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Writing and learning to write from a didactical perspective a synthesis1

Bernard Schneuwly


This paper is an attempt at reporting the current orientations of francophone didactics on writing as they can be envisaged on the basis of recent syntheses. Attention is drawn to the fact that extensive knowledge of writing in school context was developed by didactics. Writing is approached as an activity set in a social context that is determined by the educational and communicational environment. Three major points emerge: the consensus over the reference to genres, the identification of determination behind teaching practice and the taking into account of writers. On the other hand, it is necessary to conduct new research on at least two challenging points: the relation to teaching/learning and the analysis of existing links on one side; development of writing in school context on the other side.

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  • 1 Originally published in Repères 26/27, 2002/2003, 317-329
  • 1 The revealing titles – “Teaching/learning to produce written texts” (Chiss, Laurent, Meyer, Romain, (...)

1This text proposes a synthesis of the huge amount of work done in francophone didactics during the last fifteen years, since their beginning in the eighties. It is elaborated on the basis of an important meeting (of most researchers that have been active in the domain of writing) that resulted in two special issues of the two leading French first language didactics reviews. (Halté & Petitjean, 2002; Plane 2004). This special issues offer the opportunity to make a few assumptions about the development of the didactics of writing, a field which paved the way for the development of this discipline from its beginning1. These assumptions deserve of course further debate and they need further empirical work. Given the programmatic nature of this paper, there will be no references to current or recent works. The two volumes as a whole, and the extended literature they refer to, are the basis of the synthesis. Any reference to a particular research would be biased.

2I will first show how didactics successfully developed extensive knowledge of writing in the context of education. The second part will be devoted to learning and more particularly to its relation to teaching. Consensus has been reached in these two fields but significant research gaps remain. I will finally raise questions as to the developments of didactics as scientific discipline and in how writing is addressed and I will hint at areas for future research.

31. Writing

4If we paraphrased Vygotsky we could say: “Writing is reflected in the utterance like the sun in a droplet of water.” (1934/1985, p- 385). Here is such an utterance: “the story of this crime is a group of adults who were having a party at a friend’s house and the party went badly because two psychopaths disguised themselves, always wore the same mask on, took a knife and tried to kill all the young adults until the day when the two madmen got framed by the heroine of the film, the two madmen got killed, that’s the point where the story ended.” Everybody will have immediately recognised this extract as being part of the educational institution called “school”, as the final product of a person – a pupil – placed in a particular situation and complying with the instruction given by a representative of the educational institution. This utterance seems indeed to work as the reflection of the complex activity called “writing”. Didactics has for many years contributed to the analysis of this complex activity from its specific point of view, namely in the context of teaching and learning.

5The contributions to the two special issues seek to explore writing as an activity in all its richness, to develop a vision of this activity based on research from the perspective of the place – schools – in which the writing activity is performed. In reading, analysing and comparing them it is almost as though a vulgate of writing based on the analysis of this activity and of pupils’ compositions emerged. This vulgate – the result of over two decades of collective development – may be divided into three entries corresponding to the three poles of the didactic triangle: the subject of teaching, the teachers and the pupils.

1.1. The subject of teaching

6A consensus was reached during the fifteen years that became almost evidence. The starting point was the consciousness about the fact that the diversity of texts to be taught and learned constitutes a fundamental question. After having tried to describe it through typologies and classification of texts, almost all researchers agree that texts had to be studied as examples of genres. Genre has now become a major category through which texts are interpreted in French didactics.

  • 2 As a genre is always a language tool designed for a given set of social situations, this dual belon (...)

7But an obstacle is immediately pointed to when the word “genre” is mentioned at school. In the aforementioned example, the excerpt is clearly part of a school genre belonging simultaneously to two social environments2. On the one hand, the excerpt bears the marks of the referential situation imposed by the given instruction: recommending a film in the form of a critical film review, which is widespread practice in mass media, especially in newspapers. On the other hand, the school writing situation is obvious as pupils are expected to write to show that they can (learn to) write, they write the same thing at the same time as their fellow pupils, and that their compositions correspond to a situational fiction to which they can more or less identify. The school genre is the result of didactical transposition, i.e. the complex process by which socially useful concepts, notions, and genres, that are used in specific social situation outside school, are transformed by the didactical system and turned into teaching subjects. Some researcher may claim that school genres are thus “sullied”. Not “sullied” at all: they have been transformed to become “teachable” for pupils to appropriate them and through appropriation, to transform their own psychic processes and, in the case of writing, their process of language production.

8When the school genre is analysed, one is always faced with the tension between the reference genre outside school on one side and the transposed school genre on the other side. Various analyses rightly highlight this tension. The illusory possibility of letting in the outside world as such in the school system, of believing in the need to remove the barriers between society and the school system has vanished. The purpose is now to understand education as a reality with its own rules, functions and functioning. The entry through the school genre has become the way to theorise the teaching of writing.

1.2. Teachers’ practices and ways of doing

9This entry is devoted to the analysis of the contexts favourable to writing and learning to write, the observation of teaching approaches and the understanding of their raison d’être. The pole “teachers”, just like the pole “subject of teaching”, is also subjected to internal and external factors. Indeed, teachers are professionals who, in their action and practice, are the guardians of history, as some claim referring to Bourdieu. Teachers always echo the previous practices of past teachers whom they knew when they were pupils and so on in a sort of uninterrupted continuum. This practice cannot but be analysed as the result of “sedimented” practices, to use Vygotski’s metaphor. This is all the more important as such an approach is useful to understand – without judging it – the necessarily contradictory nature of any teaching activity when it involves defining a writing situation for instance. It also contributes to being more patient and not expecting radical changes in teaching. The change of direction by a large ship is another metaphor regularly used by didacticians to describe changes in teaching practices.

10This determination, internal to the didactical system, is the object of strong external influences, as testified by many contributions: professional teaching practices are overdetermined by social representations of writing. These are the representations that prevail outside the school system, in society as a whole concerning what writing is and what it should be. Therefore, the analysis of a pupil’s text such as that the one proposed in introduction should be considered the result of the intervention of a professional who defined a situation in a certain way at a given time, expectations towards pupils, types of regulation and thus contributed to the composition of the text – the outcome and the reflection of the writing activity.

1.3. Pupils as text producers

11The research about pupils’ writing activities also developed approaches that took account of the internal and external factors that cross in the didactical system. Writers are primarily pupils of a certain grade level who are fully aware of who they are and what is expected from them. But these writers are also “children”, “teenagers”, members of a particular family, social class, neighbourhood, and culture. Other environments that keep interfering in their composition of texts also influence them. Many analyses point to this dual determination, ie pupils write as pupils and adopt a particular posture but they also write as persons determined by other social contexts. These factors enable and often at the same time prevent them from writing texts, adopting a particular posture, developping contents according to a specific procedure and logic.

12The awareness of the fact that any text is always the result of a dual determination from the point of view of the writing persons was largely facilitated by a widespread phenomenon repeatedly observed and describe in the didactics of French. Indeed, one of the most compelling evidence is the fact that didactics were focusing on new audiences. While most studies had for long examined the writing of pupils from 8 to 15, they now focused on younger pupils, university students or those in different vocational courses, professionals in various trades, pupils in second-rank courses, and adults. There is increasingly detailed and documented awareness of the variety of audiences and of writing practices but also of teaching practices and resulting training courses for teachers. This is definitely a major step forward for didactics that should be pursued and furthered.

13More generally speaking, in French didactics the concept of writing was extended, enriched and made more complex in comparison with symposia or conferences that might have been held fifteen or twenty years ago. The example given at the beginning of this paper would now be analysed as a complex set of the different factors I have just enumerated: an example of the school genre with its dual social determination, subject of teaching and communication, text composed and previously determined by teachers and teaching and by the expectations and history attached to it; the outcome of a person who is also part of a curricular reality that s/he interprets in a certain way and influenced by her/his various extracurricular social backgrounds. “Complex set of traces”: one might show the impact of these factors on text content, on the enunciative posture adopted by the writer, on the complex, subtle and, apparently, poor syntax of the text. This very text would read like a water drop reflecting writing as the activity of a particular student in a specific situation set in an institution whose ultimate purpose is teaching and learning.

14Apprehending pupils’ writing and composition provides the opportunity to adopt the least prescriptive approach possible and to understand text composition as the outcome of a whole set of factors. A consensus on this approach has been reached among the community of specialists in didactics. In this light, many notions and tools for analysis have been developed and used. However, the relations between the different notions and tools have not been fully clarified yet. We are still far from a didactical theory of writing that would combine the sets of elements and factors highlighted in numerous empirical research works. The most challenging part is still ahead of us.

2. Learning

15The issue of learning in French didactics is mainly addressed through the analysis of the relationship between teaching and learning. In this regard, another consensus is developing among the community of specialists. In her PhD dissertation over the history of the teaching of writing, Vourzay identified three opposite rituals that summarised the main approaches developed over the past 150 years (p. 489):

  • Ascetic ritual of a careful observation of worldly things;

  • Ritual of peer exchange through which the need for communicating something about oneself and about one’s relationship to world arises (Freinet’s approach);

  • Ritual of rousing motivation for communication and of distancing from writing activity through theoretically grounded tools.

  • 1 The “consensus” I refer to is among the small community of specialists in didactics and not among t (...)
  • 2 Freinet’s approach is obviously in fact far more complex and comprehensive than this phrase suggest (...)

16When I read the numerous research works published in French didactics, I am under the impression that there is a consensus over the third ritual. Let me elaborate on it in a few words. There is on one hand the underlying idea that a clearly explained writing context is always necessary. In other words, pupils cannot be requested to compose texts without mentioning the purpose, the addressee, the writing style, in other words without defining specific communication problems1. On the other hand, what Vourzay refers to the “distancing from writing activity through theoretically grounded tools”. To learn to write, semiotic tools necessary to pupils to change their relationship to writing, to their own processes of text production. To put it differently, the prevailing conception is to argue that you learn to write by appropriating writing tools and not just by writing, as Freinet would put it strikingly (see Vourzay’s description of Freinet’s approach2). The appropriation of writing tools is precisely what is needed to transform the relation to one’s own psychic process of language production to put it in Vygotsky’s terms.

  • 3 What these borrowings imply have never been detailed: this is another hint that a didactical theory (...)

17This consensus involves challenging some more or less visible or explicit presuppositions of cognitive psychology although some of its notions are exploited and transformed to think out the processes of text composition3. The system of language production is radically and structurally transformed because of the tools at its disposal. The assumption that tools are integrated into psychic functioning runs counter to the idea that the system remains stable and has only to be enlarged, improved and accelerated, which is the main presupposition of cognitivist approaches. Research into didactics reveals that the challenge of learning to write and hence of teaching is the transformation of the system of language production into a new system that rearranges the different components of text production. This reorganisation is done through the appropriation of tools, and writing accordingly becomes its own tool at an advanced level of system development. We are faced with an extremely complex problem of learning. Vygotsky used a metaphor for it that in fact contains a whole research program: “Written language is precisely the algebra of language. Just as the assimilation of algebra is not the repetition of a study of arithmetic but represents a new, higher level of the development of abstract mathematical reasoning that is constructed over and rises above arithmetic thinking, In the same way the algebra of language, i.e. written language enables children to access the highest abstract level of language and accordingly reorganises the prior psychic system of oral language.” (1934/1985, p. 260s). My emphasis: “Algebra” – and writing the like – is a form of mathematical activity that represents another form, arithmetic, transformed by this very representation; “radical reorganisation of the prior psychic system of oral language” precisely involves a revolution of the system. This thesis is at odds with generally fixist theses of cognitive psychology.

18Paradoxically enough, though, learning is often not at the heart French didactics and is somewhat overlooked by it. It will be necessary to seek the reasons for this evolution. Let’s try to define some questions that have been abandoned and to which I think one should come back.

2.1. An analysis of the relation between teaching and learning

19Although a number of studies have focused on the relationship between teaching and learning, they remain programmatic and do not account for precise learning mechanisms and how teaching really affects learning. The draft theory of writing I just outlined above could be reinvested to raise differently the question of the relationship between teaching and learning. I believe that beyond the apparent consensus, diverging approaches will emerge. There is already a hint of these diverging opinions in the few contradictory debates around the following questions: What type of action should be promoted? What subject should be privileged? What are the levers that help change pupils’ vision of writing? Didactical research should focus on the following areas to open a fruitful debate between the different lines: clarification of the relationship between teaching, intervention, and the justification of teaching approaches based on detailed assumptions about the expected impact on pupils’ writing and tangible signs in pupils’ compositions; detailed observation of how these approaches are implemented and in-depth analysis of the impact on writing and its outcome. One of the key aspects of this work will consist in closely examining the differential effects of these approaches. Who are the pupils who gain from these approaches? Can they reduce existing gaps between students? Do they ease access to writing to those who are furthest from it? These questions are crucial. If the PISA studies can show us something, it is the wide gaps between students in all French-speaking countries.

2.2. Development of writing from the point of view of didactics

20The other major issue concerns development. By this notion, I mean the long-term construction of a system of language production and more particularly of the psychic system for writing. There are a large number of studies of the development of writing but they analyse development regardless of teaching and education. Researchers asked pupils of x, y and z years of age (most research focused on 7 to 15-year-old pupils) to write different kinds of texts or sentences and observed how a particular writing capacity developed (writing a text of a certain kind, mastering a particular language structure, etc.). The interesting data collected gave a clearer picture of what was going on for socially non-situated pupils, apart from teachers’ initiatives to develop writing skills. The agenda now is to understand how these skills are taught in class. It involves collecting longitudinal data. In other words, cohorts of students must be observed during a part of their schooling with particular attention to how writing is taught and to other factors influencing the development of this capacity on the one hand and its evolution on the other hand. This is extremely costly and time-consuming. It involves experienced research teams who are familiar with long-term data collection, work on the basis on detailed assumptions and can analyse large amounts of data. We may not be theoretically and methodologically equipped yet, but it is a question of paving the way for this necessary research. It is indeed expected as evidenced by reports on educational sciences in France, Switzerland, Germany and other countries. Didactics will have to take up this challenge as well.

3. Didactics as a discipline

21The issue of the relationship between teaching, learning and development is at the heart of didactics. It is therefore important that specialists in didactics pay particular attention to this issue. Let me be provocative: the question to be raised is why in a certain sense French didacticians are so often and so persistently in the margins of their discipline and not in the centre? Why do they freely investigate writing in other school subjects rather than in their own? Why are they interested in pupils’ extra-curricular and not in curricular writing? If I focused on issues that were addressed in many studies, it is not because I think that they don’t have to be studied. In contrary, as I have said: they are necessary to develop a theory of writing. But it is as though these fringe issues had prevailed over core issues. And it is important to know why. One of the reasons might be the growing pressure of the social system over the school system. Powerful social demands challenge the legitimacy of French as school subject and more generally of all school subjects as organizing principle of school. The tendency described in French didactics could therefor reflect a more general debate in the heart of school today. This is a crucial issue towards the development of French didactics and the research programme that the community of French didacticians is engaged in.

22Not only the question of external boundaries of French didactics as discipline is raised, but that of internal boundaries is also topical. The premise that the internal boundaries of French didactics should be relativized becomes more and more common evidence that many studies concretize. The most visible trace is the discussion about the boundary between oral and written language. Many works give substance to the argument that at school there is no oral language without written language and vice versa. Indeed, when a pupil speaks, the reference to the written language is never far behind. It is precisely what is difficult for pupils. In contrast, you cannot write in school and not speak about it, which shows that writing is not a solitary but a collective act unlike what some might believe. Writing, which seems to be an individual act par excellence, is after analysis just a moment of the writing process that is mediated by oral language, by teachers, by peers, by the school class as a whole.

23Other boundaries such as those between reading and writing had already been fading. Time has come to wonder if the bridges built between these different subdisciplines will suffice or if it is necessary to go further and fill up the gap; or, in contrary, if one should continue nonetheless to focus on each of these subdisciplines separately.

24Before answering these questions, it is first necessary to come to grips with another question: is didactical modelling of writing alone conceivable or is it necessary to develop a model based on sectorial theories that cannot be thought and developed irrespective of other sectors? In this regard, progress was made: the different fields of French didactics are more receptive to each other and closely related.

  • 1 Once again, the issues in different didactics and, in French didactics, between subdisciplines and (...)

25Another field is emerging in French didactics1. It is closely related to the need for didactics to go further into the relation between teaching and learning. The purpose is to expand knowledge of what is really taught in classrooms. We have studies about teachers’ views about teaching. These studies are evidence of how teachers view their own ways of doing and how they theorise it. And one might assume that what they view and theorise is probably related to what they do. However, these studies fail to answer the following questions: what are the subjects developed during interactions in French classes in the field of writing? How is “writing” developed in the interactions between teachers and pupils? Is the resistance of pupils taken into account and if so, how? How do teachers’ representations of the subject they teach impact the way they tackle and develop this subject? More generally, what are the initiatives taken to improve pupils’ skills and write texts for example? We remain largely ignorant of how writing is taught in French classes.

26This research field is obviously important and it needs further exploration. It is however extremely costly: observing in about twenty classes how fairy tales or the explanation of the rule of the game are taught can cost up to thousands of Euros just in terms of data collection including transcription. The Large Electron Positron (LEP) of Geneva-based physicists at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) cost billions. We would like to have our own LEP for our data production: complex mechanisms to check a few hypotheses concerning the development of teaching subjects in class.

27Such collective research must be conducted in close connection with teachers. This is a way to become better acquainted with this profession and its actual practices. Each teacher has an intuitive representation of their practices and those of their colleagues but this is not public, collective, theorised, and accessible knowledge. It is in the interest of each profession of knowing and having a vision of what they do in order to improve their own functioning and be in a position to transform practices towards more efficiency. Didactics has a role to play to develop this knowledge about and with teachers. It has already been done for doctors or airline pilots because poor knowledge would have had so disastrous effects that work has been conducted very quickly. In education, things are different: nobody will die…


28There is much evidence that French didactics made progress on the issue of writing. Consensus has been reached on the basis of high-level, collectively developed knowledge over the design of writing and texts and intervention procedures to build the capacity of pupils. The challenges we are facing are far more difficult. But current didactical research in close connection with teacher education and an environment favourable to the development of educational sciences inside and outside French didactics will be the opportunity to take up these challenges. Three of them were identified in this synthesis:

  • Going back to in-depth work to identify and clarify the relationship between teaching, learning and development in the field of writing. More longitudinal observations and analyses would be helpful;

  • Didactical modelling of writing as part of the broader context of the teaching of French;

  • Furthering knowledge of actual teaching practices in the curricular system of text writing.

29Obviously, this undertaking is a collective enterprise for the community of French didactics experts.

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Chiss, J.-L., Laurent, J.-P., Meyer, J.-C., Romian, H. & Schneuwly, B. (Eds.) (1988) : Apprendre/enseigner à produire des textes écrits. Bruxelles : Duculot.

Halté, J.-F. & Petitjean, A. (Eds.) (2002). L’écriture et son apprentissage. Pratiques, 115-116.

PLANE, S. (Ed.). (2004) : L’écriture et son apprentissage à l’école élémentaire. Repères, 26.

Schneuwly, B. (Ed.) (1990) : Diversifier l'enseignement du français écrit. Paris : Delachaux et Niestlé.

VOURZAY H. (1996) : Essai d’historicisation de discours prescriptifs sur la rédaction scolaire. Thèse de doctorat (non publié). Lyon : Université Lumière.

VYGOTSKI L.S. (1937/1985) : Pensée

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1 Originally published in Repères 26/27, 2002/2003, 317-329

1 The revealing titles – “Teaching/learning to produce written texts” (Chiss, Laurent, Meyer, Romain, Schneuwly, 1988) and “Diversifying the teaching of written French” (Schneuwly, 1990) – of the books published after the first two conferences of the French first language didactics association (Association internationale pour la recherché en didactique du français – AIRDF) give a hint.

2 As a genre is always a language tool designed for a given set of social situations, this dual belonging results in a specific genre, school genre, precisely marked by this dual belonging.

1 The “consensus” I refer to is among the small community of specialists in didactics and not among the broader – and very complex – world of educationalists.

2 Freinet’s approach is obviously in fact far more complex and comprehensive than this phrase suggests. “Learning to write just by writing” is a shortcut he used essentially for ideological reasons.

3 What these borrowings imply have never been detailed: this is another hint that a didactical theory of writing is still missing.

1 Once again, the issues in different didactics and, in French didactics, between subdisciplines and teams are focused on classroom activities.

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Bernard Schneuwly, « Writing and learning to write from a didactical perspective a synthesis », Repères [En ligne], Hors-série | 2013, mis en ligne le 12 septembre 2013, consulté le 30 mai 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/reperes.513

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