Writing

13th July 2001 at 01:00
The Reader in the Writer. By Myra Barrs and Valerie Cork. Centre for Language in Primary Education pound;16.50 Order on: 020 7401 3382

Here is another relevant and valuable book from the Centre for Language in Primary Education. Relevant because of the topicality of improving children's writing. Valuable because it is concerned with quality and highlights effective teaching strategies.

It records a small study into the ways reading literary texts feed into writing in Year 5. We all assume that reading affects writing, but this is the first study to explore the issue.

Measuring quality is always a problem in research. The data analysis of children's writing included countable (objective) and scorable (subjective) criteria. Among the countable criteria, the following were found significant: the use of sentences which did not begin with the main clause, breaks in the time sequence (where descriptions are interpolated and slow down the narrative flow) and the use of mental state verbs, referring to the subjective experiencing of characters. Scorable criteria included literary factors such as narrative voice and a sense of the reader. Neither sentence length nor literary echoes were indicators of quality.

A few highly selective but persuasive case studies record amazing improvements. If children can be helped to develop like this in a year, we will all want to do it.

So what improves children's writing? The teacher needs to select good literary texts, and read them aloud well. Children need to explore the style of selected passages, discussing how meaning is expressed. Of the three kinds of planning observed - listing words and ideas, using frames and detailed plans and open planning - the third was found most valuable: too much planning and the use of frames was found unhelpful. Prior exploration of situations and viewpoints through drama was extremely helpful. Writing "in role" (first person narrative in the role of an imagined character) was very productive.

The use of "response partners" and the intervention of the teacher between first and second drafts was especially valuable. Overall, the emphasis on meaning rather than on technicalities such as using varied adjectives, and so on, was important.

For good writing, "Nor is there school but studying Monuments of its own magnificence" ("Sailing to Byzantium" by W B Yeats).

This book not only indicates how it may be done but provides inspirational examples of what can be achieved.

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