Teaching English: learning to write

April 5, 2016

Reflecting on my profession five years after retiring…

Although I remember loathing the imposition of the National Curriculum for English, after it had worked its way through primary schools, it did actually make the teaching of writing somewhat more straightforward at secondary level too, because it clearly labelled and defined genres, and also encouraged writers to try and write with a target audience in mind; when it came to GCSE, the trio of genre, audience, purpose was a useful way in to both textual analysis and structuring writing.

When I had had to write, at school and at university, I had always found initial preparation and planning of some kind to be invaluable, rather than rushing headlong into writing, and I tried to get students to slow down and do the same, with some success. Many could see that to have a fairly clear idea of where they were heading, what they wanted to say and how best to say it, before committing themselves to the final version, was a good idea. However, this tended to change over time as it became possible to word-process text: now once could write and erase, correct and modify as one went along, so it would be alright, wouldn’t it? Well, no: this method took ages, you still needed a route map before you started, and in an examination room, you still had to do it all longhand on paper with pen and ink, against the clock…

As my career progressed, I gradually discovered that it was possible for the students ans me collectively to plan an essay in class on a black/whiteboard, elucidating and illustrating the entire process from start to finish, taking the students through all the stages, and also building in various prompts about timing, in preparation for the exam room. It was an exhausting tour-de-force which required a double lesson, and the ability to juggle quite a few balls at once, as well as keeping a rigorous control of time. But I could see the difference it made, and I could see my students realising the control it gave them.

Receiving students’ writing to mark was often a real joy: I could often see writers whose command of language and imagery was way beyond my creative efforts. And personal pieces were often very moving indeed: writing that came from the heart, often sharing things that I could see the student was sharing for the first time, with a stranger; the trust that involved was astonishing, and the writing demanded respect. It was often very hard to put a mark on a piece, and writing a teacher comment took much deep thought: how to value a piece as well as assess it, and not to patronise someone who shared part of her or himself?

I always regarded my students as writers, but, as I have written elsewhere, it took quite a while before I remembered that I was one, too. And now, away from all the pressures, I enjoy writing this blog very much.

2 Responses to “Teaching English: learning to write”

  1. g2-3fc65a4f01d1887a1c77c00e6ccb95b2 Says:

    Surprised to see ‘alright’, Stefan. Is that acceptable English usage these days?


    • litgaz Says:

      I think it is, nowadays; I felt that the battle over that one was pretty much lost by the time I started teaching. I used to feel it was rather ugly, but as you can see, I have got used to it myself. Standards are slipping! Being serious, though, the debate between being descriptive and prescriptive is an interesting one, as well as being a veritable minefield: where do you say, OK I will accept this, but not that?


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