Writing in art – why, who for?

>Recently I was involved in a whole school training day about literacy across the curriculum in Key Stages 3 and 4. More explicitly it was about writing. This is sometimes a contentious subject in art and design, especially where teachers’ feel pupils are not strong academically.
There is a recurring argument that, the examination criteria and the implicit expectations of moderators, requires candidates to exemplify their knowledge and understanding of art, artists and the relationships with their own work, through writing. It is claimed that this disadvantages less able candidates who may be good at art but not at writing. Awarding bodies counter the argument by claiming that writing is not a requirement and that candidates can record, video or illustrate their knowledge through their work: although such recordings and videos are unheard of in practice.
Or at least they were until recently. I know that Chalfonts Community College is using pupils ideas, as captured in their VLE, as a record of candidates knowledge. They are also experimenting with podcasts as a way of recording ideas and responses.
But what was interesting about this training was that the art department had left this argument behind and were fully committed to developing writing skills. They were already talking about and modelling appropriate writing with students. Some of the writing seen in sketchbooks was genuinely perceptive and indicated a personal involvement with works of art. There was little vacuous labelling (ie writing ‘a green frog’ next to a picture of a green frog) and students presented their written work carefully.
In our discussion about ways to further develop students writing and raising standards further we refered to ‘Literacy across the curriculum materials’ – in particular to the unit on ‘writing non-fiction‘. It raised questions that we had not considered before. It had not occurred to me before to explore the particular purpose and audience for the writing students do in art.
The unit maps out some possible categories of non-fiction and, although there was no obvious single category, it was interesting to recognise that students’ writing may have different purposes and different audiences and that each of these has an impact on the nature and conventions for their writing. This realisation gave another dimension to our attitude to students’ writing and how it might be supported. We did not find all the answers but it did raise new and interesting questions. It helped give a sense of how we might explore the difference between – say ‘personal note taking’ and and writing to ‘explain’. Key questions were:

  • What is its purpose?
  • Who is it for?
  • How will it be used?
  • What kind of writing is, therefore, appropriate?

The teachers decided they wanted to invite an English teacher to an art lesson and to discuss their approach to supporting different sorts of writing.
This was one of those occasions where I genuinely found an interesting and new set of ideas. It was an enjoyable and positive discussion and I am grateful to Geoff and Sally for sharing their ideas and work with me.

PS. There is a very good National Strategy publication ‘Literacy and Learning in Art and Design‘ which is subject specific and considers literacy from the point of view of learning in art.

The unit ‘writing non-fiction‘ identifies the following as a favourable context for writing.
1. Establishes both the purpose and the audience of the writing.
2. Ensures that writers have something to say.
3. Gives writers opportunities to develop, sharpen and revise ideas.
4. Encourages collaboration during planning, drafting and proof-reading.
5. Gives pupils access to references materials to support writing – eg word banks, dictionaries, thesauruses, etc.
6. Provides feedback both during and after writing of writing strengths and of ways to improve weaknesses.

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About Dan

Senior Advisor, Art Inspector, Member of the Expert Advisory Group for Art, Consultant working with NSEAD, IOE, QCA, UCE, UOG. Currently lecturer at UCL working on a project in Kazakhstan to develop text books for a new art curriculum.
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