The WfP Helpline: How do I create independent writers?

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Welcome to another post in our WfP Helpline series. This is where we try to answer your most pressing questions and help solve those most difficult teaching problems. Today we are answering the question: How do I create independent writers?

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Not including for motivational or behavioural reasons, there are only two reasons why a child can’t write independently. Both have to do with the instructional decisions of the teacher and the classroom environment in which they ask children to write. Children won’t write independently if they don’t know what to do or if they don’t know how to do it. They are lacking in what is termed self-regulation.

Our research last year, which looked to understand what it is the best teachers of writing do that makes the difference, showed that they focus on using teaching practices which increase children’s self-regulation.

Here is a list of the things these teachers did that made the difference:

  • At the beginning of class writing projects, these teachers took time to discuss exemplars texts with their class. This meant children had an idea of what their writing should be looking to achieve.
  • As a class, alongside the teacher, they would generate the product goals for their writing. These are the things they felt they needed to do to make sure their writing was successful and meaningful.
  • Throughout the class writing project, in negotiation with their class, these teachers would set loose writing deadlines or process goals that the children were expected to achieve within a certain time – all on the road towards publication or performance.
  • Independence came from letting the children write from a position of strength. This was achieved by allowing the children write on self-chosen topics.
  • Through daily mini-lessons, these teachers demonstrated writing processes, and shared craft knowledge that would help the children achieve the set product goals. This meant children knew what to do but importantly how to do it.
  • Children were always invited to use what they had learnt in the daily-mini lesson during that day’s writing time.
  • These teachers had the expectation that children should write independently during daily writing time and children knew how to solve common problems on their own. Their classrooms were orderly, well resourced, and productive places to be.
  • To promote independence when drafting, children were encouraged to use ‘invented’ temporary spellings, put a line under any parts they felt didn’t make sense, and to read their developing composition quietly to a partner in moments of writer’s block.
  • Once they had finished their class writing for the day, they knew that they were to continue working on any personal writing projects they were crafting.
  • Teachers provided additional instruction through daily pupil-conferencing.
  • One teacher encouraged their most inexperienced writer to write and talk alongside two experienced peers.
  • These teachers taught responsively. They were always aware of the things their class didn’t know how to do and taught them quickly.

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The WfP Helpline: What do I do when my class hates writing?

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Welcome to the WfP Helpline series. This is where we try to answer your most pressing questions about teaching writing. If you’ve got a question or problem you’d like help with, please leave a comment at the bottom of this post or drop us an email. This week we are answering the question: What do I do when my class hates writing?

There are lots of reasons why children can ‘hate’ writing. It can be due to negative past experiences, a lack of success, or low levels of self-belief. It can be because writing feels utterly unnatural, alien and confusing. They don’t know what they are meant to be doing or how to do it. They may also think writing is boring and pointless.

Writer-teacher Donald Graves, famously said ‘children want to write’ and I agree. I’ve yet to meet a child who actually hates writing. I’ve only met children who hate how they are taught to write.

To help combat these negative feelings, you can focus on using teaching practices which directly tackle these common issues. Our own research study looked to understand what it is the best teachers of writing do that makes the difference. We found that these teachers focused on instruction which increased children’s motivation, self-efficacy, self-regulation and levels of agency.

Here is a quick list of the things these teachers were doing that was making the difference:

  • They ensured children were writing, publishing and performing for reasons beyond teacher evaluation. They took time to explain why children were undertaking the class writing project and where their writing was going to be seen, heard, or read at its end. As a class, they discussed the audience who was going to receive their writing.
  • They convinced the class that they were going to learn something valuable about writing by participating in the class project. They asked the children for their thoughts, ideas and reactions to the writing project.
  • The teacher and children together set the goals that needed to be achieved if they were going to produce excellent writing products. This meant the children knew what to consider and include if their writing was to be successful and meaningful. Importantly, they knew how to include it. This happened through daily writing-study and functional-grammar mini-lessons.
  • They talked regularly about the things they had done in previous writing projects and how that was going to be helpful to them in this project.
  • Children were regularly told that they are achieving writing goals and hitting milestones on the road towards publication and performance.
  • Through daily mini-lessons, children knew how to undertake the different writing processes. The children were able to use a writing process that suited them best. They were able to write at a pace that suited them – within a framework of loose writing deadlines.
  • Children were given time to choose what they wanted to write about.

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