Child's choice

18th September 1998 at 01:00
PRIMARY WRITING. By Dominic Wyse. Open University Press Pounds 12.99.

This account of process writing is an interesting contribution to the history of English teaching, at a time when the curriculum is becoming increasingly centralised.

The process approach to the teaching of writing, the uncom-promising pedagogy promoted by Donald Graves, hands choice of topic and genre to the child, reflects the outside world of publishing, and casts the teacher as final editor. Its success depends on a whole-school policy closely linked to teachers' professional development.

For me, the greatest stumbling block is the extent of child autonomy. Although Wyse is aware of the importance of teacher intervention, the expressive modes seem at risk. Indeed, Wyse concedes children's tendency to write about "streams of gore" rather than "troubling reality".

The method absorbs children's derivative, if fluent, excursions into superficial writing and the teacher seems constrained from providing a focus that channels before broadening into writing that is authentic as well as enthusiastic. Focus is a far more complex and sensitive matter than the title-setting by teachers, rightly proscribed by the method.

Otherwise, however, the teacher's role is central to regular whole-class teaching and to group work. There is also pragmatic balance between composition and transcription. While guided practice is recommended for handwriting and punctua-tion, spelling is taught through careful differentiation that combines phonics and visual strategies with a licence to "invent" spelling - a short-term measure that builds on emergent language.

The chapters on recording and reading argue convincingly for strong homeschool links. Mutual respect is dependent on the kind of honesty that asks whether rote learning of the Koran is as responsible for progress as the school's child-centred approach. It is this painstaking analysis, enlivened by transcripts of writing conferences and examples of practice in various schools, that impresses.

The thorny issue of real books versus phonics is tackled sensibly. Although real books are obviously appropriate to the method, evidence is weighed carefully, and the research of academic practitioners such as Margaret Meek and Liz Waterland considered in the light of classroom experience.

Wyse sets the process method within the wider picture of the national curriculum and the LINC project. He urges teachers to reflect on all pedagogies "not least those that are produced by national government". While I remain unconvinced by his argument, it is refreshing to see classroom practice closely linked to theory and research.

Jill Pirrie is a former language co-ordinator at a middle school in Suffolk

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