In a literate society, being able to read and write holds a lot of value. Policy documents of governments describe illiteracy as a “curse” and exhort citizens to “eradicate” it in order to be able to modernise society; and yet, the same documents reduce writing to being able to “sign” and reading to being able to sound out words. In the modern age of mass schooling, it has fallen upon schools to make children literate. In this article, I will focus on the teaching of writing. It needs to be pointed out that writing gets a lot less attention than reading, both in research and in the classroom.
Apart from reading, teaching writing is a huge responsibility of the school. Yet, most children grow up to be reluctant writers. Whenever a teacher assigns a writing task, a kind of collective sigh goes up in the class. Students would rather do anything, except write. There are many reasons for this reluctance and my article will address some of these. I will begin by discussing the similarities and differences between writing and talking/speaking. Next, I will point out the main pedagogical practices in writing classrooms and how these need to be reoriented. I will also discuss the challenges of writing in a second language classroom. In the final section, I make suggestions for enabling students to write for various purposes.
Writing and Talking
Is writing an extension of talking/speaking? After all, in real life writing is purposive, communicative and often in response to something read or heard. Yet, it requires mastery of the script, control over the mechanics of punctuation and the ability to organize thoughts into a coherent order. Unless you are writing for yourself, it also means addressing someone not present in front of you. Among linguists and pedagogy experts, opinion is divided on whether the teaching of writing should regard writing as “natural” and “expressive”, or as a set of skills and sub-skills which need to be discretely taught. In fact, the most helpful approach would be to see writing, like talking, not just as an attempt to make meaning and communicate, but also as a means to enable children to master the skills inherent in it to be able to write with impact and meaning. The most important thing to remember is that if language is a means of representing the world, then writing enables us to interpret, shape and represent our experience (Britton, 1972).
Another connection between talking and writing is the ability to find a voice. If children get opportunities in the classroom to express their opinion, to ask questions and look for answers and to voice a thought, they will want to do that in writing as well. Research on early writing shows that children want to write, it is the overemphasis on the perfection of the mechanical aspects of writing which puts children off writing. The fear of the teacher’s red pen is real.
Elements of good writing thus have important parallels in oral language that can be extended and applied to writing. As we encourage children to express ideas with fluency, develop a personal voice, and a sense of audience, we also foster their growth in writing ability.
Teaching Writing in School
For most children, the journey of writing begins by memorizing the shapes and sounds of the alphabet. In four-lined notebooks, children practice these over and over again, to form perfect shapes and to keep within the lines. Before this, many children may have enjoyed scribbling and drawing at home. In school, though, such attempts at self-expression have very little value as these experiences do not fall within the conventional understanding of writing. As a result, for most children writing seems like a very mechanical task, devoid of meaning and the pleasure of putting thoughts on paper. However, since children start their journey with self-expression, logically, even in the classroom, the focus should be on meaning and purpose and function. Yet, in classrooms we continue to focus mostly on the mechanical aspects of writing such as spellings, handwriting and keeping to a straight margin. Furthermore, writing happens in response to a teacher-directed task such as writing answers to questions or a hundred word composition on a topic decided by the teacher. Students know that all such tasks are meant for purpose of assessment. Students hardly ever write for a real purpose—to put their thoughts on paper, to share ideas with each other or to make sense of their lives. In real life, children see the adults around them writing for various meaningful purposes such as making lists, filling out a form or texting on the phone. This purposive use of writing is not often extended into the classroom.
In middle school and even later, writing plays a huge role in learning. For instance, in history or science, writing could involve doing research, organizing one’s thoughts, analyzing and arriving at conclusions. By that logic, all teachers are “writing teachers”, not just language teachers. However, most subject teachers lament that students just do not know how to write, but they do not see themselves as writing teachers. They feel that writing can be taught only in the language classroom. In the 1960s and 70s, Britton (1972) and Applebee (1981), spearheaded a movement called “Language Across the Curriculum” that suggested that literary writing in the language classroom needs to be balanced with expository or transactional writing to enable children to write and to learn concepts in subject areas. Britton distinguishes between expressive writing or written-down speech, which is our way of coming together with people and transactional writing, which is the giving out of information. On the other end of the continuum is poetic or literary writing, which demands reflection, both from the writer and the reader.
As children grow up they realize that spoken words are not the only way to represent reality. They pick up a pen, pencil or crayon with excitement and scribble and draw on any surface they see around them. They draw their family members or images from stories they may have heard, or from visits and events that they may have participated in. These drawings and scribbles are attempts at representation and meaning-making. For instance, sometime ago, my friend’s four-year-old son scribbled something on the corner of the page and described it as a whale’s tail after the rest of the whale had moved out of the page; perhaps there is a need to regard children as writers right from the beginning.
A Few Ideas Related to Writing
Everyone can write, writing can be taught, and teachers can help children become better. So, what does the teacher need to do?
- Create opportunities to write with meaning
Children in primary classes must get lots of opportunities to write for different purposes. In fact, some time needs to be kept aside for writing each day. This could be for writing a response journal where children put down their views about a story narrated by the teacher. Children in the primary classes could also maintain learning logs where they record new ideas and concepts learned. In fact, not only must children learn to write but they must also write to learn. Classrooms focus only on the former when teachers spend a lot of time getting children to practice the mechanical aspects of writing such as spellings, cursive writing or punctuation. What children really need, on the other hand, are opportunities to write to understand a concept better or to link it to their lives. Students might want to write a pamphlet for a school event, or research their favourite animal and put together a booklet on it, or to write down the arguments before participating in a debate. Writing must be exploratory- one must write to find out more.
- Reading writing connections
Reading and writing are related to each other. Reading improves writing and vice versa. Both are constructive processes, which require us to reflect, analyse and compose meaning. It is important to underline that literacy is not a set of technical skills to be mastered, but a set of complex practices which are socially embedded. However, in our classrooms, even literature is read as a content text for the information that it might contain. For instance, children read a story to answer direct text-based questions, such as, “What was Ravi scared of?” Instead, we could teach our students to read to become better writers. This would require them to focus their attention on the language, the structure and sequence of the story and to reflect on how writers organize their thoughts. For instance, we could ask students to pick out the words and phrases used by the author to describe Ravi and what these tell us about Ravi. Or, while reading an essay on history, students could be encouraged to look for the structure of ideas on which the author might have built an argument.
However, it is also important to point out that this is a gradual process. The more children read the more they internalize the functions and structures of language. As Britton (1972) points out, this development happens both towards transactional writing and literary writing.
- Process writing
The work of Graves in New Zealand has had a tremendous impact on the theory of teaching writing. Graves’ process writing approach emphasizes the process involved in writing, rather than the exclusive focus on the final product that a student turns in for assessment. Process writing places a lot of importance on allowing students to decide what they might want to write about. The role of the teacher in this is not to suggest the topic and form of writing, but to ensure that children have exposure to a range of reading material. At the heart of the process writing approach lies the idea of choice, recognizing that author’s choice is deeply connected to the motivation to write.
In our classrooms though, students write on topics suggested by the teacher, to a specific word length and submit their final product for evaluation by the teacher. In other words, students hardly ever get to experience the process of writing which requires them to write for a specific audience and for a specific purpose.
Moreover, in Indian classrooms, the form is often considered more important, and independent of the content. When students learn to write a letter or a notice for the school notice-board, they are taught a rigid “format” which cannot be changed and is often assessed independent of its content. For instance, even if the body of the letter does not make sense, as long as the format is correctly reproduced, the student will get some marks. Students are rarely encouraged to look for a form which fits their functional purpose.
Process writing allows children to take control of their own learning and acquire the language to talk about their own writing process. They decide what they want to write about, work on a draft, discuss it with the teacher or a classmate, edit it for mechanical errors and finally have it published for others’ reading. A lot of time is spent on brain-storming for ideas. Children must be allowed to write about what they value if they are to write with a voice. Conferencing with the teacher allows them to focus on the content and ideas, rather than spellings and grammar. Process writing enables children to acquire the language to talk about by using language to write. And, as critical theorists, such as Giroux (1987), have pointed out, this demystifies the process of writing for children and enables them to feel like writers.
In the end, it is important to emphasise that talking, reading and writing go hand in hand. In the classroom, writing often happens in a vacuum, in response to a teacher-directed task meant for assessment. If students are to use writing for the exploration of ideas, concepts or even values and dilemmas, the teacher’s role becomes even more important. He/she has to move beyond merely correcting errors to becoming a reader and listener.
Applebee, A. N. (1981). Writing in the secondary school: English and the content areas (NCTE Research Report No. 21). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Britton, J. (1972). Writing to learn and learning to write. In The humanity of English (p.32-53). Urbana IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Giroux, H. A. (1987). Critical literacy and student experience: Donald Graves’ approach to literacy. Language Arts, 64(2), 175-181.
Graves, D. (1975). The child, the writing process and the role of the professional. In W. Petty & P.J. Price (Eds.). The writing process of students (p. 132-150). Buffalo: State University of New York.
Prachi Kalra teaches courses in the pedagogy of language in the Department of Elementary Education at Gargi College, University of Delhi. Currently, she is doing a PhD in how stories can enable children to think critically about the world around them.