I enjoy applying and exploring structures and conventions - even testing them to destruction (‘how to’ lessons); but I also learn to write … by writing (‘have a go’ lessons). Other people's writing frames and rules and tropes will get me only so far. And anyway, they might, as Jimmy Britton said (reference needed), leave me limping around in someone else's language, rather than running in my own.
In the new English curriculum for 2014, the writing process which the children should be taught is this:
plan – draft – evaluate/ edit – proof-read – present.
While this is certainly a helpful ‘hand of 5’, and the transition between each step might be usefully modelled, nonetheless, we know that this is not the only way of approaching writing.
As with painting or drawing or using any other expressive medium, I may need to dab and splash, to scribble and doodle in the medium before I understand what that medium can do for me - or I with it. Reading and talking and walking and playing and drawing and dreaming may also be useful in jogging and juggling ideas into some shape, but it will only be when I put pen to paper - or finger to key - that I begin to see what I think and feel. Afterwards I can re-jig my writing until I'm happy. And only then may I be ready to hear my writing and share it. But first I need a safe place to 'ex-press', where I can write with myself as the only audience; and sometimes my writing will not flow until I have 'silenced the critic in my head.'
Because of the current insistence to demonstrate measurable 'progress', many teachers feel under pressure to catch the children before they fall with their writing. They second guess where the children will stumble. This can actually inhibit writing development because creative processes are cut short and the children's independent discoveries remain unexplored. Children’s heads can be so cluttered with grammatical guidance, that their fluency of expression is impeded and they lose sight of WHY they are writing: "Moreover ... furthermore .. meanwhile ... nevertheless .... therefore ... I don't know why I am writing, but could I please go out to play now?"
It might be better to do as follows:
- Start with ideas or pictures or stories or experiences - or particular examples of writing - not too much 'processing' or teacher-talk, not too many generalisations or 'rules' – these can be seen and heard more clearly in the context of the writing itself. What's not said can be as important as what is. How it's said can be even more significant. Choices and voices. Later the values and effects may be tracked down to particular patterns and structures. Some of these it may be useful to rehearse/explore/apply/adapt.
- Model ‘having a go’ … sometimes from having ‘thought aloud’, sometimes from a basic plan or drawing, sometimes through ‘free writing’. This is more instructive than presenting children with a ‘fait accompli’ (here’s one I made earlier), because children can see where you make choices, why you cross things out, how the writing flows more easily at times …
- Choose stimulating, purposeful challenges for writing - with plenty of scope for children to get emotionally 'fired up'. Role-play can help here - let them feel the need to write the grovelling apology, the gentle warning, the desperate appeal, the angry complaint, the desperate appeal, the nostalgic memory. (cf Teresa Cremin's research shows that emotional readiness to write can often produce and sustain more charged writing; the colder application of rhetorical structures can sharpen writing further.)
- Give children the freedom to CHOOSE pathways, rather than FOLLOW one.
- Let the children learn by quick writing, free writing and by having a sustained, uninterrupted go.
- Use writing partners to help children HEAR what they have written - understand the effect that their words have had, and reflect on whether the writing does what they set out to do.
- Respond first to the content and ideas and process of the writing. "I liked the way you described … What were you trying to do? At the beginning I felt …. What did you want the reader to feel? Tell me a bit more about … What came easily and where did you stop and refine? What might you work on next in your writing?"
- Identify progress by looking at children’s confident writing 'voice' and how they have applied ideas and structures (or maybe successfully abandoned them!). Celebrate the effective, distinct and unexpected ways they have found to express themselves. Not so much WILF (=What I am looking for), but WINE = What I never expected.
- Help children to identify specific ideas or aspects to revisit in their writing, and reflect on what angle or method might help them next time.
Simon Wrigley, NWP outreach director