Writing in Contemporary Education and Society

Writing Contemporary Education

“Language is a window on the mind” (1).

“There is something in the actual act of composing on paper that oils the juices of your cognitive processes, so that as you write, ideas take on meaning and shape” (2).

Contemporary Education

“The two quotes above will form the basis of this analysis, and I shall be referring to them throughout the course of the essay, for they best explain the two greatest functions of writing in cotemporary education and society. Language, both spoken and written, is often seen to be a good indicator of a person’s intelligence. We, as a society, make judgements based on what a person says and how well they write. Chomsky believed that by analysing the sentences produced and understood by an individual, we are able to acquire an insight into the knowledge they possess. Literacy is extremely important in contemporary society, and therefore must have a vital role in contemporary education. As Curruthers suggests in the second quotation, writing also generates ideas and aids the growth of the mind, making the act of writing essential in the development of an individual’s mind.

“It would be prudent at this point to note that, as many linguists have argued, it is virtually impossible to separate reading and writing. The two skills are complementary and the development of each is inseparable form the other. Most importantly, the one supports the other, and strengthens it. Children must understand the code that translates speech into print, to both read and write, for “reading is the way of decoding; writing the way of encoding the sounds of speech into print” (3). Through both learning to read and to write a child begins to understand the roles language plays.

“In today’s literate society, it has become a necessity for an adult to possess at least basic language skills, and the government realises this. In 2001 the ‘Get On Campaign’ was launched, persuading adults to join one of the thousands of free courses around the country to eliminate their ‘gremlins’ for good and improve their literacy and numeric skills. The Minister for Skills and Vocational Education, Ivan Lewis, has admitted that “There are still too many people who are being held back in their everyday life because of their poor literacy…skills” (4). Even if the ability to write is not a requirement in an individual’s job, in their daily lives they will come across many occasions when they will have to, whether it is filling in a tax form or jotting a note to a friend or relative. Illiteracy is hugely detrimental to a person and can prevent them from performing many essential tasks.

“To give a child the best chance in life therefore, it is essential that they acquire literacy, and that they begin learning at the earliest possible opportunity.

Most children’s literacy skills start developing at a very young age. Through oral language, children learn to communicate by way of the shared activity of conversation. They learn to label objects, and therefore begin to give meaning to the world. Before children learn to write they start to read and be read to, and research has shown that pre-school children that grow up in a household immersed in books and reading and writing activities go on to possess greater literacy skills than those who don’t. The Bristol Study, conducted by G Wells, found that children who scored highly on literacy tests upon entry to primary school had parents who owned and read more books and read to them frequently (5). The reason for this seemed to be that these children then became more interested in literacy, and actively sought out the meanings of words, and learnt about the differences in letter shapes. They actually requested to spend more time on reading and writing activities. From this early-acquired knowledge of literacy and its purposes they entered school with a distinct advantage over those children who had limited experiences with print and how to obtain meaning from it.

“Children are expected to be able to read and write by the age of seven or eight.”

“Those that possessed little pre-school experience of literacy found this a far more difficult task. As Wells found, although they might learn the “mechanical skills” of deciphering printed words into spoken words and the forming of letters, words and sentences into writing, if they do not learn why or how to use the act of writing at school, they are far less likely to become an independent writer and reader able to benefit from the enjoyment of such skills, before they move on to secondary school (5). If a child cannot read or write adequately they will not progress as quickly as they might in other subjects in the curriculum, leading to the detriment of their entire scholarly development and therefore by extension also of their life options.

Contemporary Education

“Wells offers the theoretical examples of children from different backgrounds to demonstrate the impact a knowledge and understanding of reading and writing and its purposes at entry to school can have on a person’s entire life (5). These pre-school experiences can give children the start they need to be able to swiftly pick up the skills necessary to become independent readers and writers, which then enables them to do as well as they possibly can in other subjects. At secondary school their literacy skills allow them to continue to progress and do well in subjects across the curriculum, leading them to leave school with good enough exam results to go to university, whereupon they attain qualifications which enable them to enter middle-class professions. In these jobs they maintain and develop their literacy skills, and their choice of hobby will also often include these skills. When they marry and have children of their own their children see the importance of literacy in everything they do and will often share the interests of their parents by reading and writing with them, and thus the cycle repeats itself. By contrast, those children that come to school with little knowledge of or interest in literacy find reading and writing difficult and therefore perform poorly across the curriculum. Their frustration and feelings of inadequacy lead them to distrust and dislike education and they often leave school with few qualifications, leaving them with no alternative but to enter into a working-class profession which requires little or no literacy skills. Their leisure-time interests do not include reading or writing as they do not enjoy those activities, and thus their children also do not participate in them. This new generation therefore has limited knowledge of literacy before they start school.

“Wells goes on to suggest that because of the disadvantage some children face before they even begin school, the curriculum should allow for work to be assessed just as much through oracy as through reading and writing (6). For many subjects however, this type of assessment would not be practical, and we have to be realistic in understanding the reasons for why reading and writing are valued so highly in schools. In a literate society, any person wanting to excel and have no barriers to social and professional advancement must be literate, and be able to demonstrate their knowledge through all three modes of communication – oracy, reading and writing. Without the ability to read and write a person is severely limited as to what they can achieve.

“The ability to write provides the individual with a power that leads to the development of the mind and to self-fulfillment.

As Donaldson and Reid write, acquiring literacy marks “the main road, for the child’s mind, out of the situation-bound, embedded thinking of the pre-literate years into a new kind of mental power and freedom” (7). Learning to read provides children with the key to access thousands more words, enriching and widening their vocabulary. Through reading children can independently introduce themselves to a wealth of new ideas and encounter information that has previously been out of reach. As they learn to write they discover that language can be employed in a multitude of different ways and they start to use their language with more precision, writing and speaking in a more ordered manner. As Carruthers cites in the second quotation at the beginning of this analysis, writing can be thought-enhancing. The actual act of writing can prompt ideas, for as we write down what we are thinking we are able to organise our thoughts, and by seeing them more clearly we can elucidate our meaning and expand on our ideas. Writing can fuel ideas and expand the mind. As Donaldson has suggested, complex ideas and thoughts are strengthened and developed through writing, requiring a “considerable mastery of the written word” to match (8). In order to develop this “mastery” children must be taught written language of every form.

“Writing is employed for many reasons, and children should be taught how to manipulate every form to obtain the desired result. Knowing which form to use when older will be essential in order to communicate the correct meaning and be taken seriously. Britton has identified three types of writing, each with their own functions (9). The expressive is a personal written form, and is generally relatively unstructured. It expresses emotions and thoughts in diary entries, letters to friends and family, and notes. Transactional writing is usually impersonal, written with the imperative voice, and is employed largely to give instructions but also to persuade, advise and inform. Poetic writing is generally employed to entertain through novels and poems. In schools, all three forms should be taught.

“Early on, children’s writing is mostly of the expressive genre.

Contemporary Education

So teachers encourage young children to write about what they did at the weekend, their best friends, their favourite food, and so on. Writing about something they have just talked about demonstrates clearly to young children the relationship between thought, speech and writing. It also portrays writing from the very start as an invaluable communication tool. Meek suggests that storying is a psychological necessity for all humans; “the habit is so deeply sunk in us, historically and culturally, that we recognise our common humanity in all the tales we tell and hear, from childhood to old age” (10). If this is so, writing stories is a fundamental need and therefore should certainly be encouraged by teachers. The National Literacy Strategy states that teachers must teach children all of the components that make up narrative fiction; those being plot, structure, character and setting, as well as the discussion of common themes and language (11). Martin is of the view that narrative “imprisons” children “in a world of fantasy and make-believe”, preventing them from learning the sort of writing that will empower them and give them independence (12). However, his opinion is the minority, and other professionals in the field agree that stories have the fundamental role of providing a means to understand the world: “Storying is the human way of making sense, and the better we are at making stories, the more equipped we are to understand and make experience meaningful” (13), thus the teaching of narrative writing should play a major role in education.

“Children will have encountered transactional writing from very early on in every aspect of their lives.

From adults making lists to signs in buildings, and will thus also have an idea of what it is used for. Browne suggests that making signs such as “The Book Area” introduces children to this type of writing and paves the way for teachers to present them with more complex texts later on, such as recipes and instructional writing (14). The teaching of poetic writing can begin with oral storytelling and the discussion of books with the children, before writing very short, structured stories. We discussed earlier the importance of story-writing.

“In contemporary society, email is replacing the written letter as the preferred medium of communication, and more and more people ‘text’ each other rather than use the telephone. The written word is being employed by more people on more occasions, but the quality of that writing is deteriorating. ‘Text language’ is slowly seeping into the everyday language of adolescents as the immediacy of mobile ‘texting’ and email leads to shortened words and phrases. This makes it more important than ever for children to be taught how to write well at school, to ensure that the English language isn’t irrevocably changed by this new form of writing.