Blog: Better writing practice

By Phillip Simpson, April 2012

Writing, both the practise and assessment of it, is highly subjective. What one teacher considers good writing may not be considered as such by another. In terms of assessment, it is often hard to get consistency from two teachers on one piece of writing.

An important consideration is that nobody is born knowing how to write. Everyone has to work at building and growing their writing ability. A colleague once said that she didn’t enjoy writing at school because she knew she wasn’t going to be a writer. I didn’t know I was going to be a writer when I was that age either! It didn’t stop me from enjoying the writing process. And in fact, like most things – I enjoy writing more now that I have become better at it. It is human nature to enjoy things more if you are better at them.

I come from a background of both a teacher and a writer. As such, I do hold a few beliefs that won’t be shared by others in my industry. In other words, whilst this pedagogy may work for some children, it won’t work for all. But then again, what does?

Practise makes perfect

I was never explicitly taught how to be a writer. I don’t remember learning it at school and I didn’t go on any courses. I read some of my earlier work and I confess – I cringe a little. Something inside me dies just a tiny bit. But I’ve got better. You know why? Because I write a lot and I read a lot. In my case (and this won’t work for everyone), I have become better because of practice. It certainly didn’t happen overnight. I’ve been writing seriously for over ten years and during those ten years, I’ve read a lot of books and I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words. Basically, becoming a good (or better) writer takes time. Like anything – you need to work at it and practise. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Nothing good comes easy.

I can’t stress practise enough. Whether it be playing tiddlywinks or driving racing cars, you need to practice. The more a child reads, the more than are exposed to good writing and a wider range of words. The more language they are exposed to, the better they are able to correctly write their own sentences. Read every day. Write every day. Practise, practise, practise!

Reading makes you a better writer (but not always)

“Good readers will become good writers!” is a mantra frequently heard but like most statements, is sweeping in its generalisation.

The statement simply isn’t always true. Sure, some good readers can become good writers, but good readers will not automatically and inevitably become good writers.

This statement can be dangerous when used as a basis for a teaching pedagogy. Encouraging children to read as much as possible as well as giving them opportunities to write creatively is fantastic but … if it’s your only form of writing pedagogy, not all children will be successful. Sure, some will but certainly not all.

In my classroom, I have a number of good readers. Out of those good readers, probably half are good writers. Why not all though? This is the question that needs to be answered. I’ll get to that.

I’ve been an avid reader since I was a youngster and the predominant reason for this is cultural capital and a ‘monkey see, monkey do’ attitude. By cultural capital, I mean I was always exposed to a great deal of literature at home. My father collected books and they were stacked in piles all over the place (they still are). You couldn’t move without tripping over a book so it was inevitable that I would pick one up and start reading it at some point. That book led to lots more. I also saw Mum and Dad reading. A lot. Let’s face it – children are easily influenced by what they see.

Make it fun

I read for fun. I love reading because it transports me to another place, another reality. My wife likes me to read more contemporary fiction but I often don’t see the point. Reading for me is an escape from reality. Another world that envelopes me. And reading should be fun for children. It shouldn’t be a chore. Let them read whatever they like, as long as they enjoy it. It’s about joy so when teaching, don’t overanalyse it to death – it does have a tendency to take away some of the enjoyment. You want children to lose themselves in a book.

Saying that, while enjoying it though, a good reader should question why. Why do they enjoy it? Was it the sentence structure? The story itself? The characters? What we learn as readers, we use as writers. It’s an eclectic process. You’ll take stuff you like from this author and that, mix it together to create your own style.

But you need to enjoy your writing. A child who doesn’t enjoy writing will probably not develop as a great writer because of their reluctance to write. A naturally talented athlete may not perform to their potential simply because they don’t practise – they don’t work at it. Therefore, you need to make sure that what the children are writing is fun.

Reading and writing needs to become a habit. It has to done every day and (for children and the reading aspect at least) from a wide range of reading material.

Exposing them to good source material

Get children to read great writers (or storytellers). Writers that aren’t necessarily literary giants but are just good storytellers. That will make them enjoy the reading process even more and hopefully try and emulate this or that writer.

As a writer, I often feel myself being influenced by what I am reading. This is great for children. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. I couldn’t ask for anything more than for children to try and copy Roald Dahl’s style for instance. And writing is so subjective. A great writer to me may not be a great writer to other people. Just because one writer is using lots of complex sentences, metaphors and other aspects of more advanced writing – doesn’t necessarily mean they are a better writer.

To be a good writer, a child (or an adult for that matter) needs to be able to communicate ideas using the correct language patterns. They need to be able to understand sentence structures and to be able to pick the correct genre. An understanding of both surface and deeper features is also needed. Creativity is fantastic but not always readily available.

There is an old adage – you can’t get something out of nothing. Children require inspiration which is why much of their writing has to be based on personal experience. They simply can’t produce thoughts or concepts that they haven’t experienced in some way (now this can also be through something they’ve seen on TV or read in a book). Even the most unique, creative and extraordinary ideas can only exist as a combination of previously learned bits of information.

If, as teachers, what we need to do is give children an experience with appropriately sophisticated language patterns, then wouldn’t exposing them to great examples of relevant literature be the best way. Reading should give them the right skills then? Right?

Sometimes, but not always. Many children who become early readers – independent readers – often do not store the correct language patterns in their brains.

Good readers will often skip words, phrases and even complete sections of books that might hold them back. Therefore, these bits they skip are not going to be stored for use in their writing.

So, what should they do which will allow them to store the correct language patterns in their brains? Listening (reading to) and memorization.

Reading to

I tell parents all the time that they should read to their kids. Yes – even if those kids are reading independently and confidently. By not reading aloud to them, we deprive them of the chance to hear reliably correct language patterns and they never get an opportunity to listen to language patterns above their own level.

We want to challenge and expand their vocabulary and understanding. We want to give them an opportunity to discuss words and their meanings. By not reading to them, they miss practicing being a good audience (good listener) and just enjoy that happy warm feeling I always associate with being read to (by a good reader at least). What about opportunities to ask questions about what they’d read?

Children who have been read to with correct and sophisticated language patterns for many years, are much more likely to develop competence in written (and verbal) communication skills.

Memorization

Memorization seals language patterns into a brain. Andrew Pudewa (Classical Teacher, Winter 2005) argues that there is no greater tool. He goes on to say that memorizing and reciting poetry gives the brain the perfect opportunity to seal these language patterns in. Of course they have to be the right poems with reliably correct and sophisticated language patterns. Rote memorization may not be in vogue but it has its place in education. It certainly served previous generations (for hundreds and even thousands of years) who don’t seem to suffer from illiteracy as much as the current generation seems to.

Memorization, Pudewa argues, is a powerful way to teach, to learn, to develop skills, and to preserve knowledge. Memorizing and reciting helps fuse neurons into permanent language storage patterns which can then be applied into writing. Relevant poets can also help stretch our vocabulary and our language patterns. “A child with a rich repertoire of memorized poetry will inevitably demonstrate superior linguistic skills, both written and spoken, because of those patterns which are so deeply ingrained in the brain,” says Pudewa.

Some (not all) children even love to recite poems. Creativity and language are given wings to be called upon at will. I know people who can still recite poems learnt twenty, thirty or fourty years earlier.

Conclusion

So not all good readers will be good writers and not every method listed here will help every child. But used together – they are potentially quite powerful. Be innovative. Remember that good writing is subjective. Don’t be afraid to try out different things. I don’t believe there’s any right or wrong way in teaching. Just do whatever works to turn the kids on to writing.