We sometimes fool ourselves into believing that we have taught pupils how to write. I used to think I taught writing when I read a chapter of a novel or a short story with a class, discussed it, and then asked them to write the next bit of the story. All that talking about character, plot, mood and setting--I deluded myself that I was teaching my pupils to write. 'Why do you think the writer used this word?' I would say, or 'How does the writer build the tension at this point?' Then, with the utmost predictability, I'd say something along the lines of 'You could try that in your writing. Do what he does.'
There. Job done. I'd taught my pupils a useful lesson in how to write.
Except, of course, that I hadn't. If I'd taught them anything (which looking back on the first half of my career now seems increasingly unlikely), it was about reading. It was comprehension work through discussion rather than dreary exercise but, however lively the discussion and probing of the text may have been, the activity was essentially about reading, not writing.
So back to the, er, writing board.
Whatever the doomy nay-sayers of the tabloid press might have us believe, standards of writing in our schools have improved over the past ten years. As Richard Andrews points out:
'The trend has been consistently upward in writing performance at KS2 since 1997, from 53% of pupils achieving level 4+ in 1997 to a provisional 67% in 2006 (an advance of 4% on 2005 results). Since 2003, writing performance at level 5 has improved significantly (those attaining a level 5 in writing between 2003 and 2006 rising from 65% to 75%) whereas reading scores remain between 65% and 70%, without significant improvement. Writing performance continues to improve from KS2 to KS3, and from KS3 to GCSE, with a significantly better conversion from KS2 to KS4 than for KS3 to KS4.'
(Richard Andrews, 'Shifting writing practice: focusing on the productive skills to improve quality and standards', paper for the DfES, March 2007)
So well done us, hats off to the English Framework and drinks all round at National Strategy Headquarters. Except--barman, hold that G&T--it's not really good enough. Pupils' ability to write still lags behind their ability to read by a significant amount, in fact by around 20%. And if you're a boy, chances are you're doing worse than the girls in your class.
Which, of course, leaves us feeling gloomy and disempowered. How much more can we actually do?
It's worth, therefore, thinking a bit more about how we do or don't currently teach writing, being a bit dispassionate, and focusing in particular on those teaching strategies that appear to have the biggest impact on the way pupils write, and ditching those that don't. Here are my three suggestions for what we need to know to teach writing better.
1. Know how to create a climate for writing Pupils are fully aware of the unwritten rules. They know that there is the kind of writing they are expected to produce in school and then there is the real writing that they do at home, on MySpace, when MSNing, texting friends and so on.
We owe it to them to ensure that they develop a secure command of standard English and understand the principles of appropriateness of style for different audiences and purposes. We wouldn't want them using textese in an exam. But then, they rarely do. They know that just as you modify your spoken language according to who you are talking to, so you modify your written register according to who you are addressing.
Nor do we want to dumb down the forms of writing we teach so that students are being patronised by middle aged teachers saying things like 'Okay, let's write a text message to the Prime Minister saying how we'd stop global warming'.
Instead, let's get back to our English teacher roots and remind ourselves that one of the joys of the job is unearthing previously unexplored texts. …