Education

Is There Something Wrong With How We Teach Children To Write?

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The idea for this post came to me at 10:35am whilst I was boarding a train at Amsterdam Centraal.  We were heading to Cologne to check out the Christmas markets. I spent the entire two-hour journey scribbling down the idea on a piece of paper my husband had been using as a bookmark. (I normally carry a notebook but on this occasion, had left it at home to make more room for Cologne Christmas purchases.) My notes were messy and incoherent as I rushed to get everything down:

notes

The next day I sat at my desk and transferred my notes into a first draft. It was still incoherent: just a list of points I wanted to make that needed to be fleshed out into full sentences. During the drafting stage I am always comforted by Hemingway’s claim that, “the first draft of everything is shit.” I used to have this quote written on a post-it and stuck to my laptop as a reminder for those “this is so crap and you’re deluded if you think anyone will ever read it” days.

That draft was written about a month ago and since then I’ve been editing and rewriting. The idea that had come so suddenly and easily proved to be harder to write than I’d thought.  But I liked the idea so I stayed with it. Yesterday I had 1,700 words in a sort of coherent structure but still wasn’t happy; I dropped the laptop into my husband’s lap and said, “Can you work out why this is so rubbish?” I just couldn’t get it right – I had been so enthusiastic about the initial idea it was as if any attempt to create the post didn’t do the idea justice. Once he’d read it he commented how ironic it was, given the subject matter of the post, that I was struggling with it so much.

Then last night, as I was getting into bed, it clicked; I realised what I’d been doing wrong. I grabbed my notebook and quickly scribbled out a new plan ready to be typed up the next day. And here it is- you’re reading it which means I’m finally happy enough with it to post it – hooray!

You’ll notice I haven’t actually mentioned the idea that came to me on the train to Cologne – so far this has just been a blog about blogging (meta-blogging?) The idea itself is something that I was always slightly aware of as a teacher but has been highlighted since I started writing professionally:

Why is there such disconnect between how we as adults write and the processes we ask pupils in schools to follow?

It starts with asking children to generate ideas on demand. Yes, we provide plenty of discussion and stimulus but essentially a child can walk into a classroom and be told that in that hour they have to come up with an idea for a report/story/diary entry etc… That’s a big ask. Even when I’m pitching ideas to my editor they are ideas I’ve developed in my own time. Of course time is the main constraint here and generating ideas is just one part of writing (and the part that normally involves the least writing) so we can’t afford the luxury of allowing children endless time to generate ideas and develop them. Equally, if the objective is “To write a diary entry” there is no reason why you can’t provide the pupil with the idea just to get them writing.

Once they’ve had/been given the idea it is commonplace to ask children to complete some sort of plan. Google “KS1/KS2 planning formats” and you’ll be presented with dozens of versions of essentially the same document: a page of boxes for the children to complete.

 

In the early stages of their education, when children need to be taught HOW to plan, there is certainly a place for these but once they’ve learnt the process I would argue that these templates can be more of a hindrance than a help. On a practical level the boxes are small which means you have to think about keeping your handwriting neat to make sure your ideas fit in. It also limits the amount you can write which doesn’t allow for those ideas to lead to other ideas – there just isn’t the space for that!

My plans are messy and illegible to anyone else and that’s fine because nobody else needs to read them. What is the main barrier to children being allowed to plan their writing freely? I would argue it’s presentation policies and policies that state there should be a certain number of completed pieces of work in a book each week. I’m not saying children shouldn’t take care over their presentation and learn to underline the date etc… but it shouldn’t take priority over the learning. Children need a space where they can write freely without worrying about cursive script or drawing in a margin. Some schools have draft books or jotters for this purpose but I’ve heard of schools getting rid of these books because they were “messy” or hiding them when Ofsted turn up.

Once they’ve planned, children start their first draft. In the ideal world the children would have the option of typing a first draft because the process of editing and rewriting is laborious enough without having to do it by hand. If you’ve written a four-page draft that you want to edit and then rewrite, it means turning back and forth between pages and squashing notes into a margin or rewriting sentences in that little gap between the original sentence and the line. Once again, when you’re first teaching editing, it’s essential that children see the process modelled, either by watching you mark their work or editing a piece of work together as class. By upper KS2 children should be able to edit their own work with the support of a checklist of criteria and a dictionary. Their editing would need to be checked by the class teacher but most of it could be done independently. The problem with editing is that it takes time – time that schools don’t have. This post took weeks to edit but even when I’m on a deadline the process can take days and includes a cooling off period where I walk away from the piece for anything from an hour to a day.

Finally we ask children to write up their work. As in rewrite the whole piece again. By hand. For what could be the third or fourth time depending how many drafts they’ve done. Out come the line guides, paperclips and ruled margins which will end up being elaborately decorated. Had they been word processing from the beginning the final draft would be there waiting to print once they’d finished editing and even if that isn’t an option I question how valuable “copying up” lessons are. You could perhaps argue it is a handwriting exercise but there are other ways to teach handwriting. By the “copying up” stage only the keenest of children are still interested in this piece of writing.

Conversely, how often do children get to scrap their work and start again from the very beginning if they want to? I had a child ask to do exactly that when the rest of the class were on their final drafts and I said no because we only had one more lesson to spend on this and next week we’d be moving on to something new. That was the right answer. Children have to learn to meet deadlines and follow instructions and I’m not suggesting we abandon our plans every time a child changes their mind but I do wonder whether if I’d agreed that he could start again on the condition he’d have to work on it at home he might have produced a better piece.

Obviously we’re not teaching children to be “writers” any more than we’re teaching them to be astronauts, doctors or civil servants. We are teaching them to write which requires practising the basics over and over again. It means showing them how to construct complex sentences and how to use punctuation and grammar and giving them time to practise it. Writing is bloody hard work and learning to write even more so.

This post isn’t a criticism – just a general musing. I would love to hear about how different schools teach writing  – please get in touch. I’m also not suggesting that the way I write is how we should teach children to write – I’m not Michael Gove. It’s just that if we are serious about children mastering a “writer’s voice” we should, at least occasionally, allow them to behave like writers.

 

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16 thoughts on “Is There Something Wrong With How We Teach Children To Write?

  1. Great post. I guess it depends on the nature of the writing itself. It is asking children to write on demand with an increasing range of skills.
    The secret is that they hear good stories. The second secret is how we respond to their writing. Brilliant post you’ve written here.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Writing for most people is a chore rather than a pleasure. This is once again the fault of schooling! My philosophy of writing is based on Frank Smith’s work “becoming a writer”. I believe that is the title? Anyway he argues that to teach writing or indeed any skill you need to do it. To experience what being a writer is. The best lesson, I ever was privileged to witness in my career as an inspector, was delivered by a young teacher in her second year of teaching. She discussed an idea with the class of 11 year olds, took them into the hall to share some feelings and movement and only then towards the end of an hour did anyone put “pen to paper”. Every child in that class ended the session with about five lines of memorable writing on the subject, inspired by one or two lines from their class story. I forgot which it was but I will never forget that experience nor the quality of those words written by the “writers”, many of which moved me to tears of admiration. Yes she was a gifted teacher but more importantly she gave those lucky pupils a memorable experience of how words can make a real difference and how they could do that! True writers! But…unfortunately I never saw that again..mostly I saw children with heads down searching for memorable words from some f***** “working wall”, which listed them like some bible as they were the only ones to use! .and they were so bored!!!!

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  3. I wrote my masters dissertation on a very similar topic. The artifice thar education creates has, in my opinion, led to children who hate and even fear the process of writing. I try to encourage children to write for pleasure at home and in any spare time in a bid to help them develop a writing habit… Hmmm..?!

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  4. We obviously teach writing through our own approach we call ‘Real-Word Literacy’. The idea is we give children the genre topic for that half term. We give the children a week/two weeks to study the genre and to generate an idea – If they finish earlier they are able to free write (they can do this because they have been taught the writing process).

    So it looks a little like this 6/7 half term.

    Week 1/2 – Genre-Study and generating ideas / planning (We have made Genre-booklets for the children study and learn from).
    Week 3 – ‘Vomit’ draft – this is basically what our children call a first draft. (We have a compositional checklist so children can be sure their piece of writing is in keeping with the genre they are writing in).
    Week 4/5 – Revision – children improve on their initial draft in a multitude of different ways. (We have a list of revision techniques they can employ on their first draft – techniques authors often use themselves).
    Week 6 – Editing session – maybe 2? With an editing checklist and proof reading tips.
    Week 6/7 Publication – final published piece – publication usually has to happen because we ensure there is a readership for the piece beyond the classroom…

    If the children finish what they were meant to do in that week, they are free to read and write. We make sure all the resources they need to free-write successfully are in the classroom – and they follow the writing process we have set out above.

    If anyone is interested in any aspects of our approach just drop us an email: literacyforpleasure@gmail.com

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I used to teach English at secondary school. Contrary to most of my colleagues, I would give my pupils a week or two in which to submit their formal writing (from Grade 8 to Grade 12). If they wished to show me their draft in the interim or to chat about what they had written or where they were stuck I was happy to help them. I agree that computers can assist with this process – one has to teach about and watch out for plagiarism of course – but all-in-all we ended up with far better writing and the pupils mostly enjoyed the process.

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  6. If you’re a budding writer then asking a child to write a story shouldn’t be too much of a problem. When I was at school we were always given a pale blue A4 sheet on Friday afternoons and asked to write a story which had to be given in by the time we went home. I loved Friday afternoons. They were my favourite times! Conversely..maths lessons, oh dear; a different story altogether!

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  7. This post does highlight how both children and teachers may not enjoy writing due to the same strategies being used constantly. Rewriting work again and again is can be tedious for all involved. I found this article about teaching writing in EYFS, the teachers were frustrated at using the same pedagogy when all children are different with many needs (Clark, 2000). The combination of teacher expectations, together with more highly structured writing tasks, give children less control over their writing and learning. Children would need more freedom over their writing, making writing a more exciting experience.

    Clark, L. (2000) ‘Lessons from the Nursery: Children as Writers in Early Years Education’, Reading, 34(2), pp. 68-73.

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  8. Blimey, maybe this is where my schools got it very wrong?
    I don’t recall ever rewriting an essay, editing it, or any of that. You wrote on the topic given and handed it in for marking. And that was that!
    Now, of course, it is all computers (that makes me sound ancient – I’m 40) but I still only read back what I wrote before hitting send, on things I want to be correct. I tend to check as I go, and that’s definitely more than most people online!

    So I re-read this, added half a line for clarity, and off it goes!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I had the privilege of being taught by two absolutely fabulous English teachers. My grade five and six teacher gave us each journals that we wrote in for ten minutes a couple times a week. Sometimes we were assigned a topic but not always. These journals remained unedited. We also did assignments that we followed a more strict writing process for, but I still treasure my “journals.”
    The other teacher taught me the strict writing process, but the brainstorming started on a blank page. She taught us to do spider-type maps with general guidelines. (ie. 3-5 main points with at least two sub-points) These maps were just free-hand drawn. Our rough drafts were typed, double-spaced to leave lots of room for our red ink. She gave us different editing focuses for different pieces. (ie. Take out all being verbs in this piece. Use dialogue to show the setting in this story.) She told us to treat our rough drafts as garbage, but in the process, I know I developed a strong sense of ownership for everything I wrote.
    Thank-you J. G. and S. M.
    Ps. I went to a private, Christian school.

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  10. Excellent post + comments! 😀

    >> You could perhaps argue it is a handwriting exercise but they are other ways to teach handwriting. <> I’m also not suggesting that they way I write is how we should teach children to write <<

    … should read "… the way I write …"

    😉

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  11. (oops — minor revision)

    Excellent post + comments! 😀

    “You could perhaps argue it is a handwriting exercise but they are other ways to teach handwriting.”

    should read “… but there are …”.

    Likewise:

    “I’m also not suggesting that they way I write is how we should teach children to write.”

    should read “… the way I write …”

    😉

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Very true this. Is there a problem with what we’re asking kids to write about too? The idea of writing an explanation text on a Wallace and Gromit style ‘cracking contraption’ will probably only encourage writing as banal as the topic. I know there’s a limit to the amount of real writing that can be done and issues of cognitive overload if kids are focused more on the topic rather than the process of writing, but I don’t think I’ve ever written a Kenning or advert about trainers in my whole adult life outside of teaching. The processes should mirror adult writing but probably also the purpose too.

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