Writing Wrongs, TES

Great article in this week’s TES about the teaching of writing. Liz Chamberlain (Open University) and Rob Drane (English subject lead at the University of Cambridge) argue that writing is being taught in primary schools causes “a disconnect between how we view writing in the real world, and how writing is taught in schools. And, in some classrooms, this is having a detrimental effect”.

Chamberlain and Drake assert that the complexity of writing is too frequently reduced to separate components/threads – transcription, composition, vocabulary, grammar and punctuation – when it is actually a “complex and personal process”. They refer to the work of Eve Bearne (“writing teachers” or “teachers of writing”) and Frank Smith (authorship or secretarial skills) when how the activity of writing is considered.

Their contention is that the primary National Curriculum places emphasis on what can be easily measured and that elements like vocabulary, grammar and punctuation are presented as separate processes. They refer to this as a “misalignment of the curriculum” and argue that it affects how children view themselves as writers: “Studies suggest that most pupils define writing as a set of transcriptional skills, rather than as a means of communicating or as a creative process of self-expression.”

They note the work of Debra Myhill who “has shown that teaching grammar and sentence structure out of context does little to improve children’s writing. Instead, she argues, knowledge of how sentences work in texts comes from children’s understanding of how sentences work in the text they are reading.”

Chamberlain and Drake recognise “that teaching any element of the process in isolation is not helpful” and that teachers need to see writing as “a collection of interwoven threads, but we must also be able to step back from that understanding and appreciate that we are ultimately aiming to weave together a single rope”.

They believe that what is missing is a shared definition of what writing is and its purpose. Children view “writing” is a “schooled” way and do not approach it with purpose and investment in the writing task.

They urge teachers to “to see themselves as writers – we need them to be, to reuse Bearne’s words, “writing teachers”, rather than teachers who teach writing.” They go on to discuss the importance of collaborative professional development in developing teachers’ understanding of the writing process.

It seems to me that this “disconnect” between authentic writing and writing for assessment purposes also continues at secondary. (Artificially) distinguishing between the teaching of writing as Craft and as Creativity – using a similar approach as Frank Smith – could be a way of tackling this. I like the emphasis on encouraging children to become authentic writers.