When Writing Lacks Direction

It always concerns me when a student approaches the task of writing lacking any sense of freedom to explore and manipulate ideas. They are clearly hesitant when it comes to making decisions. A distinct lack of confidence is evident. They ask questions such as:

How much should I write?
Should I use paragraphs?
What should I write about?

-And yet, in other classrooms I gain a sense that the writers are reflective and self directed. They think, they solve problems, they articulate their writing intentions, they take risks and display a strong sense of ownership for the development of the text. The question arises, -What is the root cause of this difference in attitude?

The answer appears to lie in the classroom climate that exists. Frequently, when we dig a little deeper, it becomes apparent that a number of emotional blocks exist. -Blocks inhibiting thinking and prohibiting the growth of independence.

I invite teachers to ponder the following questions:

Are my students afraid to take risks, make mistakes and occasionally fail?
Do my students exhibit a strong desire for order and security?
Do my students display an inability to relax and allow ideas to 'incubate?'
Do my students fail to embrace the challenge of the writing project?
Do my students lack the flexibility to make the task their own?
Are my students overly motivated to succeed quickly?
Do my students primarily write to please me, their teacher?

If the majority of answers are YES, then it may well be that your students have been given some correct messages resulting from a desire to control the learning environment. Without knowing it, you may have been entrenching dependency.

A most interesting piece of data from a study conducted by (Taylor et al., 2001) came from the observational data on classroom instruction. A consistent finding was that the more a teacher was coded for telling children information, the less the children grew in achievement...

This does not mean that teachers should never tell students information; it would be impossible to teach without doing so. However, excessive amounts of “telling,” especially in situations where coaching students to come up with their own responses is possible,telling may rob children of the opportunity to take responsibility for developing their own skills and strategies.

Similarly, where students demonstrated growth, the more they were coded as responding actively to teacher designed learning activities. Instead of merely listening to the teacher, these students were observed actually writing more often than other students....

Higher-level questions emerge as a significant predictor of growth. Questions that encourage thinking and reflection. In addition to what teachers teach, findings at the classroom level suggest that how teachers teach is important when seeking to make changes in instruction to improve students’ writing achievement... Learning to tell less and ask more becomes a pertinent consideration.

As professionals, we must possess the conviction, the knowledge, and the teaching techniques necessary to ensure that every child is equipped with an armory of skills, strategies, habits, and attitudes able to be applied to writing. We therefore need to teach in ways that avoid a fear of audience, or harsh external standards. Such fears inhibit risk taking. Writing students produce is more likely to emerge as safe and formulaic under such conditions. Brave writers are not apparent.

We must develop within our students a healthy sense and preparedness to add, change, and expand their writing. To achieve this, we need to change the pictures they have in their heads regarding revision. Our consistent message needs to be 'Revision is the magic behind great writing.' If we don’t work towards this goal, we will continue to witness the premature desire for closure, where the writer exhibits a resistance to adapting the original text in any meaningful way.

We need to work against a sense of isolation among our students. -A solitary feeling deriving from not knowing whether the problems and concerns surrounding writing are common or unique. Problems that arise throughout the writing process needs to be aired and shared, so that concerns can be alleviated,  persistence and solutions celebrated. We must give feedback for effort.

Talking through these issues should be a strong feature of our teaching. Teaching needs to be guided by a desire to Investigate, rather than interrogate. Young writers must be encouraged to articulate their writing intentions, their concerns; to identify their achievements.

Often, we notice a tendency among young writers to create and criticize their writing ideas simultaneously. They begin to self correct and edit even as their creative thinking is spluttering into life. They become sidetracked on achieving the right outcome, rather than the best possible outcome. They work against their own creative energies for fear of making a mistake. The resultant text lacks sparkle or originality.

We need to build in an element of choice when considering writing tasks. Where tasks are consistently ‘assigned’ resistance is often a by-product. Students do not develop a sense of ownership and therefore feel unable to take responsibility for making meaningful modifications or revisions. The student develops a sense that it is the teacher’s responsibility for thinking up the topic or focus.

 Consequently, students develop an unspoken sense of limitation with respect to what is permitted, appropriate or possible with the writing. They continue to write merely to please the teacher.

When students reach a point in their writing development when they expect to make changes, when they expect order and meaning from the processes of revision and editing, when they understand that thinking and writing are forever linked- then writing will flourish.

For these reasons our students need to know that they are part of a community of learners, each able to demonstrate reflective, creative and critical behaviors in respect to their personal writing


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