Developing young writers

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

Writing can be exposing. Always an intriguing act of identification and production, we are positioned by our writing, judged by our writing and can be ‘known’ through our writing. No wonder then that the sixteen teachers who attended the Arvon residential a year ago were worried about sharing their writing with each other and with the tutors. Some expressed deep concern about their ‘terrible spelling’, ‘basic ideas’, ‘lack of creativity’ and initially held back from sharing their drafts. Despite the tutors’ sensitive encouragement during their first twenty-minute tutorials, three teachers simply refused to part with their ideas or their words, and, as they freely acknowledged later, determinedly engaged in distracting discussions to avoid this. Yet these teachers were experienced adult writers, university graduates whose written assignments must have been good enough to help secure their successful pathways into the education profession.

They were not alone. All the teachers voiced the view that sharing their writing in workshops in particular often represented a challenge. This recalcitrance was influenced by text and context: it related to their appraisals of what they’d written, their connection (or otherwise) to the writing activity, and their evaluation of the voices of others.  The interviews and observations abound with harsh self-judgements, sometimes linked to the old National Curriculum levels (e.g. ‘ I’ll bet it’s not even a level 4!’), to their histories as writers (e.g. ‘I’ve never been a creative writer I’m just no good with words’) and to comparison with others (e.g. ‘ I was going to make myself read it out but then the others were so good it silenced me’.)

Do children and young people feel likewise when sharing their writing in school? Are there enough opportunities for them to share emerging ideas and unfolding compositions in supportive whole class or small group contexts? Do those who lack confidence simply hold back in silence and await their teacher’s written commentary or grade? And do they then act upon this evaluation – seeking for instance to deploy a different text structure, more fronted adverbials or effective word choices in order to achieve the set objective or a higher score? As young people respond to extrinsic motivating forces – their teachers’ expectations, potential grade increases or competition, are they merely learning to write for the system? Do we not want young writers to find some satisfaction in writing for themselves?  Whilst extrinsic and intrinsic factors work in complex combination, excessive extrinsic motivation and pressure to perform may drown a child’s intrinsic desire to write.

At Arvon, whilst the sharing of writing retained a sensitive edge, the teachers grew in confidence as writers across the week; buoyed up by finely-tuned oral feedback from tutors and affirmative oral responses within the group. Constructive criticism was woven throughout, yet a growing sense of authorial satisfaction was expressed, particularly in ‘writing from the heart’ and leaning on life to ponder, remember and compose. Many expressed surprise and pleasure in their ideas and their compositions and were immensely gratified to find others valued these too.

For children and young people positioned in a system which appears to assess their every word, opportunities to develop such self-assurance as authors with something to say, something worth sharing, may be few and far between. Indeed the teachers voiced the view that the children’s writing (and thus the young writers themselves) was constantly commented upon and evaluated, and that this assessment predominantly related to set objectives connected to punctuation, grammar and vocabulary and rarely to the compositional content of the piece or the author’s intentions.

So in seeking to support young writers, the teachers, holding up a mirror to their own experience at Arvon, sought to make a number of changes in their classrooms. These varied, but in many cases included the following practices to support their young writers.

  • Making time to Just Write – often in private writing journals which were not necessarily shared with the teacher (unless requested)and were used to generate ideas and involved considerable choice in terms of content (see Debra Myhill ‘s recent blog on this practice).
  • Offering more opportunities to lean on personal experience – mining memories and leaning on their own lives as writing frames, albeit not as autobiography.
  • Seeking to share more writing informally and orally – reading a single line of their unfolding writing, partner sharing and celebrating emerging or polished writing.
  • Writing alongside the younger writers – sharing their own compositional challenges not just in demonstration writing, but in these smaller group conversational contexts.
  • Profiling revision – making more space and time to discuss young people’s drafts and enhance their choices and changes.
  • Increasing authorial agency – extending the young people’s rights as writers to select their content and decide what pieces they wanted to revisit, revise and edit for publication.

This list however doesn’t offer any kind of panacea. It is a genuine challenge in our aggressive accountability culture to develop a balance between teaching writing (and ensuring the required skills and knowledge are in place), and developing young writers who have something to say.  In working towards this goal, we surely need, as these teachers did, to prioritise the growth of young writers, young authors who can and do choose to write, and who find some pleasure and satisfaction in the process.

Teresa Cremin
Professor of Literacy in Education
The Open University

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