Lin Goram, English Subject Development Lead, Teach First, UK
Writing and the National Curriculum for English
Reading and writing are given broadly equal emphasis in the most recent iteration of the National Curriculum for English (Department for Education - a ministerial department responsi... More, 2014). But the two are positioned differently. The National Curriculum recommends that cultural, emotional, intellectual, social and spiritual development are achieved ‘through reading in particular’. A curriculum is put forward that supports students to ‘develop their love of literature through widespread reading for enjoyment’ (DfE, 2014, p. 2). Conversely, the emphasis on developing skills of writing in English focuses more on the functional. Students need to be able to ‘write clearly, accurately and coherently’ (DfE, 2014, p. 2). This is unsurprising: writing is often seen as a functional tool of communication. There is one slightly oblique reference to self-expression: through speaking and writing, students should be able to ‘communicate their ideas and emotions to others’ (DfE, 2014, p. 2).
The National Curriculum for English has been criticised for creating a writing course of study focusing on the components of writing in a decontextualised way, ‘privileg[ing] grammar and punctuation over style and creativity’ (Barrs, 2019, p. 25). This has led to a writing curriculum that is ‘reductive, ideological and pedestrian’ (Barrs, 2019, p. 28). For this reason, teachers and trainee teachers have for the past few decades expressed a lack of confidence when guiding students’ writing development (see Cliff Hodges, 2005). Added to this, English teachers identify most strongly with the growth model of English, which means that this knowledge-driven approach to the teaching of writing undermines a large proportion of English teachers’ professional values (Goodwyn, 2016).
This article examines tensions around teaching writing in the secondary English classroom, focusing on the role of the teacher and offering some approaches to planning effective writing teaching.
Teachers and writing
Cremin and Oliver’s (2016) review of research into teachers as writers found that, in general, teachers often have a narrow view of what a ‘writer’ is and what constitutes ‘writing’, with a focus on production of longer-form narrative and descriptive pieces. However, teachers who identify as writers are more likely to be open-minded about what it means to be a writer and what writing is. Additionally, those identifying as writers are also more likely to enjoy writing and say that they are good at it. This appears to be because they are focusing on ideas and personal expression rather than on ‘grammar, spelling, punctuation, organisation, creativity, sentence structure, handwriting, neatness and vocabulary’ (Cremin and Oliver, 2016, p. 14).
Those who identify as writers consider writing to be a personal act of creative expression (McDermott, 2019). The National Curriculum for English tempers this definition with its rules associated with functional – as opposed to creative – expression. This creates cognitive dissonance, which leads to some teachers feeling anxiety when teaching creative writing. Teachers are not writers: they are teachers of writing. But they have past writing experiences and they bring their own identities and pasts as writers into the English classroom. This extends to their time as students: teachers who identify as writers also say that that they had a teacher who inspired them as a writer (Cremin and Baker, 2016).
It is important to unpick this so that teachers can find a productive way forward in the writing classroom. Often the two identities of ‘writer’ and ‘teacher’ are put in opposition to each other, setting up a dichotomy where a writer must change or compromise in some way in order to be a teacher, and vice versa (Cremin and Baker, 2010; McDermott, 2019). For teachers to see themselves also as writers, it isn’t just a question of writing more (Cremin and Baker, 2010; Cremin and Oliver, 2016) – we need to understand the influences on a teacher’s writing identity and how this influences classroom practice.
This is an under-researched area, and Cremin and Oliver (2016) have made it clear that there is currently no research examining the impact of teachers’ writing on their students’ exam outcomes. However, we have seen that the status quo has limitations, and so this article moves to examining ways in which to articulate opportunities for teachers and their students to develop writing in the secondary English classroom.
Teachers as writers
Cremin and Baker’s 2010 research into teaching creative writing examines teachers’ writing behaviour in the classroom. They use the concept of the writing identity to explore teachers’ articulation of their feelings when modelling writing for their classes. Two identities emerge: the teacher-writer and the writer-teacher, positioned at each end of a continuum. This helps us to understand how a teacher’s writing identity influences their behaviour when teaching creative writing.
At one end is the writer-teacher. The writer-teacher approach models to students how a writer thinks and what they do, free of constraint. This aligns with McDermott’s (2019) approach: the teacher is foremostly writing for themselves and is therefore emotionally invested. In this role, one of the appeals is that ‘you were in control of what you wrote’ (Cremin and Baker, 2010, p. 14). The writer-teacher aligns with students – everyone is a writer. This authentic immersion prompts modelling that exhibits ‘hesitation, ongoing error correction and problem-solving’ (Cremin and Baker, 2010, p. 16), as teachers strive to produce something of which they are proud. In this role, teachers writing alongside their students can ‘help them see’ (Cremin and Baker, p. 19) by uncovering the internal monologue of the decisions that the writer is making. For this reason, writing in the moment has authentic power in a way that pre-prepared models do not.
At the other end of Cremin and Baker’s (2010) continuum is the teacher-writer. This aligns with the approach discussed earlier in this article, in which writing is produced to model success criteria for ‘good’ writing in the English classroom, as defined by the National Curriculum for English (DfE, 2014). The teacher-writer is writing for the institution, aware of the need to model elements of the success criteria, foregrounding this over authenticity where necessary. This results in teachers having less control over what they write: it is a product-writing approach in which the outcome is assessed rather than the process.
According to Cremin and Baker’s (2010) research, in modelling phases, teachers often begin as writer-teachers and move along the continuum towards the teacher-writer end. As a writer, it can be easy to become frustrated if the writing is not going well. Additionally, when the teacher is focusing on the act of writing, modelling using an ‘I do’ approach, it can easily become disengaging for students, who would be more engaged with a ‘we do’ activity. The easiest thing for a writer-teacher to do if either of these things happen is to stop writing and move to teacher-writer mode, focusing on students’ writing instead. This reveals a weakness in the practices of the writer-teacher: modelling writing in the classroom is extrinsically motivated, which is not an authentic motivation for a writer. Stopping writing is not an option for students in a classroom: ultimately, they are writing to be assessed.
Approaches to teaching writing
The recommendations below are made with the intention of supporting both teachers and their students in becoming more comfortable and confident with writing. As we have said, there is currently no research drawing clear links between this and student attainment (Cremin and Oliver, 2016). But new approaches support the growth model of English, as well as teacher and student wellbeing, both of which are important principles.
Reflect on your experiences, confidence and attitudes to writing. It is important that we do this: as teachers who model the process of writing and draw out key elements of effective writing, we are expected to be competent, but ‘this is potentially problematic if [we] lack self-assurance and positive writing identities’ (Cremin and Baker, 2016, p. 9).
When planning, think about what your identity will be in the classroom for that lesson, at that point in the unit – are you a writer-teacher or a teacher-writer? This will be led by the lesson’s objective, which is in turn led by the learning needs of students. There is room for both in a unit of work, but they are most effective when planned. If you are clear on when you are a writer-teacher or teacher-writer, it is less likely that your emotions will get in the way of your planned identity in that moment if your writing is not going as well as you hoped.
When you have planned to be a writer-teacher, be as much of a writer as you can: write alongside students, share your work and your frustrations and take the sort of risks that you want your students to take. Reflect on this to better understand the experience of your students. This includes becoming comfortable with discomfort, which will come from writing publicly. When you have planned to be a teacher-writer, consider your boundaries: what does your writing need to show? How can you demonstrate this as authentically as possible? How can you ensure that you hold this identity, even if the act of writing feels challenging?
There is no substitute for teachers being genuinely interested in what students have to say (Marshal and Wiliam, 2006). Peter Elbow’s work (nd) supports approaches to the sharing of writing. The underpinning principles are allowing students to be in control of sharing their writing and for this to happen in pairs. When discussing writing, you can be a writer-teacher, listening as a peer or ally, asking questions about the process or commenting on thoughts, ideas and feelings in the writing, or giving non-judgemental feedback and asking neutral questions to draw out ideas about the creative process. You can also be a teacher-writer, giving constructive feedback designed to support students to improve their work according to success criteria. Of course, pupils can take on these two roles as well. Being clear with yourself and with your class can support these conversations to have impact on writing.