Critical English Online

Print-based literacy and the future of writing

On the face of it, print-based literacy reigns supreme in New Zealand English/language classrooms. Writing is the dominant mode for testing responses to text, even when those texts themselves aren't print-based. Moreover, the dominance of what might be called "classroom" genres (the expository essay, the short answer written response, the assortment of invented written genres which only palely reflect the rich range of real-world written genres) appears to go unchallenged.

But there are issues. One is the problem of relevance. How does one make the act of writing relevant to students for whom writing might be seen as a rather loathsome activity characteristic of the school setting and unrelated to everyday life?

Another, rather paradoxically, is the notion that in increasingly digital age, reading and writing are becoming more important than ever before (as Donald Leu, Jr [2000] claims in a chapter entitled "Literacy and technology: Deictic consequences for literacy education in an information age", in Kamil, M; Mosenthal, P; Pearson, P. & Barr, R. [Eds.]. Handbook of Reading Research: Volume III. Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum.) The question to be raised is: What kind of literate practice is writing becoming in a digital age?

Another is the problem of pedagogical strategy. What is the best metaphor for a writing teacher? Model? Guide? Coach? How do you draw on what we know about the dynamic and rhetorical nature of genres to stop the teaching of writing becoming formulaic?

A fourth is the problem of authenticity. How does one combine the role of guide with the demands of assessment regimes that a piece of writing be a student's "own work"?

Other problems include the troublesome one of curriculum terminology – its use of the terms "poetic", "expressive" and "transactional" (after James Britton and others in England in the 1980s) – now replaced by the terms "creative" and "formal" in the NCEA, and also the place of grammar in writing instruction.

Some of these issues have been addressed in the New Zealand context by the large number of articles on writing in English in Aotearoa. Issues from the late 80s reflect the interest of many New Zealand teachers in process writing (in the imposing shadow of Donald Graves), the New Zealand writing project and the work of Ruie Pritchard from the USA (currently Associate Professor of English Education at North Carolina State University). Pritchard is interviewed by Jane Painter in the May, 1998 issue of English in Aotearoa. (For a complete list of articles in English in Aotearoa dealing with writing, check out EIA Index.)

The key government text for teachers is Dancing with the pen: The learner as a writer. (1992). Wellington: Learning Media. Other useful texts are John Smith & Warwick Elley (1997). How children learn to write. Auckland: Longman and Richard Ward, Ed.(1992). Readings about writing: a resource book for supporting the developing writer. Palmerston North: The Dunmore Press.