Christie on Learning to Mean in Writing

A great deal of children’s learning involves the use of models: in learning behaviour appropriate to the meal table, the supermarket, the swimming pool, the school playground or the classroom, children are subtly socialized into various behavioural patterns, where they rely heavily upon the example of others in determining what they should do. Sometimes—quite frequently, in fact—aspects of the behavioural model are explained to children, by parent, teacher, sibling or peer, and sometimes they are simply adapted from observation of others. In both cases, however, it is clear that children learn to behave in appropriate ways by following the examples available to them in the patterns of other people’s behaviour. The significance of modelling, of the consequences of the fact that we all do model our behaviour in various complex ways, is frequently not acknowledged properly in educational discussion. Yet it needs to be considered very seriously if we are to do justice to the learning needs of those whom we teach in schools. Never is this more the case than when we consider the practices of learning language, for language is itself a critically important resource in children’s overall patterns of behaviour.

… Teachers too need a professional interest in the mature of language, for it is in language that so much that is typical of teaching/learning behaviour is realized or comes into being. In fact, language is a principal resource in the processes of school teaching and learning.

Learning to write is one aspect of learning language: like its companion, learning to read, it constitutes one of the most important learning tasks schools offer children.

While this observation is not one that many would challenge, it remains true that the significance of reading and writing as aspects of language behaviour is frequently not appreciated fully. Like any other areas of behaviour, they are learned from observation and practice in using the models of others.

Learning language as a social phenomenon

Much has been written since the 1960s about the processes by which young children learn their language, and it will not be necessary to review all of it here. Suffice it to note that this research, associated as it has been with a great deal of other linguistic, sociological and educational research, has thrown important light upon our understanding of the nature of human identity and experience.

… As Halliday (1986) puts it, they learn to ‘sign—a necessary step in the processes of learning to interact with others, and hence to make meaning, and an essential step on the way to the eventual learning of the mother tongue. That children are able to learn to sign is entirely dependent upon the presence and very active cooperation of others. The parenting role is often understood as no more than a nurturing and comforting one, while an essentially passive role is assumed for the infant. But it is in their earliest relationships with parents and others that infants take their first steps in learning what it is to behave at all: what it is to respond to others, or to attempt to influence others. These are lessons having profound consequences for their ability to learn throughout their lives. Children learn primarily out of the need to interact with others in the constant endeavour to make sense of, and hence achieve some control over, their world. In this sense, all learning is social, and it is an extremely active process.

Learning to write as a social phenomenon

A familiar view of writing in our culture is that it is a means for people to ‘develop individuality’, and to ‘be creative’. In this sense, it is seen as something very special—an art form, in fact—and teachers are often encouraged to see their role as that of fostering artistic or creative endeavour in their students. It is true, of course, that some forms of the written language—the literary forms in particular—do constitute artistic achievements. … However, there are in general two difficulties about a view of writing and its teaching which focuses primarily upon the activity as an artistic or creative endeavour. Firstly, it does a serious disservice to all the other forms of writing, mastery of which is a necessary part of schooling, and many of which are relevant to successful participation in the workforce later on. Secondly, the very special status often accorded to ‘creative writing’ tends to deny the role of any teaching activity in ensuring that children learn to write. An attitude often prevails, in fact, that the creative character of children’s writing is such that it must not be ‘interfered with’ by teachers, and that children must be left free to develop their own written texts in their own ways.

The latter difficulty results from a confusion about the nature of ‘creativity’, while the former arises from a failure to take language seriously at all. In both cases, it is the absence of an appropriate sense of the social significance of language in the construction of experience which is at fault. …

Whenever children … learn language, they learn not only how to use certain linguistic items, but also how to construct a meaning in the pattern they create with the linguistic items. The two are in fact inseparable: meaning or ‘content’ comes into being in the language patterns selected. Thus it is that as children learn to use language, they actually learn ways of dealing with experience of many kinds. In the same sense, when children learn to write, they learn ways of dealing with experience in the written mode.

These ways of working are socially created: that is to say, they are not the creation of any one individual, but are rather created jointly by many people in the various social processes through which they interact with each other. So, for example, when people write, they select from one of a large range of possible written forms or genres narratives, reports, sonnets, letters, argumentative essays, advertisements, notes, and so on. The number is potentially limitless, and there is good reason to believe that new genres are constantly being created because of the changing nature of society, and of the kinds of things people need to do with language. Each genre, having its own distinctive linguistic pattern or ‘shape’, is as it is because It represents another way of making meaning.

The significance of this for educational experience can now be stated. School learning will always involve learning new ways of dealing with experience in some form or other, and they will be realised or created in differing linguistic patterns or genres. This will apply as much to learning to write literary pieces in Language Arts, as it will to writing about the concerns of the various other school subjects—notably Science and Social Science in the primary school. There is an important sense in which the school program—particularly the Language Arts part of it—will seek to develop creativity in children, enabling them to fashion literary pieces of their own. But in order to do this, children must be clear about what kinds of literary forms or genres are available for them to use. Once they have mastered the various features of the genres they need to use, they will become skilled at playing with them, and, sometimes, they will even create new ones.

What is a genre?

… [W]e should pause to consider a … definition of the term ‘genre’. Most people who know the term have met it in literary studies, where it has always been a familiar practice to speak of various literary genres; short stories, sonnets, odes, novels, plays, and so on. The term as used here is of course closely related to this original usage. However, it includes texts other than the numerous literary masterpieces normally encompassed in English literature courses. And it includes not only the potentially limitless range of written texts briefly alluded to above, most of which are not held to have any literary merit, but also a similar range of spoken texts. In fact, the linguistic theory invoked here … suggests that every time people engage in some structured activity, interacting with ins in a socially ordered manner, they construct a text which will be representative me or other kind of spoken genre. One thinks, for example, of service encounters, and of the kinds of discourse patterns which apply when one goes shopping in markets, stores, post offices, and the like. But there are also spoken genres which apply when people visit the doctor, consult a lawyer, engage in debate on radio or television, conduct a public meeting, and last but by no means least, when teachers d students work together in classrooms. Successful participation in these various texts of situation requires a capacity to use the appropriate linguistic patterns. The claim made here, then, is that when children enter schools and begin learning read and to write, they are actually engaged in learning the various written genres their culture. If this is the case, it follows that teachers should have an appreciation the kinds of genres relevant to school learning. Once they do appreciate the kinds genres required, they will be able to teach them to children, helping them to identify and adapt appropriate generic models.

Children’s first texts

… [W]e should say something about the first texts children produce, since they provide a necessary context for understanding subsequent development learning to write. Consider Text 1, written by Emily while she was in Grade 1.

Text 1 The Kittens

Today Wendy’s mother came to show us the four kittens they wor cute one played wthi [with] Simon and one played with Jodie it was cute I pttd [patted] sum [some].

How might we characterize such a text—that is, what kind of genre does it appear represent? What appears to be its function? Finally—an odd question, perhaps—where did it come from?

The text involves reconstruction of personal experience. It has an overall schema, and we can identify the principal elements in its schematic structure. They are:

Today Wendy’s mother came to show us the
four kittens Observation
they wor cute Comment
one played wthi Simon Observation
and one played with Jodie Observation
it was cute Comment
I pttd sum Observation

This is what Martin and Rothery (1984) call an Observation/Comment genre, an sample of a kind of writing found very often in the infants’ grades. Notice some [26] of the linguistic features that contribute to the creation of such a text, entitling us to see some of the elements as Observation, others as Comment. (It should be noted that whenever a term is used with a capital letter in discussion of a text, as with Observation and Comment here, the capital marks the presence of a functional label, identifying a particular element in the schematic structure.)

The experiences dealt with are identified particularly in the verb choices. Those in the Observation elements are all what are called material processes (Halliday 1985a): they construct actions—came to show; played (used twice); and pttd. Those in the Comment elements are what are called relational processes because they construct processes of being—were (used twice). Both the elements identified as Comment have an item (the same one in fact) indicating Emily’s attitude—cute. Finally, there are linguistic items in the text whose primary purpose is to help tie it together, justifying us in calling it a text, having coherence and unity. One such item introduces the text—today—and subsequently one conjunction—and—ties two clauses together. Otherwise, the linguistic items involved are mainly those which identify persons (Wendy’s mother; us; Simon; Jodie; I) and those which identify things (the kittens, they; one; it; sum). Once Wendy’s mother and the kittens have been introduced, they are not identified again by name, but referred to through the use of pronouns. The writer never identifies the people to whom she refers by using us (though Wendy, Simon and Jodie are clearly included) because, like a lot of young writers, she assumes her audience knows who they are. Overall, the pattern of identifying persons and things by naming them, and then referring back to them by using pronouns, contributes to the coherence of the text.

We have answered the first of the questions posed earlier by identifying the genre this text represents, but what can we say of its function? As we have noted, the text involves reconstruction of past experience. A very great deal of early writing by young children appears to involve such reconstruction of experience, and we might well ask why this is so. Where does it come from? Closer examination leads us to argue (Christie 1984; 1985) that such a pattern of reconstruction comes about because teachers provoke it, though they are not always conscious of doing so. Teachers tend to offer children an activity such as playing with and talking about kittens, and then to ask them to write about it: ‘What did you do with the kittens? Who brought them to school? Did you like them?’ and so on. What is to be noted here is that in posing such questions, teachers are actually pointing children in the direction of a particular generic choice. They are pointing towards the reconstruction of what happened, in a manner very like that in which adults will point children to talk by the kinds of questions they ask about what they have been doing, where they went, and whether they liked it. Children cannot write unaided, and they will look to the generic model available to them, even when teachers are not aware of it themselves, and they will attempt to use it as best they can.

Recount genre

Reconstruction of experience may take forms other than the Observation/Comment genre identified above. Consider, for example, Text 3, written by Lucy in her first Grade.

Text 3 Anakie Gorge

On Wednesday we went to Anakie Gorge and we went past Fairy Park and we walked half way and we found a koala and then we got to the picnic area and we saw another koala and then we climed up the mountain and it was may steep and I slep [slipped] and we had lunch and we went for a walk near Stony Creek we collected some rocks that abrigins [aborigines] ues [use] to paint ther [their] skin with and befor[e] we went home we had a little play and some poeple [people] made som[e] dasiy chans [daisychains].

This we will term a Recount genre (Martin and Rothery 1984). We call it a Recount it involves reconstructing an actual series of events in which Lucy and her classmates participated. We may set out its schematic structure thus:

On Wednesday we went to Anakie Gorge Orientation
an we went past Fairy Park Event
and we walked half way Event
and we found a koala Event
and then we got to the picnic area Event
and we saw another koala Event
and then we climed up the mountain and it was very steep . . Event
and I slep Event
and we had lunch Event
and we went for a walk near Stony Creek Event
we collected some rocks that abrigins ues to paint ther skin with Event
and befor we went home we had a little play Event
and some poeple made som dasiy chans Event

Consider the linguistic elements that make up this text, giving it its character as a Recount genre The experiences dealt with in the Event elements are, with one exception only, identified in verbs making material processes: went; walked; found; climed; collected; had a little play (the one exception is at the point where a relational process -sed in it was very steep). In other words, the experiences being recreated this text are all actions, which by their nature are part of events. If we examine they way in which the text is tied together, so that Event follows upon Event, the most noticeable linguistic feature is the large number of items to do with time and the passage of time: on Wednesday; and (used several times with the sense of meaning and then): then (used twice); before. Typically, Recounts deal with the unfolding of a sequence of happenings over time.

Narrative genre

Now let us examine another text, representing yet another genre, written by Mandy.

Text 4 Jamie and the Beanstalk

One day Jamie and he’s [his] mother liv[e]d in a cottage by the(i)r self One day Jamie’s mother sent Jamie to the marck [market] with [their] horse and on the way Jamie met a[n] old man the old man said can I have that cow Yes How much muny [money] Jamie said 20 dolis [dollars] ho no l’v[e] got sumthink [something] bet[t]er than 20 dolis how bowt [about] 9 magic beans Jamie fort [thought] Mum will be happy but when Jamie got home he’s [his] mother said go to bed so Jamie went to bed and in the morning Jamie wokfe] up and saw a gr[e]at big beanstalk and start[ed] to [climb] up in the kowd [cloud] and saw a casil [castle] and the dor [door] was open and Jamie went in and he saw a gos [goose] whot [what] lad [laid] go[l]den eggs and Jamie got the gos and ran but the giyint [giant] stepd [stepped] on him so Jamie did [died].

This text we may classify as an example of the Narrative genre. We may set out the schematic structure thus:

One day Jamie and he’s mother livd in a cottage by ther self One day Jamie’s mother sent Jamie to the marck with ther horse – Orientation

and on the way Jamie met a old man the old man said can I have that cow Yes How much muny Jamie said 20 dolis ho no I’v got sumthink beter than 20 dolis how bowt 9 magic beans Jamie fort Mum will be happy but when Jamie got home he’s mother said go to bed – Complication

so Jamie went to bed – Resolution

and in the morning Jamie wok up and saw a grat big beanstalk and start to
dim up in the kowd and saw a casil and the dor was open and Jamie went
in and he saw a gos whot lad goden eggs and Jamie got the gos and ran but the giyint stepd on him – Complication

so Jamie did – Resolution

There are some linguistic elements of this text which compare with those of the Recount in Text 3. However, the texts do differ in quite significant ways, for they represent different ways to make meaning. Like Text 3, Text 4 has a series of events, and one of the most important linguistic factors responsible for this is the use of a large number of material processes: livd; sent; met; go; start to clim; ran. (The item said is classified as a verbal process, by the way, while saw is classified as behavioural, though both of them are very close to material processes.) Like the Recount, the text makes use of some items to do with the passage of time: one day used twice); and (used in an and then sense on several occasions).

Narratives do typically involve some sequence of happenings through time. But there are several items tying the text together by means other than simple temporal connectedness, and their presence explains why a different kind of genre from a Recount is involved here. Narratives, unlike Recounts, will always involve some problem(s), some source(s) of difficulty, which in the nature of things also require(s) resolution. In this text, their presence is marked by the use of the conjunctions but and so (both used twice): but when Jamie got home he’s mother said go to bed so Jamie went to bed, and again towards the end, bur the giyint stepd on him so Jamie did. Items like but and so create causal connectedness between events, not temporal ones, and are critical to the pattern of building Complication and Resolution.

Narratives, like Recounts, deal with reconstruction of event and experience, though in the case of Narratives the experience dealt with is more often than not imaginary, while in Recounts it is typically drawn from real life.

Christie, Frances. 1986. “Learning to Mean in Writing.” in Writing and Reading to Learn, edited by N. Stewart-Dore. Sydney: Primary English Teaching Association, pp.21-29.