Monday, October 19, 2020

7 Ways to Help Young Writers

This week I have been reading a new biography of my literary hero, John Steinbeck, Mad at the World: A Life  of John Steinbeck by William Souder. In the book Souder quotes Steinbeck's favorite writing teacher, Edith Mirrielees, an English professor at Stanford University, as saying, "Writing can't be taught, but it can be helped." This put me in mind of the work  the psycholinguist, Frank Smith, who wrote an article titled, Reading Like a Writer, in which he posited that most of what a writer learns about writing is learned, not through instruction, but through reading in a special way - reading like someone who thinks they are a member of the "writing club."

Of course, even if writing can't really be taught and even if most of what a child learns about writing is learned by reading, there is still plenty of opportunity for the teacher to help, to be the guide on the side. Here are some good ways to help.

  1. Provide regular opportunities to write on self-selected topics. In order to feel like a member of the writing club, kids need to view writing as a regular part of their lives. Daily writing time puts the developing writer into a perpetual state of rehearsal for writing.  For example, because I knew I would be writing this blog entry today, I have been rehearsing, reading, and jotting notes on the topic all week. The expectation of writing something that I want to write means, as Smith says, that I am reading like a writer. That is, my reading is driven in part by my goal of writing about the topic,
  2. Provide lots of opportunities to read on self-selected topics. If, as Smith says, most of what we learn about how to write comes from reading, it is a given that we must find plenty of time for students to read widely in self-selected topics. We can further help by making the connection between what we read and what we write explicit to the children, perhaps by talking about how certain authors have influenced your own writing or how things that you read about give you ideas for writing.
  3. Model the process of writing through writing for the students. We know from the research that writers follow a definite process when they write. When we write for students. we not only get to model the process of writing, but we get to share something of ourselves. Talking aloud while we write, which takes some practice, provides the students with a template for their own writing process.
  4. Model good writing through mentor texts.  Much of early writing is imitation. Actual authors provide a template on which we can try out our own efforts to express things in new and attention getting ways. I remember in high school much of my writing was juvenile attempts at satire. I would enjoy writing comic takes on Benjamin Franklin's kite flying experiments or the courtship of Miles Standish, John Alden, and Priscilla Mullins. A teacher happened to mention that my writing reminded her of the books of Richard Armour. Intrigued, I went to the library and took out two Armour books, 1066 and All That and It All Started with Columbus, two riotous historical satires. Armour became my mentor for the silly, hyperbolic, gently reproachful satires I wrote for the next several years. Pointing students to the right books to help them write about their own topics is an excellent way to be helpful. We can then let the professional authors, provide the teaching.
  5. Provide timely mini-lessons Mini-lessons are a great structure for the teacher to provide a high amount of input into student writing. The best mini-lessons, I think, are those that are most timely. We need to ask ourselves, "What lesson will have the most impact right now?" It makes no sense to teach a mini-lesson on punctuating dialogue until students have begun to try to use dialogue in their writing. Likewise, the best time for a minilesson on varying sentence length is when students are showing that they are capable of writing longer sentences, but have not mastered how to effectively use sentence variety in a composition. It is also important to provide a variety of mini-lessons. We should be providing as many mini-lessons on the qualities of good writing (like show, don't tell) as we are on correct usage and punctuation.
  6. Conduct writing conferences where you listen, respond, and extend. I like to go to early in the writing process conferences without a pencil in my hand. In these conferences, I want to focus on the writing, what is the writer trying to communicate, how successful are they being, what assistance do they want? To this purpose, I want the writer to do most of the talking and I want my probing questions to elicit more talk to help the writer clarify in their own mind what they are trying to do. I also want to respond personally to the writing, by indicating, yes, this is something I am interested in or this is like something that happened to me, or I can see why this is important to you. Finally, I want to ask some questions that might get the writer to rethink, do further research, or examine what they have done so far. Have you considered...? What if... I was wondering...? The writer should go away from a conference feeling that they are doing work that the teacher values and that they have some ideas to work on to improve their draft.
  7. Target those things you want to correct  Because we are working with students, we should not expect the work to be perfect. Our focus for final revision and editing should be on targeted corrections. What should we target? One focus would be on topics of recent mini-lessons. If the class has been working on varying sentence length, that might be a target. Another focus would be particular challenges that this individual student exhibits. If the student has a tendency to misspell certain words, that could be a target for that individual student. If we try to fix everything, we may cause confusion and frustration. Targeting our corrections means that students can focus on one or two things that will improve the writing, while other problems can be reserved for another writing project.
Maybe Edith Mirrielees is right that writing can't be taught, but teachers can go a long way to be effective writing helpers. 

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