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WHAT DO PEOPLE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT WRITING IN ORDER TO WRITE IN THEIR JOBS? , By: Davies, Chris, Birbill, Maria, British Journal of Educational Studies, 00071005, Dec2000, Vol. 48, Issue 4
Database: Academic Search Premier
WHAT DO PEOPLE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT WRITING IN ORDER TO WRITE IN THEIR JOBS?
ABSTRACT: This article considers the different kinds of learning that are appropriate for the rapidly expanding range of writing that constitutes an everyday part of most people's working lives. It discusses the importance and demands of everyday writing in work, and the role of formal
education in preparing people for the localised learning about writing that is necessary upon entering work. It considers the issue of the transfer of knowledge, and argues that both metacognitive and conceptual understandings about writing are crucial elements in enabling people to transfer and adapt foundation literacy skills to the workplace.
Keywords: written communication, workplace writing, literacy
The Observer recently revealed that many businesses -- Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Waterstone's -- are hiring trainers to help workers with their writing, because English (`an English invention that conquered the world') is not being used properly in British firms (Arlidge, 2000, p. 2). Of particular concern was the way in which the increasing amount of writing being done on-line reveals weaknesses in the use of the written word (`in some areas email is a complete joke, with no grammar, no capital letters
, and words in the wrong place'). Whilst the general concern about standards of writing is nothing new, this latter issue certainly provides food for thought, even if not necessarily in the crisis terms proposed by the article. Both email and the internet clearly represent a different orientation to writing than, say, formal letters
or reports; email especially represents an entirely new element in the continuum of language use that goes from informal/interactive/spontaneous at one extreme to formal
/non-interactive/composed at the other, providing an opportunity to create communications that combine the benefits of spontaneous speech (e.g. rapid flow of thoughts rather than slow or laborious composition) with the benefits of writing, such as communication across time and space, and the ability to view and review what has been said. We need, perhaps, to expand our conceptions of writing in respect of these new forms, rather than merely subject them to criteria established for different kinds and uses of writing.
Writing is becoming ever more central and crucial to the world of work, with computers on every desk, email and the internet adding to the world's written words in almost epidemic proportions, and very little being done either in formal
education or the world of work to adjust to these quite overwhelming demands. The solution might simply be, as the Observer article suggests, to hire English teachers to help workers achieve GCSE quality written English (those same English teachers, presumably, who failed to teach workers to write when they were in school), but the evidence of research suggests that we need to recognise that it really is not plausible any more to use a singular notion of prescribed standardised practices as the basis for learning to write in all the areas of life where writing matters.
Why, for instance, if the ability to write is learnt whilst in school, do we appear to need to learn it again in work? An obvious, journalistic answer would claim that this is simply because English teachers are no good at their jobs. A more measured, evidence-based answer, on the other hand, might recognise that there are limits to what can be learnt about writing in school, and it will always be necessary to take that learning further in any new context, and especially in the contexts of work. There are complicated issues here to do with the difference between generic and context-specific knowledge, the problem of transferring generic knowledge to new settings, the problem of whether or not you can learn context-specific knowledge prior to belonging to a context. There are, as the Observer article acknowledges, massive issues of change to be considered here also: the place of writing in our lives is changing all the time, and the nature of that writing is changing also. At the same time, everyday writing tends to have low visibility: it is an indisputable fact that use and dependence on the written word is increasing at an extraordinary rate but that does not mean we --educators, employers, workers -- have got any better at thinking about what it means to learn to do all the different kinds of writing we have to do in the different settings and times of our lives.
The Observer article represents a standard belief which is also evident, in rather more elaborate ways, in government engagement with this issue through the National Literacy Strategy, the National Curriculum and Key Skills descriptors: writing is a skill that should be taught in school and subsequently used in work. If that job is done properly -- and the government is certainly trying to ensure that that is the case -- then there should be no problems later on. The argument of this paper is that foundation skills of writing are simply not sufficient in themselves to meet the multiple and changing demands that will be encountered once in work future workers need certain kinds of knowledge about writing as much as they need the skills of writing. This is equally the case with everyday writing as it is with the higher level writing that a relatively small proportion of the workforce -- journalists, academics, professional writers -- have to produce. This paper offers some research-based speculations on what that knowledge about writing might be, in order to make the strong claim that without such knowledge, we cannot reasonably expect people to transfer -- and adapt -- the foundation writing skills they have hopefully picked up during formal
education to the working contexts where they must subsequently use them.
In addition to discussing what has been gleaned from prior studies in this area -- which has received considerably more research interest in the USA than in the UK in recent years -- this paper draws on and is informed by empirical investigations carried out by the authors over an eighteen-month period. In the course of these investigations, interviews were carried out with managers and recent entrants to work in many organisations (a major engineering company, local government, a medium-sized printing company, a law firm, the police, a major bank, a marketing company, an oil company and a charity organisation). In addition, the production of specific texts was closely studied and discussed with individuals, in order to gain access to the different kinds of knowledge drawn on in the process of carrying out workplace writing tasks, with the dual purpose of developing hypotheses and refining research strategies for a future stage of research that has yet to take place.
Whilst it is not the aim of this paper to report the findings of this preliminary period of research in any detail, we shall draw on those findings on occasion by way of a small number of relevant quotations from specific workers interviewed by us, and more broadly in terms of what this paper has to say about issues such as the changing workplace, the importance of writing in work, and the relatively low priority nonetheless accorded to preparing workers for that aspect of their work. All these are issues which have emerged very strongly from our own preliminary studies, and will be dealt with in a more systematic fashion in a further publication.
2. THE IMPORTANCE OF EVERYDAY WRITING IN WORK
The need for writing in modern literate societies --
societies marked by pervasive print media -- is much more
extensive than is generally realized. When one examines the
everyday world, one finds people engaged in many varieties
of writing, some of which may be overlooked as being
routine, or commonplace, or unimportant. (Grabe and Kaplan,
1996, p. 3)
By everyday writing in the context of work, we mean the documents of various kinds that are instrumental in achieving the aims and ensuring the productivity of most organisations, but which are not in themselves the main products of those organisations. We define such writing very generally in the terms used by The Work Skills in Britain Survey (Ashton et al., 1999): short documents (e.g. short reports, letters
or memos), and long documents with correct spelling and grammar (e.g. long reports, manuals, articles or books). We claim that all such writing is potentially important, and demanding.
The importance (or difficulty) of writing can be estimated only in terms of the context in which the writing is done, and the job it must perform within that context. What we generally tend to think of as important writing is that which functions in very broad -- i.e. global or national -- contexts, such as the Declaration of Human Rights, or the Koran, or the works of Karl Marx. But just because the size of the contexts in which writing takes place varies dramatically, it does not follow that the importance of the act of writing within a particular context varies correspondingly. The formulation of a code of behaviour within one secondary school is as crucial to the functioning of that context as was the formulation of the Declaration of Independence to the functioning of the United States. In basic terms, putting pen to paper (so to speak) is potentially, and in many different ways, a big deal wherever you do it.
Few organisations exist which possess neither customers, nor superiors, nor boards of directors, who will not require written records, reports or customer/client-oriented material, such as letters
, pamphlets or promotional literature. Indeed, all writing in work can be considered as potentially important, given the pressures of time and productivity in most organisations nowadays -- there is little space for speculative or self-indulgent writing. In the USA, the importance of writing in work, and the high levels of demand and pressure often associated with that writing, has been demonstrated in a considerable number of research studies conducted during recent years (e.g. Anderson, 1985; Beaufort, 1999; Flower, 1994; MacKinnon, 1993). Whilst it is seemingly self-evident that some jobs, and some workplaces, demand much less writing than others, it seems likely that the rapid change in workplace practices of the last few years entails an ever-increasing emphasis on the need for many different kinds of workers to write in a variety of ways. The move to flatter management structures, the increasing emphasis on accountability and outcome-measurement, the dramatic expansion of IT resources (and the corresponding near-disappearance of the typist/secretary role) all have implications for the ways in which, and the extent to which, writing abilities are necessary that were unimagined even a few years ago (`if you look at someone like care assistants, in social services for example, I mean I don't think really literacy ever came into the job until maybe ten years ago. [...] now they have to contribute to quite complex care plans and assessments and so on' -- local government manager, interviewed 19 May 1999).
The Work Skills in Britain Survey (Ashton et al., 1999) identifies the importance of writing as a workplace activity. All categories of respondent reported that writing, at some level, was a significant part of their job with, for example, over 50 per cent of respondents reporting that writing long documents figured prominently in their work. A recent QCA study (1999), which considered the extent to which the school curriculum prepares school-leavers for workplace communication skills, found that non-graduate recruits to employment predictably tend to write somewhat less than graduate recruits, and that writing was generally `limited in range, scope and variety' for these school-leavers, but nonetheless was `often of critical importance' and `tended to be brief, concise and focused' (1999,p. 7). Extended writing consisted primarily of formal letters
, and there was little evidence of the considerable amount of report writing that is more characteristic of graduate employment. But even the shortest letter
that goes out from a company to a customer can be seen as being potentially instrumental in the achievement of its aims.
Whether in a small-medium sized enterprise or a large national company, those many workers who do have to write significant texts on a regular basis find themselves being increasingly responsible for the production of writing for a range of purposes and using a range of styles, encompassing highly objective, opinion-free, specialist communications for in-house purposes, non-specialist, reader-friendly texts for outside audiences, and taking into account the expectations and demands of a range of audiences within a single text (e.g. managers, customers, board members). In terms of both pursuing the day-to-day alms of work in efficient and effective ways, and avoiding the undesirable consequences of inappropriate written communications, we are firmly convinced that few workplaces can afford to leave the production of high quality writing to chance, and that few future workers, especially those whose education has progressed to graduate study or its equivalent, will not need to carry out a range of writing tasks to a high level of demand.
3. THE DEMANDS OF EVERYDAY WRITING IN WORK
Even if we accept that writing generally constitutes an important aspect of working activities, does that mean that all workplace writing is difficult to do, or places demands upon workers which they often cannot cope with? It is, after all, obviously the case that some workplace writing tasks only marginally qualify as writing at all, at least not in the key sense of writing composition. Grabe and Kaplan, in a discussion of the nature of writing from the perspective of applied linguistics, distinguish between 'writing without composing' and 'writing with composing' (1996,p. 4), citing items such as a shopping list, a note to the milkman, a questionnaire, a tax form and a driver's licence application form as instances of the latter. These constitute the kinds of writing identified in the Work Skills in Britain Survey as 'material such as forms, notices or signs', and we would not want to make overblown claims about the difficulty of such demands although, as the following comment from a local government employee indicates, even these can be experienced as problematic: 'things as simple as labels for recycling boxes ... actually need a lot more thought than you would imagine ... because they've got to be short, snappy' (environment officer; interviewed 7 June 1999).
Grabe and Kaplan's (1996) main distinction is between two levels of writing with composing: composition for knowledge telling or retelling, and composition for knowledge transforming:
Retelling signifies the sort of writing that is, to a large
extent, already known to the author, such as narratives or
descriptions. The planning involves recalling and
reiterating. Transforming, on the other hand, signifies the
sort of writing for which no blue-print is readily
available. The planning involves the complex juxtaposition
of many pieces of information as well as the weighing of
various rhetorical options and constraints (Bereiter and
Scardamalia 1987). In this type of writing, the author is
not certain of the final product; on the contrary, the
writing act constitutes a heuristic through which an
information-transfer problem is solved both for the author
and for his or her intended audience. (pp. 4-5).
Whilst we agree that broad distinctions can be made between levels of compositional demand -- an issue which will be discussed in the final section of this paper -- we would, though, also want to stress that such distinctions are not much comfort to the worker who finds that they have to produce writing which requires highly specific skills and understanding:
if it's a complaint we gather information from
investigations internally. I then turn that into
customer-speak. Take some of the technicalities out of the
and break it down into things that they will
understand, because publishers don't understand, won't
understand printing and the technicalities of printing so
you have to try and explain. (Junior manager, discussing
communicating technical information to
non-technical readers; interviewed 18 June 1999)
Grabe and Kaplan suggest that narrative and description constitute knowledge retelling, implying that events or objects have already, in some way, 'told' themselves, and that putting them into writing is relatively trivial in terms of compositional demand. This, as anyone who has ever struggled with either a personal or a business letter
will know, is not necessarily the case. Even in cases of everyday writing which explicitly require the non-selective presentation of all relevant details, there is likely to be a considerable pressure to get things right in the way we select and organise whatever it is from the real world we are trying to retell in writing. The level of demand for a police officer writing down a witness's statement is, for example, extremely high, if the following instructions are actually followed to the letter
The statement must include how any occurrence took place.
There must be a detailed description of any property that
was stolen or damaged, including its owner and value if
known. The description of the crime itself must be very
detailed. In assaults, for instance, the nature and amount
of force used, whether a weapon was used, how many blows
were struck, the location of any injury, the nature of any
treatment and how the witnesses felt must all be included.
(Stage 2, Section 1, Probationer Training Programme,
National Police Training material, March 1999)
The issue of accuracy in many aspects of everyday writing is, of course, crucial. At whatever level a worker is writing, he or she must deal with a particularly key aspect of writing: the fact that writing, far more than speech, tends to constitute a commitment -- to the veracity of recorded facts, the implications of an argument, the good faith of an offer -- for which the author is subsequently accountable.
If we acknowledge the multiple cognitive operations needed to perform even apparently straightforward tasks such as writing down facts --which includes coping successfully with the mechanics of writing (handwriting or typing, spelling, grammar), speaking the language (and therefore expressing the values) of the organisation, satisfying the commitment demands of specific documents -- then it becomes apparent that all acts of writing in work are potentially demanding. Researchers from the field of cognitive psychology have long contended that writing composition is indeed a highly demanding and complex mental activity:
At present almost all theories of higher mental processes
incorporate some notion of a limited-capacity central
processor.... Obviously, this central capacity limitation
should be crucial in writing, where complex problems must be
solved, where a large number of ideas need to be coordinated
and where decisions need to take account of a variety of
factors.... Investigators into the psychology of text
composition frequently remark that the
information-processing demands of the activity appear to be
very high. Beangrande (1981) refers to 'the impression that
can be obtained from large stores of empirical evidence,
namely: that discourse production routinely operates near
the threshold of OVERLOADING [p. 2].' (Bereiter and
Scardamalia, 1987, p. 134)
Whilst such an account of the cognitive demand of writing raises a number of important issues, especially in relation to the young people who were the chief object of Bereiter and Scardamalia's studies, it fails to capture exactly what we would argue is the dominating difficulty most of us, at whatever level we are writing, encounter in our efforts to write: the intensive thinking which it demands. This is also, of course, the great benefit that writing provides -- it is arguably the primary technology for thinking that human beings have so far invented (and has not yet been superseded by the power of information technology, which tends to rely on the written word most of all). It provides the stimulus and structure that we need in order to think things through properly, it forces us to lay out and confront our own ideas, and tends to insist on greater coherence than we can normally summon up when simply thinking in our heads. Whilst certain kinds of dialogue can provide similar demand for coherence, it is very difficult to achieve this on our own without the benefit of writing things down, reviewing them, rearranging them, reconsidering what it is we were trying to say, and having another go at saying that.
Such a benefit comes at a price: it is difficult to achieve. It is a human trait to think creatively, rapidly, chaotically. We normally think in the flow of our existence, in response to the stimuli of moving time, and find it very hard to halt that flow in order to sort out where we are, and what we understand at any one moment, without giving ourselves up to the next moment, the next stimulus. Writing requires us to halt time for a while -- it requires closure, the decision to draw a line underneath what we are going to consider, to relegate present knowledge to an immediate past in which it can be configured, and reconfigured, in order to create an impact of some kind upon whoever is going to read it. This is often a disturbing and uncomfortable thing to do' we might discover that we don't know enough about what we are talking about, that what we have to say is incomplete, and how we are trying to say it somehow weaker and less appropriate than we imagined it would be. Putting thinking into writing tends to expose the weakness of our thinking, and the poverty of our expression, to the judgement of others and this becomes something we would rather avoid. We would suggest that difficulties of this order are experienced in virtually all acts of writing beyond the purely transcriptional.
4. THE LOCALISED DEMANDS OF WORKPLACE WRITING
In addition to generic issues of writing referred to above, all work-places have their own distinctive needs which must be satisfied in the production of documents. In their study of business writing, Broadhead and Freed (1996) speak of five distinctive norms which will normally guide the writing of business documents: cultural, institutional, generic, personal, and situational (p. 10). Although the cultural, generic and personal norms extend beyond the boundaries of a specific organisation, even these are likely to be adapted to meet localised requirements.
Cultural norms 'govern choices to make the text adhere to a culture's idea of good behaviour and good communication in a written document' (p. 11) and, whilst they will consist of broad norms and beliefs in the culture about what constitutes proper communicative behaviour (including both proper deployment of standardised rules of language, and recognition of more abstract standards such as 'accuracy, thoroughness, relevance, coherence and consistency', p. 12), it is likely that these elements will be emphasised in localised ways within a particular organisation. Similarly, the broad rules underlying generic norms --'those imposed by a particular genre of writing such as a proposal, a familiar essay, a request for bids' (p. 12) -- will most likely be inflected in localised ways. Even personal norms - the 'linguistic or rhetorical preferences of a given writer' (p. 13) -- are likely to be developed and adapted in response to organisational practices.
It is, though, the institutional and situational norms which constitute the heart of localised knowledge about writing in work. Institutional norms 'govern rhetorical decisions designed to make a text adhere to accepted practices within a company, profession, discipline', and may either be 'formalised in written documents' but can also 'result from tradition or practice'. Beaufort (1999) refers to such rules as being generated by the discourse community of a particular place of work, and representing 'the underlying goals and values for the community'. In her study of a state Department of Environmental Protection, Spilka encountered strong agreement among those studied about the need to achieve their organisation's prime social goal of establishing and building its credibility with the public, which involved the establishment in all communications of consistency, consensus with outsiders, and recognition of outsiders' involvement in decision-making processes (1993,p. 75).
Situational norms are distinctive in that they concern decisions about 'tone, style, format, selection of content, level of technicality' necessary both for achieving a writer's purpose and for meeting readers' needs and supposed values in a specific document (pp. 13-14). Such highly specific norms are inevitably shaped by the other, broader norms, but also reflect workers' deeper understandings about fine-grained aspects of their work.
One study of a commercial organisation in the USA suggested that the 'organizational savvy required to write successful documents may take ... up to three or four years for a person to acquire' (Paradis et al., 1985, p. 302). Some organisations attempt to obviate the need for such learning, to some extent, by employing professional writers, either to take over the writing of key documents or to generate foolproof methods of enabling employees to write in the required ways, through the use of form-letters
, templates and stock phrases, which are stored and adapted through the use of word processing technology. Fairclough describes such processes as the 'technologisation' of discourses, in which personnel are trained in the use of context-free and standardised discourse techniques (1995,p. 102, quoted in Jaworski and Coupland, 1999), which are policed and monitored, with a system of status-related and financial rewards and penalties following on from them. It is, though, an open question as to whether such extreme control over localised rules of writing is either successful, or capable of removing the pressures of composition from workers.
Whatever the timescale or the strategies employed to control quality, however, it is unlikely that such fine-grained localised learning can be achieved in any other time or place than during the job, in the workplace.
5. LEARNING ABOUT EVERYDAY WRITING IN WORK
Research into the issue of learning to write for the workplace suggests that, despite the recognition by employers of the importance and difficulty of workplace writing, relatively little priority is actually accorded to this issue. Occasionally, as the Observer article referred to at the start of this paper indicates, a specific crisis will be perceived, and crisis action will be taken -- often through the considerable expense of buying-in outside trainers. For the most part, though, learning about writing in work tends to be informal and unsystematic. QCA's study of non-graduate employees indicated that training for non-graduate recruits was generally of this kind, even where there were particular concerns about technical accuracy, with recruits 'following examples of more experienced colleagues' (1999,p. 7). Studies into the learning of workplace writing skills in the USA, focusing mainly on graduate level employment (Beaufort, 1999; MacKinnon, 1993; Paradis et al., 1985), demonstrate a strong emphasis on informal learning at this level, and also suggest that informal mentoring is often shown to work effectively (Freedman and Adam, 1996). There is generally a relatively low profile for writing in terms of the priority assigned to systematic training. One study reports that when the supervisors in a government agency were asked 'whether they considered the novices' learning to be one goal of the tasks they assigned them, their response was an unequivocal: 'Hell, NO! they can learn in their own time.' (As it turned out, these very supervisors were expert masters and mentors; they simply did not think of learning as implicated in the enterprise because it was not their explicit task goal.)' (Freedman and Adam, 1996, p. 401).
The situation regarding planned and supported learning about writing in work will always be variable at best -- to some extent, as variable as workplaces themselves are. It is unlikely that the everyday writing done in work will ever come to be seen as an 'explicit task goal', and we would certainly not wish to argue that it should be. As the issue of learning in work becomes more salient in workplaces generally, it is reasonable to expect that there will be a steady growth in the attention paid to essentially secondary issues such as writing, and there seems to be good evidence already to suggest that informal learning provision, especially through mentored support, merits particular encouragement and development within the workplace.
But such learning must, crucially, be able to build upon substantial prior learning that workers bring with them from formal
education. This is certainly the case in terms of foundation literacy skills, without the possession of which to some degree (however much in need of emergency remediation once in work), it is unlikely that anyone can expect to find employment involving any kind of literacy demand: for instance, the QCA found that 'less than 5% of jobs in the survey made only a very low level of demand on any literacy and communication skills and the young people in these jobs were the least well qualified in the sample' (1999,p. 7). Foundation learning about writing concerns skills of accuracy in spelling, punctuation and grammar, and knowledge of language structures at the levels of words, phrases, sentences and whole texts. This knowledge is broadly applicable to all acts of writing and, whilst it is capable of diminishing or increasing throughout life, constitutes a life-long, non-context-specific set of skills and understandings, which function at a basic level in largely tacit ways, with writers at this level not necessarily capable of articulating or reflecting upon it. It is what Perkins and Salomon (1989,p. 21) describe as 'tool domain knowledge' -- normally learnt during the course of formal
education, non-specific in terms of content, and adaptable to localised contexts as appropriate.
But although it should in principle be relatively easy to transfer tool domain knowledge to different contexts, the range of different and new writing demands that are encountered in the workplace necessitate a considerable amount of adaptations being made to foundation skills of writing. Because of their generally tacit nature, foundation writing skills cannot necessarily be easily adapted without recourse to more explicit, higher level knowledge. It is the nature of such higher level knowledge about writing which brings us, finally, to the question with which this paper started.
6. WHAT DO PEOPLE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT WRITING IN ORDER TO WRITE IN THIER JOBS?
We wish to argue for two broad kinds of knowledge about writing that are potentially capable of helping people to cope with the transfer and adaptation of foundation literacy skills to the workplace: 1) metacognitive knowledge about the best ways of solving the problems of writing; 2) conceptual knowledge about the nature of writing. We do not consider it at all likely that workplaces themselves would provide significant education in respect of either of these; rather we see it as the job of formal
education to initiate the appropriate learning in respect of each of these areas, in the expectation that subsequent experiences in work will inevitably provide the circumstances for their development and consolidation.
Metacognitive Knowledge about Writing
Metacognitive knowledge about writing concerns knowledge which informs processes and goals for writing such as composition strategies of planning, drafting, redrafting and proof-reading, and understandings about the importance and nature of context-specific exigencies of writing, such as those referred to above that were identified by Broadhead and Freed. Knowledge of this kind is more likely to be conscious and explicit, forming the basis for reflective thinking about problems and strategies during composition, and is therefore potentially a crucial element in the transfer, adaptation and application of foundation literacy skills to new settings and demands (Beaufort, 1998; Flower, 1994; Smagorinsky and Smith, 1992). Perkins and Salomon term such a process 'high road transfer' -- the application as appropriate of mindfully abstracted principles -- as against 'low road transfer' which depends on 'extensive and varied practice of a skill to near automaticity ... in a large variety of situations' (1989,p. 22).
'Low road transfer' requires lengthy and sustained practice in a wide variety of workplace genres of writing during the course of formal
education, in order to achieve the levels of near automaticity which would transfer effectively into workplace contexts. Such an approach has always been viewed as both impractical and undesirable in UK education. On the other hand, it is already the case that formal
education can and does on occasion enable the development of 'high road', metacognitive understandings about writing, although historically this has been highly dependent on subject specialism at the post-16 stage and beyond. Our own ongoing studies into workplace writing have indicated considerable variation in the extent to which workers draw on mindfully abstracted principles about writing whilst composing documents, but in cases where there was evidence of this taking place we did observe workers exercising a greater degree of autonomy in solving the problems of composing difficult documents.
Because of current government-led initiatives on cross-curricular literacy, it is arguably possible that metacognitive knowledge about writing will increasingly become a feature of school-based literacy learning. The progress of the National Literacy Strategy into the secondary school, and an increased emphasis on writing across the curriculum in the revised National Curriculum, as well as Key Skills descriptors, all directly address issues both of the ways in which writing must be adapted to specific disciplines and settings, and of the process of writing. But the extent to which such learning occurs through direct instruction is questionable, and it seems likely to us that the most effective ways of ensuring its development is through experience, practice and informal discussion. This crucially involves teachers of all subjects on the school curriculum habitually articulating, and enabling their pupils to articulate, issues such as discipline-specific aspects of writing, both structural and lexical, as well as emphasising and reinforcing process habits of planning, drafting, reviewing and revising.
Interestingly, though, it is a recent and highly popular innovation in terms of addressing writing across the curriculum that potentially poses the biggest threat to the development of metacognitive understandings about writing: the writing frame, a device for pre-structuring different kinds of school-based writing genre through the use of pre-determined paragraph structures and the provision of appropriate phrases or sentences at the start of each paragraph. Writing frames are a highly effective way of getting novice writers to produce the appropriate writing without actually having to learn or consciously address the norms underlying such writing (and thus correspond quite closely to the template and form-letter
approach referred to above as being increasingly common in workplaces). Given the effectiveness of writing frames, some anecdotal evidence suggests that teachers are increasingly relying on these to aid the production of written work all the way up to GCSE, thus helping to ensure the good grades upon which they and their pupils so crucially depend, but at the expense of developing metacognitive understandings. (It should be emphasised that those responsible for the promotion of writing frames in the UK, Wray and Lewis, were always careful to warn against such dangers, emphasising that the ultimate aim in using writing frames was 'to gradually reduce the amount of scaffolding children need and move them into independent writing', 1997, p. 132).
Conceptual Knowledge about Writing
This paper has already touched on two key aspects of conceptual knowledge about writing: i) the unique weight that any act of writing potentially carries in terms of representing an overt act of commitment to its own content, whether information, judgement, opinion or offer; ii) the special and perhaps unique way in which writing in equal measure enables and demands intensive thinking. Both aspects point in the direction of one simple idea: writing is not something to be undertaken lightly. To suggest such a thing is to fly in the face of reality, of course, because it appears that modern life both allows for (in the spread of information technology) and demands (in the spread of accountability) ever more writing, at ever greater speeds. And, anyway, it is not exactly what we do wish to suggest in relation to every kind of writing.
Therefore, rather than simply suggesting that we will write best if we write rarely, we would prefer to emphasise the perspective of different levels of composition that was touched on earlier in this paper. This distinction was characterised by Grabe and Kaplan (after Bereiter and Scardamalia) in terms of writing for knowledge telling, and writing for knowledge transforming. Whilst we argued that such a distinction did not necessarily lead to certain acts of writing being experienced as easier than others, we do wish to propose that it would be helpful to develop this conceptually in order to help people distinguish productively between the different kinds of writing they have to do.
The key question here is whether or not writing is best viewed as an entirely distinct activity from talking, and the answer to that is a somewhat unhelpful yes and no. This question, indeed, brings us back to the Observer article with which this paper began: the problem it identified (even if it failed quite to articulate it in this way) concerned the fact that the internet and email encourage people to write as they talk, and that is bad because it makes businesses look bad to their customers. It is worth considering, though, that the growth of kinds of writing that do not require engagement with the full range of writing's resources and demands might prove both liberating in terms of many of the smaller jobs of writing done in work, and effective in helping workers to conceptualise the difference between such rapid writing (writing-as-you-talk), and more substantial, thoughtfully composed writing.
Much writing is indeed very close to, and highly dependent upon, how we talk and what we talk about. Indeed, the whole issue of the need to incorporate institution-specific language into workplace writing involves the transfer over into writing of the ways in which people speak about and express institutional values (a point demonstrated vividly in Spilka's study in the Department of Environmental Protection, where it was found that workers learnt to 'rely on both oral and written discourse than on just one mode of expression or the other throughout the composing process', 1993, p. 76). In more fundamental terms, it is the case that a great deal of everyday writing activities in work involve the direct telling of something to someone else in writing, and is best achieved by fairly rapid thinking through of what it is you want to say, and then simply saying it. Such a device works very well in instrumental communications of all kinds, and is particularly characteristic of internal communications in memos and emails which, pace the Observer, might properly be valued for the lack of attention to standardised rules of language which they display. There might be, in effect, some strong arguments in favour of liberating ourselves from strict adherence to structure and formal
grammar rules in emails, as a healthy and efficient way of achieving some of the benefits of writing without the concomitant pain involved in achieving the full benefits.
Other kinds of writing, though, demand and benefit from that pain: any writing, really, that attempts to develop a successful argument on the basis of well-selected and marshalled evidence. It is through such writing that plans, decisions and achievements are advocated, made and recorded. Such writing is not merely incidental to the achievement of productivity and goals, it is instrumental. Given such levels of importance, it is entirely reasonable that documents of this kind should require writers to respect and struggle to achieve those particular qualities that are unique to writing. Writing of this kind can benefit from a wide range of strategies in order to ease its progress and ensure its quality -- the conscious deployment of process strategies, the time needed for review and revision, opportunities for collaboration and feedback -- but it can only be achieved in the awareness that the difficulties in writing it are a necessary aspect of its worth. There is a real danger, both in the workplace and in education, that we would rather find ways round the difficulties of writing. We would suggest that the most important kind of conceptual knowledge about writing should be, in fact, that in order to be good, it must be difficult.
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By Chris Davies, University of Oxford Department of Educational Studies and Maria Birbill, University of Oxford Department of Educational Studies
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Source: British Journal of Educational Studies, Dec2000, Vol. 48 Issue 4, p429, 17p
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