Thursday, October 18, 2012

6 Ways to Help Young Writers Become More Authentic

In the May 2011 edition of 'Language Arts' Maria Paula Ghiso wrote an excellent article in which she made a number of important points about children's writing. Her work was based on observations of a Year 1 classroom.

In this classroom, the teacher urged her children NOT to just to write for the teacher. Her reason for this is that while she knows that children need to accept the teacher's authority and write because they have been told to, she suggests that this must never be the only reason.  Authentic writing should be directed by the author's motivations, not just those of the teacher, or anyone else. They should demonstrate personal 'voice', passion and commitment to their writing.

Many decades ago Donald Graves made this same point in his book 'Writing: Children & Teachers at Work' (1983) as a result of his extensive classroom research.  Prior to Graves, James Britton and other English researchers similarly stressed that authentic writing requires a sense of authentic audience; people who want to read the text to find out, be amused, be persuaded and so on.  But while the point isn't a new one, it would seem that some classrooms rarely move beyond assigned writing with the teacher as sole audience. Testing regimes and mandated curricula tends to reinforce this, with adverse consequences for children as writers able to produce diverse, interesting and effective writing that has a sense of voice.

Ghiso observed a classroom where great importance was placed on developing a community of writers. This was characterised by:
The use of a workshop format where students were viewed as writers who had a high degree of control of the choices they made.
The classroom had a 'critical orientation' with young writers made aware that their writing was socially and historically situated and that it should be about things that 'mattered'.
Questions asked of them as writers were not to be seen as a problem but as necessary for inquiry and growth as writers.
Writing was modelled not just as the demonstration of proficiencies in skills like spelling, but first and foremost as something 'making sense and worth doing' because it conveys 'ideas that matter'.

While there are many implications from Ghiso's small study, a key point is that it reminds us that authentic writing is important. Children need to be challenged to write things that matter to them, not just what they think the teacher wants.

This reminds me of a young African American student who I met while teaching a grade 6 in the USA. I team taught on this class for six months and met Chanda the first day. She was a likeable confident young 12 year-old, but when we had writing she did nothing.  Many weeks went by with Chanda showing constant resistance to any attempt to get her writing. But one day there was a breakthrough. Just before school commenced I noticed that she was writing something. I asked her what it was and after some coaxing she showed me a folder of songs, a personal folio of music. When I read some of the music I was amazed to see that this 'non-writer' was writing meaningful lyrics that had promise. For Chanda the music mattered but the school writing didn't.
Above: From 'Pathways to Literacy'

6 Keys to 'authentic' writing, writing that matters

I have written elsewhere in detail about the essentials of a writing program that will lead to writers who care about the things they write (here), but the essential principles that I think should shape good practice are these:

a) Provide time - young writers need time to explore ideas, talk to other writers, note good writing topics, talk to other writers, conference with their teacher, revise their work.
b) Help writers to assume greater control over their writing topics - while teachers should assign some writing, children need to be able to pursue their own interests and be encouraged as they explore new ideas.
c) Provide readers who know how to respond in helpful ways - one of the tasks of any teacher of writing is to develop an environment in which children know how to respond to each other's writing. The teacher will model this but will also give explicit instruction and guidance. Ghiso provides some lovely examples of how the teacher in the classroom she observed modelled this.
d) Give writers help to learn the craft of writing - like a painter, potter or singer, the young writer needs to learn about the writer's craft including grammar and spelling, but also how texts are structured (genre, register etc), where to go to find help, how to find inspiration, how to research a topic etc.
e) Ensure that writers see good writing demonstrated - they need to read good writing (e.g. literature), hear good writing read, watch good writers involved in the craft, be involved in joint construction of writing, see writers revising their work, hear writers talking about their writing and how they do it.
f) Make sure that writers have interested readers - all writers need people who will read their work, offer praise, simply respond to the content, and at times offer constructive criticism.

Related posts

All writing posts on this blog HERE

Note: This is a revised version of a post I wrote on the 21st June 2011

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