Things have changed so much in teaching, and they change so frequently, that it might be reassuring to reflect that the teaching of writing has changed almost not at all since Ancient Greece.
There have been some changes, essentially in three areas:
- Technology, from an increasing emphasis on written instead of oral language (Ancient Greece, remember?) to the inclusion of keyboarding and writing for the web.
- The pendulum swing from freewriting to boilerplate and back. This has been going on for centuries, as I learned from Thomas Cahill’s entertaining book How the Irish Saved Civilization , and it is still going on today.
- The means of presenting the writing process and organizing the students’ practice. Hardly any of us smack students with rulers, and most of us don’t pull individual kids out for writing conferences any more, either.
But overall, effective writing lessons still involve three things:
- Examining excellent models. It can be good to work with student writing, too, but writers improve their writing by reading good writing. Sounds like a tongue-twister, but it’s true. Keep stacks of good literature on hand to use as examples of points you’re teaching. For example, instead of telling students not to use “said” as the only verb in their dialogue and posting a list of alternatives, grab Michael Hoeye’s Time Stops for No Mouse and read a page aloud. Have students write down all the alternatives to “said” that they hear — there are plenty.
- Practice. There is no way to improve writing without doing lots of writing. Many teachers have increased their writing assignments to the point where students groan at the idea of doing something interesting because they know that they’ll have to write about it later. One thing that helps with this is an attempt to have a purpose for writing as often as possible. Write stories to read to the kindergartners. Write letters telling grandparents about the interesting thing you did in class. Write entries at Wikipedia. Just make some communicative point to the writing as often as possible.
- Feedback. Once students have written something, they need feedback on it, so they can improve it through rewriting and building on it for next time. Peer review, notes, and group edits are all good ways to do this. Make a class rule to say what you like about a paper as well as ways it can be improved, agree that all writing can be improved, and lavish praise on the improved product to help students learn to accept this feedback.
If your writing lessons have these three elements, your students will improve.