Psst! Your Writing Instruction Is of Little Consequence

12/16/2014  |  By Mark Weakland
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On matters of consequence, the little prince had ideas which were very different from those of the grown-ups.

-Antoine de Saint Exupéry

 

    On one of his many adventures, the little prince (hero of Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s much-loved book, The Little Prince) visits a planet owned by a businessman obsessed with counting and listing the stars. “Five-hundred-and-one million, six-hundred-twenty-two thousand, seven-hundred-thirty-one,” he says, writing the number down on a piece of paper. The businessman takes great pride in being accurate, for in his words, “I am concerned with matters of consequence.” The little prince, however, is someone concerned with matters of beauty and usefulness, and he finds the businessman’s behavior to be quite extraordinary. To the little prince, a list of names and numbers filed away in a drawer is something of no consequence at all. 

    When it comes to kindergarten, first-, and second-grade writers, what writing matters are of consequence? Certainly spelling is important, as are letter formation, sentence structure, and punctuation. However, are these the matters of most consequence? The answer is no. 

 

 

   As I travel among the planets of public schools and experience adventures as a teacher, literacy coach, and consultant, I sometimes see the “businessman and little prince” scenario unfolding in the classroom. The adults are focused on letter formation, neat writing, how the heading is completed, correct use of verbs, and accurate spelling. Meanwhile, the children are focused on trying to get their beautiful ideas down on paper. They work mightily to collect their thoughts, organize their ideas, and get their words to flow from mind to keyboard or pencil.

    For all writers, but especially very young ones who are just beginning to see themselves as creators who communicate through writing, it is the latter rather than the former that are of most import. Ideas, thoughts, flow, a bit of voice, the telling of a story, details that make a reader take notice, the communication of an event and the feelings that surround that event – these are the things that should be of most consequence.

    Like many things in life, teaching is an act of balance. Rules must be balanced with originality; structure and order must be balanced with expression. Finding the correct balance between the quantifiable aspects of writing, such as format, grammar, and mechanics, and the harder to define quality aspects of writing, such as voice, idea, and creativity, is a crucial part of a classroom teacher’s job. Instruction must always be “not too loose and not too tight.”  Why is getting the balance so important? When teachers impede, or even worse, halt the act of writing to enforce format and mechanics, they stifle the flow of ideas. And when teachers spend too much time teaching children how to head the paper, write neatly, and spell every word correctly before continuing on, they spend too little time teaching them how to generate a topic for writing, how to form varied sentences that express one central idea, and how to create voice in a piece of writing. 

    Ultimately, it is interesting topics, the unfolding of detail and variety in service to central ideas, and a captivating voice that first makes readers want to pick up a piece of writing and keep reading it until, in the end, they leave with a satisfied feeling and a sense of time well spent. It has been said that one of the most important commandments of writing is “thou shalt not bore the reader” so it makes sense to put more emphasis on teaching ideas, voice, word choice, and sentence fluency, and less emphasis on teaching conventions.

    This is not to say that letter formation, a correct paper format, and accurate grammar, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization are not of importance. They are. Standardization of spelling and grammar enables effective communication. Neatly formed letters and words enable readers to concentrate on the meaning of words and story. Punctuation tells readers where to stop and how to read a sentence. Convention has a purpose and writers must learn and then use the rules. However, rules are a means to an end, not the end itself. As adult readers, we know of writers who craft complex, thought-provoking, and poetic sentences without using standard rules of mechanics and grammar. Writers like Cormac McCarthy, who writes dialogue without quotation marks, and E. E. Cummings, who crafted poetry with no capitals and periods, bend and break rules to create text that expresses as much story, idea, and feeling as possible. When teachers lose sight of what the end goal in writing is – communicating thoughts and feelings – they risk stifling original thoughts, diluting expression, and teaching only forms of writing that effectively answer an open-ended test question and not much more. Even more importantly, too much tightness around the rules of writing can be such a drag on young writers that they end up believing writing is a labor rather than a love.

    So, when it comes to hooking children on writing, and when it comes to creating a classroom full of students who see writing as a joyful activity, I suggest teachers consider the following:

 

Teach

Teach and emphasize

Rules for spelling

How to spell words as best you can by using the strategies you know, and then take note of words you think are misspelled, keep writing, and finally come back to correct your word.

Some assigned topics

How to make interesting and varied choices for topics of writing, genres of writing, and formats for writing. 

Paragraph formation

 

The ideas that you write and the purposes for which you write determine the ultimate sentence count in each paragraph and the ultimate organization of your piece.

Convention (mechanical correctness) 

Write so that others want to read your writing. Remember the rules, but more importantly, keep writing and writing, and when you are done, go back and revise and edit.

Following directions

Good writers are always learning and growing, putting forth effort, and coming up with fresh and interesting ideas.

 

 

    When it comes to matter of consequence, we teachers can begin to move from the businessman’s desk to the planet of the little prince. Teach structure and rules, but remember that in the end, beauty and usefulness are more compelling.

 

 

 

Mark Weakland, M.Ed., is a literacy consultant and author who works in schools with students, teachers, and administrators to create authentic and effective literacy programs and recently published Super Core! Turbocharging Your Basal Reading Program With More Reading, Writing, and Word Work with the International Reading Association. He is also the author of more than three dozen books for children. He can be reached at [email protected] and via www.markweaklandliteracy.com.
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