By Lucy Oliver, Research Fellow, University of Exeter
Where’s the enjoyment in new writing policy? Almost invisible it seems. Writing for pleasure does get a mention in National Curriculum guidance, but barely – and it’s easily lost amidst ‘essential’ skills and grammar. Whilst reading for pleasure is high on the educational agenda, with prominent campaigns to promote engagement, when it comes to driving up standards in writing, pleasure doesn’t get much of a look in. And yet the link between writing enjoyment and writing attainment is well-established. What’s more, evidence suggests that fewer children enjoy writing than reading, and fewer still enjoy school writing. Since much of the writing that children do engage in by choice – via text and social media – isn’t considered ‘real’ writing anyway, motivating them to write for school purposes presents a pretty fundamental challenge.
The Teachers as Writers project is all about exploring engagement – the engagement of teachers with professional writers and the impact this may have on learners’ engagement in writing. Early conversations with the teachers involved highlight just how critical a role school experiences play in shaping attitudes to writing. Many recall their own encounters with teachers who inspired and liberated them to write for pleasure: teachers who taught them there were fewer rules than they’d thought, took an interest in what they’d written and responded as readers not examiners. They also recall teachers whose overcritical or mechanistic approach caused them to shut down. Hardly surprising then that when they reflect on their own strategies for engaging students they identify creativity and ownership as core – providing young writers with choices about what and how they write, opportunities to play with language and take risks, license to ‘write what they like, what they know or believe, think or hope – and see that it’s pretty amazing!’
So what do they perceive are the challenges? Not least, of course, the counterweight of requirements which invite didactic teaching and decontextualised learning – checklists of linguistic knowledge and skills, grammatical terminology, spellings, GCSE assessment criteria. Such expectations are seen to monopolise the curriculum and undermine creative engagement. Like talented practitioners everywhere, these teachers find ways to strike a balance: providing structures not straitjackets, strategies not procedures, tools not checklists. But they’re also quick to point to alternative, less happy responses – a paint-by-numbers approach to writing tasks; formulaic outcomes; demotivated students; and box-ticking amongst teachers: ‘sadly some teachers feel the pressure to produce a very specific type of writing and suddenly writing becomes a chore, the only purpose to get a good grade’. It will be interesting to see whether collaboration and co-mentoring between teachers and writers enables them to address some of these tensions and confront the potential mismatch between school writing and writing for pleasure. No small challenge!
University of Exeter