Writing: Unfinished Business? Back to Finding out What Actually Works in Teaching Writing: John Dixon, Author of the Seminal Growth through English (1967), Traces the History of Research into Student Writing and Suggests a Post-Strategy Return to a Developmental Model

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Tracing development: a new problematic of the Sixties

In a sense it's obvious that during the years of schooling (and beyond) each of us traces a path of development, as participants in discussion, as writers, viewers, readers and producers--as social thinkers and contributors to an expanding world in which our mother tongue plays a central role. Equally obviously, the class teacher in primary school has a wonderful opportunity to observe these processes in all their complexity, and the specialist in English who follows a class through a few of the secondary years can get repeated glimpses of what's going on. Not surprisingly, then, in the 1960s a developmental model for English got widespread support; indeed, Frank Whitehead, then chair of NATE, produced a critical paper demonstrating the intrinsic value of this model as compared with any others currently available (1).

OK for the general model, but what evidence had we in the Sixties of the way individuals and groups actually developed in their uses of the mother tongue? Most of us could recall moments in class when a student or group manifestly moved on a step, but there was no collection of, say, their writing over a period of years to help us place and study what was happening. In fact, at the time, I don't think any of us realised the complexity and scope of researching writing development--to take just the simplest strand in terms of access to evidence.

Besides, in the mid-Sixties, there was no compelling model for writing, as a social process for thinking, recording, reflecting, arguing ... imagining, and more. This was one of the first facts to hit the London Writing Research group, set up by Schools Council to map writing development in the secondary years, 11-18. Their initial seminars in 1966-7 (which I was invited to attend) focussed on that problem and finally set about developing a model proposed by a rangy linguist, Roman Jakobson, at a conference in the Fifties (2). Three key components they came up with were: broad differences (a) in function, (b) in a writer's 'sense of audience'; and (c) in the characteristic level of abstraction selected (from running commentary, through retrospective narrative, to various kinds of generalising). These were tried out on an invited panel, with sample scripts.

Further work gradually threw into relief a central relationship: the teacher's expectations and the student's sense of them. How exactly was our teacherly role perceived?--as examiners?--as experts?--as interested adults?--as fellow writers with shared interests?. In particular, how enabling or constraining were our habitual teaching practices, if we wanted to encourage students to take the initiative, speaking in a personal voice about deeper concerns arising from English work (and more) that had stimulated thought and imagination? (3) We were just beginning to realise, I suppose, that students' writing potentially forms part of a dialogue, in which we teachers could take (share) a creative role--in our invitations to write and in our responses to 'drafts' or finished work.

Moving towards individual case studies

The London research analysed 2000 scripts, carving out broad patterns for writing across the curriculum 11-18. Two major findings emerged: most writing in school was currently produced for teacher as examiner or expert, and by the later years, narrative was largely squeezed out in favour of low-level generalising. Not very encouraging, as a general verdict. It seemed that a further step was needed, into action research. But where would the funding come from for a group of teachers jointly to discuss and adapt their practices and to follow though a sample of students for say three or four years? This dream drifted away.

Instead, two rather more humble enquiries were set up. The first tackled a much simpler question: how can you describe the (relative) achievements in pieces of writing drawn from 16+ coursework folders, where students had a chance to find their own voice? …