Reflections on writing
Sue Grief asked a number of practitioners and researchers to share what they believe is important in teaching writing to adult literacy learners. These are some of their responses.
Observations on writing
It has always seemed to me that writing is a risky business. Every time we allow
someone else to read a fragment of our writing, we reveal something of ourselves
to them. Our fear is that what we reveal will be our weakness, not our strength:
a poverty of expression, a weakness in spelling or grammar. Sometimes, however,
there can be surprise. When we come to read back our own writing, not all of it
is rubbish. Somewhere in the middle of it all will be a gem that, until then,
we had not known was there: a new thought, a recalled memory.
One can 'handle' language. Writing is a sensuous activity. Writing is a complex,
absorbing activity, simultaneously creating a completely unique text and drawing
on knowledge/experience of writing/words/text types/genres/layouts/fonts, and
dealing with the particular stimulus to write at all, and making the fine motor
movements of writing/typing, and looking at and interacting with the emerging
Influences on thinking and practice
As a practitioner, I have found Frank Smith's book Writing and the Writer (Smith 1982) inspirational. It was published in 1982 but is still very relevant and says important things about writing which I think are not given enough emphasis in the Core Curriculum. The following quotations give a flavour of the book.
'Writing cannot be taught directly; it is learned by writing, by reading and by perceiving oneself as a writer. But teachers are influential as models and guides.'
'Writing is not learned in steps; there is no ladder of separate and incremental
skills to be ascended. Writing develops as an individual develops, in many directions,
continually, usually inconspicuously, but occasionally in dramatic and unforeseeable
spurts. And, like individual development, writing requires nourishment and encouragement
rather than a restraining regimen.'
The biggest inspiration for me has been Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1966), especially the third chapter on 'generative themes'. When using generative themes, material, vocabulary and form come exclusively from the students' experience. 'Generative themes' can be drawn from the things around us that are easily accessible, that are to do with intimate, urgent concerns of daily life. That way the students can use subject matter that will motivate them to write.
In my experience, ongoing class discussion is the best tool for building up pieces
of writing. Through collaboration, the class can find the 'generative themes'
for the term's work. They can build up vocabulary and discourse with which to
talk about these themes. Using their own vocabulary, present in their minds through
the discussion, helps the students to be fluent when it comes to writing. They
can use the words confidently for their own ends.
I have run many creative writing groups and have based them on the work of Paulo
Freire. The learners explore their worlds and their lives and try to make sense
of them, using discussion, imagination and writing. This approach has worked with
college and community groups and also for the three creative writing groups for
people with mental health difficulties.
'We do not consider that teaching in itself matters very muchÉa special method for teaching long division is of no significance, for long division is of no importance except to those who want to learn it.' (Neill:1968)
This summarises the importance of identifying learner motivation and the ability to translate this into a learning process. From my own teaching experience and research it is apparent that it does not necessarily matter what the method of teaching is compared with learner motivation. One recommended pedagogical 'best practice' does not fit all.
Talking to the learners it is clear that the majority benefit from an approach
which allows them to explore their own creativity. One learner explained how important
it was that she was allowed to study the topic of interest to her, make notes
and write up her findings. She has written two pieces, one on the rock group U2
and one on tigers. She insisted that, if she had not been allowed to write what
she wanted, she would have stopped coming.
I pay tribute to the wave of research into children's writing development in
the UK in the 1970s. It provided a climate for newcomers to work in, and teaching
principles which have stood the test of time. It told of the importance of teaching
learners about their intended purpose and audience. Sociolinguists provided evidence
for the value of bringing speech and writing closer together. Now as then, such
work gives authority to adult literacy teachers' use of the 'language experience'
approach, used with groups as well as with individuals.
By far the most important reason for teaching writing, of course, is that it
is a basic language skill, just as important as speaking, listening and reading.
Students need to know how to write letters, how to put written reports together,
how to reply to advertisements and, increasingly, how to write using electronic
media. They need to know some of writing's special conventions (punctuation, paragraph
construction etc.) Part of our job is to give them that skill.
Teaching writing: what works
Teachers should...provide opportunities for people to write for real purposes
and real audiences. And 'real purposes' encompasses more than utilitarian purposes
such as writing to convey information. It includes things like writing to explore
your own and other people's ideas and feelings, writing to make sense of your
life, writing to preserve your experiences, and writing for pleasure or 'just
for fun'. I think it's also important for teachers to respond to people's writing
as writing, rather than as an 'exercise' or a test. This means responding first
of all to the content of the writing.'
In my experience a successful writing programme should:
- help people to understand the difference between speech and writing. Many difficulties are the result of trying to transfer the skills used successfully in one mode of communication directly into the other mode.
- help people learn how to write for an audience. This helps beginner writers to understand the point of punctuation, and different styles and formats.
- be based on something of great personal interest to the writer, thus enthusing people to try writing outside the classroom context.
I have found that the most effective way to combine these factors is to encourage
students to undertake a piece of research into something of interest to them.
They then present their topic to other group members. Recent research projects
have included the life of Freddie Mercury, Greek island hopping, and the slave
trade. The students become ÒexpertsÓ in their field. They tend to write much more
outside the classroom context and they begin to develop their writing skills to
meet the needs of an audience. Furthermore, we all learn things we didn't know
...sometimes I wonder "Do we as teachers look to out-dated methods of teaching writing - paper, paper and more paper. Surely this is not the way forward?"
Perhaps some of the reasons why individuals refuse to write in class are that the written work has to be corrected, marked and crossed out. It doesn't boost confidence, especially to a basic skills learner. Yet we see learners using 'text', in the classroom, on buses, shopping, all with great enthusiasm and motivation. Why?
I believe some of the answer lies in the fact that in our fast-moving world,
electronic media are non-judgmental, nobody is going to laugh or shout if you
get a spelling wrong, or if you don't use paragraphs. Using a mobile phone, ICT,
or ILT is an excellent way to develop writing and, although it doesn't solve all
problems, in getting students to use language skills it should be encouraged,
especially for writing skills.
Helping adult learners improve their writing seems in the main to need relentless
effort. Improvement for most appears to be slow and hard-won. In the Progress
in Adult Literacy study (Brooks et al., 2001) we found rather little evidence
of progress...But many of the learners involved had not attended all that many
hours of provision between pre- and post-assessment, the writing prompts may have
been less than inspiring, and perhaps the marking scheme did not capture whatever
improvement was happening. So the search for what really works is still wide
It seems to me that these discussions have not reflected a 'skills' view. Skilled and interesting though the descriptive social scienceÉoften is, I am still not convinced that descriptions of what people do with their 'capabilities' to read and write necessarily gives us much help in deciding how best to teach reading and writing.
Such academic interest in adult literacy as exists seems to focus more on the
socially structured ways in which people use their 'skills', and not how these
skills were acquired, or might best have been acquired, in the first place in
childhood or later in life.
We would welcome readers' responses to the views expressed here. If you would like to share your views, you are welcome to join the discussion group on WRITING on the NRDC website www.nrdc.org.uk
Brooks, G. et al.,(2001) Progress in adult literacy: do learners learn? Basic
Freire, P. (1966) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Available in various editions.
Neill, AS (1968) Summerhill Paul Avrich Collection (Library of Congress)
Smith, F. (1982) Writing and the Writer London Heinemann