". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Teaching Writing

My kids are good writers (at least the oldest two are--it's still a bit soon to tell about the 3-year-old). One of them knows it; the other one still needs a little convincing. But the fact is that when they have something to say they are generally able to clearly and effectively put it down on paper.

The irony is that their mother--who has a degree in English and many years of classroom experience--did not teach them how to do this. In fact, the truth is that I have not had them do much formal writing at all. They write letters to family, and thank you notes, and one of them enjoys writing stories and poems, but we have done very little grammar or spelling instruction and spent almost no time on the writing "process" (the idea that there is a foolproof "step-by-step" plan that can guarantee writing success). Yet on the occasions that I have assigned a report or essay I have been quite pleased with the caliber of writing submitted.

So I can't help but wonder, when and how did my children learn to write? It is a question I have considered more than once over the years, with regard not only to them but also to myself, because for as long as I can remember I have been a pretty decent writer, but I can't for the life of me tell you how or when I learned to do it. In fact, I remember feeling bored and frustrated with all the grammar and writing instruction I had to sit through in school and wishing I could just get on with the assignment. And now that my own children seem to be fairly fluent writers I have questioned the need to bother teaching them rules of grammar and diagramming and such: I mean, do you really need to know what a dangling modifier is if you never write one? (I know, it's a scandalous thing for a writing teacher to say.)

The more I have thought about it, the more convinced I have become that the secret to being a good writer is twofold. First, be a reader. When one spends days and months and years immersed in good writing, one develops an ear for the language and how to use it. This is one of the great benefits of starting to read to children early and continuing to do so even as they become teenagers: they encounter good writing not only with their eyes but also with their ears (something that is otherwise not a given since so much of everyday conversation is rather haphazard and fragmented).*

The second "secret" to good writing is to have something worthwhile to say. When one has things to communicate that one cares about, there is an effort made to find the best combination of words to get the ideas across. I think a lot of the bad writing that children do in school is largely the result of an attitude that is mostly interested in completing an assignment, not truly being understood. And who can blame them? When the focus is the process ("Class, today we're going to write a comparison/contrast paper") rather than the content, writing becomes an exercise or a chore instead of a means of sharing ideas. People love to communicate--to be heard and understood--and children are no different. For evidence we need look no further than the explosion of email and instant messaging and blogging over the last 10 years. And when someone wants to be heard, and he cares about his message, he is willing to put forth time and effort crafting that message.

Last night as I was musing on all of this with my husband, he came up with what I found to be a striking musical analogy (he, like I, is a musician). He said he remembers as a young jazz pianist being preoccupied with the "changes," meaning the chord progressions of songs, and spending a great deal of time analyzing and memorizing them as he tried to come up with "licks" (melodic patterns) that would fit various chords. He was approaching the musical challenge before him in a decidedly mathematical way, focusing on the theory and the underlying structure.

There's a place for that kind of study, in both music and writing. But I think sometimes we make it the focus of our approach rather than a supportive element. My husband says he also remembers teachers and musicians he respected advising him to just "learn the tunes"; in other words, to go and listen to a lot of jazz music and to become musically literate in the genre in the way that a well-read person is culturally literate. Doing so would increase his musical vocabulary and sharpen his ear, allowing him to become a better musician in an organic rather than purely studied way.

I think another analogy can be made in the way teachers are trained these days. Instead of being allowed to focus primarily on their subject matter, they are made to take all kinds of classes in educational theory and method and practice. This time spent learning "how" to teach is time that could have been spent learning more about what they are going to teach.

People today want easy answers. They want "how-to" outlines and plans for success in all kinds of things (just look at the popularity of self-help literature and the "Idiots" and "Dummies" series of books). In school, students and their parents want to know what's going to be on the test so they can study up on the necessary points to get a good grade. And writing teachers and students want to be able to point to a system that will guarantee a successful paper.

But I would argue that when we take a "just the facts, ma'am" approach to the teaching of writing we are actually working against ourselves, making the task harder than it needs to be by trying to come up with a one-size-fits-all plan (and in the process killing a lot of the natural curiosity of the learner). Instead, a more successful approach (in our house, at least) is to read, and read, and read some more. And when the reading results in a question being asked, or the need for some analysis or summary, you have yourself an essay prompt, one that has grown naturally out of the educational environment and that has some motivational power behind it. And once that essay is written, time can be spent refining and polishing it so that it carries its message as effectively as possible--a task that is infinitely more interesting than completing a list of ten or twenty sentences in a grammar workbook.

(*A Beka educational publishers offers a book called Oral Language Exercises that utilizes the concept that people need to hear proper English in order to internalize it. The book contains lists of sentences that follow certain patterns and that are to be read orally so as to develop in the student an "ear" for proper usage. It's not a bad idea, but I would much prefer to read a good story out loud to my kids than to inflict a bunch of boring sentences on them, and I think the reading aloud over time accomplishes the same thing.)


Susan said...

In addition to being well-read and having something to say, I think the other necessity to being a good writer is being able to think. If you can think and communicate aloud, it's not that big a deal to translate it onto paper.

Think of the kids (or adults) who can't write. In my experience, it's due to one of two things. Either the person has a writing paralysis which results from writing having been presented to him as a big ol' hairy-scary thing. Or the person can't communicate orally -- can't put together thoughts in a ANY coherent way.

My son (the one who supposedly "can't write" even more than the older sibs) is doing so well in the college writing class he's taking right now. He hasn't been Taught To Write. But he can think. And he's witty out the wazoo! It has been sheer pleasure to read the prof's comments on his essays! He doesn't write "the school way" but a delightful way. So chalk another one up for not teaching kids to write!

Cheryl said...

Thanks for the observation, Susan--you are absolutely right. I am reminded of óne of my all-time favorite essays, Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," in which he argues that the root of bad writing is muddled thinking.

I think I may need to revise my post!

Jane said...

I've always said that we didn't teach writing, we just read good books. I see that I need to add a couple more elements to that equation, because it does make so much sense that being able to think and having something to say are vital to good writing.

One of the things that I've noticed about my older kids' writing is that they have their own voices. I never taught the originality out of them. :)