By Teresa Cremin, Professor of Literacy in Education, The Open University
At the start of this new school year there will be new faces, new challenges and new opportunities. Critically, new relationships will need to be made between children and teachers. I wonder what each already know, or think they know, about each other?
I wonder too what messages about writing and being a writer are emerging as new classroom spaces are inhabited? What might the physical environment and ethos suggest about what it means to be a writer inside those four walls and/or beyond? Significantly, what might the early weeks emphasise and encompass, setting the tone as they will for young people’s engagement as writers across the year.
It seems likely that many teachers will want to assess their students’ writing and offer a range of activities that seek to establish a baseline, enabling tailored targets to be set. Fair enough. Such knowledge is needed. But is it enough?
I worry that the assessment of these early formative assessment activities will focus predominantly on the skills of writing, as currently defined and framed by national policies and assessment rubrics, and may not encompass enough – if any – attention to the young writers themselves: their preferences, attitudes, everyday practices and emerging sense of themselves as writers. Merely identifying that more work on particular aspects of SPaG is needed will be far too limiting for example, and will further frame the year’s work when placed alongside the expected range of grammar to be covered. Because make no mistake, when it comes to writing, grammar currently dominates the day.
This year in England our 6-7 year olds will be taught about nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, noun phrases, past/present tense, progressive form, statements, questions and commands. Our 7-8 year olds will address adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, subordinate clauses. Our 8-9 year olds will be introduced to noun phrases, determiners, possessive pronouns, adverbial phrases. Our 9-10 year olds will attend to relative clauses and pronouns, modal verbs, and our oldest primary phase youngsters, those who are 10-11, will be taught about synonyms and antonyms, subject and object, active and passive voice, and the subjunctive.
Grammatical knowledge and understanding can be helpful to young writers, but this frankly breathtaking list and the dubious national assessment of these grammatical terms can, and often does, skew practice, prompting teachers to foreground drilling and skilling at the expense of attending to the broader development of children as creative language users. It also diverts professional attention away from the development of children as writers – as explorers, meaning-makers and wordsmiths. As Jamila Gavin reminded us in last week’s blog, ‘Writing is about communication; a tool for every child to give voice to who they are: their ideas; their take on the world’. Early opportunities will abound for children to write about the summer holidays I expect – to share anecdotes of action, stories of sunshine and more besides, but will they also be given opportunities to look back and consider their journey as writers thus far with their new teachers?
In order to plan, teachers surely need to understand children’s perspectives and attitudes, their worries and concerns, pleasures, preferences and practices, degree of self-confidence and emerging identities as writers? Some of the teachers in the Arvon project Teachers as Writers are seeking to explore their young writers’ attitudes to writing through surveys, questionnaires and small group discussions. They may also be creating ‘Me as a Writer’ diagrams/posters, inviting responses to questions/prompts such as:
- What comes into your head when your teacher says ‘Now we’re going to do some writing?’
- Do you write/draw in your own time of choice at home?
- Can you write in more than one language? If so, which?
- What kinds of writing do you enjoy most/least and why?
- What are your strengths as a writer/what are you good at?
- What are your weaknesses/what are you not so good at yet?
- Does anything worry you about writing? If so what?
- What three words describe a good writer? Circle any that apply to you
- What advice would you give someone younger than you to help them improve their writing?
Alternatively, the young people and their teachers may be creating ‘Writing Rivers’ – collages which depict in words and pictures, their journeys as writers. Through discussion, the sharing of portfolios, prompted conversations at home and so forth, young people can be supported to consider for example: memories of learning to write – the people involved, the challenges/pleasures; recollections of particular pieces of writing; favourite types of writing in the past and now; the piece they enjoyed writing most last year. Or the class might simply be invited to write a letter to their teacher: ‘Five Things you need to know about me as a Writer’. They will be interested in their teacher’s letter too.
Such activities will help to develop young people’s metacognitive knowledge about writing, to nurture reciprocity in teacher-student writer relationships, and enrich teachers’ knowledge about children’s views of themselves as writers. Only then can responsive teaching begin.
Professor of Literacy in Education
The Open University