Clarion call for another century
In 1908, Sir Philip Hartog in The Writing of English argued that much writing in school did not go beyond writing something, about anything, for no one in particular. Hartog issued something of a clarion call for the 20th century: that schooling should be concerned with writing for a particular audience and with a particular object in view. The teaching model was to set work, exhort pupils to write well and then mark fastidiously.
Today, a concern with process has joined notions of purpose and audience in the teaching of writing. There is increased recognition of the differences between writing and speech and an understanding of how developments of each can improve the other. Social contexts are explored for different uses of syntax and vocabulary. The teaching model is to encourage drafting and redrafting.
There are still lessons to be learned if we are to raise performance, however. International research indicates the value of pupils investigating and consciously manipulating specific structures of written language, before they engage in the drafting and redrafting characteristic of the process approach.
Psychological research has shown writing to involve three basic, interrelated processes. These are composing, sometimes called planning or drafting; transcription, sometimes referred to as translation or "secretarial" skills; and rereading, sometimes called reviewing. Other factors include the interactions between each process, the writer's working memory, the use of diagrams and illustrations to support the writing, the writer's motivation, and the social environment such as the audience or anyone collaborating.
But what of specific teaching methods? A research analysis by George Hillocks in Chicago, Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice (Teachers College Press), draws attention to the benefits of guided writing - what Hillocks calls an "environmental" approach.
Hillocks identified four broad teaching approaches. The most widely used "presentational" method (setting tasks and marking outcomes) was the least effective. Simply telling pupils what is strong or weak in writing performance does not provide opportunities for them to put this knowledge into practice.
As the director of the National Literacy Strategy, John Stannard, recently wrote in a United Kingdom Reading Association newsletter, the national curriculum's "plan-draft-edit-revise" model can all too easily become "stimulate ideas-write independently-mark-edit-revise (if time)". Most of the teaching in this model comes at the wrong point, through correction after the event. t can be very depressing for reluctant or less able writers. Providing extra time for sustained independent writing is unlikely to make much difference to this picture.
Guided writing was shown by Hillocks to be more than four times more effective than the presentational approach and two or three times more effective than "process" approaches. Guided writing offers greater opportunities for young writers to make valuable connections between text, sentence and word-level decisions and to be helped to shape texts with particular criteria in mind, the teacher offering new forms if needed. Problems are tackled in a spirit of shared inquiry and problem-solving.
Another powerful model is shared writing, where teacher and pupils construct a text together. The value of shared writing was underlined by the 1980s research of Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia in Ontario. Their experimental studies showed how pupils (and teachers) need to be made aware of the full extent of the composing process. The thinking that goes on in composition needs to be first modelled by the teacher. Pupils benefit from reviewing their own writing strategies and knowledge. While they do need support, they will also benefit from experiencing the struggles that are an integral part of developing the skill of writing. They can use techniques to help them through the initial stages, such as listing words, points that may be made, the wording of final sentences, before they tackle the full text. Learning such procedures can relieve the pressure on children to produce a text, even a rough first draft, before they are ready.
Teaching writing is emerging hand in hand with teaching grammar. As the Qualification and Curriculum Authority's The Grammar Papers acknowledges, discrete teaching of parts of speech and parsing in decontextualised exercises is not particularly effective. There is evidence, however, that experiencing the need for different syntactic structures in different tasks is a key factor in pupils' writing development. Moreover, pointing out the syntactic features of pupils' writing can increase their awareness of how language works, in turn increasing their control. As Ted Hughes said some years ago: "Conscious manipulation of syntax deepens engagement and releases invention."
Writing is a complex business, involving the integration of several skills and abilities. It is similar to many games and sports: better performance does not just come from playing in more matches, but from developing discrete skills.
Roger Beard is reader in literacy education at the University of Leeds. His Developing Writing 3-13 is published by Hodder and Stoughton, pound;12.99