Fostering Thinking Among Student Writers

 My earliest memories of writing are entwined around the weekly writing topics I was given in primary school. We wrote every Thursday afternoon, immediately after the lunch break. It wasn't even called writing. Our teacher referred to it as 'composition time.' We wrote for about twenty minutes in absolute silence in our 'composition' books. 

At the end of the allotted time, we handed in our written responses, then waited an entire week to receive feedback for our labored efforts. It consisted of a mark out of ten and a page of red ink comments and slashes across the page. Then we sat and waited for the next teacher topic to be thrown our way.

We wrote one day a week for twenty minutes. It wasn't much of a writing program by today's standards. It wasn't much of a way to learn writing back then either. I'm surprised we learned to write at all on such a starvation diet. I was just lucky enough to be the kind of kid who was driven to write in places other than the classroom. This is clearly what sustained me. My engagement with words was varied and rich. I compensated for the lack of writing time we had in school. There was an inner drive. I was fortunate.

Fast forward, and today teachers generally provide student writers with a lot more time for writing. Sadly though, there are still classrooms where writing time is rationed.

Time is an essential element of an effective writing program. The developing writer must be afforded time in order to develop confidence and proficiency.

Donald Graves in his extensive research into writing discovered that when children write every day, they begin to compose even when they are not actually writing. They enter what he called, 'a constant state of composition.' When the young writer reaches this important stage of writing development, they begin to spend time on task beyond the immediate classroom. They rehearse for the writing that comes later. They develop writing ideas for themselves.

If the developing writer is not afforded daily writing opportunities, their writing will fail to thrive. They will not learn to think through their personal writing. They will not grow to see writing as something purposeful and useful to their learning.

If a writing program is limited to a few days per week, or a few hours per week (as occurs in many secondary settings) only students of exceptional ability, or students who are driven to attending to writing outside of school hours will survive such a meagre writing diet. For EAL (English as an additional language) students, or students with confidence issues around writing, providing limited or irregular writing time amounts to a subtle form of abuse. It foster poor habits around writing. Students fail to develop any trust in writing to fulfill their needs. They are being sold short as learners.

Over many years I have learned that teaching writing requires me to show students how to write, and how to develop the craft strategies necessary to improve as a writer. From experience I know full well, that this is a quest that takes time to accomplish. In order to narrow the gap between intention and action, students need regular time on task as writers. This is the way they develop a writing history that is positive and purposeful.

Occasionally teachers lament that their students can't think of topics/ideas to write about. Often the answer lies in the fact their students do not write on a regular basis, or they do not have the opportunity to practice making decisions that involve topic and genre decisions. When young writers have predictable writing times and they know they will receive opportunities to write every day, their energies are more likely to go towards rehearsing and thinking about their writing options. When teachers direct topics, the young writer is caught unawares. There is no time for rehearsal to inform the thinking necessary to make an informed choice.

When teachers show students all the places writing can come from, and how simple everyday events may trigger writing pieces, the student writer is able to consider a range of writing possibilities. Students need to hear their teacher talk through what he/she is doing as a writer. Witnessing the thinking that accompanies writing is a powerful influence on attitudes to writing.

When teachers provide time for students to write, they will discover what writing can actually do for them. They will begin to see where ideas exist and the important fact that they exist all around them.

The student lament, ‘I can’t think of anything to write about’ vanishes when conditions that support thinking are central to the teaching of writing.

‘If we want our students to be thinkers, researchers, collaborators, readers, writers, and evaluators, then they need to see us thinking, researching, collaborating, reading, writing and evaluating. We need literally, to live the life we’re asking them to lead.’
  Regie Routman
Source: Literacy At The Crossroads


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