By: Rifka Schonfeld
While text messaging has become popular with many of us, among kids and teens, it has virtually become a way of life. Texting is an excellent way to communicate, but is also a symptom of a greater issue facing today’s students: declining writing skills.
Perhaps this weakening is a result of our fast-paced lifestyles. We check our email on the go, use our bluetooth headsets in the car, and do our shopping online. Generally, Americans are accustomed to instant gratification. This idea extends to how students think about writing. They expect to sit down and write perfectly on the first try.
In contrast, The New York Times printed an article about writing as a process – one that requires revision and coaching to facilitate success. With correct strategies, students can master writing techniques in spite of current trends.
Tips for Parents and Students
The first step in effective writing consists of brainstorming or free writing. In an article in the English Journal, Raymond Rodrigues presents several options for prewriting techniques. He notes, “Other activities, viewing a film, taking a trip, listening to a speaker, or conducting a survey can serve equally well to provide ideas.” Rodrigues explains that prewriting allows students to sort through the tension that precedes writing.
Other educators point out that ‘the quantity of details on the list predicts the quality of the writing’. Meaning, the more time students put in before they actually write the piece will foretell the quality of the final draft.
Looking at examples of the kinds of texts students are expected to compose will give the students a feel for language, tone, and voice. With excerpts in mind, students begin to get a sense of what their piece is expected to be.
When we teach children to tie their shoes, we don’t tell them how to do it. We show them how we do it with our own shoelaces and with theirs. The same goes for writing: writers need to know what the final product should look like, and then give it a try.
Rituals and Routines
Writing requires an environment in which students create practices that facilitate writing. These routines allow writing to become manageable. Routines might include creating outlines and setting aside specific times for writing.
A great way to improve writing skills is through journals. The National Council for Teachers of English points out that besides providing an outlet for emotions, writing journals helps students establish “fluency.” With no one reading their writing, students feel free to play with language and thus become better writers.
Peter Elbow, Professor at Massachusetts Institute for Technology, writes, “The most effective way to improve your writing is to free-write daily…” Journaling allows students to explore voice and develop into individual writers.
Tips for Teachers
Constraints and Freedoms
There is a fine line between too much involvement and not enough. If teachers are too active in students’ writing, the writing becomes the teacher’s. But if teachers tell their students to write whatever they want, many students feel lost without a clearly defined topic. It’s the teachers’ responsibility to give guidance without forcing their own opinions.
Teaching Grammar in Context
While maintaining correct grammar and spelling is important, focusing on mechanics will dull students’ enthusiasm. Constance Weaver, in Teaching Grammar in Context, shows that teaching grammar in isolation doesn’t improve writing. She advocates “incidental lessons wherein grammatical terms are used casually in the course of discussing literature and students’ writing.”
Teachers acting as coaches as opposed to advice givers can be a key element of successful writing. Donald Graves opined, “Students cannot be taught what they need to know, but can be coached.” In order for teachers to help students, they do not need to tell students what they can fix. Good coaches listen to what students try to say and ask questions to explore possibilities with the writer.
Writing workshops, in which teachers work individually with students, can prove very effective in improving students’ writing skills.
Ralph Fletcher, in, What a Writer Needs, explains that students who conference with teachers are much more likely to have successful writing experiences. Teachers who set up writing workshops will provide students with a sense of control. To be successful, teachers must build on strengths, value originality and look at the big picture.
A way to provide students with a sense of ownership is to encourage them to compile their work in a literary magazine. As Dan and Dawn Kirby state, “writing becomes real when it has an audience.”
Another alternative is a verbal form of publication or “read aloud” in which students share their work. This allows students to learn what their classmates think of their work in a constructive manner.
Just as our kids learn the conventions of texting through constant exposure and direct involvement, with practice and effective guidance, they can similarly master the writing skills they need 2 b gr8 😉.