Magazine article English Drama Media

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

Magazine article English Drama Media

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

Article excerpt

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? Leslie Stratta and I began with the examplar folders just produced for the West Yorks & Lindsey CSE group, so the question became: could we distinguish among the achievements exemplified at grades A, C, E, and G, and offer a detailed analysis that perhaps characterised why the folders had been selected as representative of that grade? For a start, we began with narratives, and, rather to our surprise, we found that this was not an impossible task, and, in a seminar at Schools Council for 16+ chief examiners, established that relevant features were indeed discernible and met with a pretty good consensus (4). On that basis we moved on to informative and argumentative writing, drawn from 17+ CEE folders from the Southern Regional Board, and began a similar process with a study group of SRB examiners and teachers. This approach did help us draw out significant features, but the sample of informative and argumentative writing was too small to allow us to characterise intergrade differences as before. (What we did do, however, was to clarify a range of functions hidden behind that umbrella term, 'argumentative'.)

Meanwhile, Irene Farmer and I (based at Bretton Hall College) has set up a small-scale developmental project with Jenny Leach, English adviser for Bradford, and colleagues at Delf Hill Middle School. With the help of two teachers there we selected four students aged 9 and four aged 11 to represent, in broad terms, a cross-section of writing abilities in their class. Irene and I were invited in regularly to work with these groups, gathering evidence of wider abilities, for example in role play, oral exchange (interviews for 'Radio Bradford'), mounting exhibitions after visiting a coal mine--all of these arising from work in class or things they'd brought in (like Chinese silver quails). Among other things, this experimental work showed that quite limited writers like Jason had far richer linguistic resources that they could draw on orally, when a fruitful opportunity arose. So how could we help them bridge the gap? In the search for an optimum example of written narrative from the 9 year-olds, Mike, their teacher handed over and Irene began with the painful story--and happy recovery--of her much-loved cat losing a leg. The response of stories from the class was pretty overwhelming, so we now had valuable evidence to analyse from our representative four.

We discussed this and other, later evidence in a conference with Jenny and the Delf Hill teachers--with the happy result that Mike and others became deeply interested in the active research. It became easier to discuss and try for enabling conditions for these young writers. Irene and Jenny carried on this work for two years, after I retired, so that Tony--a dyslexic perhaps, whose 'writing' certainly wasn't readable at 9--actually produced a story we could all read and enjoy by the age of 11, while Jane went on to achievements (now aged 11) that surprised us all. This work, together with our analyses, was published in several booklets for local teachers and their English advisers.

Among other things we suggested that each exemplar, with its distinctive achievements, might be treated as a 'staging point' in that individual's writing development. How varied their developmental paths would be we could not say, but we did not rule out a variety of routes, according to their individual interests (and especially their engaged reading and viewing). Irene did briefly follow up some of our sample into high school, but with very disappointing results: our aim of describing optimal achievements proved impossible to realise.

What had happened to the developmental model meanwhile? Among other things, the social context (in the classroom, the school and the neighbourhood culture) had been recognised as a vital factor, and more general, critical studies of the prevailing constraints imposed by schooling had taken the foreground (5). The contrary questions, about what might be achieved by students under better conditions, was probably losing momentum, so far as researchers were concerned--though there were notable examples from some NATE activists (6).

Searching for optimal conditions

However, during the Eighties there were still many experiments--in Australia, Canada, the US, Scotland, England & Wales--to change the classroom conditions for (talking and) writing. In the US a national writing project was taken up with enthusiasm in many states, while in the UK a very successful writing project actually encouraged participating teachers to compile a progressive Record of Achievement across the curriculum, for each student. Among other things, new roles emerged as we teachers encouraged students to treat their initial work as drafts, open to encouraging and helpful comments, or to keep 'dialogue journals' during a project, leaving the right-hand page free for responses (of varying kinds) from fellow students as well as the teacher. In England & Wales, these were possibly given an extra stimulus when a (Conservative) minister of education called for a sample of coursework as a major part of assessment at 16+, and held out the prospect of treating each grade, A-G, as evidence of positive achievements. A new basis for developmental studies seemed about to emerge.

Test Targets override development

Unfortunately, in the Nineties examiners took over in the UK and elsewhere. Their controlling interest lay in defining a set of Key Stage grades at 7, 11 and 14. With a bow to the developmental model, they assumed that so far as writing was concerned, these would be defined as a set of features associated with each grade, with the grades supposedly marking out a (national) developmental progression. A convenient assumption, for them--though without any research backing. And, more fatally, the teacher's goal of finding optimal conditions during the course for developing writers was pushed aside, in the interests of setting national tests.

Worse still, came a political drive to compare the grade achievements of schools and local authorities, and with it the obtuse assumption that the whole age group should reach a stated grade--or else be treated, like their teachers, as relative failures. (Ironically only a generation earlier most of the same politicians had declared that only 20% of 11 year-olds were fitted for an academic curriculum anyway.) There was no room for taking account of individual differences in developmental routes; rather, all students' writing should be licked into the rhetorical shapes demanded by the examiners.

It may seem a bit optimistic, but I'm still pretty sure that during this period, and more recently, there must have been teachers here and there (internationally) who were still interested in optimising conditions for writing, and who did collect samples of writing over a period of years from representative students. At least I'd like to think so. What I'm wondering is whether, in the age of the internet, some of us might make contact and take the discussion on a bit. I'd like to trace any fellow teachers who have sustained their interest in the individual development of student writers and feel that assembling a few case studies might be a stimulus to us all today. Of course, if some of the younger generation have already taken this on, so much the better--and I'd be fascinated to hear about it.


(1) Dartmouth Seminar Papers (1966-7) NCTE.

(2) Roman Jakobson (1956) Metalanguage as a linguistic problem

(3) Chapter 4, Britton, Burgess, Martin & Rosen (1975) The development of writing abilities

(4) Later reviewed in Dixon & Stratta (1986) Writing narrative and beyond, Canadian CTE

(5) Thus, for example: Michael Young ed. (1971) Knowledge and control; Open University (1971) School and society

(6) Thus, Medway & Torbe (1981) Language teaching and learning

John Dixon was a founder member of NATE, led the Schools Council English Committee and was Principal Lecturer in English at Bretton Hall College of Higher Education

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