This page appears best when viewed with Explorer or with Netscape 2.0 or later.

School Literary Culture

Compiled by William Taylor, B.A., B.Ed.,  M.A. English Education (in progress at the University of British Columbia)

This site is intended to help teachers and other stakeholder groups to understand and explore the culture of literacy which evolves as students participate in writing and reading processes in the classroom. How do school curricula encourage certain ways of being, acting, and interrelating in our schools? Specifically, how does a literary culture grow in a classroom, and in a school?

Much has been written about youth culture. It is my belief that schools can be active participants in the creation of this culture. Through a student-centred, process approach to English curriculum, for example, a school's literary culture can be owned and enjoyed by the entire school community. Such a culture encourages all stakeholders to make writing and reading meaningful parts of the school experience. Beyond acting as media for the transferral of information, writing and reading become ways to explore and create, ways to communicate and connect, ways to build community.

This page provides links related to a process approach to English Education at the secondary level. It will be useful to teachers of English, to students, and to parents who wish to better understand the ways in which writing and reading can be taught in the classroom.

Contents and Links

Writing and Reading Workshop (an introduction)

Much of my classroom practice is inspired by Professor Carl Leggo (UBC), and originated with Nancy Atwell's book In the Middle: Teaching and Learning with Adolescents.

Some of this information was presented at the Pacific NorthWest Regional Conference -- Shifting Strands -- sponsored by the NCTE and presented by BCTELA, June 1996

Writing Workshop

Writing Workshop Theory

Writing allows us to EXPRESS ourselves. Through writing we can inform others, carry out transactions, persuade, infuriate, tell how we feel, come to terms with problems, and learn to shape our thoughts, our ideas, and our lives. Writing need not be confined to information exchange; it can be a creative act.

James Britton (1988) offers an interesting model for looking at writing.

Britton holds that all writing starts as expression. We want to say something. This expression has two extremes: we can say something in order to get something done, or we can create something by saying.

If we are writing to get something done, we are carrying out a transaction: persuading, informing, thanking, inviting, applying... Traditionally, most school writing is expected to be of this transactional nature; this is especially true of essay writing. Here we use language "to organize and communicate facts and ideas (recording, reporting, explaining, persuading, etc.)"

The creative aspect of writing deals with times when we want to say something about ourselves and our worlds. This creative writing is poetic, and allows students to shape their experiences, and through this process of shaping, to reveal much of what they feel about their experiences.


What we do with languageWhat we make with language

Both types of writing are important, because we learn different things when engaged with each type. In the first type of learning, we learn how to participate in an exchange of ideas. In the second type of learning we learn how to step back from this participation, to look at how and what people are doing, and to learn how to change what it is we are doing.

Finally, Britton maintains that the way in to writing lies in the expressive. That is, all writing can start out being informal, chatty, and explorative. As we grow in maturity as writers, we will be better able to turn this expressive writing into transactional writing, or poetic writing.


James Britton. "Writing, Learning, and Teacher Education." Teaching Secondary English: Readings and Applications, edited by Daniel Sheridan. New York: Longman, 1993.

Return to Contents and Links

Writing Workshop Practice

If we agree with Britton, and my practice suggests that we should, then we must re-think the way we teach writing in our classrooms. We must find a way to interest students in writing, and to accept expressive writing that has the potential to become either transactional or poetic.

Here are some of the tenets I have accepted in my teaching:


Students must be given time to write. This means allowing time for the whole process of writing, not just to produce product. Each stage in a student's writing process must be given time in our classrooms.


Students must be allowed to choose, within reason, what they will write about, what form their writing will take, and when they will finish a piece of writing. We must show students that writing can play an important role in their lives both inside and outside of school.


Students must be given time to share their writing, to help one another come to understanding. Peer editing and conferring must be taught processes. Students must believe that the teacher need not be an integral part of their writing process.


We need to write for a reason. Students must be encouraged to share their writing with its intended audience. If it's transactional writing, students should send it to the people they are trying to inform or persuade. If it's poetic, students should be encouraged to read their writing aloud.


If we expect students to use writing in their lives, we must show them that we use it in ours. If we expect them to become writers, we must practice writing.

Return to Contents and Links

Writing Process

A writing process is not a linear one. It is recursive and unique for each one of us. There is no such thing as THE writing process; however, there are some generally accepted elements usually found in an individual's writing process.

I like to see writing process as embodying two distinct types of activities: creating and criticizing (Elbow). We need to teach students how to turn off their inner critic in order to develop ideas, then to use this critic to refine them. For me, writing involves idea generating and drafting/revising/editing. Some people flip between these modes as they think, others need to keep the modes more separate.

The mini-lesson suggestions I have included in this handout are all designed to fit into the idea generating category.

Return to Contents and Links

Critical Thinking, Decision Making, Reflecting

Writing is a decision making process. In the workshop, students are forced to make decisions for themselves. Students must choose topic, genre, audience, purpose, etc.. As students go through a writing process, they must think critically to be successful.

Another goal of the workshop is to encourage reflection. You will note that my conference evaluation forms force students to reflect on their writing, and on how to improve their writing in the future. In this way we can encourage students to be independent, life-long learners and writers.

Return to Contents and Links

Individualized Instruction

Since all students come to us with different levels of language use, and with different experiences and needs, the workshop approach assumes an individual learning program will be used with each student. The structure of the workshop is the same for each student, but what each student learns during the workshop will be different.

Return to Contents and Links

Writing Journals

We can make a useful distinction for students: some writing is personal, some public. Writing which is personal includes journal writing, diary keeping and the like. This type of writing should be encouraged because it provides an opportunity for students to engage in expressive writing without being. Students can use this type of writing as a starting point for writing which will eventually be public, or students can use this type of writing as a tool to work out their private lives. A writing journal offers not only a wonderful way to store ideas, but to create ideas as well.

Public writing, in contrast, is meant to be shared in some way. While students should receive credit for personal writing, they should not be judged on this type of writing. We should try to keep judgement out of our writing programme altogether; it hinders learning. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Education forces us to judge our students' work. We must take care to judge only that work which students consider to be public. The best way that I have found for doing this (so far) is to evaluate student portfolios, and to hold conferences with students. Please see the handouts on evaluation for further detail.

Return to Contents and Links

Record Keeping

If we allow students ownership, how do we keep track of what they are doing?

I use a system described by Nancy Atwell in her excellent book In the Middle: Teaching and Learning with Adolescents. She takes the "STATUS OF THE CLASS." This involves asking each student what he or she will be working on for that period. Information sought includes title of piece currently under way, draft of piece, type of writing, and expected date of completion.

Return to Contents and Links


Conferring with students about individual pieces is central to the workshop experience. Students should confer with their teacher and their peers. During this conferring time, students should attend to editing and revision. Students should be taught how to give useful feedback to one another.

The conferences provide opportunities to give feedback and instruction to individual students, dependent on their needs. Anything a student learns in a conference should be recorded by that student. At the end of the year, a student will have a record of his or her growth.

Return to Contents and Links


I have developed a repertoire of lessons (15-20 minutes in duration) which I present at the beginning of each writing period. These can deal with anything from punctuation to exposing students to various examples of dialogue. This is time I use to share information from which the entire class will benefit.

Return to Contents and Links

Reading Workshop

Reading Workshop Theory

A response-based approach to literature replaces the new critical naming of the parts with questions. Instead of searching for meaning in a text, instead of uncovering the relationship between defined pieces of text, students are encouraged to ask questions about text -- to generate meaning, to leave themselves open to meaning. This is central to the workshop approach: meaning is generated -- personal/, immediate, catch-your-breath meaning. Students are invited to create their own culture of reading, through choice and acceptance. Students are encouraged to delve into language: theirs, others, and society's.

Central to this view of literary exploration is the idea that meaning is created between reader and text (tension between text and reader is dynamic, and depends on the type of text: for instance, a poem and a science textbook assume different reading strategies). This view has become so prevalent that many students hold it a prori. If meaning is to be constructed between student and text, students must be given tools and the skills to use these tools. This is the job of a language arts teacher, to help students to think critically. The more students can be encouraged to create meaning, to reconcile their views with textual suggestion, the more prepared students will be to enter a world of active participation.

The idea of creating a literary/literate community is very important. A classroom can provide an environment to build culture, class culture. Students can develop their own cultural literacy supported by/supporting, informed by/informing the teacher. In fact, if the workshop approach is implemented school-wide, then a school literary community becomes viable, and almost inevitable. Where else do students get to discuss the literature available to them? Where else can students be exposed to the rich stock of literature on which our society is founded, is being refounded?

Return to Contents and Links

Reading Workshop Practice

1. Choice

Students must be allowed to choose all extended narrative they will read in novel form. This is essential to encourage all students -- reluctant and enthusiastic -- to read. The teacher can provide valuable advice, but students create the enthusiasm behind their own emergent literacy. Group study of literature is also important, and should be accomplished by looking at pieces which can be digested by the entire class at a single sitting: short poetry, short stories, essays, drama, video. We must turn to sources which can be appreciated by a group, so that group exploration of large human themes can be accomplished.

2. Response

Students must be encouraged to respond to the literature which they read. The Ministry of Education identifies three main levels of response: Literal, Analytical, and Rhetorical. What is happening in a piece? What makes a piece work, not work? What meaning does a piece hold for the reader. Students should be encouraged to respond on each of these levels in a variety of ways. Students can start with written response, visual response, spoken response, dramatic response, or a combination of methods. The point is for students to realize that all literature elicits some form of response; exploring forms and levels of response opens options for the creation and sharing of meaning

3. Literary Community

Students should be given an opportunity to form a literate community. Time should be made for talk about books. Literature is not just about responding; it is also about celebrating.

Return to Contents and Links

Response Journals

I use written journals in my class as a baseline response method. Here, students respond to the literature with which they are engaged. I collect their journals every two weeks to add my own comments, questions, and suggestions. I find that this teaching by modelling works very well. Students begin to ask for themselves the same types of questions that I ask when I respond to their entries. In this way, students delve more deeply and critically into the literature which they are pursuing by acquiring questioning strategies. Here, student inquiry is not limited by set questions, but encouraged through specific questions which model critical thinking approaches. Students begin to automatically generate their own specific questions as they continue to respond in their own reading programme.

Return to Contents and Links


There is much that can be done once the reading workshop is established. Students are freed from worrying about answering a set of teacher questions for marks, and can begin to investigate, question, and immerse themselves in reading.

Groups texts can be used. I avoid novels because students read at a large variety of rates. I prefer reading poetry, short stories, or plays as a group so that all students can keep up. The study of group texts can draw upon and enhance students' individual reading programmes.

Return to Contents and Links

If you have any questions or suggestions, or if you want to tell your own stories, please contact William Taylor.

Updated October 1996