Help to get over writer's block

28th September 2001 at 01:00
South Lanarkshire has spent more than a year developing a teaching pack to guide pupils in all forms of writing. Douglas Blane reports

The sign in the car park insists "Reserved for the use of hotel patron's only". Inside the hotel the standard of written English is higher, as indeed it should be, because the guest speakers at the day's conference are literacy experts Sue Ellis, senior lecturer in primary education at the University of Strathclyde, and David Wray, professor of literacy education at the University of Warwick in Coventry. The delegates are South Lanarkshire's primary heads and principal teachers of English and the occasion is the launch of the authority's new teaching resource, Developing Children's Writing.

"I was pleased to note the prominent role that modelling plays in your pack," says Professor Wray in his keynote speech, "because the single most important activity in the teaching of writing is modelling the mysterious process by which a writer gets ideas out of his brain and on to the page.

"And I don't mean only the physical aspects. We adults know that's just the tip of the iceberg, but it's not obvious to a child.

"So it's important that the teacher gets across what goes on in a writer's brain. She has to think aloud, talk about what she's doing, discuss methods of making progress when the writer gets stuck."

The teaching principles and practices that Professor Wray advocates are based on evidence gathered over the past decade or two about how children learn any new task. This evidence also underpins the authority's new writing pack.

Key insights yielded by research are that effective learning makes connections between the known and the new, works best as a social activity and is metacognitive, that is good learners tend to be aware of their own thought processes.

Furthermore, the context is usually learned just as much as any skills within that context, which means that new skills should be taught in contexts that are relevant and meaningful to the learner.

"Psychologists have sought in vain for generalisable skills," says Professor Wray.

Applied to writing, these insights have led to improved teaching strategies and techniques. For example, writing frames help to tackle blank page problems by providing guidance, prompts and questions. These frames and other scaffolding activities in the South Lanarkshire pack help to bridge the gap between what children are able to achieve and what writing demands of them.

"Teachers often move too rapidly from heavily supporting children's work to asking them to work without support," says Professor Wray.

Margo McPherson, the headteacher of Neilsland Primary in Hamilton, who was seconded to chair the group that produced and piloted the pack, explains that international research on literacy and learning had a significant influence on the pack's contents and structure. So, too, did recent reports by schools inspectors, Learning and Teaching Scotland and the Scottish Council for Research in Education.

The writing pack includes entries on fundamental ideas, working with parents, writing across the curriculum, making connections with reading, creating a writing environment, writing frames, editing, spelling and grammar. These set the scene for the main course, which comprises 24 sets of exemplar materials each for functional, personal and imaginative writing. These took a year and a half to prepare and are designed to nurture pupils and teachers all the way through the 5-14 curriculum.

Ms McPherson says: "Our aims were to provide a set of anchoring ideas and to give children - and teachers - practice and familiarity with the whole range of types of writing. We are also trying to develop people with an awareness of the world around them, and the ability to think for themselves."

'Developing Children's Writing' resource pack is pound;80, available from South Lanarkshire Council. Contact language adviser Janey Mauchline, tel 01698 429705, e-mail Janey.Mauchline@southlanarkshire.gov.uk

David Wray's website contains articles on literacy and downloadable writing frames. See www.warwick.ac.ukstaffD.J.Wray

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