30 Dec 2020
There’s plenty in this book for busy teachers once you get past the dense academic opening, writes Louise Quinn, but too few examples of its recommendations being put in to practice
As an English teacher, for many years I have found myself both perplexed and frustrated at the lack of high-quality writing instruction that goes on in classrooms. Too often, I see writing presented as a task rather than a process, without effective explicit teaching despite the wealth of robust evidence around teaching writing effectively.
So I was delighted to find that in Writing for Pleasure, Young and Ferguson have set out to deliver exactly that, albeit with an alternative slant. In it, the authors synthesise the global research into a pedagogy that advocates the importance of the affective domains (feelings, emotions and attitudes) as well as high-quality explicit instruction. With regards to the latter, they are also keen to emphasise its dual role in not only influencing cognitive development and academic achievement, but also how children approach the writing process with confidence, pleasure and enthusiasm.
As a writing and evidence enthusiast, I found most affiliation with Young and Ferguson’s useful summary of meta-analyses regarding types of writing instruction. They then integrate these findings with observational studies of exceptional teachers of writing across different contexts. Together, these two sources of evidence are synthesised to create 14 interconnected principles for the effective teaching of writing.
The principles can be broadly grouped into teacher expectations and instructional methods (goal setting being the most effective practice); children being part of a collaborative writing community; fostering authenticity, pleasure and motivation; and, finally, developing self-regulation. Collectively, and when utilised successfully and flexibly, these principles have the potential to develop children and their teachers as lifelong writers.
After a round-up of the evidence, subsequent chapters in Writing for Pleasure then go on to take each of the 14 principles individually to dig deeper into their finer detail. Throughout, Young and Ferguson take great pains to show how each principle is rooted in evidence before discussing their various facets, offering a list of practical strategies and posing some reflective questions.
That structure makes the book’s content very accessible, but for me it was a source of high and low(er) points in equal measure. As a busy teacher, I welcome the practical strategies, but I would have liked to have seen a much greater amount of exemplification than the case studies the authors have provided.
When looking to implement pedagogical tips, examples are always crucial
When looking to implement pedagogical tips in the real classroom, examples are always crucial, no matter the subject. This is especially true because of the wide range of contexts in which teachers operate, and nowhere truer or more important than when it comes to writing.
And because the evidence the book explores comes from such varied fields of research, including self-regulation, cognition and affective domains, it is all the more necessary for readers to get a real feel for what the recommendations look like when they meet groups of pupils.
I found the sections on setting writing goals the most engaging. Their focus on the fundamentals of good writing – purpose, audience and genre – echo a common message from any synthesis of the research on the subject. But what made Writing for Pleasure stand out is the depth of its exploration.
Another particularly interesting section looks at what constitutes high-quality feedback and the contentious issue of how to provide it. I was surprised to read that excessive written feedback can actually be detrimental to writers in terms of their enthusiasm for writing. Supporting the recent push towards verbal and whole-class feedback, Young and Ferguson offer pupil conferencing – essentially a one-to-one or small-group discussion with a teacher – as an effective and efficient alternative to excessively marked compositions. This mirrors the Education Endowment Foundation’s latest guidance report and gets a definite thumbs up from me!
Writing for Pleasure is initially quite dense in academic content and theory, so it is not for the faint-hearted. But it is well worth a read. It comes to life when diving into each individual principle and, as someone reasonably well versed in evidence around writing, it certainly challenged my thinking.