The abbreviated language of text messaging has entered our everyday lives. While texting is an excellent, quick way to communicate with our friends and family, it is a symptom of a greater issue facing today’s students: declining writing skills.
In June 2008, The Atlantic published an article about a college professor’s disillusionment with modern students’ inabilities to write clear sentences and essays. Many people are required to pass straightforward English courses to advance in their careers, including police officers and health-care workers. Without rudimentary writing skills, students are unable to write the papers necessary to complete these basic courses.
Perhaps this weakening in writing skills 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 on the Internet. Generally, as a culture, Americans are accustomed to instant gratification. This idea extends to how students think about writing as well. They expect to sit down and write everything perfectly on the first try.
Quite the opposite is true. In fact, as early as 1987, The New York Times printed an article about writing as a process – one that requires revision and coaching to facilitate success. With correct strategies, however, students can improve and master writing techniques.
Tips For Parents And Students
The first step in creating quality writing is often called “prewriting.” Prewriting consists of brainstorming, creating lists and webs, or simply freewriting. In the English Journal, a prominent magazine published by the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE), Raymond Rodrigues, a professor at New Mexico State University, gives more options for prewriting techniques. He notes, “Other activities, viewing a film, taking a field trip, listening to a guest speaker, or conducting a survey can serve equally [as] well to provide ideas.” Rodrigues explains that this prewriting process allows students to sort through the chaos and tension that generally precedes writing.
Other educators, such as Dan and Dawn Kirby, authors of the book Inside Out: Strategies for Teaching Writing, point out that “the quantity of details on the [prewriting] list predicts the quality of the writing.” In essence, the more time students put in before they actually sit down to write the piece will foretell the quality of the final draft.
Professional writers often talk about their inspiration for their novel or play. Similarly, looking at examples or excerpts of the kinds of texts students are expected to compose will give students a feel for language, tone, and voice. With the excerpts in mind, students can begin to get a sense of what their own piece is expected to be.
Intuitively, we understand this in other aspects of our children’s lives. When we teach them to tie their own shoes, we don’t simply tell them how to do it. Rather, we show them how we do it with our own shoelaces and on their shoes as well. The same goes for writing: writers need to know what the final product should look like.
Rituals and Routines
Writing, like most academic endeavors, requires an environment in which students create habitual practices to facilitate writing. These routines, though different for various people, allow the writing process to become manageable and controllable. Some routines might include always creating an outline or setting aside the same time of the day for writing.
John Grisham elucidated his formula for success. When he was just beginning to write he explained that he had, “these little rituals that were silly and brutal but very important.” Those rituals included setting an alarm clock for the same time everyday. Additionally, his goal was to write one page a day. While some days, one page would take him 10 minutes; on other days, he would need several hours for one page. Through utilizing these simple routines, he continues to write many best-selling novels.
A great way to continue to improve writing skills is through personal journals. Because most children and teenagers are looking for ways to express themselves, the journal is a great resource. The National Council for the Teachers of English points out that in addition to providing a much-needed private vent of emotions, writing in a journal allows students to establish “fluency” in their writing. With no one reading their writing, students can feel free to play with language in ways that they might have feared exploring if they were submitting the writing for a grade.
In fact, Peter Elbow, Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, in his book Writing Without Teachers, writes, “The most effective way to improve your writing is to do freewriting exercises daily In your natural way of producing words there is a sound, a texture, a rhythm – a voice – which is the main source of power in your writing.” Journaling allows students to explore their voice and develop into unique, individual writers.
Tips For Teachers
Constraints and Freedoms
There is a fine line between too much teacher involvement and not enough teacher involvement in writing. The logic is that if teachers are too active in students’ writing, the writing becomes the teachers’ rather than the students’. On the other hand, if teachers simply tell their students to write about whatever they want, many students might feel lost without a clearly defined topic. Therefore, it is the teachers’ responsibility to give guidance without forcing their own opinions or views on their students.
Teaching Grammar in Context
While maintaining correct grammar and spelling in student writing is important, occasionally, focusing solely on the mechanics of writing will dull students’ enthusiasm for writing. Constance Weaver, in her book, Teaching Grammar in Context, discusses research that shows us that teaching grammar in isolation does not improve students’ writing. Instead, she advocates for “incidental lessons wherein grammatical terms are used casually in the course of discussing literature and students’ writing.”
Thus, as a teacher and researcher, Weaver has proven that teaching grammar out of a workbook is not as effective as working from the novel the students are reading or the papers they are writing.
Along with all of the strategies that a student can do on their own, teachers who act as effective coaches as opposed to advice-givers can be key elements of successful writing. Donald Graves, a modern philosophy and Professor Emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, stated, “Students cannot be taught what they need to know, but they can be coached.” In other words, in order for teachers to help students succeed, they do not need to tell students what they can fix. Rather, good coaches listen to what the student is trying to say and ask questions to explore possibilities with the writer.
School schedules that provide enough time to create writing workshops in which the students work individually on their writing are all the more successful when teachers conference with their students.
Ralph Fletcher, in his book, What a Writer Needs, explains that students who have conferences with their teachers are much more likely to have successful writing experiences. Teachers who have the time and ability to set up writing workshops in which they conference with students individually or in groups will provide students with a sense of power and control. In order to be successful, in these conferences, teachers must build on strengths, value originality and diversity, and look at the big picture.
A wonderful way to provide students with a sense of ownership and pride over their writing is to encourage them to compile their work in a literary magazine. As Dan and Dawn Kirby state in their writing guide, “Writing becomes real when it has an audience.” Students learn to make their writing more effective when they see the effect it has on others.
Another alternative to the literary magazine is a verbal form of publication or a “read aloud” in which students share their work in a celebratory setting. This allows students to learn what their classmates think of their work in a constructive manner.
While there is no quick fix for improving writing skills, these are several easy steps that we can implement to give our children the chance to succeed. Understanding the new abbreviated language of technology is wonderful and efficient. However, we must try to employ this new technology in ways that facilitate effective writing: use your Blackberry to scribble your thoughts about the situation in Israel, set a timer on your phone that reminds you when your “writing time” begins, and utilize the notepad on your iPhone to begin a journal. Of course, writing is a process and like all processes it requires time and effort. But, with a little old-fashioned elbow grease, we can all be successful writers.
Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. She is a well-known and highly regarded educator, having served the community for close to thirty years. As a kriyah and reading specialist, she has successfully set up reading labs in many schools and Yeshivos. In addition to her diversified teaching career she offers teacher training and educational consulting services, and evaluations. She has extensive expertise in the field of social skills training and focuses on working with the whole child. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 (KIDS).Rifka Schonfeld