Children write texts in K-6 classrooms ostensibly within the parameters of curriculum documents. They write imaginative, persuasive and information texts. They learn that most texts include aspects of each of these, and that choice of structure, grammatical features and literary devices will be made on the basis of purpose and audience.
Writing is certainly being taught, but the results on national and international standardised tests indicate decreasing achievement levels for our students.
The political disquiet about this apparent decline is often couched in terms of a decline in students’ ability to write as measured by the standardised test results, or describing students’ writing skills as ‘going backwards’.
Are students not able to write? Can skills really ‘go backwards’?
The essay Where has the joy of writing gone and how can we get it back?, (Creely and Diamond 2018) drew my attention back into this discussion.
The popular noise would insist that teachers are not doing their job (again!) because they are: not clever enough/not well enough qualified/using outdated methods/using new, untried methods/not using evidence-based teaching and learning strategies/ using the wrong evidence-based teaching and learning strategies/not using the syllabus/focusing too much on syllabus content/not getting enough professional learning opportunities/are out of the classroom too much attending professional learning/having too many holidays/being too well-paid/too young/too old etc etc. All the hoary old attacks on the teaching profession that are trotted out with monotonous regularity.
This time the sky really does appear to be falling.
Teachers and parents are aware that our students are certainly increasingly reluctant to write. It is this reluctance that adds to the general hysteria.
Constraints and controls put on students’ writing have tied our teachers and our students to an activity that has little to do with expression, and everything to do with being able to tick inspectorial boxes of apparent achievement.
It has been suggested that the data-gathering political imperatives of these tests have in fact pushed the curriculum aside, and the regime of mass testing takes precedence.
‘Has the test, in effect, replaced the curriculum?’ (Carter, 2017).
Already, Carter continues, NAPLAN results are being perceived as measures of both teacher and school effectiveness.
How did the art of writing – the joy, the challenge, the wonder and miracle of the written word – become so formulaic and so clinical that students no longer want to engage with this most basic way of expression? It’s not the ability of our students, nor is it that their writing skills are plummeting. They don’t want to write. Why would they?
Reasons for writing
Currently, writing takes these general forms in the primary classroom:
- To tell a story
- To describe
- To persuade the reader to see things a certain way
- To explore current issues
- To inform
Not exactly gripping stuff.
I have been building a list of reasons for writing for several years. I’m not sure where it began, but it currently holds more than 60 entries.
Here are some of them:
- To unmask an injustice or cruelty
- To show a journey of change
- To describe a community or country’s way of life
- To show that life is absurd
- To explore deep truths
- To bring about change
- To connect with others
- To explore power and its abuse
- To speak out for those who are silenced
- To enjoy humour and be playful
- To imagine the future
- To process pain and bring healing
- To reveal a truth
- To show a relationship
- To piece clues together
- To leave a trace behind
- To show that life has meaning
- To reveal oneself
- To savour a moment
Purposeful, heartfelt and real. This is gripping stuff. Not bland, not formulaic, not prescribed.
How could it be if we began with these intents and purposes? The joy of writing; writing being more than work for achieving an outcome. It’s identity work.
In the enjoyment of writing, student writers can find themselves and discover the power of language. Powerful literacy skills can be gained in this discovery, with lifelong implications.
Creely & Diamond (2018)
Repeat that. Identity work.
In our schools, teachers are being expected to ignore the ample evidence that supports calls for greater freedom and autonomy in the teaching of writing. They want the best for their students, and know that the current emphasis is not achieving anything like that.
Teachers need to have – to make – the freedom to be able to tap into their own students’ interests, to explore writing for the pleasure of it, to be able to respond to the immediacy of events and emotions through the creation of text.
Our students willingly demonstrate their ability to write, and willingly learn the skills of real writing from their teachers when their own ideas are valued and writing is valued for its power.
The key to promoting the effective writing skills needed by students is to be found in making writing engaging, meaningful and pleasurable. Every opportunity should be taken to open up the possibilities of writing for students so they want to do it and see its relevance to their lives.
Creely & Diamond (2018)
We know that children have to learn to read and write to take their place in society’s work and play. Less certainly, we know too that children are deprived, emotionally and spiritually, if they don’t have the sheer pleasure of words sparking along their nervous systems as early in their lives as possible.
Sedgwick Introduction, p. xvii
- An interesting view on the entire purpose of education itself has been explored in Michael Anderson’s Why do we educate our children? Is why being lost in the how (all the testing and measurement) in Australia?
- Jacobs, Racheal (2018) NAPLAN writing tests hinder creativity, so what could we use in their place?
- Carter, D. (2017) The dark side of NAPLAN: it’s not just a benign ‘snapshot
- Davis, A. (2013) Effective Writing Instruction: Evidence-based classroom practices(available through Booktopia)
- See Chamberlain’s Inspiring Writing in Primary Schools (2017) Chapter 1.
References and resources:
Chamberlain, L. (Hutton P. Ed.) (2017) Inspiring Writing in Primary Schools PETAA: Newtown
Creely, E. & Diamond, F Where has the joy of writing gone and how can we get it back? The Conversation: November 21, 2018 4.18pm AEDT at https://theconversation.com/where-has-the-joy-of-writing-gone-and-how-do-we-get-it-back-for-our-children-101900?fbclid=IwAR1x3icz_Ug7LF5VXARh3gRKHeP014pYYkHoF30mPNuKcXnL3BTYGZs0QKg
Holloway, S. (2016) Why the teaching of creative writing matters in The Conversation, November 9, 2016
Sedgwick, F. (2000) Writing to Learn: Poetry and literacy across the primary curriculum Routledge Falmer: London