Literacy: Inspiring pupils’ writing

Written by: Ross Young & Phil Ferguson | Published:
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How can we innovate our practice to ensure even more young people achieve in writing? Teacher-writer experts Ross Young and Phil Ferguson share their dos and don’ts when it comes to raising standards and inspiring the next generation of writers

The education system today is built in a way that means many children can underachieve in writing. This is because a lot of children dislike doing it and many teachers dislike teaching it. But we know there is a correlation between children who dislike writing and their subsequent underachievement (Clark, 2017).

The education system promotes teaching practices which do not take into account what research tells us about how children enjoy and gain satisfaction in writing. So, what are the dos and don’ts when it comes to teaching writing and really engaging pupils?

The writing don’ts

The sorts of corrosive practices currently promoted in the sector include:

  • Children only being taught how to present their competency effectively and how to produce writing. Children have no motivation, beyond pleasing their teacher, for their writing to do well. Writing is often seen as just another arbitrary task to be completed for the purposes of evaluation.
  • Too often children’s writing has only one audience – their teacher. Their writing largely remains within the pages of their exercise book. It rarely gets “put to work”.
  • Children are the consumers of another person’s writing choice. Like factory workers, whole classes are writing on exactly the same thing, in exactly the same genre, at exactly the same pace, using the exact same process.
  • Perpetuating the erroneous belief that children do not like writing and need to be seduced or tricked into doing it by using gimmicks. This results in teachers spending too much time trying to rouse, cajole and otherwise persuade children into engaging with assigned writing exercises, pre-formatted activities and pseudo-authentic writing tasks.
  • Huge amounts of time are spent teaching the “stimulus” for a writing assignment which would be better spent teaching the craft of writing.
  • There is a disproportionate focus on children’s writing products as opposed to their process (against the advice of educational research).
  • Writing being taught through one linear and agreed upon process.
  • The formal rather than functional focus on the teaching of grammar is negatively impacting on the quality of children’s writing.
  • Conveying to children that they are not writers right now.

The writing dos

Children simply do not see writing as important work and only write when they have to. If schools and policy-makers really want to inspire a generation of writers, they must empower teachers to:

  • Start teaching children as apprentice writers and not producers of writing.
  • Allow children to write first and foremost for themselves. Children write best when they are moved to. They write well because they have something to say and because they are moved to move others.
  • Give children instruction on how they can find their writing urges and generate their own ideas for writing. Allow them to create their own writing voice.
  • Focus on helping children find and then develop their preferred writing process.
  • Allow children to take an active role in setting class writing goals.
  • Build classroom writing communities which are the perfect balance of creative writing workshop and professional publishing house.
  • Teach as writer-teachers – writers who teach and teachers who teach writers.

Conclusion

If policy-makers do not attend to writing for pleasure and the resulting underachievement in writing, there will be a host of serious consequences: an increased risk of school failure due to students’ inability to share their knowledge and “write to learn”; business leaders, the job market and academic disciplines being unable to recruit strong writers; and a population with an inability to converse appropriately or powerfully through writing. You either learn to write your own thoughts or opinions or else be subjected to someone else’s.

There are consequences of another kind too: a population which loses out on a craft which can help promote positive wellbeing and self-esteem; a generation which misses out on a pleasurable and recreational activity and a life-long pursuit.

People will not learn how writing can show their artistry, ability to see things differently, or the enjoyment in playing and having fun with words. And children will not grow up to write with purpose, power or pleasure.

  • Phil Ferguson and Ross Young are national writing representatives for the UKLA (United Kingdom Literacy Association). They are authors of Pearson’s Power English: Writing, an evidence-based writing approach which is genre-focused and encourages children to write for pleasure. Visit http://pearsonprimary.co.uk/choice

Further information & resources

Writing for enjoyment and its link to wider writing, Clark, National Literacy Trust, 2017.


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