What’s the Big Idea? Redefining writing objectives in Primary Literacy

I’m currently reading Wiggins’ and McTighe’s Understanding by Design. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m trying to define threshold concepts and big ideas in primary literacy. In my last post, I improvised a set of threshold concepts for reading, derived from the Cambridge International Primary Programme’s English curriculum. They need much more thought and are far too “fag packet” for serious consideration. But it was a useful exercise and I feel like I took a step closer to clarifying the central ideas I want to get across in reading at primary level.

In this blog, I’d like to consider writing. I’m particularly inspired by an excerpt from Understanding by Design, in which the authors recommend how to identify the Big Ideas in your curriculum. They recommend that you “circle the key recurring nouns in standards documents to highlight big
ideas and the recurring verbs to identify core tasks.” This pretty much follows what I did in my last post, but I’ll go back and do it in more detail later on.

They also warn teachers not to assume that students will be as enthralled by the Big Ideas as they are. One of my proposed Big Ideas in writing is that “writing is purposeful and its success is measured by the extent to which it achieves the author’s intent”. I know that writers have happy accidents and that Roland Barthes would dismiss authorial intent as a basis for good writing; but in non-fiction, persuasive writing and most traditional literature there is a sense in which writing has a desired emotional impact.

The statement, “writing is purposeful”, presents students with two opposing problems:
1) Isn’t it obvious?
2) Isn’t it contradicted by what my teacher asks me to do, day-in, day-out?

A persuasive letter needs to change minds – isn’t that obvious? But a piece of writing in response to a writing prompt is strangely purposeless, and explicitly contrived by the teacher. Indeed, its purpose is as a learning activity not as a meaningful act of communication. It may even not be read.

This has fascinating implications for planning and further indicates to me that “purposeful writing” should be a Big Idea in my curriculum planning. The implications are that writing needs to be as close to the point of need as can be.

Now, many seasoned teachers will already have intuited this. Primary teachers the world over have their students writing to penpals, blogging, writing letters to local politicians, etc. This is all purposeful writing. On the fiction side, we are publishing our creative writing in anthologies (hard copies and blog collections). However, to elevate “purpose” to the status of Big Idea forces these end products to the foreground. They become absolutely central to the planning and must be reflected upon in detail in order for the Big Idea to be reinforced.

If I promote “purposeful writing” to the status of Big Idea, then I must use the following methods to promote purpose:
1) opportunities to communicate in the real world in writing – both call and response (preferably building a dialogue of some kind);
2) opportunities to simulate real-world communication (using drama, especially Mantle of the Expert, to create safe environments in which students can explore communication strategies and reflect on their success or otherwise); and
3) opportunities to workshop and, as mentioned above, talk about the impact of their communication.

Clearly, this Big Idea stretches across Reading, Writing and Speaking & Listening. It helps me to see the importance of reflection as the main engine of learning:

Did I get the expected result from my reader? (emotion, action)
Did anything unexpected emerge? (should I leave it in?)
How could I refine my message?

Interestingly, there’s nothing here that is particularly specific to primary-level literacy. The points above are equally applicable to secondary, and probably more realistic (which is a concern). In my next blog, I am going to focus on an area that will be more pertinent to primary: Big Ideas in Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar.

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