For far too long, writing has lagged behind reading in the literacy league tables. In recent years, the number of secondary school children who enjoy reading and do so regularly has steadily increased to the record levels we saw in the National Literacy Trust’s research Children’s and Young People’s Reading in 2014, which was published earlier this year.
However it was a very different story with our Children and Young People’s Writing in 2014 report. While findings were taken from a survey completed by the same 32,000 children and young people aged between eight and 18 who had described their reading habits and attitudes, the contrast was stark. The report revealed that enjoyment of writing remained stagnant and frequency of writing outside class was unchanged.
This disconnect raises the question of how we can bridge the gap between the enjoyment and frequency of reading and writing. We know that if children enjoy reading and does so often, they are far more likely to be able to write well, which boosts their literacy skills. Our research found that pupils who enjoy writing are six times more likely to write above their age expected level than those who do not (46.3% vs 5.5%). The popular author Stephen King pertinently highlights the connection between the different disciplines, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that”.
Talk about it
Perhaps it is that basic: improve pupils’ enjoyment of reading and their engagement with writing will follow – but secondary school teachers everywhere will know that it is not that straightforward. Writing is cognitively one of the most difficult things that we ask of the human brain and yet it is a fundamental part of our literate identity. It is essential that pupils develop this key skill, but which ways are the most effective for teaching and learning how to write well?
Approaching writing through the technical aspects of sentence construction does not automatically enthuse pupils to put pen to paper or start to type. While it is important to know how to use an apostrophe and spell correctly, technical accuracy is not the sole constituent of good writing. Grammatical and lexical understanding can improve writing but motivation is the most difficult door to open, although it leads directly to enjoyment and frequency of writing.
Providing students with a breadth of age appropriate texts is a crucial step in engaging pupils with the craft of writing. As our Literacy for Life programme exemplifies, the importance of talking should not be overlooked in shaping good writing behaviours. Oral rehearsal can be an important part of the writing process. Many pupils are simply stumped for words when writing as they have not exercised their ideas orally in preparation.
Introducing free writing in the form of journals is an excellent appendage to the teaching of writing. There is plenty of inspiration from young writers programmes including our Picture the Poet initiative, which supports creative writing at Key Stage 3. Writing that is not assessed, and is on a pupil’s own choice of subject can be both therapeutic and transformative. Recognition of the powerful medium of writing in shaping ideas and thoughts can emerge, either in the form of a private diary or a piece of prose which can be shared with others.
The importance of good writing skills for a range of contexts is embedded in the National Curriculum. Modern technology has heralded an ever increasing range of writing formats for pupils to try. It is a real skill to be able to draft a succinct message in 140 characters or fewer to post on Twitter. Essay writing is a totally different discipline but just as crucial to get the marks needed to progress to the next level in class.
Attitudes towards writing need to change if we are to nurture literate citizens for the future. Students need opportunities to engage in writing for a range of ‘real purposes’. In secondary schools, more must be done to equip pupils with the writing skills they will depend on in the workplace. Our Words for Work programme helps to prepare pupils for the fresh demands of writing they will face as they embark on their careers and are required to write for a whole new range of purposes and recipients. These are as diverse as drafting a report for the boss, responding to a query from a customer and creating marketing materials to generate new business. Confidence in writing is a pressing issue for teachers as well as pupils. The Teachers as Writers programme, which advocates teachers writing together, is an interesting way of boosting teachers’ confidence and understanding of the process of writing with classroom teaching and learning. Ask a roomful of teachers whether they would consider themselves to be ‘writers’ and few will raise their hands; yet they are teaching writing in different forms every single day.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Aykin is strategic lead for school improvement at the National Literacy Trust