The ontogenesis of writing in childhood and adolescence

Authored by: Frances Christie

The Routledge International Handbook of English, Language and Literacy Teaching

Print publication date:  February  2010
Online publication date:  February  2010

Print ISBN: 9780415469036
eBook ISBN: 9780203863091
Adobe ISBN: 9781135183141


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Research into children’s writing in the English-speaking world has had quite a long history, much of it illuminating, for what has been suggested either of children’s writing capacities in particular phases of life, such as childhood, or of pedagogical strategies to promote growth in writing. In practice, the research – some of it now dated – has had more to say of writing in childhood than in adolescence (see discussions in Wray and Medwell, 2006; Christie and Derewianka, 2008: 1–4; Myhill, 2009). In addition, much of the research has been rather general in character, lacking sufficient linguistic depth with which to trace developmental progress in principled ways. Britton et al. (1975) for example undertook a study of writing from 11–18-year-olds, which sought to establish different types of writing – transactional, expressive and poetic – and which had the merit that it suggested some differentiation of writing functions. However, so general did these prove to be that they lacked the necessary specificity with which to analyze children’s written texts, while they offered little to explain developmental progress over time. Other research of a more linguistic character (e.g. Hunt, 1965; Harpin, 1976; Loban, 1976; Perera, 1984), focusing on different ages, used various linguistic tools; it directly addressed features of children’s written language, including for example sentence and clause lengths, types of subordinate or dependent clauses, the frequency of the passive voice, the use of personal pronouns, the use of finite and non-finite verbs, use of adverbials, various kinds of embeddings and uses and expansion of vocabulary. Myhill’s (2009) recent study also uses linguistic measures to investigate the writing of students in the junior secondary years (ages 12 to 15 years) leading her to propose the presence of three overlapping ‘developmental trajectories’ in growth of control of writing. The first involves a shift from speech to written language patterns, the second involves emergent capacity to express and elaborate on experience in writing, while the third involves being able to ‘transform’ the experience presented, so that writers achieve some rhetorical impact. In the latter sense, young writers become ‘designers’ (Myhill, 2009).

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