensuring that children are aware of all the reasons we are moved to write (Young & Ferguson 2020).

Frequently asked questions & answers to them

Before you begin reading this section, answers to all of these questions hinge on what is meant by teaching young writers effectively. Many approaches, including book planning, have only a very partial and sometimes even a misguided understanding of it.

What are you saying? That literature isn’t important in the teaching of writing?

Absolutely not. We know from research that children who read more write more and write better. But literature needs to be put firmly in the hands of children rather than appropriated so completely by scheme writers in terms of interpretation, comprehension and response – ‘this is how you should understand this book, this is what you should take from it, this is how you should write in response to it.’ What happened to multiple and collective responses deepening comprehension of the literature? What happened to trusting children with it? After all, it’s written for them.

My class produces great writing using a scheme like the ones you describe, so what’s the problem?

Writing done in the  book planning approach may have good features copied from the literary text, but this cannot be compared to a true apprenticeship in being a writer. You must be sure that children have learned craft knowledge, strategies and techniques, both general and specific, which they will be able to use in the future as part of their repertoire as a writer. Book planning does not teach children to be lifelong self-directed writers who write with purpose, independence and with personal and collective responsibility, generating their own ideas and using the writing processes in ways that suit them. Book planning is too often product-focused and superficial since it does not develop or reveal the child as an agentic writer. Unfortunately, children learn to write without ever being asked to compose. The lack of a genuine purpose and audience and the fact that children are given no choice of topic or form misses the point of writing and why we are moved to write in the first place. Finally, and sadly, children leave school unable to take a germ of an idea and see it through to publication or performance independently (Young & Ferguson 2020).

If book planning isn’t effective in teaching writing, why is it so popular?

We’re not sure. However, teachers may have been persuaded that a close reading of a text can also be the perfect writing teacher. And maybe it’s popular because it appeals to the many teachers who are more oriented to reading than writing (Young & Ferguson 2021). If you are one of these, an approach which advertises itself as centring around literature and reading will be immediately sympathetic to you.

As far as the (much smaller) writing component is concerned, it will be liked because it’s all thought out for you in a ’comprehensive’ literacy pedagogy. Children are provided with something to write about and enough time is spent teaching the content knowledge to ensure they can complete the necessary writing tasks. Completing the assigned tasks seems to be more important than the deep learning about writing and being a writer which should certainly be offered in any approach which claims to be as much concerned with raising writing standards as it is with reading.

What do you mean I’m only teaching reading? Surely, if we are analysing a text, we are learning about writing?

Yes, you may be learning something about writing. You may not be teaching writing though. Analysing a text isn’t all there is to it. When is the craft that produces text to be taught and who is going to teach it? For effective writing teaching to be at its most effective it needs to be taught by a writer-teacher, someone who can demonstrate and give advice on techniques, strategies and problem solving. A text alone can’t do this. A skilled writer-teacher is a necessary partner in the process of teaching writing (Young & Ferguson 2021).

You don’t seem to think that the teacher’s or the scheme writer’s comprehension of the text is important – only the children’s. Why? 

That’s not true. The teacher’s voice and their comprehension of a text is an essential one in any reading or writing classroom. We are not saying it isn’t. But why should they or the scheme writer get to have all the fun with the text and get to devise the subsequent writing projects which come as a result of reading it? How a community of young readers and writers explore and understand a text using their own lives, experiences and funds of knowledge is just as important as the adult’s (Young & Ferguson 2021; Young et al. in press). Should there be only one interpretation? Why should a scheme writer dominate and direct the writing of children they have never met? In this way, pupils become subservient to their authoritative viewpoint and desire and can never challenge it without being judged as having failed to understand the text! They become consumers of text rather than legitimate producers. We believe the adult voice should only be one among many. This is for the benefit of everyone in the classroom – including the teachers themselves.

References:

  • Dombey, H. (2013) Teaching Writing: What the Evidence Says UKLA Argues for An Evidence-informed Approach to Teaching and Testing Young Children’s Writing Leicester: UKLA
  • Grainger, T., Goouch, K., and Lambirth, A. (2005) Creativity and Writing: Developing Voice and Verve in the Classroom London: Routledge
  • Rosen, H. (2017) The politics of writing. In Harold Rosen Writings on Life, Language and Learning 1958–2008, Richmond, J. (Ed.) (pp. 347–361). London: UCL IOE Press
  • 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

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