Teaching writing via reading | Inquirer News
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Teaching writing via reading

(Second of a series)

How not to teach writing: the way my teacher in English did.

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She came in one day and said, “Today you will write to persuade.” She asked if we knew the meaning of persuasive writing, and of course we didn’t because this was grade school; we had just begun to discover Nancy Drew.

“Writing to persuade is writing to convince others to accept your view or your opinion,” she said, parroting the textbook. She would have done better had she said that it was writing to convince your readers to take your side, but what did you expect of a teacher who was more bookish than the book?

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She then talked about the rules: You should state your point in the first sentence, follow it with supporting sentences, and so on.

She said newspaper editorials and advertisements were examples of persuasive writing. But she never showed us an actual editorial or an actual ad from an actual newspaper. How difficult could it have been to cut out an editorial and an ad, and bring the clippings to class? And how much easier her task, had she given us concrete examples.

When teachers fail to connect the teaching of writing to any real-world examples of writing, they deny their students the opportunity to read and learn from models of writing.

The craft of writing is hard to teach, and harder still if you don’t do much reading and writing yourself. There’s prewriting instruction required, consisting of reading, comprehension and grammar lessons. Then the teacher has to focus on the process, which can be excruciating when the teacher is unqualified and by no means the end of the road. In addition, the product has to be reviewed, revised and edited, all of which are necessary if the children are to grow as writers.

It is no wonder then that teachers try to avoid giving writing exercises and that little active teaching of writing goes on in school. Even psycholinguist Frank Smith, author of “Joining the Literacy Club,” acknowledged this.

“It could only be through reading that writers learn all the intangibles that they know,” he wrote.

I couldn’t agree more. All rabid readers I know eased into writing quite naturally.

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The good news is reading-to-write has been adapted into a framework that encourages children to write in assorted genres by exposing them to literary and journalistic pieces that serve as models for writing. The program is called “reading like writers.”

As you know, there are many purposes for reading. There’s reading for enjoyment, pleasurable and with no pressure. There’s reading for instruction and understanding. And then there’s reading that blows you away; you look up from the text and think, wow! Then you go back and read it again to drink in the thoughts, savor the words.

Now if you’re a person who also likes to write, you do something else. You read it again to drink in the thoughts and savor the words, but you also go back and reread to see how the writer did it. What did he do to wow you? With what words did he sweep you off your feet?

In the “reading like writers” framework, children are taught to take note of how a piece of poetry or a feature article or a short story is written and are awakened to the possibility that they can write the same way.

This program is best taught in a yearlong writing workshop where the teacher can hold mini lessons and spend the rest of the time in inquiry and conferencing with individual writers. Children are asked to work on their pieces every day and must see each work to its completion, editing included.

Teachers collect samples written by the best writers in the world. Hemingway, Salinger, Bukowski, Steinbeck and company don’t have to be physically present in the classroom to mentor the students. Their works can show the kids how to write in short, crisp sentences. James, Wharton, Nabokov and Dinesen can model long, elegant sentences and paragraphs.

The teacher serves as a curator, collecting the kinds of writing that she wants her students to learn to write. She then draws the students’ attention to the writer’s craft through deliberate instruction. She asks the class what they notice about the text structure, punctuation and such. “What did you notice about the writing?” “What words did the writer use to convey that emotion?” “Why did the writer pick those words?”

As the class talks about what they see their mentors doing, they gain new insights about writing. The students become aware that the teacher expects them to use their own versions of their favorite elements from the writing samples.

Why do architects look at homes, buildings and other structures in every city they visit? Why do gardeners visit other gardens? Why do doctors and dentists and other professionals go to conferences to keep learning from their colleagues? My sister who makes shoes cannot leave a mall without going into a shoe store. If there’s a particular shoe she likes, she asks the sales clerk for it. She holds it in her hand, feels its weight, looks at the way it’s sewn or glued together, and feels if the material is really leather or a cheap imitation.

Why should budding writers be taught differently? We tend to read the writers whose style we like and we tend to write like writers whose works we admire. Style is contagious.

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TAGS: Learning, Reading, teaching, Writing
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