The first part of the book Use of Language across the Primary Curriculum is called “Language and Learning.” The first chapter is called, “Why do we have to write it down? Young children learning to write and writing to learn.”
The unexamined life is not worth living. –Socrates
The teacher writing it, Sally Wilkinson, is a teacher in Key Stage 1, which I think must be the British equivalent of Lower El(ementary). She talks about the different reasons that children need and want to write, emphasizing that there is a formal hand-eye coordination aspect, but that is not usually motivation enough for kids to write down their thoughts. They need to have an emotional or intellectual motivation in addition to the developmental one.
She also, interestingly emphasizes the necessity of allowing children to produce writing independent of teacher assignment.
I have to say from my experience in the two schools where I worked, that sounds about right. The students in the second school, where they said, “Use red pen for the title. No, not blue! Tear out the sheet and start again,” didn’t know how to use the language that we were teaching them, whereas the children in the bilingual school developed writing skills in English as early as Second Grade. We used to hang out short writing exercises on the wall based on season or topic. Mostly the written rather than drawn ones were in Third Grade or above, but some words were written by the younger kids.
She goes on to make suggestions of how to motivate children to write.
The first of these is either a Writing Corner, or if space isn’t adequate, a clearly labeled Writing Box filled with good things to write on and with. By allowing children to use the box in their down time, or even by assigning each child a time to be allowed to visit the Writing Box/Corner, “…[the] teacher [can be] the facilitator for further learning as well as allowing [students] to consolidate and practice [their] letter writing skills.” (p. 22)
This idea is not far off of the solution I came up with for my Private Lessons in Spain. I carried an Art-Studio-in-a-Backpack to each lesson filled with things to write/draw with and on, as well as other less traditional materials and a few Art books, in English where possible. It also brings to mind the reason I decided with some groups of kids, both in schools and out, to make three to four page books, so that the children could look at what we were studying on their own, and thereby develop an independent interest in what we had studied.
That plan backfired a little, or well blew up anyway, one group of private students named their dog Bingo because we’d sung that song so many times, and afterward we made a book just for Bingo the real dog.
Ms. Wilkinson goes on to talk about the relationship to home and school saying, “…written texts they meet in the environment in which they live are likely to be significant to them and may be influential.” (p. 23) and goes on to talk about a boy who wrote in the form of comics and comic books because he had lots of comics at home. His parents had created an environment in which it was encouraged to read, albeit one particular form of media. That creation of environment is what I’ve read and written about as the creation of a culture in which learning and/or looking is valued.
There have been studies about the relationship of being able to change registers and children’s exposure to stories, and Wilkinson mentions a study from 1993 by Carol Fox about children “being able to talk like a book” because they’d been read to a lot. This is how she explains Daryl’s ability to reproduce comic art.
In EFL it is especially important to create “home” opportunities to interface with the second or additional language. In ESL, where a child is immersed in the Second Language, that opportunity isn’t as important because there is social motivation to get at least spoken fluency, but where a child is in a Foreign Language program, that motivation has to be constructed. Apparently, I had some success, what with Bingo being so named because my students liked to sing the song so much. But that isn’t as simple as it sounds. Motivation is multi-faceted, and ebbs and flows over time.
The most interesting suggestion, and one which I haven’t encountered yet in other places was a “Story Box.” She suggests putting a few objects in a box and making the children tell you a story that links them. She says, “With older children it can be tempting to miss out on the oral storytelling and go straight into writing.” (p. 26) That is something that I’ve found to be true with older kids in EFL, in part because they are shy and slow. When we did that kind of storytelling or design activity, I made them talk in groups first and attempted to preserve an English Only class, which proved nearly impossible.
Her section about research is similar to the techniques I used with the older kids to talk about articles and to make designs, but she directed it better than I did. She had them work in pairs, where I had them in groups, then she had them ask questions, which I did, but in which I didn’t direct the questions enough. For my own future reference, I need to have a list of things to direct the students what information they need. And the third part (pre-Final) was something that I didn’t have at all which was to list things known, learned and unknown about the topic at hand. That is a very clever little key!
Her conclusion is that the job of the teacher is to create an island in which the children have permission to ask questions, make mistakes, and be creative because in having that space to grow, they will become more enthusiastic. In my experience that is true, the problem is creating and maintaining it is a lot of work for us teachers. We need to remind ourselves to build that space.
As a grown-up, I still don’t necessarily like to write down non-fiction or non-imaginative writing, but as a grown up who has read and learned a lot from non-fiction, I also know the value of a reflection.