September 26, 2017

Cultivating ‘writing for pleasure’ cultures in classrooms


A decade ago, the author Philip Pullman lamented the absence of the verb ‘enjoy’ in the extensive description of reading in the National Literacy Strategies: “71 different verbs, by my count, for the activities that come under the heading of ‘reading’. And the word ‘enjoy’ didn’t appear once” (in Clark & Rumbold 2006). There was widespread concern at the time that schools and teachers, driven by the pressure of national assessments and an increasingly narrow curriculum, were not allocating time and space for pupils to develop a passion for reading, and were instead focusing on the ‘dry’ aspects of literacy, ensuring students were able to develop specific skills. This conception of literacy rejects a conception of writing as an “artistic act” (Freire 1985), an “act of self-identification” (Murphy 2002), or a space for the negotiation of meaning making (English et al 2002), leading Alexander (2004) to argue that this approach shows “a lamentable detachment from questions of identity, culture and history”.
The irony is that this seemingly ‘old-fashioned,’ quantitative approach to literacy is in fact rather modern. The 1921 Newbolt report on the teaching of English in UK schools stressed that writing is both art and communication: the aim in teaching writing is described as “a genuine attempt by the pupil to express as well as he can what he is really capable of thinking and saying”, that writing should be seen as “a means of creative expression, a record of human experience”. The report suggests that a pedagogy that conceives of composition as the correct use of spelling, punctuation and grammar alone misses the point: this is “criticising bricks, not architecture” (Newbolt 1921). Further national reports by Plowden (1967), Bullock (1975) and Cox (1989) similarly emphasised the importance of creative writing as an artistic act alongside other elements of a broad definition of literacy. However, recent government policy has pushed literacy strategy towards a belief that literacy can be defined as a single, quantifiable entity, where levels can be measured against policy implementation (Roberts 1995). For the past two decades this has become the dominant approach to literacy in schools, with creative writing and reading for pleasure marginalised to the extent that they sometimes exist only as peripheral, extra-curricular activities.
Since 2012, there seems to have been a re-emergence of a creative approach to reading and writing in educational strategies and curricula. Ofsted’s ‘Moving English Forward’ report (2012) was symptomatic of a drive to not only reverse a perceived decline in literacy standards in UK schools, but also address the lack of schools encouraging students to read for enjoyment, thus acknowledging a link between reading for pleasure and the development of literacy skills. Further to this, in 2012 the Department for Education released a research report on Reading for Pleasure, which acknowledged that “A growing number of studies show that promoting reading can have a major impact on children and adults and their future” (DfE 2012). These discussions are still at the forefront of education debates, for example as to whether the recent emphasis on children learning poetry ‘by rote’ actually builds their literacy skills or merely stunts enjoyment.
Pop Up’s work over the past five years has sought to generate and sustain a culture of reading for pleasure in partner schools. Our evaluation data has consistently shown increases in pupil reading enjoyment, and a desire to read more books by the same author. In some clusters, this translated into an increased frequency of independent reading; 88% of Medway teachers, for instance, saw an increase in independent reading frequency amongst their pupils after their first full programme (Jan – Mar 2016). In Peterborough, the same was said by 81% of surveyed teachers.
While reading has been widely addressed in policy and school practice, writing has now fallen behind, and is a more prescient concern: “The present government has made the improvement of reading standards a national priority. As the earlier achievement section makes clear, national tests for 11-year-olds suggest that there are similar problems with standards in writing, particularly of boys” (Ofsted 2012). In the same report, Ofsted identified that pupils’ inability to achieve writing targets remained a “persistent issue” in both primary and secondary schools, linking this failure to “weaknesses in the teaching of writing and gaps in [teachers’] subject knowledge”. The National Literacy Trust’s report on young people’s writing in the UK shows that enjoyment of writing is generally on the rise in the UK, but is still far behind reading enjoyment. Over 50% of young people enjoy writing only “a bit” or “not at all” (NLT 2015). The report goes on to claim that children and young people who enjoy writing “very much” are six times more likely to be writing above their expected level than those who do not enjoy writing, suggesting a direct link between enjoyment and attainment, although it has also been claimed that this could be a cyclical causation, with enjoyment more likely for those who are already stronger readers or writers (Clark 2012). The evaluation of our 2016 spring school programmes has shown – as previous evaluations have – a gap between pupils’ reading and writing enjoyment; in Peterborough the gap was the most pronounced, with teachers observing, on average, 13% less pupils enjoying writing, as compared to reading. We also found that pupils who do not enjoy reading were less likely to enjoy writing as compared to those who enjoy reading ‘a little’ or ‘a lot’. Those pupils who said they enjoy reading were more than twice as likely to enjoy writing ‘a lot’ as compared to those who don’t enjoy reading. Equally, those who don’t enjoy reading were more than five times as likely to say they don’t like writing ‘at all’. Peterborough pupils who enjoy reading were also 24% more likely to say that they write independently at home ‘every day’ or ‘every week’.
Teresa Cremin, Open University Professor of Education, as part of Arvon and the Open University’s Teachers as Writers project (2016), states, “Writing for pleasure, like reading for pleasure, is essentially volitional, intrinsically motivated, writer-directed and choice-led; it has meaning making at its core. Writing that we require from children that is formally assessed is not child-led and may well have the reverse effect, such that the major purpose becomes pleasing the teacher and passing tests, and a preoccupation with form rather than substance.” A national emphasis on prescriptive writing stifles the development of children and young people’s ability to write with freedom and imagination; it is essential that schools make space in their curricula for writing without the pressure of examinations. This could, in turn, increase pupils’ motivation to read and write independently outside of school. As Andrew McMillan argues, “all children should write, in the same way doctors tell us we should all exercise, even if we don’t want to be Olympic Athletes” (McMillan 2016).
A focus on reading does not necessarily lend itself to the development of writing skills. Graham and Perrin (2007) argue that “although reading and writing are complementary skills whose development runs a roughly parallel course, they do not necessarily go hand in hand. Many adolescents are able to handle average reading demands but have severe difficulties with writing”. It is not enough to simply develop reading initiatives and expect them to impact on all aspects of pupils’ literacy; there must also be a focus on writing, to be treated as a unique set of skills that are separate from reading. In contrast, Laurenson’s study of reading for pleasure initiatives in schools (2012) shows that in schools where reading for pleasure initiatives led to allowing time for free reading, an unintended consequence was a positive impact on writing. A teacher in the study was quoted saying, “I was pleasantly surprised to see that the reading had actually taught my students how to write and they had picked up good grammar etc.” (Laurenson et al 2012). This suggests that creating a culture of enjoyment around literacy in schools can have positive consequences for both reading and writing.
Our own evaluation shows that this is indeed the case. Although authors and teachers participating in our project have previously not been explicitly briefed to include creative writing in their teaching of the programmed titles, teacher pre​- and post-project surveys in Medway (Spring 2016), for instance, showed a 9% increase in reading enjoyment and a 25% increase in writing enjoyment of secondary pupils; similarly, Pop Up in Telford (Spring 2016) evidenced through secondary teacher observations a 24% rise in writing enjoyment, but only a 3% rise in enjoyment of reading. This suggests that a reading for pleasure model can indeed have a positive impact on creative writing enjoyment. We have equally observed an impact on independent writing frequency; in our 2016 evaluation of the Peterborough programme, 69% of teachers saw an increase in independent writing frequency, in Medway it was 87% and in Telford 76%.
Pop Up is in a unique position to help schools address a need to improve writing enjoyment through working with professional, well-known children’s authors. Creative approaches to learning which bring together the education and arts worlds have been recommended in policy (i.e. Ofsted’s ‘Learning: Creative Approaches that Raise Standards’ (2010) and Wales’ ‘Creative Learning Through the Arts’ action plan (2015)). A Royal Opera House Bridge report (2015), summarising the evaluation of their ‘Creative Writing Through the Arts’ pilot project, showed that through engagement with other arts forms, teachers gained confidence and motivation, while students developed both their technical and open-ended writing skills. Similarly, CLPE research into schools working with arts practitioners found that “the more experience children had in the working practices of the creative art form, the more evident this knowledge and these experiences were in their writing.” Through working with authors and other professional creatives pupils were motivated to write powerful texts demonstrating freedom from structural conventions. Furthermore, connections with authors demystify the role for pupils and teachers, and ignite aspirations of becoming professional story-makers for young writers and illustrators.
An extensive survey conducted by the Society of Authors (2013) showed that 99.4% of teachers believed that “author visits are a vital part of a school’s provision of exciting enrichment opportunities”. Yet UKLA research suggests that ‘‘Only 10% of schools in England work with professional writers of any kind” (2008). Working with authors or artists can ‘empower’ children and young people: “Empowerment connoted the practitioners’ view that arts practice was a way of developing students’ sense of their own capability and agency, of their ability to resist manipulation and make distinctive, autonomous choices about means and purposes” (Hall & Thompson 2016). However, there has not yet been much research into the impact an author visit can have on inspiring pupils to write with greater freedom and independence, meaning it is an area that requires further investigation.