Writing is a difficult skill and, as most of us would readily agree, not only for children. The development of children’s writing takes place gradually over time. In order to achieve the most effective results, teaching writing needs to be integrated with reading, speaking and listening, both in the initial stages and as children develop greater language competence.
When children learn to write in their first language (L1), it is widely acknowledged that they go through a number of general stages. These are not discrete or age-bound and vary in different cultural and educational contexts. They may be briefly characterized as follows:
Getting ready: Children acquire manual skills and learn the basic mechanisms of handwriting and spelling. They may also be taught synthetic phonics as part of a systematic initiation into reading and writing.
Writing for me: Writing is personal, colloquial, situational, linear and context-bound. Children may be willing to alter spelling but not to revise, re-draft or edit their work. Writing is mainly for personal pleasure and for an immediate audience e.g. parents and teachers.
Writing for others: Children develop a greater sense of audience. This raises awareness that successful writing depends on effective communication rather than satisfaction with self. Structures of writing and speech become more distinct; writing begins to be better organized and to become more formal. Children’s writing e.g. early attempts at stories, begins to reflect what they are reading.
A world of writing: Children are exposed to, and learn to use, an ever-expanding range of writing styles. They develop an increasing awareness of audience, purpose, genre and appropriateness.
As they learn to write, some of the main problems children encounter are to do with:
- In the early stages, the development of hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills needed to form letters is a challenge in itself.
- Writing is an artificial activity: it has to be learned rather than acquired naturally.
- There is no immediate audience, feedback or interaction between the writer and the reader.
- School associations with writing are often negative. Writing is often perceived as boring or a chore. Writing is also sometimes used by teachers for discipline and control.
- Children’s limited ability to produce comprehensible output can easily lead to feelings of frustration and demotivation.
- Children’s L1 writing system may be different to English.
- The sound-spelling correspondences in L1 work differently to English.
- Language used in speech and writing differs, and is organized differently.
- Children lack knowledge of writing conventions, or there is interference from writing conventions in L1 which are different.
- Children’s stage of development in L1, including the development of literacy.
- The organization of thoughts in writing is externally imposed.
- The transfer of strategies from L1 doesn’t always work.
“Good writers” and “good teachers of writing”
The potential ability of a child to become a “good writer” and for a teacher to become a “good teacher of writing” are essentially two sides of the same coin.
Key characteristics of a “good writer” are:
- a belief in what you have to say
- a sense of purpose
- a sense of audience
- an ability to order and express ideas clearly and effectively
- an ability to use the language accurately
- an understanding of and ability to use writing conventions
- an awareness of the need to draft, re-draft, edit and change written work in order to produce the most effective final result
- an awareness of the importance of good presentation
Conversely, key characteristics of a “good teacher of writing” are someone who:
- listens to children in order to help them express their ideas;
- ensures that writing takes place in a meaningful context which is both motivating and provides a real audience;
- ensures that writing opportunities are carefully integrated into an overall teaching plan;
- structures lessons carefully in order to equip children with necessary language and to help them structure and order their ideas;
- provides frameworks which allow children to use language creatively and successfully;
- balances their approach between whole class work and discussion and individual time for concentrated focus and effort;
- teaches children to draft, re-draft and edit and to understand and appreciate the value of doing this;
- teaches the importance of legibility and accuracy in written work;
- encourages sef-awareness and self-correction;
- encourages children to take pride in their own work and interest in the work of others e.g. through display and publication, reading children’s own stories to the class;
- responds to children’s intended meanings, gives positive, constructive feedback and is sensitive to children’s problems and needs at different ages and stages;
- sets and expects appropriately high standards (children will invariably try to meet these).
When teaching writing throughout the primary years, it is important to vary our approach and to give children a rich experience of different kinds of writing. This includes:
• Initial writing – writing to support initial learning and to consolidate oral work. This is often the typical kind of writing included in the Activity Books of coursebooks. The most effective kind of initial writing is when children are also encouraged to think and develop cognitive skills as in, for example, simple classifying, sequencing, logical deduction or visual observation writing activities.
• Collaborative writing – a dynamic process in which children’s ideas are shaped through working with others. The final product may be a joint effort or individual work but structured collaboration will play a central, formative role. Collaborative writing allows you, as teacher, to participate and explicitly model writing processes. It also helps you to meet the needs of everyone in the group. Collaborative writing can be motivating for children and standards of writing often improve rapidly as a result.
• Functional writing – writing that serves a practical function such as e-mail or letter writing, report writing, invitations etc.. Children need to be taught how to write functionally in an appropriately contextualized way. As well as explicitly teaching appropriate conventions to be used, it is also important to highlight the reason for these and the way they relate to the reader’s needs.
• Imaginative writing – writing which takes children beyond real experiences into a world of invention. The key here is to provide a model, framework or template which gives free rein to children’s imagination but is also within their current linguistic reach.
• Personal writing – writing in which children record their experiences, express their opinions, attitudes and feelings. Children need a stimulus to encourage a personal response as well as a framework to help them to organize their thoughts. With young children in particular, you also need to make it clear that there are no right answers and that you value diversity in the way they respond.
• Poetry – writing which gives children the opportunity to explore the power of words and to play with the rhythms and patterns of language. Children need a stimulus, model or framework to support their writing. It often works well to create a poem collaboratively with the whole class first before children work on their own poems individually, or in pairs or groups.
Any other thoughts on developing children’s writing? It’d be interesting to hear.
Note: This post is an extension of the introduction to the section on ‘Reading and Writing’ in Read C. 500 Activities for the Primary Classroom Macmillan Education, 2007, where you can also find a range of practical classroom activities to develop different areas of children’s writing.