Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Basic Unit of Writing

If you are of a Certain Age, this how you were taught writing--

1) Learn the parts of speech, sentence parts, and the rest of grammar.
2) Learn how to construct a sentence.
3) Learn how to write several sentences to make a paragraph.
4) Learn how to write several paragraphs to make an essay.

That's how we were taught to write. Mind you, it is not how anybody actually learned to write-- okay, I can't say nobody learned that way because the first rule of actual writing is that everybody uses their own methods and one person's Functional Approach To Writing is another person's Unspeakably Awful Idea. But the number of people who actually learned to write by the above traditional method is tiny, like the number of people who learned how to play jazz trombone by watching Led Zeppelin videos.

The persistence of traditional grammar instruction in the English teaching world is an ongoing mystery, like the number of people who think vouchers would improve education. Some teachers do it because well, of course, that's what English teachers do. Some teachers do it because it's easier than taking calls from parents that include the phrase, "Well, back in my day..."

Grammar instruction has its place. It's a lot easier to fix things, and a lot a lot easier to talk about fixing things, if you can call those things something other than "things." It's hard to talk about the nuts and bolts of improving a piece of writing if we don't have the words "nuts" or "bolts."

But we know-- have known for years-- that simple instruction of grammar with grammar exercises and grammar drills and all the traditional things does not improve writing. You can read a good recap of the research here, and while I'm highly dubious about any research that claims it has measured the quality of student writing, the fancy big-time research matches what I've learned in my own class-sized laboratory over the past may decades. Drilling students all day on nouns and verbs and participials and dependent adverb clauses will not make them better writer, and bombarding their writing with the Red Pen of Doom deployed over every grammatical misstep (not to mention all the usage "mistakes" which are not grammatical issues at all no matter how many people insist on conflating the two
) will probably make them worse writers. Not that I'm an advocate for the loose anything-goes technique of just letting any kind of mess hit the page-- but if your basic foundation for writing is a bunch of grammar rules, your students are probably not getting any better at writing.
This truth is sometimes masked by volume. The best way to get better at writing is to write, and if you have your students writing regularly, that will help-- maybe even if you give them lousy feedback. God save us all from the "We only do writing for three weeks in April" approach.

But the basic unit of any piece of writing is not a word or a sentence or a paragraph or a rhetorical technique. The basic unit of writing is an idea.

The vast majority of writing problems are actually thinking problems. If you don't know what you want to say, you will have a hard time saying it. And in the modern test-centered education era, we have compounded the problem by teaching students that their central question should be "What am I supposed to write for this?"

Not "what do I want to say" or even "what idea could I construct a good essay out of" but "what am I supposed to write."

That question shifts the foundation of writing to a new skill set-- psychic powers. Can you discern what the teacher or the test manufacturer wants you to say? Try to say that. In this model of writing, what should be central to the writing process-- the ideas in the student's head-- actually becomes an obstacle-- in your search for the essay you're supposed to write, don't be distracted by your own individual ideas.

Messing up that first question of writing automatically interfered with the second question-- after you know what you want to say, you must next figure out how to say it. But test-centered standardized writing has a required set of "how" before you even get to what. In real writing, however, the "how" flows directly out of the "what." For emerging writers, we may provide a pre-fab "how," (looking at you, five paragraph essay) so that they can focus on their "what" and not freak out about how to express it. But once the "how" is coming before the "what," we're in trouble, because now we're not asking "what do I want to say," but "what could I say to fill in these five paragraphs."

There is another level to this problem with assigned student writing-- finding an answer for the student whose answer to "what do I want to say" is "I want to say that I don't care about this topic and have nothing to say about it." That is where a teacher's heavy lifting comes in, with discussion and conversation and maybe research and sometimes a song and dance. It can be a hard bridge to build, but that doesn't change the writing fundamentals-

The center of every piece of writing should be the what, the idea, the thing that the writer wants to say. Any other foundation results in a building that is shaky and unstable, a house in which nothing useful can live.


  1. "And in the modern test-centered education era, we have compounded the problem by teaching students that their central question should be "What am I supposed to write for this?""

    Well, maybe. Maybe the testing age has made that worse. But I grew up well before the testing age and I knew from early on that the question was never what do I want to say, but rather, what does the teacher want to read? I think the bug there is in the nature of traditional schooling.

    On the other hand, having now been through nearly five years, I'm not sure that progressive schooling is the answer either. My kids do have a pretty good idea what they want to say without. But they have no idea how. Their writing is atrocious because they've been taught very few rules of grammar, usage, spelling, sentence structure, etc.

    There's got to be a happy medium.

    1. There has been an uptick in my kids' ELA instruction in discrete aspects of writing: grammar, spelling, usage, vocabulary, structure (5-sentence paragraphs and 5-paragraph essays ad nauseum). These things are too often being addressed apart from *actual* writing, through drills and busywork-type assignments, but Heaven forbid through actual writing that might conform to some other structure. Doesn't help that teachers have less and less time available for reading and for giving meaningful feedback, but those one-thing-at-a-time drills ARE good for one thing: gathering measurable data in data-driven school systems like mine. *sigh*

  2. Ugh, I was going to say, "My kids do have a pretty good idea what they want to say without worrying too much about what the teacher wants to hear." I decided to delete the last part of that, but I guess I didn't get all of it. Sorry. Yes, English is my first language....

  3. I've been teaching writing for almost 25 years, and everything Peter says is dead right.

    When students write terrible sentences, it's sooooo tempting to explain what's wrong; and it's so hard to shake the idea that this explanation will address the problem. But all the research, plus all my experience and that of my colleagues and peers, tells us otherwise.

    And so does common sense, come to that. No one learns a practice by memorizing abstract rules, and then practicing out-of-context corrections. It's like teaching babies to walk by forbidding them to cross the room until they've filled out a worksheet on the proper posture of the foot and the twenty mistakes to avoid in toe usage, because god forbid they just learn by staggering about, getting up, and trying again.

  4. It's true that simply learning grammar terminology and rules does not necessarily translate into improved writing. I was the weird kid in seventh grade who loved diagramming sentences, but that didn't make me a good writer. It takes a combination of ideas, knowledge, organization, and word choice and syntax. Reading good writing helps, but textbooks and most things on the internet are not good writing. The best way to help students improve their writing is to go over it with them one-on-one, but if you have 30 students, that's pretty difficult.

    The most important thing to remember is that the purpose of writing, like speaking, is to communicate: to get another person to understand what you think and feel. Grammar is really only important in that too many misspellings or bad syntax or poor word choice can make it more difficult for you to be understood. (And people might assume you're an idiot.)

  5. Why learn grammar or spelling? These conventions do not count on the BS tests. On the 4-point state BS rubric, a student can only get a zero if the page is blank. The student can get a 1 if they copy random words or sentences, or if they even write in another language. But, yet, classrooms till use a 5-catagory (focus, content, organization, style, conventions), 20-point rubric. Even if the student scores 4 in each category, if their spelling, grammar, and punctuation is nill, they'll only get 17/20. We haven't taught writing because we're all about informational texts, TDA, opinion or argumentative writing. Thanks, David Coleman and Common Core! By the way, David, I DO give a $h!t about narrative texts (and my students' feelings)!

  6. You are so, so correct, Mr. Curmudgucation!