Re-Thinking Context and Reflexive Mediation in the Teaching of Writing

By Ryan, Mary; Kettle, Margaret | Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Re-Thinking Context and Reflexive Mediation in the Teaching of Writing


Ryan, Mary, Kettle, Margaret, Australian Journal of Language and Literacy


Introduction

The educational value of writing as a mode of communication cannot be overstated; it lies in the dual function of producing knowledge while promoting thinking, analysis, and learning. Writing allows us to bring something into existence, from where 'we can freeze it, attend to it, and take it in as a whole' (Halliday, 1985, p. 97). In the face of concerns about the adequacy of teachers' literacy pedagogies (Masters, 2009) and separate concerns about initiatives which establish teacher standards in literacy teaching and in pre-service teaching (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, 2011; Department of Education and Training (DET), 2009), it is timely to identify key influences on the teaching of writing, and to provide a conceptual basis for a fresh approach to the teaching of writing.

Internationally, calls for a renewed focus on the teaching of writing (Applebee & Langer, 2009; National Commission on Writing, 2006) have been argued in response to the findings of a number of studies, including the potential impact of standardised assessment programs (Kelly, 2005), the gatekeeping role of writing skills in workplaces (National Commission on Writing, 2005) and the views of teenagers using electronic communication. In a recent study, Lenhart, Arafeh, Smith, and Macgill (2008)found that teenagers were regular users of e-communication but disassociated it from writing. The teenage participants in their research considered writing an essential skill for success and wanted more guided instruction in writing at school. Unfortunately, writing is the victim of time for both students and teachers. In the US, the National Commission on Writing (2003) has identified four challenges in the teaching of writing: (i) the need to recognise time as a key dimension of writing (ii) the need to develop assessment mechanisms that understand writing as a protracted process of planning, producing, revising and editing texts; (iii) the importance of integrating new technologies into the processes of writing; and (iv) the need to develop and disseminate approaches to and methods for teaching writing, including for NESB students.

In Australia, poor academic writing skills among school-leavers entering university (including paragraphing, vocabulary use, sentence structure, cohesion and attention to audience and purpose) have been identified (Goodfellow & Lea, 2005; Rose & McClafferty, 2001; Ryan, 2010), raising concerns about the school preparation of students for writing across contexts. This is despite the inclusion of systematic writing skills in the school curriculum across all Australian states and territories since at least the early nineties, notably in subject English.

This paper begins with a review of key research findings in writing over recent years. The review is followed by a theorisation of new positions on the teaching of writing, particularly the interplay between teachers' individual, subjective considerations around their knowledge about and approaches to writing and the objective circumstances within which they teach writing. These subjective and objective influences are elaborated in relation to teacher knowledge and contextual influences in contemporary times. We characterise context here (after Seddon, 1994) as connections and constitutive relationships between teachers, schooling, curriculum, pedagogy, educational policy and politics, leading to particular kinds of practices. Finally, we propose a conceptual model that takes account of the ways in which teachers reflexively mediate personal, professional and political considerations in the teaching of writing. Reflexive mediation refers to the ways in which teachers weigh up, manage, and act upon these considerations in the classroom. This model extends understanding of the factors contextualising the teaching of writing. It also provides a useful guide for research into the teaching of writing and a prompt for reflexivity in professional development. …

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