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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
  • Young, R., (2019) What is it ‘Writing For Pleasure’ teachers do that makes the difference? The University Of Sussex: The Goldsmiths’ Company
  • Young, R., Ferguson, F., (2021) Writing for pleasure: theory, research and practice London: Routledge

Writing Tests Are Not The Answer You Are Looking For

This article was originally published 15/02/2018

We’ve written this post because there has been a lot of discussion about the Writing Framework recently and this has caused some to romanticise the days of writing tests.  

How the DfE/STA decides to assess writing tells you a lot about their views of the craft of writing, and of course their feelings towards apprentice writers. It also has profound effects on the methodology and writing pedagogy of the teaching profession. It influences the way things are taught. Therefore, what is deemed important in a test will inevitably direct the way teachers teach. So, you have to ask yourself, is it likely that a high-stakes test will test what should be being taught? I ask this question because we as teachers know full well we will be asked to do what needs to be done in terms of writing instruction and activity in order to produce good scores. I have no problem with this in principle, and indeed it can be the strength of any assessment system, but will a writing test encourage good writing instruction and activity? I have my doubts, and I explain why below.

 As a starting point, consider the following three views:

‘Assessment and testing are used for monitoring purposes of various kinds, the focus is not just on an individual child’s learning and how this is to be reported to parents. The overriding purpose becomes the regulation and standardisation of a teacher’s practice in order to achieve political and policy goals that may be serving agendas other than the good of the individual child…’ Locke (2015 p. 213)

‘National standards constitute a huge pressure on teachers to conform and comply. Where teachers do end up serving the extrinsic master, the result is a subscription to a particular construction (discourse) of teaching writing and writing assessment.’ – Locke (2015 p. 213)

‘Writing has become less “like a real writer writes” in that the focus of writing has shifted to form over content and product over process. In addition, teachers emphasize that they teach students to submerge their voices as they write to inauthentic audiences.’ – Au & Gourd (2013)

I would now like to pose a few questions to those flirting with the idea of reinstating writing tests as we formerly knew them. They are as follows:

  • If a writing test is an attempt to determine whether a student can do something, we need to ask why is this information needed and who is it going to be useful to?
  • As teachers, we would then need to say: now we’ve given these tests, what do the results mean, and what do we do with them? How am I to put this information to work?
  • Are these writing tests valid? Do they tell us effectively what needs to be known? Are they reliable? Would a child get the same score if they did the same test on a different occasion or if they were ask to write on a different subject? 
  • Was the test too narrow and insensitive to measure all the things our school is trying to achieve?
  • Does the test focus on too thin a slice of what is important in writer development?

Now, you probably should, maybe, possibly, potentially, also consider the children in all this. You know, the ones that have to take the test. Any assessment should have a clear and realistic purpose for the person who has to take it. Writing is a social act. If children are faced with a set of questions to answer with no purpose or authentic context in which to tackle the writing situation – then the writing won’t even represent their normal writerly behaviour. The test goes against what research says children require to write at their best; writing with a focus on the potential audience and purpose, and being able to construct their texts over time using a variety of recursive writing processes (Young & Ferguson 2020, in press). How a child interprets and engages with a test task also significantly affects their response to it and therefore the quality of their writing product. Beyond this, you also need to consider whether a writing test favours children who are better able to write for a single long period, are able to write using a certain type of writing process, have a higher threshold for stress and possess a greater level of social maturity. Children have little experience in taking writing tests – how do you suppose they will gain this experience, and what effect will it have on their view of how writing is crafted out in the real world?

What do the tests mean for children?

  • Writing for a test has little function beyond external evaluation by a stranger who doesn’t know the children and whose remit doesn’t involve helping them after the test.
  • Children must write on topics they have not selected, may not be motivated to write about, or don’t have knowledge of – thus the test is unable to assess their true ability to write.
  • Children are not given enough time to engage in the recursive and time consuming processes involved in writing (processes which are fundamental to how good writers write).
  • A single writing sample, produced under timed conditions, tells you little about a child’s writing ability.
  • Writing tests pay little attention to what young writers think, value or do when they write.

Concluding thoughts

In order to shed light on evaluation within our culture of tests, Fu and Lamme (2002) studied two nine year-olds and their writing portfolios. In each case, when the teacher, parent, and child sat down with the child’s portfolio, they saw clear improvement in the compositions, and everyone, especially the children, articulated that they noticed changes in quality, length, and level of enjoyment. Tests don’t provide as much information as the students’ work and the collective perceptions of it (Hansen & Kissel 2011)

Having a writing test which simply tells us that some children are better able to pass a test than others does not help the situation. Assessment at its best has what is called ‘consequential validity’. This means the assessment gathers a variety of information, at diverse times, and under differing circumstances. It establishes connections between assessment, policy and teaching practice. Assessment such as this, throughout primary school, is better than a writing test because it gives information about a student’s development as a writer and importantly gives you plenty of opportunity to act on what you find.

Despite educational research stating for a long time that the focus should be on children’s processes and not exclusively on their writing products (Young & Ferguson in press), it’s supremely ironic that writing tests historically ignore this. It means, through testing, you’re not only teaching children a misconception about writing but you also won’t be able to infer from their test result how well a child might perform under normal, everyday writing conditions. Conditions which enable them to use all the writing processes, in their preferred way, and at their own pace.

A ‘best test,’ a test that can provide exactly what you need to know, that can guide future teaching and be easy to administer and interpret, simply doesn’t exist. The ultimate goal of assessment should always be to improve teaching. The idea of a writing test as currently understood is therefore wholly unsuitable, would be inaccurate, would encourage misconceptions about writing to be taught and therefore would not serve the desired purpose.

Putting it simply: ‘an assign and assess approach to writing instruction doesn’t help students very much’ (McCann & Knapp 2019 p.80). If reinstated, tests would cause damage to children’s ongoing writing development. Writing tests are not the answer you are looking for.

This article is based on the following papers:

  • Evaluating Language Development by Farr, R., & Beck, M., (2003) In J. Flood, D. Lapp, J. R. Squire, & J. M. Jensen (Eds.) Handbook of research on teaching the English language arts (2nd ed., pp. 590–599). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers.
  • High-stakes assessment in the language arts: the piper plays, the players dance, but who pays the price? by Hoffman, J., Paris., S., Salas, R., Patterson, E., Assaf, L., (2003) In J. Flood, D. Lapp, J. R. Squire, & J. M. Jensen (Eds.) Handbook of research on teaching the English language arts (2nd ed., pp. 590–599). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers.
  • K-12 Students as writers by Hansen, J., Kissel, B., (2013) In Lapp, D., Fisher, D., Handbook of research on teaching the English language arts (3rd ed. pp. 271-276) London: Routledge
  • Au, W., Gourd, K., (2013) Asinine Assessment: Why High-Stakes Testing Is Bad for Everyone, Including English Teachers In The English Journal Vol. 103, No. 1
  • Barrs, M., (2019) Teaching bad writing, English in Education, 53:1, 18-31
  • Locke, T., (2015) Developing Writing Teachers London: Routledge
  • McCann, T., Knapp, J., (2019) Teaching on Solid Ground: Knowledge Foundations for the Teacher of English Guilford: USA
  • Wohlwend, K., (2009) Dilemmas and discourses of learning to write: Assessment as a contested site. Language Arts, 86(5), 341-351
  • Young, R., & Ferguson, F. (2020) Real-World Writers London: Routledge
  • Young, R., & Ferguson F. (in press) Writing For Pleasure: theory, research and practice London: Routledge

What motivated teenagers, Aidan and Mia, to set up The Young Press blog?

The Young Press

What motivated teenagers, Aidan and Mia, to set up The Young Press blog? Find out about their individual views and experiences below.

Blog: https://theyoungpressblogger.wordpress.com/

Twitter: @theyoungpress

Aidan’s Views

I am captivated by the real world and finding out facts. I don’t read fiction books, apart from set texts for school. I have realised that I prefer reading articles and shorter pieces of writing to novels. I also enjoy looking at maps, world flags, reading recipes, food packets and learning about sports teams. I like to read the daily news from around the world, and since the EU referendum in 2016, I have grown an interest in politics. I would encourage everyone to explore different texts – it doesn’t matter what you read, start with your interests, and take it from there.

Recently, I thought that journalism might be of interest to me, so I entered ‘The Guardian Young Sportswriter of the Year’ competition. I wrote about Mohamed Salah (a footballer for Liverpool and Egypt) and was one of two runners-up. This spurred me on to write more, and partly why I wanted to setup a blog. I hadn’t developed a writing style, or one topic that I wanted to focus on, so I thought writing a blog would provide me with the opportunity to explore different styles of writing and topics of interest.

In September 2019, I set up a blog with my sister Mia, called The Young Press. I write about a range of topics, including, inspirational people, food, travel, sport, neurodiversity, and since lockdown, I started to write my own poems – the list is growing. I still haven’t discovered the way I like to write. However, the blog has given me the opportunity and freedom to try different styles of writing, whilst improving my writing and editing skills.

Mia and I are interested in different topics, so our blog will hopefully appeal to a wider range of people. However, it is not about getting thousands of people to read our posts. The blog is just the start of our writing journey and hopefully a springboard for the future. Even if it isn’t, we are learning, whilst exploring the world, forming opinions and having fun.

Aidan, 13 years old

Mia’s Views

When I was younger I wanted to be an author so I tried writing stories. Writing on the blog allows me to write about a variety of topics, whilst having the flexibility to write as little or as much as I want – it doesn’t seem as big a task as writing a whole story! I would love to write a book in the future but at the moment I am happy gaining experience from the blog.

At first, I was unsure about setting up the blog, as I didn’t think anyone would be interested in what I had to write about. I realised that as I’m an avid reader, working on the blog could improve my writing skills, whilst allowing me to share my opinions on books that I have enjoyed, and hopefully inspire people to read.

I discovered that recommending books, and writing small reviews of stories that I love, was really enjoyable. I also have an interest in the environment, food, animals and travel, so I plan to write about these topics in the future.

The blog motivates me to write more, explore different genres, whilst increasing my writing confidence. I am learning to be more concise and not to go off on tangents. My journey with the blog has had some ups and downs, as to be expected with anything new, but I have found something that is fun and rewarding. I also enjoy editing Aidan’s and my posts before we publish them. This is helping to develop my editing skills, which I have not had the opportunity to do much before.

One of the best returns that I have got from the blog was when I got two replies on Twitter from one of my favourite authors. This was really exciting and although it wasn’t about my writing, it inspired me to continue with what I was doing.

I think that writing is a great way to express yourself and anyone can do it…just start with a topic that you enjoy.

Mia, 13 years old

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

In this article we ask and answer six important questions:

  • Why do any of us write?
  • Do the reasons we write drive the writing curricula in our schools? 
  • Are children helped to see that written language can make a rich contribution to their lives and the lives of others? 
  • Are we giving them the writing apprenticeship they deserve and need?
  • What are we actually teaching young writers in school?
  • Could writing in school be transformed from a pointless and irrelevant chore into an empowering, pleasurable and personally meaningful pursuit?

Begin with the central question: Why do any of us write? In our book Real-World Writers, we conclude there are a number of reasons we are moved to write. They include:

  • Teaching others by sharing our experiences and knowledge, or teaching ourselves through a process of ‘writing to learn’.
  • Entertaining ourselves or others by sharing stories – both real and imagined.
  • Reflecting in order to better understand ourselves, our place in the world or our response to a new subject.
  • Painting with words to show our artistry, our ability to paint images in our readers’ minds, to see things differently, to play around or to simply have fun.
  • Persuading or influencing others by sharing our thoughts and opinions.
  • Making a record of something to look back on that we don’t want to forget.

(Young & Ferguson 2020 p.4-7)

But this isn’t all. As Frank Smith has said: ‘By writing, we find out what we know; what we think. Writing is an extremely efficient way of gaining access to that knowledge that we cannot explore directly’ (1982 p.33). Thus, when we write a first draft, we see, perhaps for the first time, what is on our minds. We discover, develop and give substance to our thoughts, and then reconsider them in the process of revising what we have drafted. Through writing, we express ourselves in the world, try to make sense of it or impose order on it. Writing, as Frank Smith has memorably said, ‘touches every part of our lives’.

The next questions: Do the reasons we write drive the writing curricula in our schools?  Are children helped to see that written language can make a rich contribution to their lives and the lives of others, and are we giving them the writing apprenticeship they deserve and need? The answer could not be otherwise than a resounding ‘No,’ when current writing pedagogies so closely reflect a political agenda and ideology which promotes and allows:

  • The transmission of narrow decontextualized writing skills; that English is just a formal system to be learnt.
  • Task and high-stakes performance orientated writing.
  • The over use of teacher-imposed writing tasks.
  • The over use of external stimuli interpreted by the teacher (book-planning units, film-clips and topic-writing) at the expense of children’s personal and collective responses, knowledge, interests, loves, talents and idiosyncrasies.
  • The formal rather than the functional teaching of grammar.
  • Writing for the sole purpose of being evaluated.

(Young & Ferguson 2021)

Thus, through current dominant writing pedagogies, we as teachers are perpetuating the idea that we know, while children do not; that we as teachers are in a position to determine, while children are not, and that children should simply comply with teacher or scheme-imposed writing tasks. Writing is not seen as something which is developed socially, and its empowering role is deliberately being withheld from children. How can we have allowed this to happen?

The fifth question: What are we actually teaching our young writers in school? Well, unfortunately, plenty. Firstly, we are teaching that writing is theoretical, removed from reality, and not a genuine or true pursuit. We refuse to allow it to connect with children’s individual lives, thoughts, knowledge, experiences and questions. This has far-reaching and serious consequences. Next, we are forcing children to write only to the wishes and desires of others. What this amounts to is that we are systematically:

  • Neutralising and devaluing children’s knowledge, identities and cultures.
  • Suppressing the development of their own writing voices.
  • Causing them to feel that writing is a pursuit unrelated to them and their lives.
  • Denying them knowledge of probably the most vital part of the writer’s process – how to generate ideas.
  • Depriving them of a readership beyond evaluation by their teacher.
  • Robbing them of a sense of authentic purpose and the chance for their writing to be put to work.
  • Inhibiting their natural desire to express themselves and communicate with others.
  • Creating a generation of children who are consumers and imitators of writing rather than producers of text.
  • Opening up a totally unnecessary and ever-widening chasm between writing that happens in school and how any writer crafts in the real world. Children simply do not receive an apprenticeship in the behaviours and knowledge involved in being a writer. Why do we do this? 

In Writing For Pleasure: theory, research and practice (2021), we sum up these points powerfully: 

‘In 1982, Donald Graves warned that when we assign topics we do no less than create a welfare system, putting children, our students, on to writers’ welfare. Willinsky (1990 p.209) goes as far as to say that to diminish the potential for individual meaningfulness in students’ work is a denial of their basic humanity, while Gutiérrez (2008) concludes that the imposition of such writing tasks can be acts of linguistic oppression.’

Lastly: Could writing in school be transformed from a pointless and ineffective chore into an empowering, pleasurable and personally meaningful pursuit? In our recent book entitled Real-World Writers (Young and Ferguson 2020) we have presented what international research and case-studies have repeatedly told us are the enduring elements of world-class writing teaching which (though many in the UK still steadfastly choose to ignore this evidence) can most effectively produce successful writers. Our book proposes that we apprentice children to the true craft of writing through:

  • Developing knowledge of all the writing processes.
  • Teaching grammar functionally.
  • Establishing genuine purposes and audiences.
  • Demanding high quality transcription to ensure the writing is ready for publication to the audience who will read it or see it performed.
  • Having children discuss and then choose their own ideas for writing.
  • Showing how they can use for themselves the dominant written genres in our society.

In the book we show how teachers could make these and many other transformations, change the entire climate of writing teaching, and at last allow apprentice writers to be competent and confident producers of their own texts rather than be eternally doomed to imitate and recite the writing of others and write according to others’ wishes and desires.

References: