Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Imagine a government commission on writing...

Imagine a government setting up a commission to discuss 'writing in primary schools'. 

Surveying the scene at present it would see that a key factor in writing were the SATs and in particular the GPS (formerly the SPaG tests at KS1 and KS2). (Translating the jargon here: the spelling, punctuation and grammar tests  for 6/7 year olds and for 10/11 year olds.)

These are a key factor because teachers have to prove that children reach 'expected levels'. These expected levels require teachers to teach aspects of the spelling, punctuation and grammar as part of what equals 'good writing'. To take some examples: teachers have to show that good writing includes using 'expanded noun phrases', 'fronted adverbials' and embedded 'relative clauses'. 

To be quite clear: anyone using these features is not necessarily a good writer. Practising how to use them doesn't necessarily lead to good writing.  

There is a long reason why we have reached this point and it has very little to do with grammar or 'good writing'. It stems from the fact that the government wanted to have what they thought was a foolproof system of assessing teachers and schools. To do that, they wanted a test which only had 'right/wrong answers'. The teachers would teach to the test. The teachers who succeeded in getting their children to pass that test would be 'good'. Those who didn't would be 'bad'. On that basis a school would be marked as not good enough (depending on the jargon of the moment) and could be turned from being a Local Authority school to an academy , or from an academy academy.

All this was put into writing between April and June of the year that Lord Bew chaired the production of the Bew Report on Assessment. Note it was 'assessment' not on writing! That tells all. It was that report which implemented the present regime of testing grammar which has led to these requirements in children's writing.

Clearly, if you create some key features in writing, which could be seen as crucial, then these can be ticked and marked and aggregated as marks of quality or failure. That's what all this talk of fronted adverbials, expanded noun phrases and embedded relative clauses is all about. It's simply about grabbing a bit of supposedly 'robust' or 'fixed' knowledge, applying it, so that it can be marked as right/wrong. 

But...the key thing here is that this 'knowledge' - grammar - is nowhere near as fixed as GPS testing makes out. You only have to read the last few pages of David Crystal's latest book, 'Making Sense, The Glamorous Story of English Grammar' to see how un-fixed a good deal of it is. And if Crystal had had the time to widen his perspective even more, he could have, say, incorporated the work of M.A.K. Halliday which poses even more problems for the definition of 'grammar' being applied with the GPS. (Halliday was keen to come up with a system of grammar that tried to explain why we say or write things and so wanted to include the 'social function' of language-use with his use of 'field', 'tenor' and 'mode'. It doesn't matter immediately here whether it was successful or not. What matters is that he raised the question of grammar being a result of social function and not, as some suggest simply and purely a system of rules and structures, in some kind of self-governing, self-ruling system.) 

So back to my imagined situation of a commission on writing. And let's say that it could be freed from any considerations of summative assessment but could and should include considerations of formative assessment. 

If it was truly open it would include experienced classroom teachers who were themselves still in a position to research classroom practice; teacher-trainers; people engaged in 'action research' either as teachers of teachers (declared self-interest here, that's me!), or as the researchers themselves; linguists, applied linguists, literary theorists, writing theorists...and writers (!) both for children and for adults. 

Over the last 40 years I've been engaged in several ways in these various fields and seen people from all these fields getting involved in how to help children write well. There's been hardly a week of school terms in that time I  haven't been involved in it myself, whether through trying to find ways of writing or performing for children, running writing workshops with children, writing about writing, writing about teaching writing, working with teachers getting them to write, running workshops with them on their teaching of writing, supervising students researching their own teaching to write/respond to writing...and so on. On the side, I've tried to keep up with trends in linguistics partly through the programme I present on radio 'Word of Mouth' and/or through reading books and research. 

This represents, then,  a mix of practical and theoretical approaches none of which I would claim as final or definitive or require applying universally. The teaching of writing has to take into considerations the strengths, experience and cultures of those participating in that moment - in short the teacher(s) and the children in that moment. 

That said, one immediate thing strikes me. There is a body of theory which hardly gets any mention when it comes to talking about teaching writing, and yet to my mind and in my experience can, if broken down into usable methods, contribute greatly. The areas go by the awkward terms like 'narratology',  'intertextuality', 'rhetoric', 'structuralism', 'figuration', 'pragmatics'  and the like. 

Narratology is the study of how writing is narrated or 'told'. It suggests that every piece of writing is not simply telling a 'what' but  has hundreds of strategies for telling it 'how'. If I use a term like 'flashback', that is 'narratological' as it describes that there is a moment in the writing where we go back to collect some information which the writer thought necessary or desirable. If I make a comment about the introduction of 'direct speech', 'indirect speech', what the protagonist was thinking at this point' - again that would be 'narratological'. If I draw attention to a 'digression' or a 'red herring', or how the introduction of a detail both 'reveals and conceals' at the same time, or whether there is 'first person' or 'third person' narration; whether I talk about the 'focaliser' of any given moment (ie through whose eyes do we see this event?) and so on and so on, these are all narratological questions.  Though the theorists of narratology have a gamut of terms to explain what is going on, nearly all of them can be explained by specific example, modelling and imitation. 

Intertextuality is the process by which what we say and write is based on, derived from and grows from previous texts. In the worlds of Roland Barthes, we write with the 'already written'. Again, this isn't just the 'what', it's also the 'how'. Everything we write derives from bits of what has already been written, we assemble writing out of the 'already-written'. It flows from this that learning how to write can indeed involve the enjoyment and close observation of the 'already written' - the jokes, the motifs, the openings, the closings, the narratology, the grammar - anything and everything. For this to be productive, I would suggest that it calls for an open-ended critical approach, inspired by trigger questions and themes as suggested in my earlier blogs here and by writers such as Aidan Chambers in his 'Tell Me' book. 

Rhetoric is the ancient study of phrases and figures of speech which are deemed to have a certain 'effect'. Whether they definitely do have that effect is much open to debate and indeed the teaching of rhetoric is best done where that debate is part of the process. There are books of rhetoric going back to classical times and there have been attempts to update them. One is by Sam Leith who is a journalist. The great fun with rhetoric is that it is very good for revealing the invisible intertextual nature of a good deal of public writing and speaking. 

Structuralism when applied to writing is the study of how different kinds of writing follow structural patterns. One of the most famous of these was by Propp who studied the structure of folktales. Another is Christopher Booker's book on the world's favourite plot structures and motifs. These become in effect a study of story 'syntax'. Given that 'syntax' is used almost in the same way as people use the word 'grammar', it's quite ironic that we've had the last few years been stuffed full of grammar at the sentence and paragraph level but people are rather reluctant to apply grammar or syntax to story, speechifying, argument, advertising, texting, tweeting and so on. What is clear is that every piece of writing has some structure or structures and/or syntax. These come from the 'already written'. When we write we use these structures, sometimes very rigidly (e.g. when writing up a scientific experiment) sometimes much more loosely (e.g. when writing an investigative feature for a newspaper where we might mix 'genres' of personal testimony, dialogue, imaginative invocations of the 'future', polemic, political reportage and so on). 

Figuration is the production of 'figurative language' - that is metaphor, simile, symbol, representative figures. This spans nearly all writing and is something we do as part of our daily use of idioms, cliches, proverbs and hidden metaphors. We can also do it as a studied way to make writing interesting, exciting, appealing, tense, disturbing...etc. Or we might do it as part of an ideological way of influencing people by invoking images from bodies of ideology from e.g. sacred or political texts of the past. 

Pragmatics includes the study of why we say things. This crucially involves questions of audience. This piece of writing you're reading now (this blog) is written in a particular kind of way because I'm anticipating that you're someone who is interested in the teaching of writing. That's because I've invented you in my mind as a teacher, a teacher-trainer, an ex-teacher, a teacher of writing in higher education, a writer who runs workshops in writing for adults or children. I have met hundreds, perhaps thousands of  you! You have been my company on and off for the last 40 years. As I'm writing this, I'm imagining you into my text. I'm imagining you reading this. This is causing me to make choices about the kinds of words I'm using, the kinds of sentences I'm constructing, the kinds of themes I'm raising and how I'm talking about them. We all do this kind of 'internalising' of the audience every minute of our lives when we're in the company of others, but also when we imagine how we might talk or write. In fact it's impossible to think of language without an audience because - this is crucial - the 'audience' (sometimes called the 'implied reader') is 'inscribed' on every word, phrase, sequence of words that we use or are going to use. This is, as I say, crucial. One of the farcical, nonsensical bits of writing-teaching that goes on implies that there is 'writing' which exists as a kind of stand-alone phenomenon, bearing no signs of audience. Pragmatics theory maintains that no such thing exists: the signs of audience are part of every thing we say and write. Some of this is historical in that virtually every word and expression we use, comes from a tradition which has had thousands of audiences' responses written into it. Some of it is directly of the moment in that it's about who is being borne in mind by the speaker or writer and who is envisaged by the speaker or writer as being of a particular psychological or social type. 

Taking these bodies of theory together, we can see that they are at least as important as 'grammar'. They can each be broken down into usable methods and questions and suggestions that teachers of writing and speaking can use. Many of us do exactly that. When a three year old asks me about the bear on the last page of 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt' I often say, what do you think it's thinking?' Mostly they answer in the third person: 'he' or 'she' or 'it'. I will sometimes say (if I'm in a school), 'let's pretend to be the bear and come up with things it's thinking...' Then we start to speak with 'I'. With no mention of 'first' and 'third' person we enact right there and then a crucial bit of narratology: what's the difference between first and third person narration. Even with three year olds we can talk about how doing that pretending was fun or interesting. And once tried, it can be done again and again. Narratology as 'writing/talking' for three year olds. (I'm not pretending that this anything new. Teachers usually call it 'hot-seating' and I've learned from teachers how effective this is as a way of generating e.g. 'dramatic monologues' as a way of writing poetry or mini-dramas. )

Anyway, back to my imagined writing commission. If I was there, I would put these various ideas forwards as ways of helping us all help children write in interesting and effective ways.