Ask any junior school teacher what subject causes them the most grief when it comes to engaged students and they will invariably answer ‘writing’. Pair that with disengaged boys and teachers reply with a sigh and sometimes an eye roll as they recollect many incidents of trying to have boys write a daily story. The parallels between making young children write and pulling teeth are numerous. It is at writing time that teachers find the incidents of misbehaviour increase and the focus shifts from teaching the writing process to managing engagement of children in the room.
Why is this? Why has writing become such a chore for children and teachers alike? Why is it that teachers are having to resort to individual incentive systems or heavily scaffolded strategies in order to get a piece of writing from their students in their writing books on an almost daily basis? The answer perhaps is in the relevance of it to today’s children. Generation Z and now Generation Alpha children arriving in our schools have at their disposal a plethora of technology from which they can choose to communicate with others. And this is the key…..when they choose to communicate. As adults we use written text when we choose to connect with others. There would be a small percentage of the population who engage in writing for their own personal satisfaction. For the most part, the average human being will write when there is a purpose. If we, as adults, do not sit down daily to write a story about our weekend……why do we expect our students to? It is well known as children progress through school they tend to deviate towards their interests and passions. These strengths are often already noted in junior classrooms. So why is it that teachers continue to pursue story-writing with students that communicate through their behaviour an absolute lack of interest in the activity? Instead teachers should adopt a view of providing these students with the skills they need to use writing as a tool to communicate with others, while supporting the development of their strengths and interests.
Some would argue that, with the exponential growth of technology available to our children, learning to write is not as important as it once was. This is not the case. What is more important is the way in which we expose our children to the various audiences that they may engage with using the technology available. Now, more than ever, children have the potential to access a global audience. To have the power of their message communicated worldwide. To be heard. So, of course, they must be exposed to appropriate learning opportunities on which they can build a solid foundation about written language.
But it is the purpose that is most relevant, rather than the argument about learning written language itself. Let’s face it, in general in junior classrooms, it is the boys at writing time who will become the most disruptive and disengaged in the lesson. Some will sit and stare at the ceiling, others will sharpen their pencil ten times over and many will annoy their neighbor. In the most extreme, these students will be prepared to upend a classroom in order to avoid the writing task. All because they do not see the relevance of the task to them. It is simply not important to them. Couple this with their experiences of teachers standing over them, or keeping them back until the writing is completed……and writing has become their most disliked subject at school.
So how can children engage and build on their writing knowledge without the unnecessary battle with their teacher? Perhaps consideration to the variety of writing tasks available to students in the classroom is the answer. Many teachers run a writing program that is whole-class, story writing or the traditional processed-writing model. Students do not have a choice in the task, other than what they might choose to write about. Why not provide students with a variety of writing tasks, mirroring those that adults use to communicate in reality? Letter writing, emails, shopping lists, birthday cards, journals and for those most adventurous…blogging! Students can learn that they write for an audience, rather than to write in a book for their teacher’s satisfaction. By using a variety of tasks, students may receive replies from those they engage with, either through email, letter or blogs and therefore take on an understanding of the point of writing. Of course, the story writers in classrooms must also have their needs met. But these students are often writers anyway, without the need for teachers to creatively motivate them. By providing those less-likely to engage in the writing process with highly motivating activities, inevitably the teacher will be released to consider extending our future Shakespearean authors as well. In short, all the students will see the point to the task required of them, because it will be relevant to their own interests and needs.
Another consideration as to why children don’t engage in prolonged writing activity is from a developmental perspective. Children require a variety of skills in order to be able to think of, structure and recall ideas to begin a story. When writing this in an exercise book or with pen and paper, add another layer of skills on top. Holding a pen/pencil is one such challenge for our modern students. It may be that the availability of pens and pencils has been scant at home and the child simply has not had sufficient practice in holding a pencil, let alone correctly. For some children, holding a pencil during a prolonged writing task simply hurts. On top of holding the pencil is then the recalling of ideas while forming letters into unknown words/spellings. An enormous amount of thinking involved in what is often seen as a basic task by educators. If teachers offer a varied menu of writing tasks, some of these skills can be addressed, while those with deficits in some areas can be supported to engage in the writing process. It would be unrealistic to expect all children to happily and successfully engaged in a task of this magnitude on a daily basis without support. And yet many teachers do have this expectation, and frustrate when it is not met. By having a varied menu, some pen and paper activities, some technology activities, children will be able to write without realising it. Because their learning focus will be to communicate with others, not in how to construct a story or recall an event. After all, that’s the point of writing isn’t it?
Students, as all people do, need to see the point to their learning. If they don’t, they simply will look for other activities that will be more interesting or relevant. These might just be activities that teachers fear the most in their classroom environment.