Sunday, 20 November 2011

Using creative writing to increase confidence and motivation for learning amongst adult literacy students


During the last few years I have taught Literacy to a variety of learners in circumstances ranging from discrete courses for those with learning difficulties to long-term unemployed adults and those engaged in training as part of the last government’s Train to Gain scheme. Regardless of the situation, I have often found motivation particularly lacking when it comes to writing tasks. Learners can easily see the value of reading as it’s a skill we use every day in tasks as unrelated as shopping, driving and cooking. The printed word is everywhere. What’s more, it has authority. When something is written down it is perceived to carry a certain amount of importance, therefore motivation to read is generally quite high. Writing, however, is easier to avoid. What’s more, because the written word is viewed as having authority, many people – even those with sound ‘literacy skills’ – feel insecure about their ability to express themselves on paper. This reluctance to write, I believe, stems from the fact that historically, the act of writing was most frequently practiced by the educated and ‘ruling’ classes. For those engaged in physical labour, where strength and manual dexterity had obvious financial benefits, writing was seen as having little practical value.

My background is in Creative Writing and my purpose in carrying out this research was to look at ways Creative Writing might be used to empower learners, increasing their self-confidence and motivating them to improve their literacy skills. I wanted to look at the ways Creative Writing has been used by other educators and to gauge its effectiveness in teaching Literacy. I also wanted to gather new ideas and teaching methods to improve my own practice.

An Extremely Brief History of Literacy, Literature 

and Publication in Britain 

From the beginning, writing has been an occupation practiced almost exclusively by the ruling classes. These were the people, educated and literate, who had time and money to spare on the reading, production and commissioning of literature. Epic verse, inspired by ancient folklore, were among the first stories ever committed to paper, around the 8th century. These were followed by Romance sagas, between the 11th and 16th centuries, recounting the fantastical exploits of their authors’ moneyed patrons. Histories, memoirs and biographies of this time also focused on the great and the good. It was not until the middle of the 18th century, with the growth of the middle classes and an increase in literacy, that the novel – an extended and realistic prose-fiction narrative – emerged in Britain. 

Information about the numbers of people able to read during these periods is sketchy as definitions of literacy varied considerably. Donald Stark (no date) cites Cressy’s attempts to deduce literacy levels by counting those who were able to “write their own name on official documents, as opposed to those reduced to using marks of some description.” With this method, Cressy concluded that “90% of men and 99% of women were illiterate in the age of Henry VII, while over 70% of men and 90% of women were unable to spell their name on the Protestation Act of 1642.” Stark (no date) continues to trace the growth of literacy through depositions from the Northern Circuit Assizes which shows illiteracy in men falling from 65% in the 1640s to 30% a century later. He is cautious, however, of giving too much credence to these figures, stating: 

Assumptions that good readers could sign their names can easily make us under-estimate the numbers of literate people.... There remained also a not inconsiderable difference between being able to read print...and handwriting. As an example, [citing Thomas’ anecdote] when the Elizabethan non-conformist John Penry wrote to his wife from prison, he assumed that the letter would be read out to her, while nevertheless expecting her to read the Bible and teach their daughter to do so. 

Limage (2005) agrees with Stark’s findings that only since the Protestant Reformation encouraged independent study of the Bible, has importance been placed on the ability to read. 

The ability to write, however, an essential part of the literacy definition today, was thought to require a higher level of education (Stark, no date), and so remained the preserve of the upper classes until very recent times. The effect of this is that the voices of those with lower literacy skills have often gone unheard, increasing their sense of marginalisation, alienation and unimportance. Worse still, because society seldom hears these voices first hand, our view of the world is skewed, shaped by our perceptions rather than by reality. When history is recorded, interpreted and modified by third parties, the distinction between fact and fiction is endangered. 

Creative Writing and Skills for Life 

The benefits of Creative Writing are largely ignored in the Adult Literacy Core Curriculum which places an emphasis on reading skills over the skills needed to write fluently. Where it does deal with writing, importance is almost exclusively centred around technical competence in grammar, spelling and punctuation. While the Curriculum does touch on writing for a specific purpose, achieving Level 1 and Level 2 Literacy qualifications requires no written work at all. Writing on the NRDC website, Samantha Duncan (2007) fears this sends a message to learners and teachers alike that writing has less value and therefore less importance. And creativity, of course, doesn’t get a look in. 

Creative Writing is, however, used as a launch pad for the teaching of literacy skills in a variety of settings outside the confines of Skills for Life programmes. Across the country, writing projects sponsored by the Arts Council offer support and encouragement to adult learners interested not so much in perfecting their use of the apostrophe as they are in expressing their thoughts, feelings, dreams and ideas, sharing their experiences and gaining a sense of validation and belonging. Such programmes, frequently targeting groups which at some level have been excluded from the wider community – the homeless, disadvantaged youths, single mothers, mentally ill, the elderly, prisoners, etc. – offer a safe environment where writing is valued as much for its content and meaning as for its structure. In this atmosphere, learners gain confidence as well as new skills, and, according to Sam Brookes (2002) who discusses a project sponsored by Consignia’s Stepping Stone Fund, frequently go on to dedicated literacy programmes to further their writing activities. 

The Fall of Community-Based Creative Writing Projects 
and the Rise of Creative Writing within Literacy Provision 

Since the 1980s, adult evening classes in Literature, Creative Writing and other forms of artistic expression have come under increasing pressure to provide learners with qualifications. O’Rourke (2005:35) writes that in the following decade, classes which had previously encouraged participants to enjoy and develop artistic pursuits had their funding directly tied to achievement:

Where adult education had once been able to provide forms of social and cultural association that enabled individuals and groups to access and develop forms of cultural activity on the basis of need, interest and use they now had to work within a framework driven by individual progress.

Today, with the emphasis firmly on providing Skills for Life qualifications, tutors are pressured into delivering a curriculum which appears to value reading and form filling over the ability to communicate in creative and individual ways. This impression is supported by the fact that seven out of nine projects currently organised by the National Literacy Trust are involved in the promotion of reading. Only one project, Everybody Writes, sets out to engage primary and secondary school pupils and their teachers in writing activities.

But the news is not all bad. Teachers themselves are a creative breed and many have used Creative Writing activities in their Literacy sessions all along, searching out competitions and other venues where student work can be publicly recognised. Since 2003, the BBC Skillswise website has published online stories by Literacy learners, providing a valuable forum for underheard voices, as well as a motivation to learn and improve skills. And finally, those in charge are beginning to see the merits of Creative Writing within the Skills for Life framework. The first Skills for Life writing event, Voices on the Page, which Duncan (2007) promoted on the NRDC website is one example where learners are being actively encouraged to take up Creative Writing. With an online anthology of all stories submitted, awards for regional winners and a published anthology of selected stories, Literacy learners have been given a national arena in which their voices can be heard.

Prison Writing 

According to a survey carried out by the British Dyslexia Association, cited by the National Literacy Trust (2007), half of all prisoners in the UK have poor literacy skills. The Trust also states that in 1998, of those prisoners who completed the Basic Skills Agency literacy assessment “60% had problems with literacy, and 40% had a severe literacy problem.”

Since 1992, the Arts Council of England and the Home Office have supported a Writers in Residence programme which places writers alongside offenders to promote self-expression, literacy training and job skills. Prisoners are engaged in a range of literacy-based activities, from story-telling to publishing magazines and anthologies. Seeing their work published provides offenders with a major boost in self-esteem and for many it is the first time they have experienced a real sense of achievement. In A Life Sentence, director of the Writers in Prison Network, Clive Hopwood (2006), states:

The best reward of all is watching a man, who's been told he's a failure all his life, stand up at a book launch and read out the first poem he's ever written. You'd have thought he'd just won the Booker Prize... Or the lad who can't read or write, whose mates on his landing have taught him the lines of his role in a radio play, record his scene and leave the room as if he's walking on air.

Talking about the psychological and social benefits of Creative Writing, Julian Broadhead (2006), founding editor of Prison Writing, states: “Within the environment that many prisoners live when not in prison, crime is often regarded as a means of expression. Through criminal skills or a capacity for violence, many career criminals have made their mark on a world that would have otherwise ignored their existence.” In agreement with Hopwood, Broadhead sees Creative Writing as a positive way for prisoners to become recognised, through publication in prison magazines and awards such as those sponsored by prison arts charity, The Koestler Trust.

Creative Writing tutors frequently encourage their students to “write what you know”, and many Creative Writing programmes begin with a unit on autobiography. According to Hopwood (2006), this can be particularly valuable in prison. Referring to autobiographical writing as a “tool for change” which allows prisoners to confront their actions and to seek self-knowledge, he writes in Life Stories:

For many prisoners incarceration offers the first chance in their lives (let alone their adult lives) to pause, reflect and move on. Given the opportunity, encouragement and guidance most prisoners (many unbidden) will write autobiographically: 'How did I get to where I am today?' Autobiography seeks to make sense of the present by re-examining the past. It is an unconscious desire to gain insight in order to influence the future.
Writing about prison literacy programmes in Literacy Today, Judith Williams (2002) quotes an inmate who described the empowerment he had gained from a writing project: “The simple act of writing down what I was thinking and feeling opened my eyes to the power of words.” That is the difference between reading and writing: we read other people’s thoughts, ideas and feelings, but we write our own. Reading is a passive act; writing is power.

Rising Professionalism 

In 1969, Lancaster University was the first British university to offer an undergraduate degree in Creative Writing, with the University of East Anglia introducing their now famous MA programme the following year. Today, the UCAS website lists 700 undergraduate degree programmes at 75 UK universities in which Creative Writing is a major element. Approximately one-third of these universities also offer MA degrees in the subject and according to Stephanie Norgate, programme co-odinator for the MA Creative Writing programme at the University of Chichester, many publishers now look upon MA degrees as a clearing house, giving preference to unknown authors who have achieved a Distinction. What this means, of course, is that work by those writers lacking these qualifications is far less likely to get noticed or to move beyond the slush pile. The implications for Literacy learners is obvious: publication is out of the question. Or is it?

The Future 

In this age of student-centred learning, the use of Creative Writing (particularly autobiographical-based writing) in the teaching of adult Literacy is invaluable. What we, as educators, do in the classroom involves much more than teaching people how to read and write. National policy would have us believe that attainment of these skills alone is the route to success, the cure for all our nation’s social and financial woes, but everyone involved in teaching knows that the real keys to success are self-belief and aspiration.

The saying that everyone has a story to tell is clich√©, but true. And the stories our learners have to share – stories they want to tell and stories we need to hear – are every bit as valuable as those told by the educated elite. As teachers, it is our challenge to provide learners with the means to share their stories, to help them affirm “this is who I am and I matter”, to encourage them to play a positive part in the world, and to show them that they can achieve.

Student publications are one way we can help give our students a voice and show them that they matter. Publication does not have to mean professional publication. Photocopied student newspapers or journals serve the same purpose, even if on a smaller scale. For the past five years, Highbury College lecturer Sheila Haines has helped her LDD students publish their writing this way and Southdowns lecturer, Carol Westron, has seen her Literacy students win prizes at the Winchester Writers’ Conference and other other national Creative Writing competitions. The Internet is a massive forum for new writers of all abilities, with the BBC’s RaW website being amongst the best known. And, for those with money, self-publication is always an option.

Changes to My Practice

Research for this project has encouraged me to become more creative in my approach to Literacy teaching and to view the Adult Literacy Core Curriculum as a guide, rather than a manual requiring strict adherence. Discussions with colleagues have turned up a raft of ideas such as shared writing projects, in which students work together to write a story. Exercises such as this not only address literacy issues but also encourage team work, organisational skills and planning strategies.

A couple of teachers also suggested using music as a way of relaxing students and improving concentration and memory. Another exercise which I have recently used is to give students part of a story which they are asked to complete. This exercise can be adapted to a wide range of students by giving them more or less of the original story with which to work. More advanced learners can simply be given an opening paragraph, while others can be given all but the ending, and material can be presented in written or audio form.

One area of Creative Writing which I will devote more time to is poetry. Poetry can be particularly beneficial for lower-level learners as there is less emphasis on the “rights and wrongs” of literacy conventions.

In my more advanced Creative Writing classes, students workshop one another’s stories. I encourage them to look for the strengths of each piece and ways they might be improved upon. Although this is not something I’ve done with Literacy learners, I think a similar exercise could be useful if focused on proofreading for spelling, punctuation and grammar. Helping students to develop such “editing” skills when reading others’ work will help them to focus on these issues in their own.


By its nature, Creative Writing is student-centred and student-led, focusing on issues relevant to the individual. Research for this project has shown that it is an effective tool for teaching Literacy and for increasing self-confidence and motivation amongst learners.

No comments: