Becoming a Writer

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know I usually write about ‘professional’ issues rather than curriculum matters. However, recently I was given a set of books about English to review and they made me reflect on issues around ‘professional autonomy’ and how different that once was for young, new teachers.

As a primary teacher who did an MA in ‘English in Education’ at London University’s Institute for Education nearly thirty years ago, I read these booklets with some interest. They reminded me of the halcyon days when I felt truly inspired to teach. I would turn up for two hours twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, over two years – each time I felt absolutely knackered from a full day’s teaching in a tough Hackney classroom – but within minutes, find myself drinking at a fountain of knowledge poured by the likes of Harold Rosen, Margaret Meek (Spencer), Tony Burgess and Jane Miller.

These books remind me of those sessions. I’m going to summarise them – all too crudely. But here’s the third one on Writing for ages 3-7.

In the first years of their lives, children are not only learning to talk but they are also learning to recognise and use graphic systems like drawing, writing and numbers.

Speech and writing are close relations but are not identical twins. Speech has a grammar that realises meaning in ways every bit as complex and rich as writing. As babies learn to speak, they are laying the foundations for their acquisition of literacy. The most significant event in becoming literate is when a child realises written marks are symbols of spoken language.

Oral and written stories, poems, songs and rhymes have a key role to play in unconscious and informal learning about writing and – especially for a young child – being read to. But teachers have a vital role to play too in making the unconscious, conscious and informal, formal – through appropriately pitched instruction – that is, skilled teaching. The teaching of writing requires an understanding of all the needs of a writer at work and of the complex and varied demands made on children when we ask them to write.

Teachers must encourage the confident ‘voices’ of early writers. They must provide support and instruction to bring children, without haste and anxiety, to an understanding of the conventions of writing and to a relaxed control of handwriting.

The premature introduction of, for example, grammatical and spelling rules, can be harmful to the confidence of the young writer and spoil the experience of writing as fun, active, participatory and collaborative as well denying opportunities for individual, quiet reflective thought.

Young children should experience a range of writing styles that represent the linguistic, social and cultural diversity of their classroom and which encourage exploration of the real and imaginary worlds beyond it. As is the case with early reading, parental support for early writing is of vital importance. Teachers should be the drivers of regular two-way traffic of fun and meaningful writing experiences between the school and the home.

All these principles apply with equal force to learners of English as an additional language (about one in six children in the 3-to-7 age-group) – indeed, such children have the advantage of being engaged in the complex process of making comparisons between writing systems. They are likely to have an increasingly conscious knowledge and transferable skill from one written form to another especially when comparing first language or bilingual edition books.

The new National Curriculum orders for writing at Key Stage 1 are over-preoccupied with the early teaching of spelling rules and grammatical concepts and terminology. They make the fundamental error of believing that analysis of the written language is a necessary preparation for competence in writing. The reverse is actually true: as developing writers confidently use their writing ‘voices’ on the page or the screen, they begin to grasp and command the correct use of writing ‘structure’.

The statutory guidance for writing at the Early Years Foundation Stage quite wrongly assumes that competence in writing emerges from being taught to read by the use of synthetic phonics.

John Richmond’s English, Language and Literacy 3 to 19: Writing 3 to 7 proposes an better balanced understanding of the effective teaching of early writing at the Early Years Foundation Stage and at Key Stage 1 than that offered by the government. It offers an alternative curriculum for Writing from 3-7, and an educationally sounder approach to the testing of writing at this age-range. It is available from the United Kingdom Literacy Association at http://www.ukla.org/publications/shop/, price £12 (£11 to UKLA members).  

Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching professionalism and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk and book him for a talk. His book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.

  

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