Take a moment to think about the elements involved in the drafting and composition of a successful piece of writing. The following is not necessarily an exhaustive list:
Consider your own experience of being taught writing, or your observations of others teaching writing.
There are no definitive answers to these questions. The important thing is to avoid uncritically accepting the emphasis provided by the curriculum or the school in which you train or begin your career. Instead, reflect carefully on the impact of your practice on students’ learning to develop a sense of what works in the writing classroom.
Ask yourself these kinds of questions:
Research shows that most English teachers have Literature degrees (Blake & Shortis, 2010), and it is a given that English teachers enjoy reading and read widely. It is less common, however, for English teachers to describe themselves as practising writers (Andrews, 2008). Yet we can argue that, just as we need readers to teach reading, the best writing teachers are those familiar with the rewards and challenges involved in the complicated process of writing.
As you begin your teacher training, invest in a writing journal and allow yourself as little as 20 minutes a week to write for pleasure. To start you off, you might find it useful to generate ideas by writing a quick list of memories. Don’t think too hard, just write the first memories that come to mind. Once done, you have a list of prompts – use them to either write memory-based pieces or as inspiration for a fictional description or narrative. You may also wish to join one of the teachers’ writing groups that have been established as part of the National Writing Project, which is a grassroots organisation working hard to support teachers’ writing practice. Visit their website to locate a group and access a plethora of resources and advice about writing and the teaching of writing.
This focus on your own writing is likely to benefit your teaching practice in a range of ways:
Provide a counter to negative associations with writing: It is an unfortunate truth that writing is often used as a form of punishment or control in schools (Richmond, 2017), which makes the job of the enthusiastic English teacher more difficult. In order to overcome this obstacle, you will need to work harder on communicating your own passion for writing, which can inspire the same in students. In addition, offer students the opportunity to write about their own interests rather than, or as well as, prescribed topics.
Be aware of the importance of ideas: How easy do you find it to write on a topic about which you have few ideas or opinions? Lack of ideas can be a significant barrier to students’ progress in writing and it is the teacher’s role to support the generation of ideas. Talk is central to this (Richmond, 2017; Andrews, 2008) as it provides students with the opportunity to both develop ideas and to rehearse the articulation of them orally (prior to articulating them in writing). Even better, oral work can be fun, involving role-play, improvisation and drama, which can increase students’ motivation and engagement. Reading is equally important: introducing students to high-quality texts on a topic will not only develop their ideas and increase their understanding of the topic, it will provide them with a model for their own writing.
Design writing tasks carefully: Pick up a pen and give yourself three minutes to respond to this task: Write a piece on the renewed focus on teaching grammar in schools. How easy did you find it? Would you have found the task more possible if it had been worded in a different way? Something like: Write a speech to other teachers, arguing for or against the renewed focus on teaching grammar in schools. The likely answer is that you would, and the reason for this is that the second task offers you a purpose (to argue), a form (a speech), and an audience (professional colleagues), all of which give you vital direction in terms of the language conventions, style and register you might use to compose your piece. Try to ensure that you give students this direction when you set any writing task.
Spelling, punctuation and grammar: Teaching grammar is a contested area, but research from the University of Exeter suggests that the most effective way of addressing spelling, punctuation and grammar is to do so in the context of students’ writing, rather than as a separate knowledge base to be acquired for its own sake. Find out more, including resources and schemes of work, by searching ‘grammar for writing’ at http://socialsciences.exeter.ac.uk/.
Writing and personal identity: Finally, always remember that there is a well-established link between writing and personal identity (Sartre, 1947; Smith, 1982; Cremin & Myhill, 2012). Writing is the way we make sense of the world, imposing order on what otherwise can seem overwhelming or confusing. As such, writing is just as important for students’ growth as individuals as it is for their examination results and job prospects. In teaching writing, therefore, you take on an important and worthwhile job. Enjoy every second of helping your students to grow!
Andrews, R. (2008) ‘Getting going: generating, shaping and developing ideas in writing’. Department for Children, Schools and Families.
Blake, J. & Shortis, T. (2010) 'The readiness is all: the degree level qualifications and preparedness of initial teacher trainees in English', English In Education, 44, 2, pp.89–109.
Cremin et al. (2017) ‘Teachers as writers: a report for Arts Council England on the value of writers’ engagement with teachers to improve outcomes for all pupils’. University of Exeter, The Arvon Foundation and The Open University.
Cremin, T. & Myhill, D. (2012) Writing Voices: Creating Communities of Writers [electronic resource]. London: Routledge.
Richmond, J. (2017) Curriculum and Assessment in English 11 to 19: A Better Plan. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Sartre, J. P. (1947) in Lodge, D. (ed.) (1972) 20th Century Literary Criticism: A Reader. Harlow: Longman Group Ltd.
Smith, F. (1982) Writing and the Writer. London: Heineman.
Smith, J. & Wrigley, S. (2016) Introducing Teachers’ Writing Groups: Exploring the Theory and Practice. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.