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