Are we neglecting to teach writing? | Inquirer News

Are we neglecting to teach writing?

Editor’s Board

(First of a series)

When do you teach writing? This is a question I ask English language teachers whenever I observe in their classrooms in connection with our Inquirer in Education (IIE) program.

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The teachers are often stopped in their tracks. Then they smile or look away or stare blankly or shake their heads or do all of the above. And then they get their bearings and start making excuses. “There’s hardly any time.” “Our focus is on content.” “The students can barely read and they hate writing.”

None of this is meant to imply that they are incompetent teachers. We have the most amazing partner teachers in IIE.

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I see classrooms come alive once the teacher divides the class into groups. In fact, a lot of group activities are happening in the elementary and secondary classrooms of today.  Group work encourages active learning—everyone has a role to play. It is a good tool to use when the class has varying abilities. The fast learners can usually lead and the slow ones can chip in to the best of their ability. Everybody learns to cooperate and get along. (If we had more group activities back in my day, I might have turned out to be a not-so-despicable me.)

Still, I would like to see more classes where students are asked to do individual writing.  Are schools, especially public schools, neglecting writing skills? Are parents leaving their children’s literacy skills entirely up to the teachers?

By “writing,” I don’t mean the mechanical act of putting pen to paper and producing strokes of characters. I’m talking about communicating your thoughts through the written word.

In my workshops, I remind teachers that reading and writing are the prerequisite skills to all other knowledge areas. Of late, science and math have become Very Important Subjects but both, in fact, require students to know how to read and write before the STEM bricks can be built in their brains.

The goal of every grade school or high school teacher is not to just teach their students so they can move up to the next level. That’s too easy. As far as I’m concerned, all basic education teachers should aspire to get their students ready for college.

This is why writing skills are important.  The top universities all over the world require incoming students to write an application essay. Some also include an essay portion in their admission tests.

Wait, the writing doesn’t stop there. College education is heavy on essay exams, research reports, term papers, theses—all kinds of infuriating printed matter that stand between a student and a diploma. So, students don’t just need to write their way into the good universities, they also have to keep writing to be able to stay and obtain their degrees.

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At a conference seeking to align academic programs with industry needs, business executives complained that, generally, job applicants lacked communication skills. Graduates of diploma mills that don’t require writing across the curriculum are incapable of composing a coherent office memo. How will our graduates secure jobs and aspire for promotions if they cannot write?

Conventional wisdom has it that writing is a gift. Well, yes, if you’re talking about poetry and other literary musings; not everyone has the talent for creative writing. But everyone should be able to write a few clear sentences to express their thoughts.

Schools have to teach all students, not just those who are involved in the school paper, how to pick the right words, which sentences can be bundled into a paragraph, how to logically order paragraphs, how to punctuate so you don’t confuse your readers and other rules of good writing.

Writing is not easy because, just like reading, it is not a developmental skill. A child may be expected to start talking in sentences with four or more words by age 4, but he cannot turn his thoughts into written words at the same age without first being taught how to write, and only after he has been actively taught how to read.

So, students must be encouraged to express themselves in writing as early as possible. Wiggly strokes and line drawings can tell such fantastic stories if you take the time to ask preschoolers about them. Most teachers in the early grades are adept at using their pupils’ art as prompts for personal storytelling.

I would say third grade is a good time to start students on the craft of writing. And the journalistic 5Ws + 1H formula works wonders for teaching simple narrative writing, whether you’re teaching kids or adults. What happened? Whom did it happen to? Where did it happen? When?  Why? How? The answers can be strung together into a story.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders,” wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. “Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

It is the same with writing. The best way to teach writing is to get your students to love reading.

Give them a reading list for the school year but make allowances for their own choices. Provide access to books, newspapers and magazines. Take them to that enchanted land grownups seldom understand. Make them fall in love with words, with characters and plots, with even unhappy endings. Introduce them to writings that can inspire them to write.

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TAGS: inquirer in education program, Learning, Reading, Writing
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