Developing Writers: Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age

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  • Book Review

    Developing Writers: Teaching and Learning in the Digital AgeRichard Andrews and Anna SmithOpen University Press (2011)ISBN 9780335 24179860.00 (hardback), 21.99 (paperback)

    Writing is one skill that distinguishes us as humans from the animal kingdom,and through writing we express our humanity. Our written records can traceour past and connect us to the lives and thoughts of ancient peoples; ourwritten stories and poetry can fire the imagination and stir the soul; ouraccounts of research and discovery open up knowledge and understanding;our political tracts and advertising posterboards persuade and compel. There islittle doubt about the power of the written word, and those who cancommand mastery of the written word can command power in the world. Weuse writing to get things done, to express our innermost thoughts, and toshape our identity. And writing in a digital age creates a multiplicity of newaffordances and possibilities. We are writing more than ever through emails,in chatrooms, on blogs and wikis, as well as more conventional forms ofwriting; and our writing is accessible by more people than ever before. Yetcuriously, we still know relatively little about the best way to teach writing andhow to enable children and young people to develop as capable, creative andcritical communicators in writing. This book sets out to generate a new debatethat seeks to fill this gap.

    The first section of the book highlights the deep-rooted discrepancy in readingand writing achievement, noting that in the UK, on average, writing haspersistently lagged behind reading by about 20%. It is strange, therefore, thatso many of our public literacy debates are about reading and the teaching ofreading! The authors offer a very useful overview of writing pedagogy over thepast 60 years or so, tracing the changes in emphasis, which are, of course,underpinned by changing philosophical understandings of what it means to bea writer.

    Chapter 3 considers theories of writing development, both in an evolutionaryand a conceptual sense. Andrews and Smith outline the symbolic inter-relationships between writing and meaning-making, and the primacy of the

    Corresponding author: D.A.Myhill@exeter.ac.uk

    106 2012 The Author.Journal compilation 2012 National Association for the Teaching of English.

    Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1754-8845.2011.01119.x English in Education Vol.46 No.1 2012

  • written word, even in a multi-modal age. They note that writing retains aprivileged position within education; despite innovative alternative possibilitiesfor assessment, writing remains the dominant mode of assessment fromprimary school through to PhD thesis. Equally, in the world of business andlaw, the written document has an authority which other communicative modeshave not yet displaced. The chapter concludes with a brief consideration ofhow young people develop as writers, a theme which is picked up anddeveloped further in chapter 6, where narrow notions of linear developmentare challenged in favour of a more multi-dimensional understanding.

    The focus of chapters 4 and 5 is a critical consideration of product- andprocess-related models of writing. Historically viewed as reactions against eachother, (in other words, that process models of writing developed as a counter-pedagogy to the restrictive, narrow focus on writing as a product) thesechapters adopt a more nuanced view of both. The authors argue that a narrowemphasis on the text as product ignores the importance of the writer and thesocial context in generating and shaping text. In considering process models,they describe not only the pedagogically driven workshop approachesadvocated by Graves and his peers, but also the cognitive models of thewriting process. Crucially, they draw attention to the way process models canbecome formulaic and rigid ways of working if teachers abandon thefundamental principles of recursivity and individuality central to all processapproaches in favour of protocols, routine and orthodoxies. For me, this is acritical observation, and one which we can also see replicated in the way theprinciples of teaching the genres of writing, intended to empower writers bymaking explicit how the genres are constructed, have so often been realised inpractice as recipes for reproductive and uncreative production of genres.

    One of the most significant influences on writing in recent years is, of course,the transformation of possibilities stemming from the affordances of digitaltechnology. It is somewhat odd that whilst technological advancement ishighly prized in science and industry, there remains a prevalent public viewthat new technologies pose a threat to writing. In chapters 7 and 8, Andrewsand Smith offer an analysis of the affordances of the digital. They argue thateven apparently mono-modal writing tends to imply other modes, as writing isalways visual, and all writers can make choices about how best to design theirwriting, drawing on the multimodal as well as written word. They distinguishbetween multimodal and digital, and explore the particular affordances ofdigital writing: the linearity of text is disrupted by hypertext; the isolation ofwriting is challenged by collaborative writing, such as wikis; the gatekeepers ofpublication are by-passed by instant self-publication; and processes andproducts intertwine and coalesce.

    The final chapters pull together the threads of the story so far, and propose anew theory and model of writing development and its implications forclassroom and curriculum policy. Here, Andrews and Smith raise important

    Book Review English in Education Vol.46 No.1 2012

    2012 The Author. 107English in Education 2012 National Association for the Teaching of English.

  • questions about the concept of writing development. What does writingdevelopment mean? What is the goal of proficiency that we are aimingtowards? Is there an end-point when one is developed? These questions posepowerful challenges to deep-rooted conceptualisations of development, oftencharacterised by very product-focused models of mastery. Andrews and Smithadopt a broader view of development which includes the writer, as well as thewriting; what the writer knows and understands as well as what they can do.They offer a visual metaphor of development which disrupts the linearunidimensionality of traditional views of progression and allows for variability,unpredictability and tangential spirals.

    The book is a refreshing read, written in a style which is easy to understandbut has that lightness of touch which makes it possible to deal withtheoretically difficult ideas without losing its essential accessibility. It isfounded on a rich seam of research and one of the books strengths is the waythe research is synthesised and re-framed. As I read it, I did occasionally thinkthat more insights could be drawn from the different disciplinary contributionsto writing. For example, cognitive research is confined largely to Hayes andFlower, and Bereiter and Scardamalia, whereas more recent research is offeringnew insights into how we write, and how we think about writing. Likewise,Katherine Pereras work on linguistic development in talk and writing remainsa seminal study of language development in the middle years. But theseabsences are more than compensated for by the overall intellectual energy ofthe book this is a book which will stimulate re-thinking of what it means tobe a writer.

    Debra MyhillUniversity of Exeter

    English in Education Vol.46 No.1 2012 Book Review

    108 2012 The Author.English in Education 2012 National Association for the Teaching of English.