Friday 8 April 2016

People are asking me how would I teach writing...

People have been asking me what would I put in place of the cults that have taken over the teaching of writing in primary schools.

1. I have written about helping children to write many times here on this blog and there are articles on my website.

2. I wrote a book called 'Did you Hear me Write?' which was an attempt to put into practice a theory of literacy based on speech and children's own culture(s). It's available second hand or in libraries.

3. One of the best and simplest ideas to emerge out of the 1980s/90s is 'speakers, listeners, readers, writers'. These are interconnected faculties. If we separate one or two from the others, we lose rather than gain. I would suggest that any school interested in this should spend a little time looking very closely at the differences between spoken and written English. The best way to do this is to record children talking about something they care about, transcribe every detail of it, then compare that with some examples of writing. This represents the leap that children have to make in order to learn to write.

4. A crucial concept to emerge out of the 1970s is the idea that when we write, we write with our heads full of the 'texts' we have come across - spoken and written. They are our 'repertoire' or 'store' of ways of speaking and writing.  Our job in helping children write is in great part ensuring that this store is constantly being supplied and replenished with stuff that children want to listen to and read. This is the 'reading for pleasure' agenda. It cannot be minimised or overlooked if we are interested in helping children write.

5. There are various plans and schemes and lists online and elsewhere which put 'powerful texts' at the heart of teaching to write. This prioritises certain 'good' writing over others and gives teachers a framework for inspiring children in a variety of ways. I've seen this work well.

6. I've worked with drama teachers who start from either a play, a story or an improv and establish dramatic situations full of conflict and dilemma and use these as starting points for writing.

7. I've take part in plenty of 'outings' , trips and the like, and then come back to the classroom and looked at ways of writing about such things. It always struck me that the best writing came out of these situations when the modelling or scaffolding wasn't too rigid.

8. A crucial part of writing needs to incorporate some aspects of investigation into how the texts that children like manage to engage their interest. This needs to be done in ways that are not too prescriptive or all that happens is that the children get turned off. Indeed, how and why writers engage our interest is often quite mysterious and not a simple matter. One simple example: how do writers of fiction, non-fiction, journalism, speeches open their writing? How do they grab the reader or listener? A further part of 'investigation of writing' can be to investigate the huge variety of written forms. For example, I would go on a field trip to a place where there are many ads, notices, signs and the like and look at how these put language together and compare that to the language used in continuous prose. I would do the same for poetry ,newspapers, books for very  young children - comparing these. They are very different grammatically and structurally. Why?

9. One of the unfortunate results of the new craze for 'grammar' is that it pushes out of view that what we need are many different kinds of 'knowledge about language' in order to help writing.  For example, all writing depends on 'audience'. In fact all writing incorporates a sense of audience even when the writer doesn't know it does! This is what's called the 'implied reader'. This is a way of saying that all our language has incorporated within it a set of codes or connotations which imply certain things about who is or might be reading or listening to it. To be a writer is to a great deal a knack of learning how to put together passages of writing which 'imply' the readers you want. The best way to do this is to connect writing with listeners and readers over and over and over again.  This means limiting the amount of writing that children do in exercise books and expanding hugely the amount of writing they do for audience. This means thinking of schools as publishing and performance houses using every possibly outlet - blogs, school bulletins, wall magazines, diaries, journals, book-making, booklet-making, poster-making, school plays, cabaret evenings - and much more besides - as opportunities for children to 'internalise' audience into their writing.  I cannot under-estimate this.

10.  The kind of grammar in the primary school texts is limited to 'structure'. In other words, it treats language as if it is just a system that exists for its own internal purposes. But language exists for us to make meaning and to achieve purposes.  It is vital to find ways of describing language which includes these meanings and purposes. It is hard to find this and where people have done it, it is very complex. I don't think that it needs to be.  This is something I'm working on.