Britton, “Writing to Learn, Learning to Write”

Britton, James. “Writing to Learn and Learning to Write.” Prospect and Retrospect: Selected Essays of James Britton. Boynton Cook Publishers, 1982. (18 pages)

Britton focuses his attention on the expressive pattern of language. At the onset, he defines expressive as “close to the self; language that is not called upon to go very far away from the speaker” (96). Often such writing is contained within a writer’s own immediate context: “sharing a slice of [the writer’s] experience with us, letting us into it” (95). In this way, expressive writing can also be a way to connect and be with people: “to extend the togetherness of situations” (97). Such language is used to create encounters, sharing aspects of themselves and their experience with others.

In this sense, experience is important to the expressive pattern of language, but such a pattern also has a theoretical basis. As Britton writes, “the most fundamental and universal kind of learning for human beings in learning from experience, which means bringing our past to bear upon our present. To do this we need to interpret, to shape, to represent experience” (100). In this way, Britton draws a line between expressive kinds of writing and learning by noting how expressive language is a mode of exploring experience: labeling experiences, giving those experiences meaning. But also, this meaning-making activity—what Britton generally calls ‘learning’—is markedly collaborative. Citing Joseph Church, those who share in an experience and reflect upon it together also “give verbal shape and so can enter [these meanings] into the corpus of their experience” (100). To discuss the collaborative nature of writing, Britton offers two modes of learning through language: “Language in the Role of Participant” and “Language in the Role of Specator”.

Language in the Role of Participant involves the transactional language used within a new stimuli or event: “talking to make things happen—and so, participating in events” (104). But, seemingly more important to Britton for the process of learning, Language in the Role of Spectator involves the reconstruction of events, “to talk about what is now going on” (104). Often this is done with others and gives shape new experience through one’s “world picture” (or, per Burke, we might call it a terministic screen). This “world picture” comprises a system of representations that is a lens of interpretation of new signals. Representing experience is a cumulative process: “looking back, our representation is a storehouse of past experiences, selective of course, not total. But looking forward, that same storehouse is a body of expectations as to what may happen” (101). In this latter role of language, Britton positions poetic work as apart of this kind of language use. Expressive, then, operates between transactional and poetic, yet both function as exploration.

In his concluding remarks, “children learn to write above all by writing” (110) which is important because this gives students the opportunity to work a relationship between their experiences and language to describe it.

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