Our role as teachers in nurturing writers is critical, but it is a tremendously complex process, consisting of dozens of sub-processes making painful demands on the pitifully limited working memory that we are all stuck with.
The current obsession with marking in education makes things even harder, for a number of reasons.
1. It limits time
Overbearing marking policies rob us of time to develop writers, to really engage with what students are producing, forcing us to resort to checklist approaches.
2. It distracts us from our goal
The obsession with marking means that we forget too easily who we are marking for and why we do it. I have found myself guilty of this. After noticing that a child wasn’t starting a new line for a new speaker while writing dialogue, I explained this convention and told her to follow it for the rest of her piece.
Then, without thought, I scribbled in the margin exactly what I had just told her.
“What are you doing?” the child asked me, rather confused.
“Don’t worry, that’s not for you,” I replied.
“Well, who the hell is it for, then?” I later asked myself.
3. It is misguided
Not only do we not have time to engage with a student’s work properly, the time we do give to feedback is spent marking in the wrong way. The “advice” that we are asked to provide means that children aren’t able to stretch their wings as writers and take ownership of their work: instead, they follow a checklist that does all of the hard work for them. Writing is reduced to a dull, generic formula of fronted adverbials and developed noun phrases.
4. It fails to engage
Some might argue: but what of motivation? Surely marking children’s work at least ensures that they are driven to write?
This idea seems plausible enough, but it rests on a mistaken belief about what motivates us.
In Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn, the American education writer, makes the point more clearly, summarising one of the most robust findings from social psychology: “The more you reward someone for doing something, the less interest that person will tend to have in whatever he or she was rewarded to do.” A more natural way to motivate children to write is to provide them with an authentic purpose for doing so.
Jon Brunskill is head of Year 2 at Reach Academy Feltham in West London
This is an edited article from the 11 March edition of TES. Subscribers can read the full article here. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here