Writing – don’t you mean spelling and grammar?
The teaching of writing per se has generally been much less controversial than reading. There are regular moral panics about falling standards of reading but the English media [and perhaps culture] home in on either spelling or grammar. Nothing excites the right wing press more than some new ‘evidence’ that children cannot distinguish between ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’. Given its recent phenomenal success it is worth mentioning the populist work Eats, shoots and leaves [Truss, 2003] which is exquisitely emblematic of this national obsession. It is worth starting with spelling because our students are very likely, probably at their very first parents’ evening or equivalent, to encounter parents with similar views to the press and equally unfounded; we will return to spelling.
Ironically, the great majority of beginning English teachers know little about the act of writing. In their formative undergraduate years, whether studying literature or not, typically they have written ‘essays’, one very narrow and very conservative form of intellectual expression; this is not a criticism just a robust generalisation. They may not have written a story, or anything else but essays for many years. One reason why many trainees initially value the resources and simplified objectives of the Framework for English is that it provides structure and materials in an area of real insecurity. One other issue worth mentioning is that in England we stick to the term writing whereas we might do better to be more specific, for example the term ‘composition’, used extensively in the USA, has immediate implications for pedagogy as it focuses on the psychological aspect of writing as well as the physical.
What do we know about writing in school?
Using the ‘living memory’ yardstick, the 1970s were an important period for research into writing as the Schools Council actively funded the project [Britton et al. 1975] once more inspired by James Britton. This project was important partly because it revealed how little sustained writing pupils undertook, even in English, and how little emphasis there was on teaching children how to improve. Of all the implications that the project teased out, by far the most important one was a recognition of the importance of audience and that teachers had to find ways to make writing a form of social and even public activity. Until recently this ‘finding’ had a consistent influence on practice, I think one impact of the Literacy strategy has been to reduce teachers’ time to engage with pupils’ writing for real audiences.
Another practical implication of the 1970s research was that writing needed to be directly taught, there is perhaps some recognition in this that some of the more distorted notions of ‘creativity’ were misinformed. As always, one can trace such distortion to underlying notions that influence English teaching. Embedded in the Personal Growth model one can find the vestiges of the Romantic tradition, specifically the concept of the great, original artist linked to notions of the innocent creative potential of the child. In my own research into concepts of ability in English one finding was that English teachers linked high ability with originality in writing, [Goodwyn, 1998]. The essential point was that the research in the 70s certainly found that many pupils needed structured support to learn to write in the secondary school and that they needed inspiring teaching that helped motivate them. However, this ‘balancing act’ for practitioners has been influenced by many factors and some competing views, based on various kinds of research, about the nature of writing development. It should also be said that one implication of the Personal Growth model for the classroom is the attention given to pupils’ identities through reading and writing autobiography and also in an essentially anti-Romantic position that seeks to find writing by ‘ordinary’ people. Harold Rosen was certainly influential in this field but I am not aware of any research that has provided evidence to support this practice.
Process or Genre?
Two important themes emerged and were pursued in the 1980s. The first was principally inspired by Donald Graves in the US. His view can be summarised as starting with the child. Children should decide what they want to write about and with the help of ‘conferencing’ i.e. one to one meetings with an adult or peer they draft and redraft their work over time until satisfied with it. The influence of this approach [and other influences] can be seen in the establishment of 100% course work at GCSE from 1984 onwards. Coursework, also know as portfolios [in the US and Canada], allowed for a form of the Graves’ model to develop in England.
At the same time the influence of Genre theory can be seen in the range of writing that course work required. In Australia in particular, Genre theory offered an entirely different developmental approach. The essential idea was that ‘text types’ can be clearly categorised and their textual features characterised and therefore taught explicitly, as it were, revealing the nature of text to pupils. Such an approach also meant that pupils would need lots of examples from every genre and that teachers might need to model writing. Genre theory was a highly complex and at times confusing [at least to this reader] mixture of concepts but it was driven by the principles of equality. It viewed writing as infused with the hierarchical power structures of society, something that needed revealing to young people in order to empower them and make them critically literate, see Medway and Freedman (1994) for an overview. The passion of this debate never really affected either English teaching or teacher education.
Frank Smith’s 1982 book Writing and the writer, also had an influence in that he synthesised much research to propose a clear separation between the act of composing and the secretarial function of correction, demonstrating that children who devoted too much mental space to correction produce worse writing than others. This point provided clear evidence to teachers about the need to draft first and revise afterwards.
There was a National Writing project in the mid 1980s, modelled partly on the far more influential project of the same name in the US but it has simply disappeared without any substantial trace.
Writing gets framed
The agenda of the 1990s has been somewhat different. The research by David Wray and colleagues into primary children’s writing has led to the hugely influential notion of writing ‘frames’, a rare example of research affecting practice very directly and very widely at primary and secondary level [see for example his book for secondary teachers, 2000]. Work by Richard Andrews and colleagues has investigated the conceptual bases of ‘narrative’ and ‘argument’ in both higher and secondary education. These projects have involved much discussion of the classical notion of rhetoric and whether such a conceptual framework could bring a much needed coherence to the messy and pluralistic field of ‘English’. At secondary level some research has been focused through the raising standards agenda such as Debra Myhill’s valuable work for the QCA. However, her profile is much broader than this suggests and I would argue that her research [and very numerous publications] on writing make her one of the best examples of someone who has managed to remain a very active teacher educator and an outstanding researcher [as a look at her web site will demonstrate].
Recent thinking has begun to question the orthodoxy of writing frames and other highly structured approaches, positing the notion of over-dependency. The suggestion is that undergraduates in particular lack the ability to become independent and critical thinkers and this tendency, not surprisingly, makes their writing derivative and limited in scope. As so many pupils in English are now taught writing in order to pass a particular test or examination, this concern seems very likely to have substantial foundation, some clear research evidence would be very helpful in returning some autonomy to English teachers.
Britton, J., Burgess, A., Martin, N., Macleaod, A. and Rosen, H. (1975) The Development of Writing Abilities, 11-18, Macmillan Research Series, London.
Freedman, A. and medway, P. (1994) (eds) Learning and Teaching Genre, Heinemann, Portsmouth NH
Goodwyn, A. (ed) (1998) English and Ability, David Fulton, London.
Smith, F. (1982) Writing and the writer, Heinemann, London.
Truss, L. (2003) Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Profile Books, London
Wray, D. and Lewis, M. (eds) (2000) Literacy and the secondary school, David Fulton, London.