The art and craft of writing

Education Gadfly links to Educational Leader’s special on teaching writing. Gadfly writes:

How do you teach kids to write: through the spirit or the law? That is, should writing be taught through careful attention to grammar, syntax, and composition? Or should the first task be encouraging youngsters to pour their hearts upon the page without regard for subjects, verbs, and objects? While hedging its bets just a bit, Educational Leadership lines up with the latter view this month, in a series of articles on teaching writing. As editor Marge Scherer assures us, “Log into a blog or two or sneak a peek at students’ instant messaging and you will find that the art of writing is alive and well. The voice, the substance, the interest, and the humor are there, even if the grammar, the spelling, and the topic sentences are often not.” This is not a worthwhile trade, in our opinion. (And we have to wonder if Scherer has ever seen many actual instant messages, which usually read something like, “WU? WAN2TLK DIS WKND?”

Gadfly is a fan of diagramming, and also links to a story on teachers trying to get kids to stop using IM shorthand for school essays. Not to mention emoticons.

About Joanne


  1. Bluemount says:

    Oh well, teacher’s use to say ain’t ain’t a word. No one questioned their right to do that but, ain’t didn’t dissappear until television became every family’s measure of English. It surprises me how much slang translates into writing. I received a letter from a woman in a very rural area who wrote as she spoke (aire instead of are; and every verb was prefix with “a” like agoing).

    It’s important to teach the correct rules for an international language like English. I don’t think it will be broadly appreciated until it is sold in the media as attractive and desirable alternative to traditional slang.

  2. Constructions like “agoing” (or “Ahunting we will go” in the nursery rhyme) are relics of older dialects of English, which were closer to the Anglo-Saxon sources. IIRC, in modern German the gerund is formed by a “ge-” prefix and an “-en” suffix; in English the prefix apparently wore down to “a-“, and then was dropped entirely from the dominant dialects. It must have remained in some country dialects long enough for immigrants to carry it to Appalachia.

  3. Actually ge- is the marker of the past participle, not the present or the gerund. I believe the a- prefix in “a-going” and “a-hunting” is a weakening of the preposition “on.” It is comparable to the use of the preposition “to” in connection with the infinitive. But MarkM’s point is correct, this form is a survival of an older dialectal form that goes back to England.

  4. “That is, should writing be taught through careful attention to grammar, syntax, and composition? Or should the first task be encouraging youngsters to pour their hearts upon the page without regard for subjects, verbs, and objects?”

    Why does it have to be either/or, or why does one have to come before the other. How does factual or journalistic writing fit in here? Just what we need, more creative newspaper staff writers.

    In Kindergarten, my son had to do daily writing, even if it meant drawing pictures along with a few (kids spelling) words. Actually, this was quite frustrating for him because they said to “just do it”, with little or no instruction on how to “do it”. They didn’t even teach the kids how to properly hold a pencil. “Just do it.” A few years later, he still holds his pencil incorrectly. There is something to be said about learning how to do something correctly the first time. It’s a lot better than trying to correct a problem later on.

    Then, in first grade, his teacher talked about reading the kids writings (if you want to call it writings) to see which ones had “voice”! Of course, they weren’t teaching the kids how to have “voice”. Perhaps they thought it was a natural thing that would happen if you didn’t burden them down with spelling and punctuation rules. I told the teacher that I was more concerned about whether he could write a simple, coherent book report using meaningful sentences and paragraphs. By the way, I started counting the number of sentences in one of his Magic Tree House books that didn’t have a verb and I lost count.

    When I was in high school, we could take a course in creative writing as an elective. Now, it seems like that’s the only thing they do, and they start it in Kindergarten. Diagramming sentences? You’ve got to be kidding.

    I just started reading “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”. I’m no stickler for punctuation (I was, however horrified to find “irregardless” in a dictionary with a copyright of 1963.), but there is a huge world between teaching spelling and punctuation and creative (no rules) writing. In spite of the informality of IM, I think (most)everyone wants to know the rules and wants to be able to write persuasive letters to blogs. Wasn’t there a comment before about how most people don’t like not knowing the rules? My son is a sponge for knowledge, but his teachers were afraid to feed him.

  5. Mike in Texas says:

    Of course, they weren’t teaching the kids how to have “voice”.

    It’s interesting you should post this as “voice” is the new buzz word in grading standardized writing test. If the kid’s writing is not judged to have voice the kid gets a lower grade.

  6. Katherine C says:

    I really have trouble understanding some people. Teaching the basic rules of grammar and encouraging creativity are not opposing goals. There’s a lot of truth to the saying that you must know the rules in order to break them. Writing, including creative writing, is about communication. The rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling help to ensure that this is what you get. Understanding them is nessesary to advancing your skill as a writer, whether you’re working on a term paper or a novel.

  7. I agree that it shouldn’t be either/or. In my kids’ school, which I consider excellent, they use a gradual approach. They consider it very important to get the kids writing before they have the necessary skills and knowledge to do everything correctly. So initially they tolerate “kindergarten spelling”, grammatical mistakes, and other usage errors.

    BUT, each year they ratchet up the expectations as they introduce spelling words and rules of usage. By fourth grade, it’s pretty much “zero tolerance” on these mistakes. It seems to me that this is a pretty sensible approach. If you limited the youngest kids to the things they could do correctly, they wouldn’t find writing at all interesting. But if you let the older kids get away with the same stuff, they’d never learn to write correctly.

  8. Tim from Texas says:

    The omission of the dictation and the reproduction from the language/writing curriculum is an enormous mistake. I’ve argued for these teaching/learning tools to be incorporated into language/writing curriculums at every chance. I’ve posted here and elsewhere about them also. The most recent post is at Critical Mass/September 23, at “Who pays any attention to the syntax of things.” Therefore, I won’t repeat here. I will state here that the dictation and reproduction should be utilized almost exclusively as the writing exercises and writing tests in the language/writing classes from first grade to the ninth grade.

    First, of course, the dictation should be utilized to the end of fifth grade. Then the reproduction should be utilized to grade 10. If this is done, the students will be ready for any kind of writing assignment, creative and otherwise, they are given, because good writing will become habit for them. However, this is not to say, that grammar instruction of every kind should not be taught, including diagramming, if you like. Also, some strictly grammar excercises etc. and grammar tests along the way is appropriate and needed. The dictation and the reproduction must be the writing exercises and the writing tests, for the most part, because they reinforce all the grammar taught and they demonstrate and demand good writing.

    The dictation as a teaching/learning tool is not, as most people relate it to the picture of some boss dictating a letter to the secretary. It is the dictating of all kinds of writing to the students, starting with sentences, then paragraphs, then letters, descriptive/instructive/informational writing and the like, stories, and essays. Proper sequencing as to the kinds, length, and difficulty of the dictations, of course, is extremely important. Without the proper sequencing the outcome/product is deminished, as is the case in every subject at every level in our schools today. (Improper sequencing of instruction, moreover, how our schools are structured causing the destruction of all attempts/possiblities for proper sequencing of instruction and the difficulty of instruction is the principal reason good teaching and learning in our schools doesn’t occur. I just had to throw this in.) Proper sequencing of the kinds and difficulty of the dictations will have the students taking anywhere from 1000 to 2000 word dictations by the end of fifth grade and will have them doing very well with them.

    To continue, the dictation is not as simple for the student or the teacher as one is inclined to believe. In starting each dictation to the class the teacher begins with introducing new vocabulary that is used, along with the grammar structure or structures stressed for the most part, in the dictation. The piece including all punctuation is read at a normal pace, that is, not fast nor slow. During this first reading the students sit and listen only. Then a short question and answer session is next when the students are allowed to ask questions about the usage of the newly introduced vocabulary and grammar structures. They are not given any answers about anything they have already been taught or about anything they have already practiced, therefore, held responsible to know. The piece along with the punctuation is then read once more at that normal pace. This is the reading when the students take the dictation. The dictations are collected and graded and given back to the students within 2 days. The students are graded severely on everything and the score is marked down heavily for each mistake. Every aspect of the student’s work is noted. Penmanship, spelling, margins, punctuation and all must be taken into account. A mistake of any kind is not to be overlooked in the evaluation process, no exceptions. Every aspect of good writing must carry weight.

    The students are writing and learning at the same time when they take dictations. They write and learn vocabulary, spelling, syntax, and all aspects of grammar and all aspects of expression via written words. To mention the obvious here, they also learn to sit still and quiet. They also learn the importance of listening. The importance of listening hits like an anvil dropped on the head via the harsh/strict grading applied. They also develop good note taking for future use in the higher grades and college, ability everyone recognizes to be severely lacking. They also here well wrttien stories, essays and the like which increase the desire to read more. Last but not least the student’s attention span is continually increased, for it is inherent.

    The reproduction is introduced in the sixth grade slowly at first, because it is much more difficult. The dictations can and should be continued somewhat until the mechanics of the reproduction are grasped. The reproduction simply put is the reproduction by the students of a well-written story, essay etc. which the teacher reads twice to them. Sometimes a third reading is necessary if the piece is considered a more difficult piece wherein very difficult vocabulary, grammar, and writing techniques are used and or introduced. The new vocabulary, grammar, and writing techniques are given in the same way as the dictation, that is, at the start, and then likewise a short question and answer session is allowed after the first reading where the same rules as for the dictation apply. During the two or three readings the students sit still and quiet and just listen. They are not allowed to write or take any kind of notes during the readings. They are read the piece each time without puntuation read. They are read the piece just as one would read any story, essay etc.aloud. After the piece is read to them the second or last time, the students begin writing their reproduction of the piece. They are graded on all things, and just as severely, as they are on the dictation. Added, however, since it is not a dictation, are the more difficult aspects of theme and topic sentences and general flow of the piece, if it’s a story, then the aspects of character introduction and plot sequence must be taken into account when graded. Again no exceptions is the key. Last but not least is the word count of the student’s reproduction. At the start the class is given the exact word count of the piece. The word count of the student’s reproduction must be at least, for all practical purposes, 70% of the original. If it isn’t, the student fails w/o exception. The reason for it is obvious, I think. Also obvious is they are not allowed to use ands, buts, and the like unnecessarily or redundantly to achieve the minimum word count. By the tenth grade the students are able to reproduce anywhere from a 4000 to 7000 word reproduction.

    Of course, I could go on here, for there is more needed for total clarification and explanation of these teaching/learning methods, such as the class time it takes to make a single dictation, moreover, a single reproduction exercise or test work properly. I suppose I have made the post too long, therefore, I will close with the following.

    These methods do achieve so very much toward the goal of teaching students to write well. Why they are not used in this country in some form or fashion is baffling at best. I have my opnion on that also. I did say I would stop, so I will.