Let’s Not Abandon Text Types - Used Creatively, They Can Still Support Children’s Writing
The old curriculum may have kept us shackled to genres, but there’s no need to abandon them altogether – so long as we don’t let them cage children’s creativity, says James Clements…
For the last decade in primary schools, much of the teaching of writing has been based on mastering the features of different text types.
This is the approach the Literacy Strategy used and it reflected the demands of the assessment regime – first through the old writing tests and APP and then through annual teacher assessment, where significant credit was given for children showing control over the text-level features.
But things changed with the 2014 National Curriculum. It makes no specific mention of text types or genres and the teacher assessment descriptors focus almost solely on use of key features such as grammar and punctuation.
As teachers, we know that using text types to teach writing can be tremendously helpful: they allow pupils to understand the purpose of a text, learn about different language features, and they provide a frame on which children can hang their own writing. Research also suggests that a familiarity with different genres supports reading comprehension.
The difficulty comes when an approach based solely on text types is poorly organised, as this can easily lead to formulaic writing. If each time they write, children are given a great shopping list of success criteria, it can be difficult for them to learn to tailor their writing to a particular audience and purpose independently.
As children grow older, the writing they produce won’t fit neatly into one of the primary school text types. If we want a generation of children who can use language with confidence, selecting words and phrases to communicate their ideas clearly and powerfully, then we need to teach them to be flexible in their writing. Aside from that, playing with the different genres can be a lot of fun, which is an important end in itself. So, if you’re looking to put a fresh spin on text types, here are some tried and tested suggestions:
1. Combine narrative and non-fiction
From TED talks to popular science books, using a story as an introduction for explaining an idea is a well-used technique for engaging an audience and making an idea stick. In primary school teaching, it has the added advantage of exploring two different types of writing at the same time, learning about both by considering their different demands. Children might, for example:
Tell the story of a famous scientist before they explain a specific concept – for example, Sir Isaac Newton figuring out gravity or Edward Jenner pioneering vaccination. This links well with the science strand of the National Curriculum, which includes the history of science.
Retell a story from history and then discuss the implications of this in the next paragraph – e.g. the story of Claudius’ invasion of Britain and the Romanisation of the country.
2. Tell a story through instruction
Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess’s exquisite book Instructions tells the story of a quest through a series of instructions. Trying this idea for themselves provides an interesting way for children to practise the language of instructional writing in a motivating and creative context. It certainly beats instructional writing about how to make a cup of tea. Again.
3. Write persuasive newspaper articles
In school, newspapers are often approached as non-fiction writing, promoting a detached writing style that presents the facts impartially. As adults, we know this isn’t the case and that every newspaper will cover a particular issue differently. Asking children to write two articles, each from a different point of view, is a terrific way of practising persuasive writing, as well as thinking about bias in the media. A task like this is excellent for stretching very confident writers. For them, the challenge is to communicate their feelings on an issue and persuade the reader in a subtle way. Can they present a biased argument, but make it appear to be balanced? The Guardian newspaper’s Three Little Pigs advert (search online) is a good way of introducing different points of view in reporting.
4. Take writing online
The nature of the texts with which we interact has changed greatly in the last few years. While books are still central to what we read and write in schools, engaging with information through online texts is increasingly common.
An information text that is written to sit online is different from a non-chronological report and needs different writing skills. Being able to write about a particular topic and then link to another page that gives more detail is an interesting way of exploring how children organise their ideas (and can be useful for explaining paragraphs, for example). Using resources such as Weebly to create online texts can be very motivating, and sites such as DK Find Out! or the InFact books on OxfordOwl.co.uk (both easy to find online) give an excellent model to share on the IWB.
The importance of text types as a scaffold to support children’s writing means we shouldn’t discard them just because they don’t feature in the 2014 National Curriculum, but if we want our children to become genuinely creative writers, then we shouldn’t be afraid to treat them flexibly either. They need to know the rules, but be able to break them too.
Space to think
Now we’re no longer wedded to text types, there’s plenty of room for encouraging creativity…
Coverage is the enemy of good learning. Trying to build a school curriculum that includes every text type each year can result in pressure to move on to the next genre before children are confident in their writing. Teaching fewer units, but spending more time on each, might be a better model for children to develop as writers.
We know how motivating it is to have a purpose for writing. Moving beyond a model where all genres need to be taught each year can provide an opportunity to make rich links between the writing children produce and other areas of the curriculum – writing for a real purpose.
Working to success criteria can be helpful for children, giving them clear expectations for what will make an effective piece. But too much detail inhibits creative writing. For stronger writers, it can be useful to move towards a model where they write without criteria, aiming to communicate clearly to their reader, and then having the opportunity to return to their writing and make changes after feedback has been given.
Developing writing skills doesn’t have to mean a written outcome: preparing for a debate, writing a presentation or performing a play all give opportunities for tailoring language to a particular purpose.