Nov 04, 2016 | Features | by Kate Jackson
EXCLUSIVE: Australian authors speak out
Every year for the past 25 years, Jackie French has judged children’s writing competitions.
As the multi-awarded author of 140 books - including Diary of a Wombat and Hitler’s Daughter - she is more than qualified to know what constitutes good writing.
She says: “Over those 25 years I’ve seen a marked slide in the ability of young people to write to a topic, to be able to write intelligible prose, to be able to stick to a scene and to even write in paragraphs.
“In the last two competitions I judged, none of the years 4 to 8 students were able to put their work into paragraphs - it was all done as a single block of text.
“It is a major, major problem and it is getting worse and worse, year after year after year.”
In this age of smartphones and games consoles, is it technology that’s robbing our children of the ability to express themselves on the page?
No, says the 2014 Australian Children’s Laureate.
It’s substandard teaching.
“I cannot emphasise enough how appalling the teaching of writing is,” she says.
It’s an assertion backed by Mem Fox, whose iconic Possum Magic is the best-selling Australian children’s book of all time.
When I emailed her about being interviewed for this article, she wrote back: “Please don’t get me started on the current teaching of writing.
“I’m 70 and don’t have enough years left, or enough breaths to take, to cover that horrifying field of endeavour.”
Again, not a ringing endorsement of current classroom practice.
French and Fox are not merely casting aspersions from the ivory towers of their publishing houses - Mem taught literacy studies at Flinders University School of Education for 24 years and Jackie has mentored thousands of adults and children in writing throughout her career.
Their dim view of literacy teaching in schools is reflected in 2016 national NAPLAN data, which shows that while overall gains were made in maths and reading, writing results worsened.
The national curriculum for English relies on the key idea that different text types provide the basis for learning from kindergarten through to Year 10.
It states (in ominously tedious language) that “the usefulness of distinctions among types of texts relates largely to how clearly at each year level these distinctions can guide the selection of materials for students to listen to, read, view, write and create, and the kinds of purposeful activities that can be organised around these materials”.
Fox and French are united in their condemnation of this approach.
Mem says: “We might like to sit back for a cool moment and take stock, and ask ourselves earnestly what the hell writing really is.
“And whether it bears any relation to the manufactured horrors we’re currently inflicting on the youngsters in our classrooms in the name of literacy education - deadly formulas on the ways of writing different text-types such as the persuasive, descriptive, narrative and so on.
“That’s not real writing. It bears no resemblance to writing.
“Teaching text-types outside the context of passion and purpose, audience and response sucks the lifeblood from natural, vibrant writing and kills it stone dead.”
Jackie says the over-reliance on the mechanics of writing is not only ineffective, but positively damaging to children’s ability to learn.
“I think the syllabus has been set by people - and teachers have also been taught by people - who simply do not understand how to write.
“Students are asked a whole range of quite weird questions that you might find in advanced literature - about authorial voice, for example - none of which have anything to do with being able to write.
“They are literary criticism devices and unless you want to be a literary critic, you really do not need to know these things.
“It’s not just that children aren’t being taught, it’s that what they’re being taught is counter-productive.
“They are intimidated by being given concepts that are completely irrelevant to their age group and they are being taught by people who do not know how to write themselves.
”And certainly in primary school, you don’t need to separate the techniques of creative writing from non-fiction writing, they are exactly the same.”
Jennifer Buckingham is an education researcher at the Centre for Independent Studies and head of the government-supported 'FIVE from FIVE' literacy project.
She, too, sees flaws in current literacy teaching and stresses the importance of helping children to nail the foundations of reading and writing through the early years at school.
“I’d like to see more focus in a lot of classrooms on phonics,” she says.
“It’s not being taught as effectively as it should be and there are still a lot of children struggling with just decoding and encoding words.
“Vocabulary isn’t taught explicitly in a lot of cases, it’s assumed that children will pick up vocabulary just by being read to and that’s not necessarily true.
“Some children will make connections between meanings and words and retain them quite readily, others will need some explicit instruction.
“Morphology is a really important aspect of that as well, it helps children break a word down into component parts to work out what it means.
“That’s not being taught explicitly in a lot of schools, either.”
So if the teaching of writing is defective right from the start of a child’s school life, how do we elicit change?
Jackie French advocates specialist literacy teaching in the early years of schooling and quality input from established authors or editors for older students looking to developing their craft.
“The one thing we desperately need is for literacy in the first two years to be taught as a specialist subject in all teacher training,” she says.
“We need to say that if you want to teach years one and two, you need to specialise in numeracy and literacy and learn how to teach young kids this - and you also need to learn how to look out for specific learning difficulties.
“Every teacher needs to go back and do a week’s professional development on how to identify learning difficulties, so children can then be directed to specialists.
“I’ve been involved in teaching kids with learning difficulties for decades. I haven’t come across a single person who cannot be taught to read - and that includes a girl who was completely paralysed and could only read braille using the side of her tongue.”
French has taken some of the most disadvantaged people on the planet to life-changing achievements through her writing-made-simple approach.
“I can teach kids to write in a day. It doesn’t take any longer, it’s really not difficult,” she says.
“Give me a day with teachers and give me a day with students and I can teach the basics.
“I can show how you can write a good history essay for the rest of your life.
“First of all, you need to teach that you need to know what you are going to say on paper - because if you are having to think as you go along, it’s going to be messy.
“That’s not to say your ideas won’t change as you write - of course they do because you’re still thinking as you write.
“But nonetheless, before you start to write you need to know ‘what am I going to write, what information do I need to give to the audience and what is the most effective order of explaining that’.
“Too many teachers are teaching incredibly bad techniques. They are not teaching clear exposition because they are not doing it themselves and they’ve never had to do it themselves.”
Mem Fox goes further, arguing that writing should be taught only by teachers who understand through personal experience what’s involved in writing with passion and conviction.
She says: “Children should be taught writing by people who know first-hand what it’s like to write anything at all that they really care about; who know what it’s like to work hard and redraft to get everything right; who know what it’s like to aim for a particular response; who know what it’s like to wait for that response; and who know what it’s like to achieve the response they were aiming for.
"If they’re armed with this experience (which can arise from anywhere, such as writing a crazy poem for a friend’s birthday, or an application for promotion to deputy-principal, or an awkward note to a parent), teachers will be able to teach writing with much greater insight, sensitivity and good sense.
"And they’ll pay strict attention to teaching the basics, as well.”
Mem believes that central to every piece of writing is a purpose, an audience and a response.
“Can you see therefore, the heart-breaking pointlessness of battering children with text-types, none of which develop passion or competence in a young writer?” she says.
“Audience and response - nothing else matters: text-types are chosen naturally, they arise organically, as passion and purpose surface in a writer’s brain.
“None of us, let alone eight-year-old children, can write persuasively unless we have real steam coming out of our ears about the matter in hand.”
Jennifer Buckingham’s work focuses on the early stages of reading acquisition and how children make the connection between written and spoken language.
While she advocates greater access to ongoing professional development for primary teachers, she is sceptical about the idea that children should be taught to write by those with writing experience.
“I think it’s really important that people who write have input into the curriculum and into pedagogical development, but I’m not sure that it’s realistic to expect that all children are taught to write by a writer, there’s just not enough writers to go around to every classroom,” she says.
“We have to be careful about assuming that just because someone knows how to do something they also know how to teach others to do it.
“A scientist doesn’t necessarily know how to teach children about science, a musician doesn’t necessarily know how to teach children to play.
“There are specific aspects of teaching children at different developmental levels that use specialist knowledge as well, one doesn’t necessarily transfer to the other, you need both.”
French believes the ability to read and write is innate in humans, regardless of their culture.
“Humans are natural readers, we’re natural storytellers,” she says. “It is harder to learn to dress yourself than to learn to read.”
Buckingham agrees we’re born to communicate - but disagrees that literacy is a natural progression from that.
“Children are born wired for speech and for verbal communication and that’s not the case in terms of reading and writing - that’s a relatively new technology as far as our brains are concerned,” she says.
“Some children really require explicit instruction in how to go about writing, it’s not necessarily obvious to them from reading how you go about creating text of your own - and those can be very bright children.”
French acknowledges the challenges of teaching literacy to a class-full of diversely skilled children, saying: “There is a clear evidence base that 4 out of 5 children will learn to read almost regardless of how they’re taught, 1 in 5 will have a problem and 1 in 11 will have a really major problem”.
But as someone who is dyslexic herself, she is well placed to identify the barriers to literacy - and the ways around them.
And she is adamant that with rigorous testing and specialist help, no primary school child need fall behind.
“Schools assume that 15 out of 20 is a good result in terms of kids reaching required reading levels - it’s not,” she says.
‘Every child, EVERY CHILD, must reach this.
“This is not optional - 19 out of 20 is not good enough.
“Every year, kids need to be tested for literacy and if someone fails to be the level they need to be in years 4 and 5, then they are taken out of class and given specialist tuition until they get to that level.
“With the right specialist help, it should not take very long, but that specialist help is not something you can do with 20 hours of tuition back in teacher training school.
“It’s something to be done by people with degrees and post graduate degrees and with significant work experience.”
Mem Fox approaches the teaching of writing with a missionary zeal - armed with an evidence base shaped by her own metamorphosis as a writer and her classroom discoveries.
She writes: “The insights I have as to why I write make me believe that as a teacher I must try to:
“In my last will and testament I’d like to leave you this theory: children develop language through interaction, not action. They learn to talk by talking to someone who responds. They must therefore learn to write by writing to someone who responds.”
Jackie French agrees response is vital to developing writing ability.
She says: “By the time they are in year 4 to 5, children should be able to write a page of exposition.
"They should know where to break the paragraphs, where to break the sentences and how to clearly express themselves.
“They should be able to show narrative progression and be able to work out ‘what am I writing about’.
“One of the problems is that it takes quite a long time to evaluate and mark it and also it means that every child needs individual feedback.
“You cannot teach children to write without teaching them one-on-one at some stage.
“That doesn’t mean you necessarily are one-on-one with them, but it does mean at least once or twice a week and preferably every day, they are writing an essay and the teacher will mark it - or preferably they all create one together and then everyone does it by themselves.”
Mem says the standards writers apply to their own work are beneficial for any child learning to shape a piece of prose.
“We choose our own topics, decide our own purposes, target our own audiences, take our time, draft and redraft, talk over our writing with trusted friends and colleagues, and publish our pieces if we’re lucky.
“As a teacher I’ve applied these writers’ conditions in my classes and I’ve noticed, of course, a consequent improvement in the effectiveness of my students’ writing.”
So, if we were to introduce the French and Fox gold standard - literacy specialists in the early years, support provided by special needs experts, writing tasks shaped by the ideals of purpose, audience and response, and older students guided to great things by top authors and editors - what then?
Mem Fox hopes it might just change the world - by creating “powerful writers for forever instead of just indifferent writers for school”.
Jackie French believes it needs to.
She says: “In terms of the social cost, two years ago I went to a prison in Victoria to run a workshop and the whole roomful of men told me they couldn’t read.
“One hundred years ago it really didn’t matter if you couldn’t read or write but to use our increasingly technologically-based society, you need to be literate.
“We have this major underclass of at least ten per cent of the population - in rural areas it’s between 46 and 50 per cent depending on the area - who have become deeply, incredibly marginalised because they are illiterate.
“And we wonder why people vote for Donald Trump….”