By Teresa Cremin, Professor of Literacy in Education, The Open University
Young people can find both pleasure and purpose in writing, we all can. Whether the young will find such in schooled writing depends on whether we can redress the currently imbalanced emphasis on literacy skills at the expense of creativity and purpose. It also depends on whether we as educators see ourselves primarily as teachers of writing or as teachers who seek to enable the development of young writers. Whose writing is it anyway?
Policy imperatives around the world tend to frame writing as a decontextualized product not as a social act of meaning making, and in accountability contexts the predominant focus is on writing as an assessable skill, not on young writers. This drives practice, and understandably means that teachers work towards the production of the ‘expected standard’ and feel obliged to play the school ‘game called writing’. There is little pleasure to be found in playing this game, unless your teacher is flexible and creative. A writer herself perhaps?
From the earliest years, children’s writing interests and identities are shaped by influential others – parents, peers and teachers (as well as themselves). Teachers’ conceptions of writing and classroom practice frame, shape and often constrain the identity positions offered to young writers in school. Teachers’ confidence as writers also appears to influence their pedagogical choices, and may dictate for example whether they simply follow policy requirements and skills-based models, or whether they offer a more creative approach which attempts to reconcile different models and recognises the significance of writers’ identities. This is part of our focus in the TAW research in which we are examining the impact of writers’ engagement with teachers: on teachers’ own skills and identities as writers, on their classroom practice, and on student outcomes – their scores as measured by pre- and post-intervention tests and their motivation, confidence and skills as writers.
In education I think we need to pay more attention to both teachers’ and younger writers’ identities. In particular we need to set aside more time for discussions about young people’s reading and writing preferences and practices beyond school. It is more than possible that some of our most reluctant writers in school write for their own personal purposes at home – alone and with others, seeking as they do so to communicate with friends, organise and reflect upon lived experience and express themselves in diverse forms. They may be involved in sending text messages, communicating through apps, making notes, lists and Facebook entries, composing emails, lyrics, stories, poems, doodling and drawing, diary and blog writing and much more besides. Each act of meaning making, however brief or extended, will serve particular purposes in their world.
Yet in school, as Ofsted noted back in 2002, young people arguably still have ‘little notion of themselves as writers in control of the process, rather writing is seen as performing, the content, audience and purpose of which has been determined externally rather than internally’. Reducing the artificiality which can characterize school writing and profiling writing for real purposes can help bridge the gap, as can focusing on young writers’ agency and choices. But it isn’t easy to offer increased autonomy and balance writer development with teaching writing.
In order to support the young we urgently need to develop a better understanding of their attitudes to writing and sense of themselves as writers. Writers’ development should not be measured simply by a growing command of codes and conventions (as profiled, policed and assessed by current policy diktats), without focused recognition of their dispositions, attitudes and motivation. These are crucial to effective practice since emotion and self-esteem are key catalysts in the process of becoming a writer and believing oneself to be a writer. Sensitive support and tailored guidance is needed to foster writers who have something to say and the means, desire and confidence to communicate it effectively. Writers’ identities matter.
Professor of Literacy in Education
The Open University