Friday, September 21, 2012

Writing - What's Wrong With It?

I was down at my local coffee-house this morning, chillaxing out with the Saturday rag, and I read on the front page: Why Children Fail In Writing. To sum it up, the crux of the problem is stated as: not enough books in homes, text language, slang, boredom with writing, and boys achieving lower than girls.

So the main statements were around how texting and slang have meant that our kids are spelling phonetically (e.g. wot/what, sup/what's up? and so on) for texting, and that slang is also a contributor, as this tends to be phonetic also (e.g. cuz/cousin, bro/brother, nekminit/next minute). Now we can laugh about this, we can even argue that this is the language of the time just as thee, thy and thou were the language in Shakespeare's time, but when it begins to (apparently) affect achievement in writing standards, we have to ask some more questions.

The bottom line, for me, is that writing and spelling are often confused. Which do we desire, rich content or error free recording? My students would produce (predominantly) dull vocab if required to spell all words accurately. Yet they also understand the value of spelling and understanding patterns in language. I prefer to teach chunks and basic rules of language alongside a strong editing programme so that my students attempt rich vocabulary in their writing but also know how to correct it if their approximation is incorrect. The reality is, that the computer is underlining words for me even as I write and I am a strong speller, yet here is a tool that will automatically highlight my errors and assist me in options for spelling words. So let's not get hung up on spelling being the issue.

As for boredom with writing, I have to admit that as a teacher we must expose children to the entire range of genre. But, if it is done with life application at the centre, it is far less likely to breed boredom. Let me give you an example: 2 weeks ago we had a visit from a Year 8 class for the day. They came to swap ideas and skill-share with us with eLearning, so there was iMovies, Prezi, blogging, wikis, QR codes, and so on. Now the following day, I could have demanded that my class write a recount of the day in their books. That would certainly have fit the experience. But instead, I asked that they work with a partner to choose a way to explain what we did, what we shared, what we learnt and prepare it to present to the class next door. Away dashed the class, eager to start, debating which programme to use - some used Prezi and embedded footage from the day as well as clear explanations of how the day worked and what they enjoyed, some created an iMovie with interviews of all of the class about their highlights, some wrote blogposts and inserted photos from the day, some created ComicLife pages depicting the activities and with speech bubbles (which were quotes that they got from the class) and some made slideshows/posters of the day.

When they had finished they shared their work with one another and the language was rich, varied, interesting and inspiring. The sharing was done with passion and pride - all things that good writers feel. My class didn't just learn on the day, they learned FROM the day and they shared that learning in a rich, reflective way. Would I have got the same result if I said, "Sit down, be quiet, don't talk, write a recount of yesterday - you have 40 minutes, go..."? I know that the answer is no.

The language of the time may be text speak and slang, but let's not demote our kids to only being capable of writing this. If the richness of their language experiences is real, inspiring, relevant, then the richness of their language produced can surely be the same!

As for books in homes, I can only speak to my own experiences. I have taught in the range of deciles and I have worked as part of a making parents literate project in the UK when I taught there. If we educate parents about the need to read, then we will reach the kids. Often, parents in homes without books or with little literature around, are adults who grew up with little exposure to reading at home themselves. They cannot know the importance of books if they have never been in a world of literature themselves. Often we find that these parents have not been to the library as children themselves - they want a life for their children that is different to their own, but they do not know how to create it for them. Their homes are often needing food and clothing so buying books or paying for the petrol to go to the library are low priorities. We found in the project that I worked on, that many parents were poorly literate or actually illiterate - they wanted to read to their children but simply could not. When we helped to give them the tools to read with their kids, there was a massive change that took place. The children began to learn alongside their parents and there was a shared passion for books that grew immediately. Fortunately for us, one of the large supermarket chains was doing a project at the time where they gave a large bag of free books to every kindergarten aged child and they also had library cards in the bags for parents to take their kids to the local library. This certainly helped many families to get books into their homes.

We cannot change children's attitudes to reading and writing if we are not helping to change parents' attitudes. How many parents, particularly dads, do we hear saying, "I hate writing and I never bother reading." A few years ago, one school that I worked in decided to get dads, uncles, big brothers and grandads to come in every week and read to the class so that the children got to hear quality literature from men. And they also recorded stories for the classes to read along with, which certainly inspired many of the boys. We also buddied up many of the boys in our classes with the men/lads coming in and  had them read 1:1 or in a small group. This fostered a real love for reading among many of our reluctant boys and the feedback from our lads was amazing - many of them had not read aloud for years and had felt that they were a 'poor' reader, but the opportunity to be valued as a reader meant that many of them began to read in their leisure time more and even went home and started reading to their nephews, nieces, grandchildren and so on.

There are ways - many, many ways - to change a loathing towards literacy into a passion for reading and writing. It does not mean that we will all be writers and it does not mean that we will all be avid readers, but it does give access to other opportunities that would be out of reach without that.


  1. I was really struck by your comment "If the richness of their language experiences is real, inspiring, relevant, then the richness of their language produced can surely be the same!" We just had 2 days of professional development with Dr. Virginia Rojas. She was helping us learn about supporting our EAL students. The need for students and many adults to talk before or while they write is so important. Why do we ask students to write silently? We have a very different population at our school being an international school in Japan. Most of the parents have had books in their lives and have books in their homes,but I have a feeling that many of the fathers are not home to read with their children. The first grade has invited parents to come in once a month to read with the children. I want to encourage some of the men on staff to come and read to my second graders.

  2. Thank you so much for your comments - it is amazing to realise what a huge difference talking and language makes to activate thinking in writing. I totally agree with lots of talking!

  3. The biggest lesson I've learned this year about writing is that giving kids the opportunity to choose genre etc in their writing (while also providing scaffolding) has resulted in amazing writing! I also give them time to develop their writing - and I also don't demand that they all produce a piece of writing in a specific genre for assessment - they get to choose what I assess. I love teaching like this - and I love that the kids love it too.