How schools are getting writing wrong

For a while in lockdown, it seemed like everyone was talking about fronted adverbials – and the furore over this grammatical term highlighted a wider debate on the curriculum’s approach to writing. Liz Chamberlain and Rob Drane argue that expectations for writing need to move beyond the theoretical process and instead champion a powerful and exciting means of communication and self-expression
21st May 2021, 12:00am
How Schools Are Getting Writing Wrong


How schools are getting writing wrong

During lockdown, the fronted adverbial had a moment. For a relatively obscure element of English grammar, it was suddenly being talked about everywhere, as homeschooling parents and journalists took to social media to debate its position in the national curriculum.

“Is it right that children have to include fronted adverbials in their writing? They’re 8!” angry posts exclaimed. “What even is a fronted adverbial?” they added.

What those social media comments made clear was not only the widespread misunderstanding about what a fronted adverbial is (for the record, adverbials are words or phrases that give more information to a sentence, such as “later today” - and when an adverbial is moved to the start of a sentence, before the verb, we call this a fronted adverbial), but also that there is a disconnect between how we view writing in the real world, and how writing is taught in schools. And, in some classrooms, this is having a detrimental effect.

Writing is not a one-off activity or a singular skill. It requires multiple skills operating at the same time. To write well, I need an idea; I need to know how to spell; I need to keep hold of my idea; I need to craft my idea; I need to transcribe my ideas through my pencil or keyboard (or through a microphone); I need to remember my audience; I need to keep the genre in mind; then there’s punctuation and grammar…The list goes on.

Reading is similar in that we know that there are a huge number of elements involved in this process, too. But while it’s easy to pretend to be a good reader (I can pick up a book and, at least in appearance, I’m a reader), with writing, there can be no pretence. As soon as I put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, I expose myself as a writer - maybe my spelling is poor, my handwriting untidy, my ideas messy. I will be judged for what I write.

That judgement can be difficult to accept, because writing is personal. This holds true whether you’re 7 or 37. Perhaps this is why, when reading a piece of writing that a child has produced, it’s often easier for teachers to comment on the organisation, the text type, the spelling, the handwriting and the effort, rather than the content.

From a research point of view, the idea that writing is a complex and personal process has been a part of our definition for some time now. In the 1980s and 1990s, many researchers emphasised the notion of writing as a verb, rather than a noun.

For example, Eve Bearne challenged teachers to consider whether they were “writing teachers” or “teachers of writing” - the idea being that we should view the writing process as being just as important as the product.

As for what that process looks like, Frank Smith suggested that writing has two distinct aspects: authorship and secretarial skills. In his definition, authorship is all of the things that a writer can do before they put pen to paper (style, organisation, communication, development of ideas, creativity and consideration of the audience), while secretarial skills are the elements required for physically getting the ideas on to paper: the spelling, the punctuation, the grammar, the handwriting.

Interestingly, the national curriculum also splits up the elements involved in writing. The programme of study is expressed as separate components of transcription, composition, vocabulary, grammar and punctuation. So, it follows the research, you might think: splitting writing up into these different “threads” seems to make perfect sense, given the need to acknowledge the complexity of the process. So where, then, are we going wrong?

It’s about emphasis. The national curriculum places more weight on some threads than others - namely, transcription: the getting-your-ideas-down-on-paper part. It is not coincidental that this is also the element of writing that is easiest to measure. A further issue is that vocabulary, grammar and punctuation are presented as separate to this process of transcription, rather than as connected entities.

We know from research that this disconnected approach doesn’t work. Debra Myhill, for example, has shown that teaching grammar and sentence structure out of context does little to improve children’s writing. Instead, she argues, knowledge of how sentences work in texts comes from children’s understanding of how sentences work in the text they are reading.

Research from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) report on improving literacy skills in key stage 2 (2017) supports this view and also suggests that there is actually more evidence to support the teaching of composition skills (what Smith referred to as “authorship”) as a strategy to improve overall literacy than there is to support the teaching of transcription skills for the same purpose.

This misalignment of the curriculum is the reason fronted adverbials had their lockdown moment and the reason the teaching of writing places an emphasis on the measurable aspects of writing.

This is something that needs to change, because the existing misalignment is affecting how children themselves view writing. Studies suggest that most pupils define writing as a set of transcriptional skills, rather than as a means of communicating or as a creative process of self-expression.

In the 1990s, researcher David Wray asked children to write to younger children explaining what they needed to know about writing in their new classes. What was striking in the research was that the most frequently mentioned aspects were spelling and neatness, with children also advising others not to make the writing too long in case the teacher got bored. More recent research from the National Literacy Trust (NLT) about being a “good” writer shows that, 30 years on, children’s advice is pretty much the same.

So, what can teachers do about this situation?

We need to bear in mind the complexity of writing, but we also need to recognise that teaching any element of the process in isolation is not helpful. Instead, we need to take a more holistic view. Yes, we have to think of writing as a collection of interwoven threads, but we must also be able to step back from that understanding and appreciate that we are ultimately aiming to weave together a single rope. What would be helpful here is if we could find something that would bind all those threads together.

Fortunately, we believe that there is a key element of the teaching of writing - currently often missing - that could perform that binding function: a shared definition of what writing is and what it is for.

Let’s take an example. Say that a teacher has spent a great deal of time planning a writing lesson that she hopes will motivate and inspire her pupils. When she presents it to them, she is disappointed. Instead of being excited, the children just stare blankly at her and groan. This is happening because there is a disconnect between how the teacher sees writing and how the children see it.

All too often, when children hear “writing”, they anticipate a “schooled” writing task that has a menu of items to include: a specific genre or text type, a range of vocabulary, specific clauses and phrases, and so on. What’s missing for the pupils is the connection to the writing, a purpose and an investment in the writing task.

Finding a way to generate that investment really matters, because there appears to be a link between writing for enjoyment and attainment in writing.

The 2017 NLT research found that writers aged between 8 and 18 who said they enjoyed writing outside of school were seven times more likely to write above expected levels (23 per cent versus 3 per cent). What’s more, during lockdown, the same survey found that 20 per cent of children and young people reported writing more as a result of the pandemic. You can see examples of this writing in the rainbow-coloured messages that were posted in windows and chalked on to pavements in support of the NHS.

What is it about this type of writing that makes pupils more engaged? A small-scale research study (Chamberlain, 2019) that uncovered the types of private writing that Year 4 pupils engaged with at home offers a clue. At school, these children struggled to complete writing tasks in time, with their teachers describing them as daydreamers or recounting their difficulty in generating ideas for writing. However, at home, they were different kinds of writers: they were confident, made easy choices and had ownership over their writing, which was missing in their school writing tasks.

All this suggests that what we need to see more of in the classroom are the factors that encouraged children to paint messages of hope on to windows during lockdown for strangers to see and feel encouraged by. These are the factors that teachers need to consider when planning for writing - not the climate of a pandemic, but a child’s connection to writing, a purpose and an investment in the writing task. If we pivot our emphasis in schools to this, it will thread all the elements that we want to see together.

In order to do that, we need to engage and encourage teachers to see themselves as writers - we need them to be, to reuse Bearne’s words, “writing teachers”, rather than teachers who teach writing. There are already some excellent examples of ground-up CPD run by teachers who believe this is the right approach: teachers are currently creating informal professional development spaces through projects such as @TheWritingWeb, #WritingRocks and #WritersByNight.

But there are also options for collaborative professional development within school that bridge another important and missing element in teachers’ understanding of the writing process: the link between theory and practice. Over the past two years, the University of Cambridge Primary School has conducted a joint research project with the Open University that trialled using the principles of Japanese Lesson Study to improve the teaching of writing across the school.

We structured six sessions across the professional development calendar, the idea being that instead of having one staff meeting every now and again on how to teach writing, we were creating an entire year-long curriculum study, with a clear and specific focus: how to develop children’s sense of purpose when writing and how to help them better understand the impact of sentence construction on their readers.

The focus was to engage teachers with research, but also to give them the autonomy - and, significantly, the confidence - to make meaningful changes in how they approach the teaching of writing. They were encouraged to experiment with different styles of modelling, to take risks, and to make themselves vulnerable as writers in front of their pupils (see box, below).

As a result of this process, teachers at the school now have greater pedagogical knowledge and understanding of teaching writing, and they feel empowered. They are not just doing writing, but being asked as professionals to consider theoretically and practically the impact of their practice on the individual writers in their classes - thinking specifically about how to create a sense of purpose in writing tasks.

Crucially, that shift in how teachers perceive writing - and how they model it in front of their classes - is now beginning to filter down to how the children themselves understand writing. Yes, writing means being able to transcribe your ideas using accurate punctuation and grammar (perhaps even a fronted adverbial or two), but it also means appreciating that, when you put words down on paper, you have the power to communicate and to connect.

At school, children’s literacy proficiency is measured in high-stakes assessments that discount the writing lives that they may have away from formal learning settings. This doesn’t position children as agentive writers with something to say and someone to say it to.

The pandemic has shown us that this needs to change. This is the missing thread: a connection between the writing that happens in the classroom and the writing that happens outside of it. When we bridge the gap between those spheres, we make the teaching of writing not only more effective, but also more meaningful. As the author Maya Angelou notes: “The idea is to write it so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart.”

Liz Chamberlain is a senior lecturer in education at The Open University, and Rob Drane is English subject lead at the University of Cambridge Primary School

This article originally appeared in the 21 May 2021 issue under the headline “Writing wrongs”

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