By Teresa Cremin, Professor of Literacy in Education, The Open University
Writing is emotionally demanding for adults as well as children. The challenge of being able to marshal ideas and combine them, (let alone frame those thoughts into words, sentences and texts appropriate to purpose and audience), is substantial. A highly complex cognitive, social and emotional activity, writing remains demanding even as we become more experienced. Think of writing that letter of application, card to a bereaved friend, academic assignment, blog or confidential email… each can make us feel like a novice again as we stretch to find the most effective words – words which work for us as well as our readers. The journey towards satisfaction is often fraught with feelings of uncertainty and insecurity.
Feelings come to the fore during the act of writing and whilst positive affect such as relief and satisfaction may increase as we write, negative emotions such as fear and anxiety also persist, and are more resistant to change. In addition to finding the extended process of writing at times both frustrating and confusing, one’s chosen topic can further increase the emotional engagement and challenge involved. Do we know enough about the subject? Are we personally and affectively involved in some way? Research exploring teachers’ attitudes to writing indicates a tendency towards negativity, evidenced in a discourse of self-doubt and self-criticism. Teachers often recall their experiences of school and university writing – both positive and negative – with considerable emotional intensity. These experiences have long-term consequences for their personal and professional identities and potentially for their classroom practice.
At the outset of the Arvon Teachers as Writers project, the 16 teachers’ assurance as writers varied. Many lacked confidence as writers; some sought to avoid sharing their writing in the whole group workshops at Totleigh Barton and/or prevaricated during their first one-to-one tutorial, raising other issues in order to sidestep sharing or discussing their compositions. Their early disquiet in these contexts appeared to be related to the possible value judgements of others, both their colleagues’ and the tutors’. Across the week however, with sensitivity to the teachers’ vulnerabilities, the tutors, Steve Voake and Alicia Stubbersfield, built an atmosphere of nascent trust and increased security. Critically, they revealed their interest in the writers and their writing; they listened to the life experiences which often lay behind the teachers’ words and ideas, and appeared to respond as humans first and as writing tutors second. Praise, critique and in-depth discussion of the teachers’ intended meanings became common in the tutorials, the transcripts of which are fascinating – although they are not fully analysed yet!
Many young writers also express low-self-esteem as writers, citing for example their inability to write neatly, to spell or to punctuate well, and may voice less than positive attitudes towards writing. In the current culture of accountability the young are also likely to be concerned about whether their writing includes the ‘non-negotiables’ demanded by the system. That is if they care about reaching the ‘expected standard’! Some novice writers appear disaffected and disengaged; perhaps they are merely playing the school game called writing, and learning to view themselves as passive producers of written texts for teachers, not as creative composers of their own meanings.
Is the affective dimension of teaching and learning to write under-recognised? Is it in danger of being over-shadowed by the large body of grammatical knowledge to be taught and tested? The requirement to follow the teacher’s ‘steps for success’ and work to include subordinating conjunctions, a range of cohesive devices, or fronted adverbials can easily come to dominate young people’s experience of writing. Where this happens and each piece of writing is scrutinized solely for such prescribed criteria, it will impact upon children’s emotional engagement and influence their understanding of the point and purpose of writing. In such contexts children are likely to play it safe as writers and become less willing to experiment with words and meanings.
In order to enhance young people’s ability to take risks as writers, to exercise their authorial agency and help them find pleasure in writing, secure environments of possibility need to be built. Environments in which it is accepted that ideas will be captured, trialled, discussed, rejected, revisited and adapted over time. Children’s investment in writing can be increased if they are supported to make more of their own authorial choices regarding content, form and purpose, and if real reasons to write, to collaborate and to celebrate their own and each other’s writing are offered. Time to talk about their intended meanings in small group tutorials, debating their choices, alongside their peers and the teacher as writer, can also nurture young writers’ resilience, adaptability and capacity to take risks.
The challenge that composition represents for children or teachers should not be underestimated. All writers need emotional support on their journeys as writers.
Professor of Literacy in Education
The Open University