Let's Show Kids HOW Writing Works...

Education consultant Dr Peter Knapp  was quoted recently in an article by Janine Ferrari in The Australian, November 29th as saying, ‘Kids come out of primary school without mastering the technical aspects of writing and yet secondary schools aren't equipped to teach writing or, in many cases, prepared to teach it.’

Let's examine that a little...

There appears to be a persistent belief that Primary Schools are expected to teach students to read and write, and Secondary School can then focus on reading and writing to learn. This falsehood has been around since my teacher training days –more than four decades ago!

It denies the developmental nature of learning. It fails to recognize the influence of immigration on the school system, and it certainly shows a disregard for students as learners.

We learn at different rates. We don’t all learn to tie our shoe laces on a predetermined day. Why would we assume that all learners reach the same developmental point at the conclusion of Grade 6- and why would we discontinue teaching them at their point of need?

“Kids come out of primary school without mastering the technical aspects of writing and yet secondary schools aren't equipped to teach writing or, in many cases, prepared to teach it,” Dr Knapp said.

Many Secondary Schools tend to approach writing from the position of reading response. In other words- read this and then respond in writing. Or, here’s the topic, now write ME a page.

What these students need are teachers (in all subject areas) prepared to allow students to write for real world purposes, not merely to please a teacher. Students need teachers who demonstrate why writers write, as well as providing authentic modelling of how writing works best. They need regular exposure to modelling from their teachers in conjunction with exemplars from the wider literary world.
  • What does a good Science report look like? Show them. Ask them what they notice.
  • What does an effective essay look like? Show and discuss.
  • What makes a great memoir piece? Unpack some. Share your own examples
  • What are the elements that make this poem work/ Discuss and then try writing in the same style.
  • What are these writers doing that we wish we could do as writers?

When teachers stand next to their students and show them how real writing works, they begin to witness the real power of language to influence student writing. The power of the most proficient writer in the classroom needs to be better utilized. The approach I am suggesting requires bold and daring teaching. It is easy to ‘tell’ students what you want them to do. For the quality in writing to improve in our Secondary schools we must challenge the prevailing view of writing. Some teachers will tell you adolescent students hate writing. But maybe, just maybe they hate the kind of writing they are being made to do.

In contrast, the article noted that at Blacktown Girls High School in Sydney’s west, writing has been placed at the centre of every lesson. What a bold and inspiring move this represents!

Approximately 70 per cent of the school’s student population comes from families where English is not their first language. The majority are refugees with patchy schooling and, despite teachers’ best efforts, literacy had not been improving. ‘It’s more difficult to get kids to understand content if they can’t understand the writing,’ the school Principal Mr. Peter Flowers reported.

‘They’re not accessing the content of the curriculum unless they can write well, and their comprehension is very sound. We came at the problem from the point of view that people accept literacy is everybody’s responsibility and it should be taught across the curriculum, in every key learning area.’
Bravo, Peter Flowers and his teaching staff.

This importantly highlights  the critical place of writing within the curriculum
Writing as stated by Dr Mel Levine in his excellent book, The Myth of Laziness characterized writing thus:
‘Writing is the largest orchestra a child’s mind has to conduct. The fact that writing is so complex a task justifies its leading role in a curriculum.’

Writing also requires a deal of concentration and mental effort. Writing requires energy, focus and a level of tenacity. All these demands must then be synchronized to achieve writing success.

By writing regularly and across all curriculum areas students learn how to mesh multiple brain functions and ultimately that’s something you need to do efficiently. Writing helps build and maintain brain pathways that connect functions such as language, memory and motor control. So writing assists the students to practice being organized and effective.

Research indicates that in schools where writing holds a central place student writing skills lift and this has lead to an improvement in academic achievement across all subjects.

Teaching writing is not about telling students what to write, it is about showing students how to write- and how to write effectively in different genres, for different purposes, for different audiences, across different subject areas.

The more kids write, the more they interact with ‘words.’ Their word usage  and their knowledge of grammar and punctuation improve, as does their spelling. This improvement takes place because teachers are actively teaching into the writing with explicit, mindful teaching based on the writing samples student are presenting. Matters of sentence structure, grammar and punctuation needs to be addressed within the context of authentic literature, not as a separate entity. Not as grammar exercises.

In schools where students are doing the minimum amount of writing, it amounts to childhood neglect. Stamina for Writing needs to be developed in the same way reading stamina is pursued. Equally if schools increase the amount of writing time student have, they must increase reading time too. you cannot be a writer, unless you are a reader.

I am fortunate to work in schools where writing is taught from day one. It is taught in a systematic and mindful way. As Peter Knapp says, ’Schools that use a systematic and explicit approach to teaching writing in the first three years give their students an unassailable advantage.’

It is easy to identify the problem. It is much harder to effect the change in pedagogy that brings about the sort of changes the teaching of writing deserves.


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