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.
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 inresponseto the texts they have read significantly enhance their comprehension of those texts.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 demonstrating
Crafting 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.
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)
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 atwww.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
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.
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).
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.
Atwell, N., (2014) In The Middle (3rd Ed) Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
Beard, R., (2000) Developing Writing 3-13 London: Hodder & Stoughton
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!
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.