Guest post: How children experience creative writing (by Brett Healey)

IMG_3750Brett Healey is a Literacy Coach at Victoria Shanghai Academy in Hong Kong. He specialises in the teaching of writing which led him to complete a master’s degree by research and is now working on his PhD which extends this thinking into children’s metalinguistic understanding of writing. This research translates into classroom writing strategies. Follow Brett on Twitter @MrBWHealey.

To children, writing is like any other primary school ritual. They play along with it as they’re expected to. Yet, if you ask authors, creative writing is a tangible and meaningful act, the pride and bane of their profession. Knowing how students experience writing assists teachers in bridging the gap between their own perspective and that of their students. We know a lot about authors’ writing experiences, but how do children in the classroom experience it? To find out, I conducted a study of experience with a group of Year Six children for my master’s thesis.

I discovered that creative writing in the classroom is like a constant tug of war of consciousness between school and the imagination. Tugging from the school end are things like the teacher’s expectations, grades, writing topics, and formality.  Tugging from the imagination end are mental images of the writing ideas. Stuck in the middle is the writer, dragged from end to end: sometimes sitting in their classroom desk, sometimes adrift in the imagination.

The writing world

The imagination end – what I call the writing world – is a place where children like to be. In this mental space, the physical world fades away, as well as all consciousness of the school-ness of the task. One student, Kathleen (pseudonym), described it eloquently:

“I feel like I’m in that place, another world, another zone. So, I get into that place where I’m writing, I take my characters to this place, this large meadow or something. When I come back I’m like, where’s the meadow gone?”

It is like sitting in a private movie theatre where the setting and characters play out in front. Idea after idea, image after image flow in and so the writing evolves on the page as it appears in the mind. We may call this something like intense concentration or a “state of flow”, but to the children, it’s like watching a world of its own, an escape from the classroom.  Interestingly, all awareness of words is nonexistent here, a point I shall return to.

Schooled writing

The school end of the experience – what I call schooled writing – is a little more sobering. The writing ideas are no longer the focus. Instead, the focus is the thought of achieving. Some students described this as a feeling of parents or teachers in their head telling them what to do. One student, Joe (pseudonym), described schooled writing like this:

“My mind is stuck inside a perfect writing thing.  It’s like all those sections where all my thoughts have been have to be caged up. I just need to put away the good ideas; they’re not up to what I need. And then I think of what would give me an A.”

This quote echoes the experience of other students, showing how the purpose of writing switches from expressing ideas (writing world) to achieving results (schooled writing). Students who can “cage up” their thoughts (because such ideas are not “up to what they need”) feel as though they need to survive the types of writing done at school. Indeed, many students talked about how their writing piece is not their story, but their standard.

The self

The third major experience of writing is the emotion – what I call the self. Emotions change depending on whether the student is experiencing their writing world or schooled writing. In their writing world, the student has a sense of agency, a feeling of purpose. Marie (pseudonym) said:

“You’re free to write anything you want. Like you’re free. There could be a city over there and a town over there.”

In the schooled writing experience, the students feel a sense of adequacy (or inadequacy) as a writer.  David (pseudonym) said:

“I am obsessed so much on if I am doing it good or if someone’s going to like it.”

Joe’s experience

Joes' experience 2.jpg

Joe drew this picture to explain what writing is like for him. You can see his mind expanding with all the things that weave in and out of consciousness when he writes. Capitalised at the top are his ideas, his writing world, which come from his ‘life story and personal experience’. In here, he separates his useful ones (for the given task) from his ‘not useful ones’ (the ‘caged up’ ideas), which are then fed onto a ‘conveyor belt’ into his mind. This separation is dependent on ‘my standard’ which allow him to select appropriate words that ‘transform’ his ideas as they appear on the page. For Joe, the thought of readers (‘people’) affects his choice of ideas, especially his parents, as seen written in capitals.  This illustration further demonstrates the complex, and often conflicting, consciousness comprising the world of children as they sit writing at their desks.

Ending the tug-of-war

Given this experiential view of writing, it may seem as though school inevitably dooms creative writing. But this is not true. Teachers can teach so that children experience writing like authors do. Authors experience words as a crafting tool for expression. Nowhere in these children’s experience did words appear like this. When swept up in their imagination, ideas write themselves onto the page unconsciously, and students lack metacognition. When thinking about school, words are tools of perceived achievement (e.g. ineffective similes). And so, children don’t seem to enjoy the playful author experience of words.  

Instead, teachers can show children what it’s like to play with words as crafting tools. This makes the classroom desk inviting, a workbench to sharpen tools that carve pathways through the writing world. Here is where a teacher’s deep knowledge of the writing craft matters in the classroom. This means teachers, being writers themselves, should share their experiences of words with their students, which has been shown to profoundly impact student writing. They can show them how words uncage ideas.

Going further

My next research, for my PhD, narrows this experiential view down to the construction of the sentence.  How do children conceptualise syntax manipulation as a way of generating meaning? Specifically, if we talk about shaping sentences, does it change consciousness?

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  1. Thanks Brett for this post, and Adam for hosting it. It’s really cool interacting on a blog with two professionals I’ve met in real life!

    As I try to increase my own confidence with my own writing and blogging, I can relate to the struggle of the students’ “tug of war” and the gap between the “rich meadow” in the mind’s eye and the parking lot reality of our world.

    Language by itself is a shared experience, and, for me at least, the greatest pleasure that I get from my writing is when others express their appreciation for it. Confidence comes from not overanalyzing my perceptions of others’ motivations. Instead, it’s believing that my readers are actually seeing some of the meadow I’m describing in my writing. And they’re seeing it in spite of the flaws or strays from convention.

    Most of my career has been working with English Language Learners (ELLs), where syntactic errors threaten to take the reader to far away. My task becomes twofold. First, I need to figure out how to assess the work! But then I need to affirm the vision of the student. There might not be a lot, but there can be enough. The greatest writers are masters of manipulating imperfect vehicles (language) to convey visions that can be appreciated by others.

    I’m interested in how English Language Learners have the added challenge of manipulating English in acceptable ways. The majority of students in international schools are not from native English speaking backgrounds. For many, this means abandoning a first language or contending in English as an Additional Language.

    Monoglossia, the idea that language has fixed boundaries or that there is a single dominant language, is being challenged in the Anglo-West and the many educational institutions with ever increasing linguistic diversity. The ongoing pressure students feel to conform to school expectations continues for ELLs as they need to also conform to syntactic conventions.

    This article is a reminder that we teachers can and need to support our students in providing the bridges, ie the grammar and conventions, so that their “meadows” can beautify our grubby world. I just hope that these bridges can be built with materials that are more heteroglossic – that is many-languaged and interconnecting.

    1. Hi Graham. You know what, your reply should be required reading for my post. I think you’ve nailed my point and shown what it means in an EAL context. I’m always hoping to find the common ground between the strictly social view of writing characterised by non-interventionist strategies, and the cognitive view characterised by explicit teaching. I believe there’s room for both. Obviously each student needs a different proportion of each at different times, and our job is to work out when and what. Holding firm to either extreme based purely on ideology does a disservice to students.

      I teach two student in Adam’s class (EAL). They’re both super smart kids who can do so much with language when given the space but are also very teachable when learning something explicitly. My job is working out much play time they should have with language (implicit learning – when they don’t know they’re learning) and how much brain work they should do (explicit learning). I’d actually really like to see what you’d do with them.

      1. Hi Brett & Graham,

        I love it when comments add value to blog posts and I always hope that readers will scroll down to read the added contributions. Thank you, Graham, for sharing your insight and experience.

        If you’d like to join Brett in my very exclusive club of guest bloggers, I would gladly let you share on here. Flick me a DM on Twitter if you’re interested.

        I look forward to catching up on your blog!


  2. An interesting post. I’ve seen many children reluctant to write and believe this is often due to a strict success criteria and being told what would make their writing acceptable. I like to think my classroom is a place where children can write freely. Yes they have their own goals (we could call this targets) but of course they are free to express themselves creatively. Thank you for sharing this Brett!

    1. Thanks, Katie. I like to think of children’s writing like carpentry (or any craft that’s easier to imagine). A carpenter cannot build a functional rocking chair with their hands and their creativity alone. They learn a repertoire of skills for shaping and combining timber which affords their creative application of these skills. They also have access to a range of tools which become as intuitive as hands over time. A student living only in their “writing world” is like a carpenter who is able to see the eventual rocking chair in their mind, but whether or not it becomes a functional or aesthetic piece of furniture is hit and miss. Of course, the student living in “schooled writing” is like a carpenter who has the tools and the instruction manual, but is likely to craft an uninspired, formulaic rocking chair.

      This is why I emphasise the balance between the two. Though it can be hard for students to see how a skill translates to a creative product, so I use contextualised modelling and explicit instruction, ie: “So you want to create [insert idea/feeling/experience], try this skill. Let me show you how JK Rowling does it.”

  3. V interesting. I can relate to this. I am sometimes concerned when it becomes difficult for my grade 7 daughter to turn her magical imagination in a formal tone. There are lots of abrupt turns.Story takes twist suddenly and paragraphs seem unrelated to each other.Her imagination is always appreciated at school mostly with the advice of not introducing abrupt turn or abrupt endings.
    This post gave me a sigh of relief.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Sahar. That makes me think of another idea regarding ‘style’. Style is the position or stance an author takes when approaching a given writing project. The stance is informed by audience expectations, generic requirements, and the field of knowledge. When the author juggles all of these factors (and it’s hard for children) they write in an appropriate style for their purpose. It’s like an additional layer beneath the explicit teachings of form and even beneath the self-management decisions of the writing process. Quite often it’s just a maturity thing: grade 7 children are learning to situate themselves in the world so they become expressive, but have not yet fully appreciated the needs of the audience, and the audience tends to prioritise cohesion and coherence above all.

      1. You are right. Coherence is mostly what her writing lacks. But as a parent I give more preference to imagination rather than coherence.
        I would be glad if you can include my daughter in the next research survey you conduct…and.the resulting analysis.

  4. Brett

    This is fascinating to read even if I am not involved in much literacy teaching at the moment. Your discussion with Adam gives rise to plenty more things to think about! My background in research is grounded in much more quantitative methods and my masters was more ended up being more qualitative, which was a learning curve for me. I’d be keen to hear more about how you’ll incorporate more quantitative methods later on.

    I enjoy these guest posts! Thank you!

    1. I much prefer the quantitative world and the positivist outlook in general. But the research questions I ask can only be answered qualitatively. The more I dig into my research field, the weirder things get. You learn how far you’re willing to go down certain philosophical tunnels.

  5. Hi Brett,

    Thank you for the effort that has gone into this guest post. Your research findings raise some important questions and implications for teachers. Firstly, as a new master’s student, I’m curious about your research methods (my first unit is Research Methods in Education). Can you give us an insight into the process? Is the tug of war something that you hypothesised beforehand? You can tell me about this at school if it’s too complicated to write in a brief comment.

    After reading this, I’m now thinking about how we can address this and provide more opportunities for students to write in their “writing world”, with less concern given to achievement or standards. You mentioned teachers sharing their writing and modelling how to play with words. Do you have any other suggestions of what to do/what not to do?

    Finally, I wonder if other areas of learning are similar. I’ve heard people talk about “school maths” vs. “real maths”, for example. Reading also springs to mind. Is there a difference between “schooled reading” and reading for pleasure? I can imagine how things like book journals and levelled books might take students out of the “reading world”. Food for thought…

    Thanks again!


    1. Hi Adam,

      I’m at a similar stage of my PhD as you with your master’s. It’s the most frustrating yet exciting stage while we’re trying to figure out what, exactly, we’re trying to study. For my master’s research I took a qualitative approach because I was asking an exploratory question which can only be answered in words and not numbers. The particular method was called phenomenology – the study of experience. I talked with each participant three times for 30 minutes each. While I had some guiding questions, most of the discussions followed the direction the kids took as to delve deeper into the nature of the experience. The first interview focused on life experience of writing (the past), the second focused on a particular recent writing experience (the present), and the third reflected on the meaning of it all. I manage to transcribe the data between each interview which let me highlight areas for further exploration. Lastly came the coding – figuring out what each comment meant (through hermeneutics) and sorting them for each participant into general themes and sub themes. Then I saw which of the participants’ themes agreed across all participants.

      I didn’t predict the whole tug-of-war thing. If I had it would’ve affected my interpretation. Instead I was open to whatever arose.

      My next research will probably be mostly qualitative again, but using a mix of qualitative methods. But I’m hoping to squeeze a quantitative method in at the end.

      I don’t think the writing world is necessarily better than schooled writing – although, the kids definitely prefer it. The writing world is just an escape from the classroomness. If we encourage kids to always write in flow and from their intuition, then we’re preventing them from the metacognitive skill of reflection and the metalinguistic skills that help writers aquire new writing moves. Instead, we need to help children understand the classroom as a workshop for raising consciousness to these moves which they begin to internalise (automatise). Then they can more freely move between their writing world and their workbench so as to look upon their writing from two angles: the inside (the sensory experience of their characters and settings), and the outside (the attention to form and presentation). This duel consciousness requires maturity, and we can begin to encourage it early on.

      I suggest something called metalinguistic modelling. A teacher shares their writing which is incomplete or unrevised. Then they talk out loud about what they’re thinking in order to improve or extend their work. This can’t be rehearsed, it needs to be real. The barrier to this type of teaching is knowledge of the writing process. If teachers have never had to be writers (for real), then it’s hard to model such reflection.

      I think this can certainly translate into reading in much the same way. Same with maths, although the types of cognitive engagement would be a little different, but the idea of modelling real maths as opposed to abstract, recipe maths is important. Although we can’t discount fundamental skills as the foundation. Kids can’t develop a love of maths or a love of reading without first having the skills to cognitively engage with such activities for extended periods. This is where I diverge child-centredness (which assumes kids will “pick it up along the way if we give them agency” – they won’t), instead they need the skills first so they they can make creative and critical decisions.

      1. Brett,

        Thanks for your detailed reply. It’s useful for me to get an insight into your research methods as I embark on a similar journey. Thanks for that. Researching is new to me and I’m discovering academic writing all over again! It’s been a while!

        It’s interesting to read your recommendations about teachers as writers. I’ve heard this a lot lately and metalinguistic modelling is something that I aim to do more of. As a blogger, I increasingly think of myself as a ‘real’ writer and I enjoy sharing my journey with students. I don’t consider myself particularly good at it, but I’ve learnt a lot along the way.

        You raise an interesting point about fundamental skills. It reminds me of my concept-based learning blog post where I highlighted the misconception that facts and skills are unimportant when, as you say, they are the necessary foundation upon which understanding is built. The synergy between understanding and facts/skills is what we should be promoting. I’m not sure how much that relates to the writing process, but your comment reminded me of that.

        Thanks again!


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