Developing Writing for Different Purposes: Teaching about Genre in the Early Years


Jeni Riley & David Reedy

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    For Benjamin, William, Tess, Sean and Alice


    by Professor GuntherKress

    I have a longstanding interest in the notion of genre; in fact I can date it quite precisely, to a day in October 1979 when I was finishing a book on how children came to writing. I was then living and working in Adelaide. Over the next twelve years I worked together with many people in Australia in developing an understanding of genre, as a means of making the knowledge involved in successful writing as explicit as it could be made. It seemed to the people in the Australian ‘Genre-School’ that in a multicultural society, considerations of equity simply demanded that such knowledge should be as explicitly there as it could possibly be, in a curriculum of writing, for every member of the classroom, no matter what their cultural background. Only in that way could ‘access’ be ensured, access to the whole curriculum, but access also to the cultural, social, political, and economic goods of the society in which they lived. It is a great pleasure therefore to see these ideas beginning to have their effect in the UK. Of course they have needed translation – on the one hand for practitioners in the classroom (a task also undertaken in Australia) and for the similar and different social conditions of this country. That translation requires special skill, special knowledge, and special experience, which the authors of this volume clearly do have. The tasks of bringing this knowledge to teachers are worthwhile and necessary: and it is performed excellently and with insight in this book. I hope that it has its desired effects, and will add its weight and its voice to a gathering body of useful knowledge around writing and reading, to the benefit of the young people in our schools.

    GuntherKress Professor in Education with special reference to the teaching of English June 1999


    Jeni Riley and David Reedy would like to thank those children who have helped their thoughts about writing to develop through the production of this book. We are especially grateful to the five whom we know best of all, Benjamin, William, Tess, Sean and Alice, for the contribution they have made to our understanding of the literacy process.

    Our sincere gratitude goes also to the pupils of Dorothy Barley Infant School and Monteagle Primary School in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. Their whole-hearted generosity in sharing their work makes this book what it is.


    Children should be taught written language, not just the writing of letters. (Vygotsky,1978:119)

    Both our lives are deeply concerned with the teaching of literacy. Jeni Riley has spent a great deal of her career teaching children to read and write, thinking about, researching into and lecturing on the teaching of literacy. David Reedy, initially as a class teacher, and now as an advisory teacher, continues to explore the processes involved in teaching children to read and write. He works alongside teachers in order to support them in their teaching and their pupils as they learn to become literate.

    This is a book that we believed it was important for us to write. It addresses the multifaceted nature of the writing process and its close relationship with reading, particularly in the early years of schooling. We discuss how the sometimes competing demands that writing makes on the young child can be overwhelming. Conversely, we know that young children are extraordinarily capable and that being able to operate within written language can both increase their intellectual capacity and provide a mode of transmission of thoughts to others.

    Enabling pupils to become fluent in their use of written language therefore necessitates an approach to teaching that concentrates on the interdependent but distinct aspects of writing, of which being able to represent the sounds of speech in print is one. However, our main concern in this volume is how best to enable children to structure their writing so that it both takes into consideration the absent reader and adheres to the cultural conventions of discourse and form for different cultural purposes. Effective teaching and learning follow deep understanding of what the child knows and can do. What we offer is a discussion of the approaches that teachers can use to assess children's developing ability to write both to express themselves clearly and with a growing awareness of the appropriate form for specific genre.

    The principles that underpin this book on the teaching of writing in the early years of school are that:

    • the acquisition of literacy is life-enhancing
    • writing is the complementary process to reading
    • the development of each language mode is interrelated and supportive of the other
    • as children learn to read and write their powers of thinking are developed
    • for children and adults writing is difficult.
    The Acquisition of Literacy is Life-Enhancing

    Literacy offers opportunities for personal growth, for an improved quality of life, for an enhanced self-image and the ability to function in the world. Being literate gives individuals access to knowledge and to an increasingly information-rich world, and this in turn provides choices which can lead to self-fulfilment.

    Writing is the Complementary Process to Reading

    Literacy is a complex, multifaceted process, with reading being the way of decoding and writing the way of encoding the sounds of speech into print. Hence, children are greatly supported by their reading as they learn to write. The reverse is also true – experience of reading texts of different types enables the production of various texts for many purposes. We believe that teachers can capitalize to great effect on this complementarity of reading and writing. As they work out how to transfer the sounds of speech into written language, young children gain access to the alphabetic code aspect of writing. This understanding is fundamental to fluent reading and writing.

    The Development of Each Language Mode is Interrelated and Supportive of the Other

    Not only do the two modes of written language interact with each other to great mutual benefit, the development of oracy also supports the development of literacy. Whilst there are substantial differences between the modes of written and spoken language, there are parallels in the way that individuals learn to speak and learn to read and write – not least the notion of the context for learning needing to be rooted in meaningful activities. Children learn to talk when they have a genuine purpose for communicating. The same principle is true with literacy, particularly with writing, which, we argue, requires very high levels of motivation.

    As Children Learn to Read and Write Their Powers of Thinking are Developed

    We believe along with Donaldson and Reid that the acquisition of literacy the ‘is main road, for the child's mind, out of the situation-bound, embedded thinking and language of the pre-literate years into a new kind of mental power and freedom’ (1985:240). When children learn to read they have personal access to a wider, richer vocabulary as they experience literary language. They meet new ideas and information, and importantly, they have experience of the formal and often high-status modes of discourse.

    As children learn to write they learn to use language in new and different ways compared with the way they speak. They become more precise, the language becomes more systematic and ordered. Donaldson argues that by providing examples and ways of using language in specific forms to fulfil their own purposes, we enable children to use language that not only is required for advanced thinking but is thought-enhancing.

    A step beyond this consideration, Bereiter and Scardamalia (1993) propose that there are two types of writing: one is knowledge-telling and the other is knowledge-transforming. We focus in this book on the ways that teachers can enable children to write in a way that transforms their own knowledge. We argue that this can be achieved if teachers provide authentic, challenging and stimulating purposes for writing, if they explore through discussion the different features of text forms, and if they model writing with the children.

    The Knowledge-Transforming Model of Writing

    Bereiter and Scardamalia (1993) propose that knowledge-transforming writing is a model of writing which keeps growing in complexity to match the expanding competence of the writer. As competence increases, the difficulties encountered whilst composing are replaced with new ones, and at a higher level of functioning. Bereiter and Scardamalia suggest that writing at this level goes beyond the individual's normal linguistic achievement, to enable development of her own thinking through the writing process; she is able to re-process knowledge through her own cognitive activity:

    This means going beyond the ordinary ability to put one's thoughts and knowledge into writing. It means … being able to shape a piece of writing to achieve intended effects and to re-organise one's knowledge in the process. (1993:157)

    This view of writing also looks at the way that language is taught which builds on what the child implicitly knows. As Richmond says:

    The most important job for the adults who care for the child is to help the child's implicit knowledge develop. For teachers this means providing a classroom environment which supports and affirms the child's achievements, while continually proposing activities calling forth greater powers of articulation and understanding. (1990:28)

    Writing is Difficult

    Both children and adults find the process of writing intellectually and physically demanding. We suggest that this needs to be brought to the forefront of teachers' minds as they work with their young pupils. Their teaching needs to take into account the findings of empirical research that shed light on what is involved in the writing process; and also the extent to which children are stimulated, entranced and motivated into making the effort to express themselves in written language. It is worth the effort. ‘There is something in the actual act of composing on paper that oils the juices of your cognitive processes, so that as you write, ideas take on meaning and shape’ (Curruthers, 1991 cited in Smith and Elley, 1998:85).

    JeniRiley and DavidReedyJune 1999
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