I have long been meaning to write a reflective piece about writing. I am fascinated by the way people develop the skills of literacy and was prompted by another blogger whose daughter sent him a card with wonderful, phonetic spelling on it.
One of the best books I have read on the subject is ‘GNYS AT WRK’ by Glenda Bissex. In the book Glenda Bissex documents and discusses the processes involved in her son Paul’s learning to write and read. The title is phonetic spelling (genius at work) and there are other examples in the book – probably my favourite is his first writing - an angry note – RUDF? – written to get his mother’s attention when she was reading.
The child in the book is not home educated and there are some interesting points about the way that school affected his emergent writing. She doesn’t slate the school experience and Paul himself manages to adapt and adjust his behaviour and skills and get by in that environment. He develops into someone who loves to write in his later childhood and is clearly very imaginative.
But in his early schooling experiences there seems to be a clear difference between his writing at home and his writing at school. This part was especially interesting to me:
“In contrast to the varied forms of Paul’s spontaneous writings, his school writings were structurally monotonous.” (Bissex, 1980, p.58) I laughed to myself on re-reading that recently, imagining how Leo’s current writing would be categorised by someone working with the National Literacy Strategy.
Glenda Bissex mentions the way that the different expectations of school affected Paul’s writing. These expectations were things like correct spelling, neat writing, correct use of upper and lower case letters – and so on. Glenda Bissex also wonders if Paul feels that there is an expectation that he will write like the other children.
“How important was it to Paul to write as they did? Instead of writing by himself, he was writing in a group. Instead of writing when he had something in particular he wanted to write, he wrote during class writing periods.”(Bissex, 1980, p.59)
I don’t suggest that children can’t learn to write by receiving periods of instruction in a classroom. But what struck me in that book, and what often strikes me now, is that when that is the model – and the only model – children never truly own the process. It is ok for people like Paul Bissex, who lives in a literate home and whose own emergent writing is treated with respect and appreciation. Maybe for kids like him there is no real harm done if school lays some claim to the skills and the meanings involved. But if children don’t already have a sense of ownership then I suspect that writing will always be something that belongs to the teacher and the school. I also wonder if the same does not apply even to home educated children if they are schooled in writing, for someone else’s purpose and to someone else’s schedule.
I have known so many people who feel that writing does not really belong to them. I have talked with people who have fascinating tales to tell but who have no belief in their own ability write them down. I once took part in a writing course with a lovely man who wanted to write about his experiences as a young man, in London in the 1950s. He would tell the group about all the fascinating things that had happened but when he came back with the same things written down they were very hard to read. He was so worried about whether or not his use of language was correct that he would end up obscuring his meaning. For example, he once wrote about his ‘English subject teacher’. When we asked him what he meant he said,
“You know, my English teacher.”
“Well, why didn’t you write English teacher?”
“Well, I did but then I wondered if maybe if you write that then it means a teacher who is English.”
His lack of confidence undermined him repeatedly. He was sure that there was always a rule that he might be breaking – and that he must avoid that at all costs. Writing bullied him – it got in the way of who he was and what he wanted to say.
When you watch a child write because they want to, when they have something they need to write, you see them take the language and use it. They pick up the symbols in their hands and they make them work – to serve their purpose. They are a human being working with the written word. They aren’t ‘learning to write’ or ‘practising writing’ – they are writing. I love the spellings that children use when they do this because they indicate that children are in charge. They have understood that this writing business is some sort of code employed to convey meaning. They take what they have figured out about the code and they use it. If they have a reader who wants to hear what they have to say then they do it more. They are empowered by a human invention, rather than cowed by it.
I have seen this happen very clearly with Leo. He (like Paul Bissex) clearly came to independent reading through writing. I don’t think that is the only way to do it but some people do it that way round. Leo took the letter sounds he knew and the letter shapes he knew and he wrote captions and messages. He has never had a list of words to learn – every word he writes he has found a need to write. That need to communicate, to be understood, drives the process of self-correction that hones his skills. It isn’t a linear process (I don’t think much learning is) but a cyclical one. He sometimes picks up a spelling and then drops it again, in place of one of his own. But gradually, bit by bit, the orthodox spellings start to outnumber the phonetic ones. Bit by bit he starts to see the need to punctuate. If he asks questions we answer them – but he doesn’t often ask questions. He generally writes (by hand or on the pc) when everyone else is pre-occupied with something else. He presents the finished article and we appreciate it. That’s it. Slack, eh? We could certainly interfere a lot more - we have the knowledge, the books, the time. But why do it? What we see is that Leo has confidence. He has ownership. From there anything is possible.
I think that taking literacy from the hands of our children and feeding it back to them in an imposed structure is a great gift for the powerful. Tell people they’re no good at ‘literacy’ or ‘English’ and you shut their mouths. They won’t be writing to their MP, they won’t be writing to the paper, they won’t be telling the truths of their lives. Of course, sometimes they do. People who have been robbed of their confidence get involved in something and find their voice – they find the skills. Sometimes it is taking on the powerful that is the spur. Sometimes it is just the realisation that their story is a fantastic one – and they need to tell it. But there are lots of people who live their whole lives in fear of being asked to write – or made to write. I think that they have been robbed. If they’d been allowed to discover the purpose of writing – their own purpose – then maybe that wouldn’t be so.
If you want to read the Bissex book:
Bissex, G. (1980)
GNYS AT WRK
Cambridge, Massachusetts; London: Harvard University Press