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Professor Debra Myhill with Juliet Mountford, Director of UK service development, British Red Cross.

Credit:Smith & Scholey

New approach to writing changes policy and practice

A decade of research into the development of writing in school-aged children at the University of Exeter has shaped classroom practice in the teaching of writing and informed national and international policy. This has resulted in measurable improvements to children’s writing abilities and has changed ways of thinking about writing.

The research is being celebrated by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) who have awarded the Centre for Research in Writing with this year’s ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize

Embedding grammar in the teaching of writing can have a positive impact on children’s written work. Based on a ten year programme of research led by Professor Debra Myhill, Dr Susan Jones, Dr Helen Lines and Dr Annabel Watson at the University’s Graduate School of Education, the research clearly shows policy makers and educationalists of its importance.  

During the ceremony, the ESRC rewarded researchers for their outstanding economic and social impact, with University of Exeter's Professor Debra Myhill securing first place in the Outstanding Impact in Society category. Professor Myhill was awarded a trophy and £10,000 to promote the economic and social impacts of their research.

In one ESRC-funded study, researchers found that when grammar was linked meaningfully to the writing being taught, children’s writing scores, improved at double the rate of children not taught in that way. This was measured (by Cambridge Assessment) in line with National Curriculum KS3 standards.

Professor Myhill explained:“The key is using grammar to open children’s eyes to the infinite repertoire of choices which are available to them as writers. Used in this way, grammar helps children understand how language works and how to express themselves with greater craft and creativity.”

A further outcome of this research is that many teachers now think differently about the teaching of writing. 

The University of Exeter’s education specialists have helped demystify the process of writing and develop teachers’ ability to show children how writing works. This was carried out through a mix of evidence-based practical guidance for teachers, engagement with professional audiences and workshops with teaching professionals,

Daniel Cuttell, Senior Manager English: Learning Services, Pearson UK said:“We have been greatly influenced by Debra Myhill and her research into the impact of contextualised grammar teaching on progress in writing. Indeed, this teaching approach has now been adopted by Pearson UK as one of the defining pedagogical methods for improving literacy standards in secondary schools.” 

The involvement of commercial organisation Pearson Education is also ensuring that the research achieves significantly greater reach and impact than would otherwise have been possible. Pearson Education recently invested significant sums in developing new writing materials aimed at children and teachers.

Dr Nigel Skinner, University of Exeter’s Head of Graduate School of Education explained the importance of this kind of recognition:“The Centre for Research in Writing is one of the five research centres at the Graduate School of Education. The research carried out by these centres leads to advances in policy, theory and practice both nationally and internationally and winning this award illustrates the important impact that high quality educational research can have on learners.”

He added:“The ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize is recognition of the national significance of the research that is carried out by the Centre. In addition to ESRC funding they receive support from organisations such as the Arts Council, the Youth Sport Trust and the Education Endowment Fund. Through generating new insights into writing and the teaching of writing their work makes a real difference to the achievement of learners as well as advancing theoretical understanding.”

 Billboard image of boy writing via shutterstock

Date: 6 June 2014

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