Friday, September 24, 2010

Productive Frustration: A Key to Learning

In a recent article in the New York Times magazine (19th Sept 2010), 'Online Curiosity Killer', Ben Greenman pondered the different processes used by his 9 year-old son to research the 'Anaconda' (the world's largest snake) for a school assignment. His son was proud of the report and showed it to his father. His Dad read lots of the information then innocently asked a question for which his son did not have the answer, "what is the second largest snake?" His son went off to the next room to the computer and returned with the answer within a short space of time.

A month later Greenman picked up an old encyclopaedia and checked the entry for Anacondas. There was lots of information but not the answer to the question he asked his son a month before. He reflected on the differences in the accessibility of information in the age of the Internet and considered the good and the bad of this new age of lightening fast communication and accessible information.
By supplying answers to questions with such ruthless efficiency, the Internet cuts off the supply of an even more valuable commodity: productive frustration. Education, at least as I remember it, isn’t only, or even primarily, about creating children who are proficient with information. It’s about filling them with questions that ripen, via deferral, into genuine interests. Each of my sons passes through phases quickly: one month they’re obsessed with marine life, the next with world flags. This is not so different from how I was (the ’70s was all about robots), but what is different is how much information they can collect, and how quickly they come to feel that they have satisfied their hunger.

Until recently, I have been entirely complicit in the Second-Largest Snake Problem. (By the way, the answer is the reticulated python.) When either of my kids has asked me a question, I have tried to answer or, if I could not, just looked it up. Google and I, as it turns out, know everything. But in recent weeks, I have begun playing dumb, saying that I don’t know and not offering to find out. Sometimes they’ll drop the question immediately, but sometimes they’ll persist, and I’m learning not to give in to the persistence but rather to ensure that the questions stay with them until they arrive at a point when they know nothing for certain except that they have questions they cannot answer so easily.

Making Good Use of Productive Frustration

I liked his idea of 'Productive Frustration'. In fact, I think he put his finger on something that is vital if our children are to become people who hunger to learn. However, I don't think the Internet has any more potential to kill off curiosity than other modes of learning. It matters little if we gain our information from books, the Internet, firsthand experience, listening, viewing or tactile experience. What matters is that we create in our children a desire to learn and to know. A desire to ask why? What if? How come? Who said? How does that work? A sense of frustration that there is something for which they do not have an answer. This sense of 'productive frustration' is surely what has driven some of the great minds throughout history.

Once we have created a desire in our children to inquire of the things in their world we need to kindle their appetite for learning. It seems to me that the Internet is a good tool in the right hands, but it can also be as useless as an old encyclopaedia if used badly. Our children need guidance and support if they are to become committed learners.

Barbara Rogoff suggests in her book 'Apprenticeship in Thinking' that guided participation is critical to children’s learning. She describes this process as the guiding of children and others in the collaborative process of "building bridges" from children's present understanding and skills in order to reach new understandings and skills. This in turn requires "the arranging and structuring of children's participation in activities" in some way. I wrote about this in relation to a firsthand experience with one of my grandchildren a couple of years ago (here). Her thoughts are closely related to Bruner's notions of scaffolding and Vygostsky's work published in 'Mind in Society'.

At times 'guided participation' can be as simple as asking the young learner a question and simply getting out of their way (see my previous post on 'Questioning: A Key Part of Learning'). At other times it might require more.  In my book 'Pathways to Literacy' I use work by Wood, Bruner and Ross (1976) to discuss the forms of support that we can provide for young learners and suggest that we need to use varied forms of support.
  • We need to be good at recruiting children's interest in the task
  • We should try to help them to simplify the task at times
  • We need to do what is necessary to keep them pursuing the goal
  • We need to point out gaps in knowledge and inconsistencies between what the child has done and what could be achieved
  • We need to help them to control their frustration as they try to solve a problem, but we must never remove this (that's where productive frustration comes in)
  • We need to demonstrate if necessary how they can pursue their goalby demonstrating how it can be done (without quite doing it for them).
If we do give our children these varied forms of support then we will see evidence that we are "filling them with questions that ripen, via deferral, into genuine interests".

Other Posts and Resources

Ben Greenman, 'Online Curiosity Killer', New York Times magazine, 19th Sept 2010).

'Guiding Children's Learning' (HERE)

Rogoff, B. (1990). 'Apprenticeship in Thinking: Cognitive Development in Social Context', New York: Oxford University Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Interaction between Learning and Development (pp. 79-91). In Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, (Trans. M. Cole). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wood, D. J., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology, 17(2), 89-100.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Power & Place of Historical Narrative

In my home state of New South Wales we've just celebrated 'History Week'. The week was run by the History Council of NSW to promote the recognition, pursuit, celebration, promotion, communication and practice of history.  As my contribution (even though a week late) I wanted to remind readers of the amazing power of historical narrative to teach, enrich and transform us (see previous posts on the 'Power of Literature' and 'Making History Come Alive').

Above: Settler's Arms Inn, St Albans NSW, (c1842). An early stagecoach stop between Sydney and Newcastle

What is historical narrative?

Historical narrative is essentially the story of an historical event or times. The people and the places are true, but it is written as a story. Biographies and autobiographies are usually historical narratives.  Much of what we introduce to children fits into the sub-category of historical fiction that sits within this broad genre.

Historical narrative often focuses on a specific event in a time period and presents some of the actual events at the time through the presumed voices of people (using diary, journal, illustrative and secondary resource material) and offering a particular point of view of people living in the period.

Many forms of artistic licence can be taken in this genre including inventing new characters, using new or altered names and places and creating new events. Depending on how far these accounts vary from historical accounts, they may be classified as alternate history or historical fantasy.

Why is it important?

a) Historical narrative can illuminate history

b) It can increase children's interest in history

c) It can highlight and make sense of the tiniest of details of history often missed in textbook reading

d) In presenting multiple perspectives it can present complex issues in multi-dimensional ways, helping us to see things for the first time

e) It can connect children's learning right across the curriculum

Picture Book Forms of Historical Narrative

The following picture books can be read to and by children 5-10 years.

'My Hiroshima' by Junko Morimoto - a picture book that offers a real life account of the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima through the eyes of a child who stayed home that day sick rather than going to school. The illustrations complement the authentic personal story of Morimoto's memory of the day the atomic bomb was dropped on her city.

Leon Garfield is one of the greatest exponents of historical fiction for children. As well as many wonderful novels for older children he has also written a number of picture books. Two of my favourites are 'The Wedding Ghost' (1985) illustrated by the great illustrator Charles Keeping and  'Fair's Fair' (1981) illustrated by Margaret Chamberlain and in a newer edition with Brian Hoskin as the illustrator (2001).

 'My Place' (Nadia Wheatley & Donna Rawlins) - was published in 1987 for distribution in Australia’s bicentennial year (1988) and makes a strong statement about the fact that Indigenous Australians were here for thousands of years before white settlement (there isn't space to unpack this). It is a very clever book that takes one suburban block (and the surrounding area) and tells the story of this place in reverse chronological sequence, decade by decade, from 1988 back to 1788 when the first British Fleet landed at Botany Bay. The overall meaning of the book is shaped by multiple narrative recounts of the families who have lived in this spot, 'my Place' and the changing nature of the physical landscape and built environment. See me previous post on visiting the 'real' My Place (here).

Jeannie Baker also offers some interesting examples of children's picture books that tell the story of specific places through brilliant collage illustrations.  Here themes include the impact of people on their world and the connection between people and place over time.  She rarely uses words except as explanatory words except as a foreword or afterword. The books enrich understanding of local history as well as environmental issues. Here are a few examples.

'Window' (1991) by Jeannie Baker - In this wordless book Jeannie Baker shows the changing physical and man-made landscape viewed through a single window.  A mother and her baby look through a window at wilderness. But with each turn of the page time marches on. As we look from the same window, the world changes under the impact of people. As the child grows and ages, so too the view changes from a country scene to dense settlement.  This wordless book won the Children's Book Council (Australia) picture book of the year in 1992.

'Belonging' (2004) by Jeannie Baker

In 'Belonging' Baker returns to the theme of 'Window', man changes the world. Once again, the story unfolds through a single window of a house in a typical urban neighbourhood and it has the same central characters Sam and Tracy. Each picture shows another year and new developments. This is in a sense 'Window' in reverse, as we go back through time and see the urban landscape slowly disappear to reveal the natural landscape that was once there. The images are stunning. This book is sold in the USA under the title of 'Home'.
'The Story of Rosy Dock' (1995) by Jeannie Baker

In this wonderful book Baker tells the story of how early settlers who move to a remote central Australia build a garden in the wilderness that is beautiful, but which ends up having an unexpected flowering. A single plant (that we now known as the weed 'Rosy Dock') can change the landscape and push many plants and animals to extinction. This simple book shows how a hundred years ago European settlers in the desert planted seeds from the other side of the world that changed the landscape.

The book has been produced as a 10-minute short animated film by Film Australia (here).

'Maralinga', was written and illustrated by the Yalata and Oak communities of South Australia with Christobel Mattingley. This is the story of the British atomic testing of the 1950s in Central Australia. It is told by Indigenous Australians who are the traditional owners of Maralinga (a region used for atomic testing in the 1950s?).  In words and pictures community members, describe what happened in the Maralinga Tjarutja lands of South Australia before the bombs and after. This is an important and tragic account of human folly and its consequence for a people who were there first, but whose needs counted for little.

'Sweethearts of Rhythm' by Marilyn Nelson - This is the story of significant piece of cultural history. It tells through poetry of the first integrated all women's band in the USA.  It played swing music and was formed in the late 1930s. The singers all attended the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi, which was for poor and orphaned African Americans. It was formed to raise money for the school, but it was so good that it eventually toured the whole country and played to massive crowds.

The story is told through a set of rhythmic poems that are written in the varied voices of the instruments. Jerry Pinkney's illustrations add further richness with brilliant collages.

'A Certain Music' written by Celeste Walters and illustrated by Anne Spudvilas is a fairytale in the tradition of Hans Christian Andersen. The story offers an account of Beethoven's creation of two of his most famous works, 'Fur Elise' and 'Ode to Joy'. It is set in 1821 and is the story of a young girl who is drawn to the sound of music coming from a house in the woods near Vienna. She visits the composer regularly to hear him play. Eventually the girl and her mother are invited to a concert in Vienna to see Beethoven perform ‘Für Elise’. The author Celeste Walters has previously written playscripts for children and adults, as well as novels and picture storybooks for younger readers. 

Books for older readers

'Slave Girl: The Diary of Clotee, Virginia, USA 1859' by Patricia McKissack - This book was originally published as "A Picture of Freedom" tells the story of a young slave girl who longs for freedom just before the Civil War. The year is 1859 and Clotee and has only known life as a slave mostly as an orphan) on the Belmont Plantation in Virginia. But she has learnt how to read and write in secret. She keeps a diary and hides it in a hollowed tree.

When a tutor comes to the plantation to teach the son of her master she discovers that he is an abolitionist and he offers her the chance for her inner longing, freedom.

'The Thieves of Ostia' by Caroline Lawrence - I visited the ruins of Ostia about 15 years ago (it's incredible!) and wish that I'd read this mystery about Flavia and her friends in the ancient Roman port in the 1st century AD before or just after the trip. Flavia is fantastic at finding things, and becomes good at solving mysteries. She is the daughter of a ship's captain living in Ostia, which was the port of Rome, in AD79. With her three friends she sets out to solve the mystery of who severed the heads of the watchdogs that guard people's homes. This is an excellent mystery that offers an insight into the life of an ancient Roman city.  The story is brilliantly told.

Strange Objects’ by Gary Crew (1990) - The story commences in 1986 with a teenager Steven Messenger who lives with his family in a roadside truck stop in the middle of nowhere along the highway that weaves its way up the western coast of Australia. Messenger discovers some gruesome relics in a cave while on a school excursion. This begins a mysterious tale where his life is interwoven with the lives of two of the survivors of the 'Batavia' shipwrecked in 1629 off the coast of Western Australia. Like many works of historical fiction, Crew uses the metaphysical encounters of one of his characters to transport us back to another time.

Crew won the 1991 Children’s Book Council Australia award for Older Readers for the book. Suitable for readers aged 12+ years.

Somme Mud, by Private Edward Lynch, Editor Will Davies

This is a fascinating true story, which follows the war experience of a group of young men who set out from Sydney in 1916 to fight in the 'Great War' in France. The main character and the other enlisted troops at the centre of the narrative are fictionalised, but all other elements portray their real life experiences. Edward Lynch who returned from the War and became a teacher tried to publish the manuscript in the 1930s but was unsuccessful. After his death family members succeeded and it was published for adults in 2006. This new book is edited by Will Davies and is an abridged version for teenagers.  It offers a graphic insight into the horrors of the Western Front. It incorporates archival photographs as well as photographs of the sites today.  It will interest boys aged 11+.

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice written by Phillip Hoose

This book is based on extensive interviews with Claudette Colvin and many others. It tells the story of a teenager who on March 2nd 1955 was sick of the daily injustices of Jim Crow segregation and refused to give her seat to a white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The protest led to further injustice for the young women who is eventually brave and determined enough to challenge segregation as a key plaintiff in a legal case that became known as Browder v. GayleSuitable for readers 12+.

Playing Beatie Bow (1982) by Ruth Park

When Abigail Kirk joins in a traditional chanting game of 'Beatie Bow' in modern day Sydney she sees a mysterious urchin girl in the background and follows her. Unwittingly she stumbles into the past as she follows her up stairs and down alleys in the Rocks area of Sydney. She encounters a strange and different Sydney and finds herself walking the streets of the colony of New South Wales in 1873. Abigail is taken in by the Bow Family who believes that she is a mysterious 'Stranger' who is said in tradition to arrive to save 'The Gift' for future generations of Bows. Abigail remains in this past world to fill her role and in the process falls in love for the first time.

This is a book faithful to its time and setting but is best classified as historical fantasy. It won the Children's Book Council Australia Award for Book of Year in 1981. Suitable for readers 12-16 year olds.

The book has been adapted for film (details here).

Number the Stars (1989) by Lois Lowry

Number the Stars is set in Denmark during World War II. Ten-year-old Annemarie Johansen is the central character, who is living in Denmark under German occupation in 1943. Her family becomes a target for the German forces as they help a Jewish family to attempt a daring escape. Annemarie and her family risk their lives to help Annemarie's best friend, Ellen Rosen, by pretending that Ellen is Annemarie's older sister. The title is taken from Psalm 147 in the Bible that speaks of God's power as the one who knows and has numbered every star. It is also probably a reference to the fact that God had promised Abraham the father of the Jewish nation that he would have as many offspring as there are stars in the sky. The novel was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1990 as the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children".

This is a moving and compelling book that engages the reader from the start and in the process offers an insight into the lives of many innocent Jewish families in World War II and the lengths that some went to in order to survive. Suitable for children 11+.

Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960) by Scott O'Dell

Off the coast of California is a rugged rock known as the Island of San Nicholas. The seas around it are filled with dolphins, otters, sea elephants, cormorants and marine life all kinds. It was here in the early 1800's that an Indian girl spent 18 years alone. Karana has to maintain her food supply and avoid Aleutian sea-otter hunters and the perils of a pack of wild dogs that killed the brother she jumped ship to save. The spirit of this young woman and her ability to survive against all the odds offers an interesting insight into the challenges of life in another age.

This wonderful novel was O'Dell's first book and won the Newbery Medal in 1961. It is an excellent book for 10-14 year olds.

The Machine-Gunners (1975) by Robert Westall

Living in World War II Britain, Chas McGill has the second best collection of war souvenirs in Garmouth and he wants to have the best. He is determined to outdo his rival Boddser Brown in obtaining the ultimate war souvenir. An opportunity comes when he finds a crashed German bomber in the woods complete with machine gun, he knows he can not only beat Boddser hands down, but can also play a role in the war. All he has to do is to remove the machine gun from the plane.

This has to be one of the best books for boys that I've read. Not surprisingly it won the highest British honour for children's literature, the Carnegie Medal in 1975. Any boy aged 10-16 will love this book.

And there are lots more....

Leon Garfield has written many fine examples mostly set in late 18th century England including 'Devil in the Fog' (1966), 'Black Jack' (1968) and 'Smith' (1967).

Allan Garner has also written a number of fine examples set in Cheshire and often stimulated by local history and legend, including 'The Weirdstone of Brisingamen' (1960), 'The Owl Service' (1967) and 'The Stone Book Quartet' (1978).

There are many books that deal with World War II (like 'The Machine Gunners' and 'Number the Stars') but one of my favourites is 'Summer of My German Soldier' (1974) by Bette Green and 'When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit' (1971) by Judith Kerr (two great books for teenage girls).

'Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry' (1976) by Mildred Taylor, which won the 1977 Newbery Medal Award, tells the story of a poor African American family living in Mississippi during the Great Depression.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Author Focus: Jeannie Baker

About Jeannie Baker

Jeannie Baker is an artist who began turning her hand to children's books many years ago. She was born in England but has lived in Sydney since the later 1970s. She has been making art from collage for at least 40 years. For the last 30 years many of these works have been created to use as illustrations for picture books. However, they can always stand separately as works of art. As a result Jeannie has exhibited her work regularly over the last 40 years, often in parallel to the release of her books. It is important for Jeannie that her art can stand alone, and it does, with distinction!

She is unique as a collage artist, illustrator and author. What puts Jeannie in a category of her own is the way she begins with an idea that always has a significance and a message that only a great collage artist could communicate in this medium. She creates her works with varied materials usually collected in the setting that then becomes the subject of her art.  I recall her saying many years ago that when she created 'Where the Forest Meets the Sea' she went off and not only explored the Daintree Forest alone, she slept in it overnight under a plastic sheet to keep herself dry. It can take Jeannie years to produce a book. Her most recent work 'Mirror' took her five years. I review this work in detail below.

Once she has finished the collages she photographs them to create the page plates for her books. This usually leads to an exhibition of her art as well as a picture book. To see her collages as works of art is a great treat. I'd encourage anyone living in Sydney to take advantage of the exhibition of her art from 'Mirror' at the 'Museum of Sydney' that will be open until 10th October 2010. The exhibition will move to Melbourne in November, Adelaide in March and other galleries and museums throughout 2011 (details here).

Jeannie Baker's technique yields works of art that are stunningly beautiful (and quite small) which when put together into a book offer a visual experience for the 'reader' that keeps them coming back to the book. I never tire of reading Jeannie's books, or of reading them to children.  When I read 'Mirror' recently to my grandchildren my eldest grandchild Jacob reacted with delight and excitement as he kept seeing new details in each image. The illustrations lead children to touch and stroke images because they look so real. This is partly achieved by Jeannie Baker's fastidious use of materials that are from the real object. For example, she used sand and authentic fabrics from Morocco in 'Mirror'. If she creates a bird it will often have real feathers.

Internationally her work has gained critical and public acclaim and a stack of awards, including Australian Picture Book of the Year Honour Book, 2005, for "Belonging", Australian Children’s Book Council Picture Book of the Year Award, 1992, for "Window", Notable Book by the American Library Association, 1984, and short listed for the Kate Greenaway Medal, 1985, for "Home in the Sky" and a Boston Globe Horn Book Magazine Honour Book award, 1988, and International Board of Young People Honour Book Award, 1990, for "Where the Forest Meets the Sea".

You can read a full biography here.

A review of some of her work

'Mirror' (2010) Walker Books

Her latest work 'Mirror' is a wonderful place to start in considering Jeannie's work because I think it is her best work. The concept is brilliant, the quality of the images once again stunning, the book design groundbreaking and the wordless picture book created is, as usual, challenging at many levels. It is the concept and design that will first catch your attention. It is slightly more square in shape and it defies your efforts to open it in a conventional way. This picture book comprises two stories that are designed to be read simultaneously – one from the left, the other from the right (see below). As you pick up the book you try to open it from right to left only to have the book open at the middle to reveal two books, one that is read from left to right and begins in Arabic, and the other from right to left that begins with English. Page by page, we experience a day in the lives of two boys and their families - one from inner city Sydney, Australia and the other from a small, remote village in Morocco, North Africa.

Jeannie conceived the book while travelling alone in Morocco. It was while immersed in the warmth and generosity of the Moroccan people and while experiencing the sights, smells, sounds and textures of the place, that she conceived the idea and knew she had to produce it even without approval from a publisher. As usual, it is Jeannie's passion for the idea of her work, and her skill as an artist in holding a 'mirror' to the world (pun intended) that produces a stunning and memorable work. I love this book.

While the two worlds portrayed couldn’t be further apart, she shows through the parallel lives of the two families, a simple and profound truth. While people live in vastly different places, and have different lives, we share much. While the families have different food, clothing and family practices, there is much that is the same. Family members love one another and depend on each other. A mother, father and children do different things each day than in Sydney, but they are more like us than we might imagine. And there is an additional truth - we are connected to them. With subtle use of images Jeannie is able to show connection, and the delight of the reader is to discover them. My grandson excitedly shouted as we read the book "Look, look, it's the same carpet. The carpet they were making (in Morocco) is the same carpet they bought (the people in Sydney)". Jeannie's message is that in many ways we are mirrors of one another even though different. This is a stunning book that will win many awards.

Update: 'Mirror' was awarded the 2011 Children's Book Council of Australia award for best picture book (joint award). 

'Millicent' (1980) Scholastic

One of the earliest of Jeannie's books to catch my attention was 'Millicent' a delightfully simple tale of an old lady who Jeannie observed day after day in Hyde Park (Sydney) feeding the pigeons and talking to them.  As she watched the old lady she often wondered what she was thinking. Through her simple collages and language she speculates about the lady's thoughts as she feeds them. She tells a gentle story of how she feels needed as she visits sees the pigeons each day.

One Hungry Spider (1982) Deutsch

This delightful about a spider (an Orbweb Eriophora) is another excellent example of Jeannie's work. This counting book while teaching the reader to count from 1 to 10 also tells the story of the spider, its catch day by day and the impact on its web. Like Millicent, the collage art is much more simple than Jeannie's later works that have greater complexity as works of art. But it contains many of the same wonderful qualities, simplicity, colour, varied textures and wonderful detail.

'Where the Forest Meets the Sea' (1987) Julia MacRae Books

This wonderful book marked a new stage in the development of Jeannie Baker's work. Not only is it a more complex narrative account that makes a powerful statement about humanity and the natural world, it demonstrates a new complexity in the collages and clever use of overlaid photographic images to add a new way to portray time. Once again the story is simple, but it has many layers. A boy and his father go out in their boat to fish along the coast of the Daintree Forest in far North Queensland, a place where the tropical rainforest meets the sea. As the story unfolds the boy is confronted by echoes ('ghosts') of what this place was once like - an age of dinosaurs, a time when Indigenous people lived here and so on. It ends with an eerie look at the future.

'Window' (1991) Greenwillow Books

This book saw Jeannie move from the natural world to the man-made world as she showed once again how development can change the natural world. A mother and her baby look through a window at wilderness. But with each turn of the page time marches on, and as we look from the same window, the world changes under the impact of people. As the child grows and ages, so too the view changes from a country scene to dense settlement.  This wordless book won the Children's Book Council (Australia) picture book of the year in 1992.

Jeannie Baker also wrote a wonderful short book 'Window: An Australian Outlook' (1991) published by the Royal Botanic Gardens to coincide with the release of the book and in association with the exhibition of the collages from which the book was made. 

'The Story of Rosy Dock' (1995) Greenwillow

In this wonderful book Baker continues her environmental themes making comment on the danger of introduced species of plants to the natural world. The story tells how one of the early settlers to a remote part of Australia builds a garden in the wilderness that is beautiful, but which ends up having an unexpected flowering. A single plant can change the landscape and push many plants and animals to extinction.

The book was produced as a 10-minute short animated film by Film Australia (here).

'Belonging' (2004) Walker Books

In 'Belonging' we see Baker returning to the theme of 'Window', man changes the world. Once again, the story unfolds through a single window of a house in a typical urban neighbourhood and it has the same central characters Sam and Tracy. Each picture shows another year and new developments. This is in a sense 'Window' in reverse, as we go back through time and see the urban landscape slowly disappear to reveal the natural landscape that was once there. But whereas 'Window' focused on our negative impact on the environment, 'Belonging' shows how a community can work to improve the urban landscape rather than just trying to escape from it. The images are stunning and once again, her point is well made.  This book is sold under the title of 'Home' in the USA.

Complete List of her Books

Grandfather, Dutton (1977), revised edition, 1980.
Grandmother, Dutton (1978), revised edition, 1980.
Millicent, Dutton (1980).
One Hungry Spider, Deutsch (1982).
Where the Forest Meets the Sea, Greenwillow (1987).
Window, Greenwillow (1991).
The Story of Rosy Dock, Greenwillow (1995).
The Hidden Forest, Greenwillow (2000).
Home in the Sky, Greenwillow (2003).
Belonging, Walker Books (2004).
Mirror, Walker Books (2010).

Other related posts

'Visual Literacy' (HERE)

'Key Themes in Children's Literature: Environmental Issues' (HERE

Friday, September 3, 2010

10 Pointers for Developing Writers

How Early Do Children Learn to Write?

Children begin to 'write' from a very early age. As soon as your child can dip a finger in butter, paint, or sugar spilled on the table they begin trying to make their own marks on the world. Their first efforts may only be a single line or two or perhaps a vigorous scribble, but if there is intent and purpose then they are beginning to 'write'. I wrote a previous post 'When do children start writing?' in which I discussed children's earliest efforts to scribble and draw and the gradual transition to more conventional writing.

I concluded that for the very young child (0-5 years) we need to:
  • Take their early drawing and scribble seriously - look at it, enjoy it, discuss it with your children (e.g. "What's this?" "What does this mean?" etc).
  • Encourage children to write - give them blank paper and tell them to "write"!
  • Let them see you writing and talk about your writing.
  • Look for patterns in children's early drawing and scribble and expect to learn things about your child from it.
  • In short, encourage writing just as much as you encourage reading and celebrate their drawing and 'writing' - put it on the wall, date it and keep it, make up a folder etc.
But what can we do to help older children (6-12 years)? 

Key Pointer 1 - Creating the right environment for writing

Writing is a 'craft' and so it requires an appropriate environment in which the writer can explore how it is done. So, create a writing space or corner. If you are doing this at home and space is limited, try finding room for a small desk. Provide a variety of paper (different sizes, varied colours, lined and unlined), a writing book (e.g. journals for rough drafting), a writing scrapbook (to stick in favourite words, poems, word play, drafts), writing implements (including pens, biros, pencils and even crayons for younger writers) and access to a computer.

Writers also need access to (and the ability to use) key resources like a dictionary and thesaurus, spelling books, spell checkers if using computers and word banks. For teachers it also includes access to an extensive class library of children’s literature (a major source of inspiration for narrative writing) and a well-stocked school library.

Key Pointer 2 – Give children authentic audiences for their writing

It is important that writers have the opportunity to share their work or test their ideas out as close to the point at which they wrote them as possible. Even within classrooms, children need opportunities to move as freely as possible to share their latest sentence, clever word, funny line and so on. Children need people to read their writing simply to enjoy it. Later, they will also critical ‘friendly’ readers. Find ‘real’ audiences – don’t just write letters send them to people, email others, create links with other classrooms, do a group submission to a local radio or television station about an issue of concern etc.

Key Pointer 3 – Give them support

While the teacher (at school) and parents (at home) have an important support role to play, children also need the support and feedback of other child writers. While the adult might help with ideas, vocabulary, sentence structure, spelling etc, often fellow writers will respond (particularly) at the idea level, giving help with writing clarity (does it make sense?) and in terms of audience impact.

One of the advantages of the Internet is that often children can find virtual readers (see my post on ‘Children as bloggers’ for one application that offers authentic audiences and response).

Key Pointer 4 – Provide writers with time

Writing like any craft cannot be easily accomplished in neat time slots. It’s important to allow writers the time necessary to explore ideas, talk to other writers, and revise their work. While in classrooms there will always be some restrictions on use of time (e.g. the need to finish a topic in science, the need to learn to write under exam conditions etc) and movement, our aim should be to minimize these restrictions wherever possible and not expect all students to be at exactly the same point in the writing process all the time.

Key Pointer 5 – Allow young writers (as much as possible) to choose their own topics

While in school it is important that students learn to respond to imposed topics and writing tasks, teachers and parents should encourage young writers to choose their writing topics whenever possible. When topics and particularly writing forms are imposed, try to offer some internal choice.

Key Pointer 6 – Give young writers help to learn the writer's essential craft knowledge

Just as a potter, pianist or painter needs to learn the essential craft knowledge of his/her discipline, so too the writer needs to learn the essentials of writing. The writer needs help to build knowledge of writing in three main areas:

a) Surface features – They need to know about the mechanics of writing that enable them to be able to write in conventional forms, including spelling, vocabulary, punctuation, grammar and word usage.

b) Text knowledge – They need help to understand written register and genre. Register refers to the use of language appropriate to the situation in which the language is meant to be used. Children need to know that you use different language to write a letter (or an email) to an aunt who sent $50 as a birthday present than an SMS message sent to a mate asking them to meet you after school. Genre is a style of text that reflects its purpose and intended audience (who it was written for). Children need to understand that texts have distinctive forms that are generally accepted as having specific features such as their structure that influence the use of language. For example, writers need to know how a narrative is different from a piece of expository writing.

c) Ideas, information & tools - This includes the use of tools like dictionaries and reference material (mentioned in pointer 1), but it also includes help knowing how to research their writing, where to find key information, how to retrieve information from libraries, how to conduct web searches, using databases, finding images and so on. It also means knowing how to use spelling and grammar checkers, using an online thesaurus, using layout templates, and specific software programs as simple as Word, but also as complex as Powerpoint.

Key Pointer 7 – Give young writers the opportunity to observe more experienced writers

This might be achieved simply by children seeing teachers and parents writing, sharing their writing with others, and using writing for varied purposes. In the home this will probably occur spontaneously while in the classroom it might be done more systematically and deliberately. For example, a teacher might demonstrate their writing processes on a Smart Board for the whole class to see. But children also need to observe other children – the ideas they use, the things they write about, the way they present their writing etc.

Key Pointer 8 – Help young writers to keep a record of their writing

All writers store their writing, save drafts, date writing samples and build up a record of their writing achievements. Having a portfolio of work is the way writers can see that they have made progress. It is never too early to encourage young writers to keep their work, record writing ideas and look back over their work to see progress and learn from their past writing.

Key Pointer 9 – Raise interest in writing

Writers need to ‘feed’ their writing. The most common way we feed creative writing is by reading the literature of others. Teachers and parents should read quality literature to children and encourage them to read. Read quality writing of all kinds every day – this might be a story, but it could also be a well-written extract from a newspaper article, a letter to the editor, a poem, or a factual text.

Learning from books, film, the Internet, and life experience fuels good non-fiction writing. Encourage your children to learn, to be inquisitive and to explore things in their world.

Key Pointer 10 – Maintain the pursuit of writing

Children need help to persevere as writers, because it can be hard. This can be achieved in four ways.

a) Simplifying the task of writing by - helping them to choose topics and the right genre for writing; and providing help as part of the writing process in content, clarity, and mechanics.

b) Monitoring progress in writing by noting inconsistencies, flaws, strengths and new things.

c) Providing supportive feedback and constructive criticism of their work

Always try to be as positive as possible at first. For example:
"I like the use of the word muddle."
"That's a good opening line."
"That was great. You've taught me a lot about frogs."
"I like the way you started that sentence."
"You've paragraphed well. It's good to see that you start a new one for each new idea."
But constructive criticism is also necessary. This might take the following forms:
"Read that to me again; I'm not sure what you meant. Could you tell me more?"
"The opening sentence is very important in any story. Your story might have been even better with a different lead-in sentence."
"Read that the way it's written. Isn't something missing?"
"What word could have been used instead of 'rain'?"
"It's hard for me to read and understand this first part; it's a very long sentence. Read it again and show me where you pause."
"You've started these sentences the same way. How could you change some of them?"
"Do you need that sentence? Haven't you said that before?"
 d) Help children to self-assess their writing – teach them to re-read their work and revise to improve it. Here’s a simple personal revision checklist. You can develop a checklist that reflects the needs of your children. However, such a checklist might include the following.
Does each sentence start with a capital and end with a full stop?
Are the sentences clear?
Have I left any words out or included unnecessary words?
Have I used words correctly, e.g., was/were; is/are?
Are there any words that should be checked for spelling?
Is a new paragraph started for each new idea?
Are the ideas in the correct sequence?
Do the sentences start in a variety of ways?
Are some words used too often?
Does the story have a beginning, a middle, and an end?
Is it clear exactly what the writer means?
Is more information needed to make the meaning clearer?
Are the first and last sentences effective?
Have words been used in unusual ways?
 Other Resources

I have written about this topic at length in other publications such as "Pathways to Literacy", Cassell: London, 1995.

All posts on writing (HERE)