What is ‘subject knowledge for writing’?

By Professor Debra Myhill, Director of the Centre for Research in Writing, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean, The University of Exeter

Both the professional standards for teachers and research on teacher effectiveness emphasise the importance of teacher subject knowledge.  Lee Shulman, perhaps the seminal contributor to thinking about subject knowledge, distinguished between subject knowledge (the academic content knowledge), pedagogical knowledge (the general knowledge of how to teach) and pedagogical content knowledge (the specific knowledge of how to teach your subject).  Curriculum subjects such as History, Maths and Science have very evident subject knowledge, but English or Literacy is less clear-cut.  In secondary schools, knowledge of literature is a very clear body of subject knowledge and one which has its own metalanguage – simile, metaphor, stanza, personification etc.  In primary schools, teachers need to know about good books written for children and in recent years, primary teachers are also expected to have strong pedagogical subject knowledge for teaching reading based on government mandates about phonics.

But what is subject knowledge for writing?

As we have been working with teachers and professional writers, I have become increasingly intrigued by this question.  What might constitute a body of knowledge about writing that teachers need to know, a body of knowledge that would parallel a Science teacher’s knowledge of photosynthesis or a History’s teacher’s knowledge of the First World War?  Arguably, the National Strategy developed subject knowledge about genres and their structures, particularly in relation to non-fiction texts.  But this does not feel sufficient for the demands of talking about an activity as complex as writing, and as we know, this can all too frequently be reduced to a formulaic set of descriptions of what a text should contain.  Sometimes we talk about audience and purpose, and the reader-writer relationship.  And, of course at the moment, there is a lot of use of grammatical terminology in relation to the teaching of writing.  But I find it hard to see how advocacy of the use of a passive, or putting in a complex sentence, or a subordinate clause, or if you really want to push the boat out, a subjunctive, is actually related to knowledge about writing.  Those of you who know me will know that I do have a particular view on a constructive relationship between grammar and writing, but that is not what I’m interested in here.

Perhaps we are clearer about what pedagogical content knowledge is for writing?  The National Curriculum talks about the writing process in terms of planning, drafting and revising and certainly there is evidence of this permeating classroom practice, though I sometimes wonder if we teach children how to plan, draft and edit or simply recommend that they do.  Our professional writers talk with great confidence about writing and about themselves as writers and I am curious to see if our analysis discerns any particular ‘subject knowledge’ which they reveal through these conversations.

Subverting the standard dictum about ‘Those who can’t, teach’, Shulman argued that “Those who can, do. Those who understand, teach.”  What kind of understanding is this for writing, and what can teachers learn from writers and vice versa?

Watch this space!


Professor Debra Myhill
Director of the Centre for Research in Writing, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean
The University of Exeter

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