Tuesday 3 April 2012

An experiment with teaching 'good writing'

As I've written about here before, I'm pretty sceptical about these structures and formulas being handed out to children to help them write. I've seen quite a few of them in action. However, let's say I'm just sceptical and I'm not condemning them. Let's say that I understand that they're a means to an end and more often than not they get some kind of end...

So that's that.

Or not.

You see there are some of these structures and tips that really make me wonder what it's all about. One of them is 'wow words' and the other is 'connectives'.

Re: wow words. I don't believe that any word is any more or any less 'wow' than any other word. Everything that matters about words and writing is what the words are doing in context. So, here is an example of what I think is brilliant writing:

It's raining
It's pouring
The old man's snoring.
He want to bed
and bumped his head
and couldn't get up in the morning,.

For me this is brilliant picture-painting with a huge hinterland implied by what's not said. It's snappy, neat and economical. It is the 'banana-skin' principle of taking someone down and leaving him there for us to contemplate. It also operates in two time-frames - now, when it's raining, he's snoring and can't get up; and an earlier time frame when he went to bed. It does this like a film, simply cutting from present to past and back again, without connectives !

So, what do I think teachers and children could do to help children write well?

Here's a suggestion for any children or students above, say, the age of 8 or 9 (I would reckon).

Homework - or time out in class - or both - is to for every child to find what he or she thinks is an example of 'good writing'. This could be broken down into genres - if it helps - so one time you do this, you do it with fiction, another time with poetry, another time with writing about science, another time a 'news story' from the newspaper, another time a 'recount' of something and so on. The teacher can help the children/students find some stuff, or recommend books, newspapers, websites etc for places to look. The hunt is on to find 'good writing' in each of the genres that the children/students have to produce. This could be broken down into micro-genres eg 'horror writing' or 'sports writing' or anything that comes up.

In class, they work in pairs comparing and contrasting. The teacher has prepared some questions to help decide why or how it might or might not be 'good'.

Did the writing interest you? is that because of what it's about? Or is it because of something in how it is 'told' or 'written'?

To help...have a look at any of these aspects of writing:
Are the sentences long or short or both? Can you explain this?
In the piece of writing you have chosen, are 'actions' being described? Is this done with nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs? More of one or less of one than another?
Are feelings described? How is this done? Do you know what the 'narrator' feels? Do you know what only one person 'feels' or do you know how everyone 'feels'?
Is there dialogue?  What does the dialogue tell you? Does the dialogue feel like real people talking?
Are there any ways other than what the person is actually saying, which tell you what the people are thinking?
When you read is there stuff that you know about that the character in the writing doesn't know about?

Sometimes in writing, it's hard - or easy - to understand why someone has done something. In your piece was it easy or hard? Does this matter?

Sometimes in a piece of writing, someone seems to be 'trying to make a point' or 'convince you of something'. How do they do that? Here are some ways of doing it:
weighing up views that agree with writer against views that disagree with the writer?
Proving that there's something unfair about something.
Proving that a person who disagrees with the writer is not being 'logical' - that's to say, partly, it doesn't make sense.

and so on....

[I'm sure people reading this could adapt and change this adding or taking away all sorts of stuff.
The key thing is to get children looking at writing that they like,comparing it and contrasting it with what other people think is good.]

After doing it in pairs, the pairs choose the better of the two.
The pairs come together in groups and choose one from the group.
The groups come together in class and choose the best.

So there's a sequence of looking, reading, examining,comparing, choosing in relation to the writing.

One point that underlies all this is that there is no universal agreement on what is good writing. Good writing is what a group of people talking and thinking end up regarding as good writing. On the way, there are many aspects of writing that start to appear as good in context.

I suggest you can attempt to 'instruct' children and students about this, but this only really has impact on those children and students who read a lot anyway and are picking up good writing from there. For those who don't, this method (above) gives them a chance to see what writing does,what it can do and might engender an interest in them in books or articles being advocated by their peers.

Anyway, I'm just throwing this into the mix for teachers to play about with. At the heart of it though, is an idea about children and students discussing pieces of writing they have chosen. They have something invested in it.