In this article, The Writing Hedge’s Brad Kelly looks at teaching writing effectively – and the first step is redefining what we mean by writing.
In Seth Godin’s new book The Practice, Godin shares his experience of teaching juggling.
Most people would say that teaching juggling is about catching. It’s not. People who concentrate on catching the ball, inevitably ending up dropping it.
The secret is in the rhythm of the throwing and the catching hand becomes automatic. Juggling is about throwing.
It’s about the throwing
When it comes to teaching writing more effectively, I spend a lot of my time encouraging teachers to switch the focus of their instruction from the catching to the throwing. Teaching writing in the English classroom or any other faculty is not so much about sentences as it is about ideas.
The reason many of our students can’t write effectively is because they have nothing to say. We spend so much of our time getting them to craft perfectly tuned sentences, with adverbs and prepositional phrases that we forget that writing is about expressing ideas. In other words, all the grammatical or structural correctness in the world is not going to save the student who has nothing to say about the topic.
A paragraph or grammatical first approach to teaching writing is a case of dropping the ball because we are concentrating on the catching.
Teaching writing effectively
But what does teaching writing more effectively really look like?
If I was going to choose one thing that teachers should take away, it’s this: we need to stretch out what we mean by writing. Too often, we look at writing in terms of sentences and paragraphs and vocabulary – and while this important, that is only 1/6 of the truth (more on that later).
I define writing as the expression of ideas using the writing tools that the writer has at their fingertips. In other words, we are trying to express thinking and our ability to express that thinking clearly is capped by the technical writing skill at our disposal. Whether it is an explanation of e=MC2 or blindness in King Lear or the role of remorse in the sentencing process in Legal Studies, we can only write to the level we have learned.
That is why there is such a huge variation of writing competency in the classroom – and the staffroom. It’s simply that we all have different abilities to write.
Some students and teachers have a wonderful control of language; they develop a strong voice that is supported by a mix of sentence lengths and types, they have a fluency to their inclusion of evidence that makes it appear natural, their linking between ideas appears effortless, their vocabulary is precise (and concise) and they have a way of making their ideas roll off the page.
There is little doubt that English writing skills are facing a bit of a crisis. Each year, NAPLAN results come out and there is more handwringing about improvement and the comments section on news outlets are filled with calls for a return to traditional grammar.
So, we march off to a new English writing course with its promise to deliver the results our principal craved. And again we are disappointed.
That’s because we need to concentrate on the throwing – not the catching. Finely tuned sentences are the end result of writing, not the start.
Teaching writing effectively means asking better questions about the development of the thinking. At The Writing Hedge, we have the Writing Cycle – a six part process that helps teachers teach writing more effectively.
It involves asking better questions about the affective domain, the location and understanding of useful information, selecting evidence to support and organise an argument – and finally expression.
In the game of teaching writing more effectively, the order is everything.