The Staffroom: Helping learners develop their writer’s voice

Reducing cognitive load and scaffolding learners’ progress allows them to do more than learn discrete skills, says Kerry Scattergood. They discover their voice

Reducing cognitive load and scaffolding learners’ progress allows them to do more than learn discrete skills, says Kerry Scattergood. They discover their voice

13 Feb 2023, 5:00

For my chapter in Great FE Teaching, I explored teaching adult literacy in a women’s centre. Here, I want to show that the ideas I set out about learners developing their writer’s voice are relevant to any setting, and that we can use writing about the familiar to remove some of the learning burden when learning new or different ways to write.

Within functional skills qualifications, learners are expected to be able to write in different styles, such as business writing (emails and reports), personal writing (emails and letters) or persuasive writing (blogs and articles). Therefore, an important aspect of teaching writing is a consideration of the format of a text, as well its purpose and audience.

When an adult learner first joins a class, as they may have been out of education for some time, there could be a significant amount of learning and adjustment to make, in terms of teaching and learning practice. This could then be further compounded by being asked to complete unfamiliar classroom writing tasks.

This is true for any new learner, as well as for those who are not exposed to these formats in their daily lives. There is a significant learning burden – or cognitive load – when thinking not only about what to write but how to write it. If we remove the burden of the content, by asking learners to write about familiar things, then that can reduce the load and enable learners to focus solely on how to write in that particular style or format.

This is scaffolding: as learners gain in confidence and as they develop their own voice, they can be asked to write on less familiar topics. The scaffold is removed as they develop their writing ability.

Eventually they come to believe in the value of their voice

As learners gain confidence in their writing skills and ability, they start to develop confidence in their own style, often known as ‘voice’. If we think about literacy as an ability we use in our everyday lives and which is shaped by our everyday lives, we can understand that our use of literacy changes depending on what it is we want to achieve. In turn, this encourages us to think of learning literacy as more than just developing a skill.

As we started to engage in real practices in my women’s centre classroom, the value and worth of all of our everyday literacy practices, such as poetry, sermon notes and reading for pleasure became more important. Something far deeper than just ‘skills’ was being developed. The women were able to develop their ‘voice’, to move their writing through genres and styles, writing for different purposes and for different audiences. This meant being able to more confidently access different types of reading and learn different types of writing.

This, I think, is useful frame for any teacher’s understanding of how we can support learners to develop literacies that are meaningful for their understanding of all subjects. Literacy is often described as a ‘gateway’ into other subjects, hence the need to be able to write in different ways and different styles, known as writing ‘realms’.

This isn’t just relevant to thinking about what we use literacy for, but also how we carry what we have learned into different domains. For example, my adult learners might want to progress to a higher education programme, yet there is no ‘academic writing’ element of the functional skills qualification. Nevertheless, learning different styles of writing by starting from low cognitive load exercises focused on familiar subjects and building confidence in their individual voices enables learners to develop their own academic writing.

Eventually, they come to believe in the value of their voice and in the power of their literacy. They can use academic reading as a model, and experiment with ways of writing effectively in an academic style.

This approach reminds me of the saying about empowerment. Teaching literacy as a remote set of skills is like giving a man a fish or two. Enabling learners to develop their voice is like teaching them to fish for themselves. The key is to start in familiar waters.

This article is one of a number of contributions to The Staffroom from the authors of Great FE Teaching: Sharing Good Practice, edited by Samantha Jones and available from SAGE.

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