Do children have agency as authors?

By Teresa Cremin, Professor of Literacy in Education, The Open University

Over the last three months the Craft of Writing team, (Debra Myhill and I, Becky Swain, Becky Coles and Sara Venner) have been recruiting schools to this new project. Funded by EEF and the RSA, it’s a partnership study between the OU, the University of Exeter and Arvon and a rare opportunity for deep, sustained CPD in the teaching of writing. The project, which involves teacher residentials at Lumb Bank (Ted Hughes’ old home) and CPD days, focuses both on writing standards and children’s motivation and engagement as creative and effective writers.

Whilst the recruitment process has been hard work and we’re not there yet, it’s this rich combination of outcomes and engagement that seems to have been the key to the 91 primary schools who’ve signed up so far (we need 100 – all are welcome!) I’ve spent many early mornings listening to head teachers’ concerns about their young people’s disaffected attitudes towards writing. The way in which they ‘assiduously go through the motions but don’t really engage’ as one head described it, or in the words of another ‘follow the steps to success but don’t really succeed because the heart’s not in it – so they’ll never achieve greater depth’. This week one senior leader characterised several young writers in his upper Key Stage Two as the ‘I don’t care – it’s nothing to do with me brigade’. This disinterest chimes with some recent primary phase research by Dobson and Stephenson (published in the UKLA Journal Literacy) and not only does it represent a clear cause for concern, it calls for action.

Young people can feel distanced from the act of writing, particularly if teachers retain too strong a grasp on the curriculum reins and construct writing as a technical exercise in compliance at the expense of developing children’s desire and agency as authors. I’ve drawn parallels before with the reading for pleasure agenda, and they are worth revisiting here since those who read for pleasure choose to do so; it’s a volitional act, one which is undertaken in anticipation of some satisfaction gained through the experience and/or in interaction. Likewise in writing, whilst writing ‘for pleasure’ may not be an accurate description for many, children and adults can find the experience of expressing one’s views, exploring one’s identity, and deploying one’s craft knowledge and skills to achieve authorial intentions very satisfying. Much depends on issues of ownership and control. Are children positioned as authors – writers with rights? Or are they positioned as pupils, obliged to play the ‘school game called writing’ in the current ideological context?

It seems a shift in the locus of control is urgently needed in order to foster an enhanced sense of autonomy and authorship in the young. Space, time and more choice need to be made available to help children exercise their right to write about what is meaningful to them, at least some of the time. If they are personally committed to a self-chosen subject, this will help them persist and tolerate the emotional and cognitive demands involved. In exercising their authorial agency as writers, they need to be enabled to decide:

  • what they want to write about (content),
  • what their writing is seeking to achieve (purpose)
  • who will read their writing (audience)
  • what form might be appropriate (form)

As teachers we cannot offer free choice all the time, but it is possible to negotiate options, enable the children themselves to generate possibilities and make more of their own authorial decisions as increasingly independent young writers. Through enhancing the real world relevance of writing, offering more space to Just Write and more choice, we can increase children’s intrinsic motivation to write and their agency as text creators (whether working alone or in collaboration). This will surely help them recognise that writing is something to do with them. Their identities as writers, their rights as writers and their authorial intentions should count.

Teresa Cremin
Professor of Literacy in Education
The Open University

13 thoughts on “Do children have agency as authors?”

  1. I think Teresa Cremin is spot on when she questions, in her blog above, whether children are given enough control and autonomy over what they want to write about. For disaffected children, the magic is finding what really interests them. I call it the “Kes” effect – if anyone remembers Ken Loach’s film, “Kes,” about a disenchanted boy from a dysfunctional background, who suddenly finds his focus and voice when he rescues and nurtures a young kestrel. I have experienced it myself and, as a tutor, learned how one has to be prepared to drop one’s plan and go with the child, rather than forcing them to respond to your ideas.

    1. Thank you Jamila
      I feel so chuffed at your response – I guess we both value letting the writer lead – albeit this is not leaving the writer alone – support and teaching are still needed.

    2. Thanks Jamila. Your thoughts here got me thinking too. I vividly remember, as an English teacher, some of the moments when I needed to drop a plan – where I was encouraging a child to respond to my ideas and needed to, ‘go with the child’ as you describe. It may feel like a risk at the time, but invariably helped a child to find their own way with a piece of writing.

      I have also been mulling over something a 10 year old child said about their experience of an Arvon week recently…. ‘It helped me realise I didn’t open my imagination big enough’. It’s such a positive response to the experience of spending a week with two wonderful writers and writing with their peers and teachers, and demonstrates that it helped them open their imaginations which is wonderful. Hearing some of the amazing narratives that students were developing in their writing that week, it was clear that it had helped them open their imaginations more than ever.

      The line has been going over in my mind and I thought this morning..hang on, this is a 10 year old speaking, a child for whom opening their imagination ought to be a daily natural wonder – both in and out of school. Sure, I am possibly over thinking the quote, but it made me wonder how far their experience of school, or perhaps difficult life challenges, might be stifling that child’s imagination. Imagine how much further children might flourish if that emphasis on a child’s natural ability to open their imagination was foregrounded more during their time at school -and how far building on that awe and wonder and curiosity with life might take them and us.

  2. Children need to have agency: we must shout and write this long and loud if our students are ever really going to be empowered to express themselves through their writing.

    1. We’ve both been shouting for a while Sue! Must keep it up I guess and document the difference it makes more closely

  3. My son overheard a conversation on the teain between two primary school teachers, one of whom had returned to work after a short absence, during which a supply had taught her class. The supply teacher had a tick-box hand-out which she gave to the children. They accrued ‘points’ by ticking boxes focusing the various grammatical devices now required. The one with the most points won some kind of prize. The content of the writing was irrelevant. Reassuringly both the teachers on the train were outraged.

    1. The poor teacher and the poor children – glad I wasn’t there! The current pressure doesn’t have to lead to apparent compliance but sadly …
      Good the teachers were mad though

  4. The comments above resonate across the oceans to the Land Down Under, where there is also evidence that writing is suffering under the yoke of slavish adherence to ‘schooling literacy’. The 2017 NAPLAN results (similar to SATs) in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9, suggest that students in upper-primary are alienated from the creative processes of written composition, for the very reasons identified in Teresa’s blog. The neo-liberal government’s response is more of the ‘basics.’ Time for a paradigm shift? It certainly is. I am about to embark on teaching a unit to Y1 B.Ed students in which they explore their agency as writers. The aim is to effect the paradigm shift through praxis with tomorrow’s literacy teachers.

  5. Excellent to hear from you Paul and glad you read these TAW blogs- I enjoyed your recent paper in Literacy too- there is much need to enable authors to make their own choices isn’t there? Although they need knowledge too, but as always its the balance that’s hard to effect .

  6. I agree that there should be time in the curriculum for students to write for pleasure. They will practice their writing skills through writing about a chosen subject area that they enjoy. Students often see writing as academic and something they have no choice in what they can write about. Writing for pleasure can help one explore one’s thoughts and express them effectively to share with others.

  7. It is definitely important for students to be agents of their own writing so that the writing is relevant to them. As a teacher, I completely understand the senior’s naming Keystage Two the “I don’t care-it’s nothing to do with me brigade.” Many times students hate the topics given to them in class to write about. So, it is our duty to keep students engaged, be flexible, and negotiate when necessary to encourage students to produce their best work. Dr. Cremin states, “emotional and cognitive needs will be met” when students are able to choose their own topics. I agree because it can be stressful forcing oneself to commit to something irrelevant.

    1. Apologies, have just come across full report but wanted to convey my interest and appreciation of this work which has far-reaching ramifications for how the teaching and learning of writing can operate as an interactive, creative community. I would welcome any updates to the email address provided and hope to put a few questions to you on further reading around the potential to see some of this work in action if there is ongoing follow up with the teachers involved.

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