Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Students' Beliefs about Barriers to Engagement with Writing in Secondary School English: A Focus Group Study

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Students' Beliefs about Barriers to Engagement with Writing in Secondary School English: A Focus Group Study

Article excerpt

Introduction

The purpose of the study reported here was to explore student beliefs and thoughts about the writing tasks they were asked to do in their secondary school English classes and how they felt about them. In particular, the study focused on the potential barriers to engaging with writing that the students identified, and on what teachers of English could do to improve engagement. It was expected that students would be able to clearly describe what they found de-motivating about writing tasks they were asked to do in English classes. The results from these focus group discussions give some clear indications of what is needed to improve student engagement with writing.

In this article the term 'engagement' is used because it is a useful meta-construct for discussing complex tasks such as writing (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004). Engagement has three dimensions: behavioural, emotional and cognitive, and all three are relevant when discussing engagement with writing tasks. Students need to be more than just behaviourally involved in a task to be 'engaged'. Rather, it is the quality of thought and purpose that they bring to their involvement that is crucial to being 'engaged'. While there has been a significant amount of comment on how to improve student engagement in writing, particularly by advocates of the 'process' approach to teaching writing (Atwell, 1998; Calkins, 1994; Graves, 2003; Graves & Stuart, 1985; Pritchard & Honeycutt, 2006), little of this work actually refers to the growing research into motivation (Bruning & Horn, 2000; Hidi & Boscolo, 2007). Although we now seem to have a good understanding of the processes involved in writing, we have a lot to learn about how to develop motivation to write (Bruning & Horn, 2000). In an activity as complex as writing, issues of engagement assume great importance as it is necessary for developing writers to persist and practise skills to become proficient (Hayes & Nash, 1996).

Recent reports into students' writing highlight that the writing performance of adolescents is of concern. In New Zealand, for example, the In Focus: Student Outcome Overview 2001-2005 kit prepared by the Ministry of Education (2006) reports on analyses of the writing achievement of students from Year 5 to Year 12, and concludes that "the writing skills of many secondary school students are no better than that of many primary school students" (Ministry of Education, 2006, p. 13). These results are of concern because students need to be able to express their thoughts and knowledge effectively in writing if they are to participate actively in modern society. If they are reluctant to write at school, students may find themselves unable to engage fully with a society that requires proficiency in many written genres. English teachers know that as students progress through primary to secondary school their liking for English decreases significantly. This decrease in positive opinions about writing is of concern because it affects student engagement and achievement (Abu-Hilal, 2000; Boyd, 2002; Bruning & Horn, 2000; Coldwell & Holland, 2001; Flockton & Crooks, 1998, 2002; Hansen, 2002; Smith & Elley, 1997). It is the purpose of this study to help teachers understand what turns students on or off writing so that we can improve their engagement with this essential skill.

Method

Participants

Participants were 28 (15 boys and 13 girls) Year 10 students drawn from two co-educational secondary schools from different parts of Auckland. The first school is a decile 7 central city school with a role of approximately 900 (where the researcher teaches), and the second is a decile 4 West Auckland school with a roll of approximately 1500 (Decile is an approximate measure of the socio-economic status of the neighbourhood the school draws from. A 10 point scale is used where 10 is high and 1 low). Both schools have ethnically diverse populations, although the central city school has a larger proportion of Pakeha (European) New Zealanders. …

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