Lucy Taylor is a former primary school teacher and has worked in the UK and Europe with subject responsibility for English across the primary age phase. She taught Children’s Literature at The Open University for a number of years and now teaches part-time on the Primary PGCE programme at the University of Leeds, focusing on primary English. She is an ESRC funded PhD student in the School of Education, University of Leeds and her research draws together her interest in primary teaching, literacy development and children’s literature. The following article has been written as a follow up to Lucy’s presentation at this year’s WISE21 Conference.
Every project starts somewhere, with a seed of an idea, a hunch, a feeling, a moment of inspiration or an accumulation of thoughts. Mine developed through observing children in classrooms as a primary teacher and continued through working with students as a teacher educator. I’ve always had a strong interest in children’s literature and in particular how it can be used in the classroom. My observations formed into five key ideas:
Children like to rewrite their favourite stories. Children would often bring notebooks or scraps of paper in which they had written their favourite stories, sometimes many times over. Children like to include their favourite characters in their writing. A trainee teacher was baffled by the fact that a child in her class insisted on including a character called Hiccup in her writing, regardless of the piece of text she was supposed to be writing. It transpired that the child was a big fan of the popular series by Cressida Cowell ‘How to Train your Dragon’ in which Hiccup is the main character. Children use stories they have read as frameworks for their own writing. On being asked to write a ‘free-choice’ story, aged 9, my son produced a story which reworked a key scene in the book he was reading (Finding the Fox by Ali Sparkes), in which the protagonist discovers that he can shapeshift into an animal. Children use vocabulary and stylistic features which reflect books they have read in a range of genres. Trainee teachers often express concern that children use a chatty and informal tone in their writing which is inappropriate to the task. The style, however, matches the kinds of texts the children enjoy reading such as popular novels, magazines or websites. Children who are keen readers are better writers. In conversation teachers might comment ‘well you can tell he reads a lot’ when discussing a successful piece of children’s writing. Reading and writing have become separate from each other in the primary classroom. Curriculum developments, high profile teaching schemes, and approaches to the teaching of reading and writing have led to the increasing separation between these two literacy skills.
Whilst these observations were partial, anecdotal and subjective I felt that they deserved further investigation because the implications of understanding more about the relationship between reading and writing could be quite significant. We still don’t know enough about the relationship between reading and writing or the way this relationship works (Cremin and Myhill, 2012). Based on these initial observations I developed three research questions:
- Do children who self identify as reading for pleasure produce writing that is judged to be higher quality than their peers?
- Do the texts children read for pleasure influence their writing in terms of style, content, vocabulary or voice?
- Do children’s writing choices reflect their reading preferences?
In order to investigate these questions I wanted to consider my approach to and understanding of three areas, namely reading, writing and creativity. The significance of skill in reading is not in doubt; reading proficiency is essential for participation in society and for academic success (Sullivan, 2015). However, the teaching of reading has been highly contested for a long time and remains high on the political agenda. Debates identified by Chall in 1967 about the relative merits of the whole language approach, phonics, real books and reading schemes are still current and inform political thinking about education. Reading for pleasure is considered to be important and is high on the education agenda, but ‘reading for pleasure’ is not such an easily defined concept as it initially appears. Is it any kind of reading undertaken for leisure, such as magazines, comics, social media sites or games forums? Is it literature such as children’s novels or information texts, or all of these things?
The way we define ‘reading for pleasure’ is important because it has an impact on the way we respond to the texts which children are choosing to read. The types of texts which children are familiar with endow them with cultural, linguistic and literary capital and familiarity with traditional or literary texts confers advantage in the classroom. Considering the perspectives of Bernstein (2009 ) and Bourdieu (1990), children’s texts which are highly regarded in schools can be positioned as part of a system which reproduces the cultural norms of a particular group and in doing so privileges that group. Fairclough (1989) argues that power is exercised through language; this can be seen as reflecting the way language is used by teachers in school, but also in the ways in which children are expected to use language themselves in order to succeed. Reading as a cultural practice associated with leisure can also be aligned with particular social groups, (Gee, 1990) meaning that some children are more likely to be familiar with the practice than others. The work of the New Literacy Studies group argues for the value of the range of literacy experiences children bring to the classroom, and popular culture and new medias have become significant to understanding the development of literacy in young children (Collins,2000; Pahl and Rowsell, 2005). However, the school curriculum favours more traditional definitions of literacy and the skills associated with it. Even within the more traditional forms of children’s novels there are hierarchies of popular and prestigious texts (Coles, 2013; Hunt 2009; Maybin 2009).
Children’s literature has an established place in the primary classroom, though its status and perceived value has varied over time, along with changes in standardised curricula and approaches to the teaching of reading. In contemporary classrooms practice can vary but in the best examples books are at the heart of and lead the English curriculum. Programmes such as ‘The Power of Reading’ from Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) provide units of work based on a variety of children’s literature, and the project ‘The Reader in the Writer’ (Barrs and Cork, 2002) demonstrated the value of focused attention on children’s texts in helping children develop as writers. For a number of years children’s literature has been regarded as influential in the development of children’s writing (Meek, 1988; Martin 1994; Bearne and Watson 2000; Styles et al. 1994) though with little detailed research evidence about the process.
When considering writing it is evident that being able to use writing to communicate effectively in a variety of contexts is integral to academic success across the curriculum. However, as with reading, the teaching of writing is an area of significant debate, particularly with recent controversy over grammar testing at the end of key stage 2 9age 11). Concerns have been raised about the tendency towards ‘analysis before competence’ (Richmond et al, 2015) such that writing becomes a check list of features rather than communicating something of meaning. Ideas about what good writing looks like for primary school children, and the features it should contain are much discussed, continuing to provoke debate. The current assessment criteria for children working at the expected level of development at the end of key stage two demonstrates a particular view of what good writing would look like, and this inevitably has some impact on classroom practice. A number of children’s authors including Michael Rosen and Michael Morpurgo have expressed concern about what they see as the mechanistic way in which children are being taught to write and the Society of Authors (2016) recently published a statement about the teaching of writing in schools voicing these concerns.
When we think about children’s writing in primary school it is often associated with ideas about ‘creative’ writing, but there is no reference to creative writing in the Primary National Curriculum for English 2014 (Wyse and Ferrari 2015). Creativity is the third key area that I want to consider when looking at the relationship between children’s reading and writing. Carter (2004) describes ‘creative imitation’ that occurs between participants who interact in spoken language. I intend to apply this idea to describe the interaction between the texts a child reads and the texts they write. Creativity has been conceptualised in a variety of different ways socially, in education and in literacy learning. If creativity is understood in the way that Vygotsky describes (2004), as a process of association and dissociation, then they way in which children make and remake texts can be conceptualised in this way. Importantly, if the making and remaking of texts is creative, then the skills used are the same whether or not the text is a traditional, literary text or something different.
The design of my study is interpretative and uses mixed methods. The approach was chosen to allow different aspects of the research questions to be explored in different ways, addressing both general and particular issues. The three phases include a reading survey designed to explore attitudes, habits and preferences; the use of writing journals, and discussion groups. In phase one, the online reading survey, each child is given a unique survey access code and responses are matched to school attainment data for writing. This provides data for the first research question and also provides specific information for participating schools. In phase two children use writing journals for independent free-choice writing which can be used at school or outside of school. Journals will not be marked or assessed, but the teacher and researcher may ask to read them; they will be coded to provide data for the second and third research questions. This is a new method of data collection which aims to build on the ways writing journals have been used by teachers to help children develop as writers, particularly in developing voice and experiencing autonomy and control (Cremin and Myhill 2012; Graham and Johnson, 2012).
In the pilot study conducted in May 2016, 52 year 5 pupils (aged 9-10) in two different schools trialled the online survey. 60% of children said that they read in their free time for fun and of those 52% said that they did most of their reading for fun at home. All but one participant said they liked reading, and attitudes were generally positive with 52% of respondents saying they liked reading very much. Writing was the least popular of all the leisure activities with 17 children saying they liked to do it (32%). The most popular activities were playing with friends and drawing, followed by playing computer games and social media, sport, watching films and tv, then crafts and making things.
In the survey children were given a list of options asking what they liked to read for fun, from which they could choose as many as they liked. The most popular were stories (including graphic novels) 75%, picture books 62% and comics, puzzles and quizzes which were chosen by 56% of respondents. Information books, websites and newspapers and magazines were less popular with 37% and 29% respectively. However, non-fiction titles were popular in subsequent sections of the questionnaire, suggesting that children’s concepts of genre are not always clearly defined. Children who said that they liked to read stories selected mystery and adventure as the most popular genre, followed by funny stories and magic and fantasy. In two of the questions children were asked to state which three texts they would choose to read out of a list of six. This question was designed to access some of the different types of texts that children enjoy. The most popular choices were Gangsta Granny by David Walliams; The Brilliant World of Tom Gates by L.Pichon; Awesome Egyptians by Terry Deary, Simpsons Comic Chaos, Matilda by Roald Dahl and Minecraft Annual. The choices suggest that texts which relate to children’s popular culture experiences are of particular interest. Three of the texts have television or computer game links, and books which include both text and images are also popular.
Children were also asked to select books they had read from a several sets of choices. The list of books becomes more challenging as the survey progresses and offers popular and classic titles. The ten books from the survey list of 45 which had been most commonly read were The BFG by Roald Dahl (47 of the 52 respondents); Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon(46); The Guinness Book of Records (43); Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney(38) ; Horrible Histories by Terry Deary (33); The Beano (30); How to Train your Dragon by Cressida Cowell, Billionaire Boy by David Walliams (26 each); Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K Rowling , The Brilliant World of Tom Gates by L. Pichon and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S.Lewis (24 each); Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey (21); and Charlotte’s Web by E.B White (20). Only two of these texts might be considered children’s classics. Other texts which are generally considered to be children’s classics such as Swallows and Amazons and Goodnight Mr.Tom were not highly represented, nor were contemporary classics such as Northern Lights. The age of the participating children needs to be taken into account and the fact that the main study will include older pupils in year 6 may have an effect on the representation of more challenging and classic texts.
Of the 17 most widely read pupils 9 were high attaining writers and 11 were female. The other 8 most widely read pupils were all considered by their teachers to be writers working at the expected level for their age. None of the children considered to be low attainers were widely read from the list, although 8 children who had not read widely from the list were considered to be high attaining writers. Children who were more widely read tended to be more positive about reading and writing, regardless of their level of attainment.
Whilst the two schools which participated in the pilot study were very close geographically, situated less than a mile apart, there were some differences in the results. In school A the average number of books read from the survey was 15, with a range of 4-28. The modal score was 13. In school B the average number was 11, with a range of 2-32. The modal score was 8. The teacher in school B noted that a number of the books were ‘too hard’ for several of her pupils and suggested that some books were added to the list which reflect a lower level of reading skill. This was very useful feedback, but it was interesting that the teacher in school A did not raise these concerns. It is not possible to speculate on the reasons for these differences, but the teacher in schools B identified 14 members of her class as being learners with English as an additional language; in school A there were none. Issues such as this will be pursued further in the main study.
Pupils in school B provided a sample of independent writing. 8 children chose to write fiction. Of these 5 were high attaining writers. It is difficult to draw any conclusions based on such a small sample, but it was interesting to note that 16 children, more than half the class, chose to write personal or semi-autobiographical texts. The writing samples are being used to develop a coding scheme which will be used to analyse the writing journals in phase 2 of the main study.
Whilst this study is still a work in progress, it is already throwing up some interesting results which will be followed up in the main body of the research. A small amount of useful data has been provided for participating schools, suggesting that the more detailed information collected in the main study will be of value both to the schools and to myself as a researcher.
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