Learning to write in 21st Century England
In reflect Issues 1 and 2, Ursula Howard explored the growth of literacy in 19th and 21st century England, with particular emphasis on writing, and compared the motivations of learners in those two eras. In this final article, Sue Grief and Ursula Howard report on their research into writing and take an historical overview.
In phase one of our research, we reviewed existing research into the teaching and learning of writing but unearthed very little empirical evidence (Grief et al. 2004).
Themes from the research review show several possible stimuli to learners' progress in writing. They are:
- use of authentic materials and activities;
- a collaborative, group approach;
- a focus on writing as a process;
- setting learning in a meaningful context;
- varied practice; and
- encouraging critical thinking about writing.
Reviewing current practice; phase one
In phase one, we conducted a small-scale review of current practice. We found that teachers have a strong focus on the needs of individual learners and emphasise writing as communication (as does the core curriculum document). They make widespread use of exercises which are not contextualised, particularly at 'word level' but are little influenced by research and literature on writing.
We found that learners place great emphasis on getting spelling and punctuation correct, have a wide range of goals and motivations in relation to writing, and are generally very positive about the role of ICT as part of learning to write.
Overall, learners judged writing to be harder than reading. They tended to see expressive writing as a reward for mastering the basics of spelling and grammar. Their comments included:
"Writing is much more difficult, there's a lot more involved."
"I find writing harder... . punctuation, content, tenses, spelling."
"You have to think of your own words and know how to write them."
"Its harder 'cos you have to have the ideas in your head first."
Many learners, however, find that reading is more difficult.
"I don't read a lot - I usually forget what I've read by the end of the page. I don't mind writing... . emails, using a keyboard."
Reviewing current practice; phase two
Phase two of the research started in Spring 2004. In this work, we aim to correlate features of naturally-occurring practice with learners' progress, attitudes and uses of writing outside the classroom.
Detailed data from observing classes, captured in 'logs', will enable us to investigate the themes and issues that emerged from phase one. The data may also indicate other factors that could be important in the development of learners' writing. The observation logs will provide a detailed picture of practice across a wide range of learning contexts and will be complemented by data from interviews with learners and teachers.
Data collection is still under way but, so far, our observations indicate a wide variety of practice in the teaching of writing. They also suggest that, in most literacy classes, learners spend a large proportion of their time working on writing.
There is no doubt that current pressures for learners to achieve qualifications influence how teachers teach writing, but we must wait for the detailed analysis of our observations and interviews before we can provide a clear picture of this effect.
There is still plenty of scope for research into writing and for development work. Further research could address some of the following issues.
- Looking in-depth into learners' purposes for learning and practising writing and the meaning which writing plays in their lives.
- The use of ICT in the teaching and learning of writing.
- The demands for writing in the workplace, including ICT.
- What are the sticking points for learners?
- Whether findings from research on writing in schools, e.g. the importance of the systematic teaching of spelling, grammar etc., and use of meta-language, hold true for adults (writing has been the least successful element of the national literacy and numeracy strategies and the literacy hour in schools).
- How to teach writing as part of integrated/ embedded learning across the curriculum.
- How to re-learn some of the tools used for writing which appear to have lost their place in adult learning e.g. language experience, generating text for sharing with other learners (including publishing of learners' writing).
- The part that writing could play in a culture of adult learning which listens more to what learners want and aims to boost their confidence, rather than playing on their fears and sense of inadequacy.
- How teachers can offer learners 'mystery, chance and silence' (Pullman 2002).
- How people skills, uses and practices develop when learners experience creativity and are able to make their own meanings.