Free Writing

By Tricia Nash – Research Consultant, Open University and Honorary Research Fellow, The University of Exeter

What a fascinating round of classroom observations the project researchers completed before half term. These observations were a few weeks after the teachers’ Arvon residential in the Easter holidays, but before the start of the co-mentoring of teachers and writers in the new summer term. All five teachers observed by myself were using ideas ‘magpied’ from the Arvon course and the tutors there.

So in the first primary class observed the literacy lesson was held outside in the grassy staff car park, with pupils writing their ideas for the character they were developing in their new, treasured, free writing books, lying on a tarpaulin for protection from the damp grass. The teacher used the Arvon idea of using leading questions with the class as a stimulus to get them going in developing their character e.g. They are carrying a bag, what sort of bag is it?

In the other three primary classes each observed lesson involved some free writing. In one of the younger classes, the researcher waited in the classroom for the teacher and children to return from assembly. After some minutes there was still no sign of any children, so the researcher went looking for them, only to see them all out in the playground sitting in twos and threes or occasionally on their own, writing diligently and intently in their new free writing books. When asked what they were doing, the pupils were eager to share their new books and their stories with the researcher and explain why they liked doing this kind of work so much –  before they returned to the classroom for the rest of their lesson, albeit some minutes after the original timing!

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The other two primary classes took place in their usual classrooms, but once more both classes were using free writing books at some point during their literacy lesson – with much enthusiasm. In one of these classes, when the teacher announced that it was time for some free writing there was a whoop of delight  – the same class that according to the teacher when first interviewed, didn’t like literacy! The teacher of this class and the TA in there also did their piece of free writing alongside the class. The teacher said about this experience:

And I would never have sat and done my own writing with the class before. I would feel I needed to be getting up and walking around and checking on people and doing something, but actually it’s much more powerful to sit there…  just to sit there and write and actually say ‘no, I need you to be quiet because I can’t concentrate on my writing.’ And they appreciate that: and was, like, ‘OK, now I’ve got a purpose for being quiet’

In the one secondary class observed, once more the students had new free writing books in which, after hearing the teacher’s piece she had written at Arvon in the first lesson of the unit, they wrote down their ideas for the story they were going to write.  This time the students could sit anywhere (sensible) in the class including on the floor and could take their shoes off for comfort. This class had also started sharing their writing with an edit buddy, to get them used to sharing their work with others and to get further ideas from one another – also an idea suggested during the Arvon week.

When teachers were interviewed after the observation, all were enthusiastic not only about their Arvon experience but also its impact on their teaching since, and the response of their classes to that teaching. For example, the secondary teacher who had said in her initial telephone interview that although she wanted her class to enjoy writing, she felt it was unlikely they ever would; but now they really were:

I would love them to enjoy writing but that is not likely (initial telephone interview, February 2016)

But they really are, they’re loving it, it’s amazing (Post observation 2 reflection interview, May 2016)

I also for the first time spoke to six children from each school in a focus group setting during this observation, about their writing and the teaching they received. All raved about being able to now do free writing, as clearly illustrated by these children’s remarks:

It’s a lot more free and it’s not as strict because we get to kind of like relax and just have fun and just write. Like before we were locked up and we had to do stuff that we were told to do, but now we have been let out and we can do what we want. (Year 8)

Just going anywhere you want really you don’t have to stick to a set thing, you can just do what you like and probably developing the characters, not just having , ‘oh yeah this is the character.’ (Year 6)

So what an incredible, uplifting difference an Arvon week seems to have made to these children and their teachers with their enjoyment of writing and the teaching of it.

If you are interested in finding out more about the full research findings from the 16 teachers, we will be publishing full data in the final project report in 2017.

Tricia Nash
Research Consultant, Open University and Honorary Research Fellow
The University of Exeter

1 thought on “Free Writing”

  1. Whoop whoop! What inspiring research results! Those of us who are lucky enough to work at Arvon centres see “the Arvon magic” work it’s wonder week after week with schools. This research is so important and so timelly. We are at a crossroads in the political landscape where many politicians and decision makers have lost sight of what learning and education is all about, where fun and creativity is being sacrificed for results and statistics.

    I can’t wait to see what further research emerges.

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