Instead of only choosing literature based on a specific writing task or learning objective, teachers should make literature the key part of all writing programs.
This is the teaching strategy utilised by Alison Marsh, a Year 6 teacher at Hahndorf Primary School in South Australia, who has successfully transitioned from a ‘ritual writing stance’ to a ‘meaningful writing stance’ in the classroom.
She discussed with literacy experts Phil and Sharon Callen on episode 16 of The Teacher’s Tool Kit for Literacy the three key chapters to the art of teaching writing through literature. These are The Importance of Reading Aloud, Learning to Read Like a Writer and Truly Being a Writer.
Alison came to these discoveries after finding that her own writing programs weren’t having the full impact on her students.
“So the school you would go into, there would be a program that they would use and you would run with that program … ‘so I need to teach children how to write with apostrophes. Now I’ve got to go and find a book or a passage from a book or something that will help me to teach them’. So I was looking for the teaching point, then looking for the literature to go with it,” Alison said.
“It’s assuming that every young mind in front of you will all learn it that same way. So if they all get that same template, they’ll all understand it, they’ll all run with it that way. And I think that’s where the problems came up because it just doesn’t happen … so I think it was stifling more than anything else for them.”
Alison then discussed the first step to making a shift in her teaching was to expand her literature selections and give herself permission to be ‘the authentic teacher’ who makes decisions for herself and her students.
“I was thinking about all the good books that I wasn’t getting to do with the children, because it didn’t come on the list. So in my head, I knew of these fantastic books that I had read or heard about, but you’d pick it up and you would say, ‘but I can’t get it to connect with what the task is in the book this week’,” she said.
“I was restricting myself to whatever the program of the time was telling me I should be doing. And I thought ‘surely these kids aren’t all going to like the same thing. I don’t like the same as everyone else’. So I started to think about, how do I get all of them to come in at whatever point they need to come in at?
“It’s still following the curriculum, but it’s not programmed step by step. So, you’ve just got the idea, but you’re free to work out a more open, appealing way to present it rather than a program that was set with this is how you do it.”
For Alison, chapter one – the Importance of Read Alouds – was truly discovered when she chose to read aloud The Tale of Desperaux without a constant stream of questions in-between, which ironically lead to an increase in discussions.
“[I tried] to hold myself back from those questions when you read a chapter, like ‘so what do you think of this?’ So, [I was] trying to just hold back and just let it flow from their point of view,” she said.
“There was a lot of talk, which we hadn’t had before … because there was no there was no purpose, I didn’t start the book saying ‘we’re reading this book because we’re learning about … or because we need to know about …’
“Because I just read it, they would just talk about whatever came to mind. So, they were interested in the French that was in the book … and they started to make connections to how we did some of that when we were looking at the spelling of some of those words that come from France.
“And so they started to make connections and they started to connect with the imagery and it was just all stuff that I wouldn’t have thought to ask them about. Things like the difference between the rats and the mice and what they represent.
“I didn’t have a lot to say. I just sort of went along with it and they sort of guided and had discussions amongst themselves. So sometimes I was really just an observer. They talked amongst themselves about what was going on, which hadn’t happened previously and kids that I wouldn’t have expected, or who in the past would not have engaged, were engaging in the conversations.”
Alison said these discussions then lead to insightful talk on writing concepts and skills, and provided the opportunity for students to engage in both individual and collective writing tasks. These activities particularly captured the Learning to Read Like a Writer and Truly Being a Writer concepts.
“We talked about how she had shown the feelings that the animals had. So what language did she use that made us understand how Despereaux was feeling. And we started to talk about the language. And then we thought, ‘well, let’s do some writing around it’,” she said.
“We did a thing where we talked about, ‘well, let’s write if we were Despereaux’. So they all had a go at writing about if they were Despereaux … And at given points, we’d stop and share, to help each other. They’d share their ideas, they’d share how they started it.
“And you didn’t have those kids who would say, ‘oh, I don’t know what to write, I can’t think of what to write’. They just (wrote) straightaway, because we’d been reading about it and talking about it, and they all just found a point where they felt comfortable and they just went with the background knowledge.
“[Then], one of the kids just happened to say, ‘can we put this in a book?’ So I said, ‘alright, we’ll make a book’. So that was when we started to make our first books …”
Another key example for Alison of chapters two and three in the art of writing through literature was when her classroom created their own version of the children’s book Mechanica by Lance Balchin. She found that despite having no set instruction or program, her students successfully learned all the required writing components.
“When I got to the end of this and I looked back on it, I thought I can’t pick specific lessons where I taught specific things to do with this. And yet I still have this finished project,” she said.
“It had happened, but I think it was more student directed. I was more there on the sidelines to guide and giving support when it was needed, but it seemed to be more, the students were pushing it in the direction they wanted it to go.
“The difference is unbelievable, and parents have said the same. And it’s just mind blowing to think all that time of direct instruction and all that time I’d put into trying to get results and I wasn’t getting them, and just this simple talk had opened a door to vocab, spelling, punctuation, everything. It just all progressed. And it was for all children, regardless of their ability, they all in their own way had progressed in the time, and teaching was more enjoyable.”
With this in mind, Alison and Sharon encouraged teachers to broaden their horizons and experiment with different texts.
“The more abundant our experiences are with text, if we’re being given permission, the more we can experiment and just to make a connection with the Australian curriculum,” Sharon said.
Alison added: “And it’s knowing all those varieties of ways that it can start that then empowers us as thinkers and as writers and designers and creates the multiple entry points that those children need. Yes. Those ones that need to start a different way or write a different way.”