What Do Your Students Understand About Writing?

Recently I wrote about the research of Donald Graves in relation to entrenching dependency among student writers. Today I want to highlight another aspect of the work Don Graves conducted in the 70’s.

Graves asked a group of seven year olds, ‘What do you think a good writer needs to do in order to write well?’ He documented their general responses thus:

To be neat
Space letters
Spell good
Know words
Have a good title
Have a good ending
Write a lot
The responses indicated the child writers’ perceptions of what constituted ‘good’ writing. Their responses no doubt grew from the predominant focus of teacher feedback in their writing lessons. It is obvious that teachers placed less store in attention to matters of content and intention. The eradication of mistakes and cleaning up the surface features of the writing were treated with greater importance than the improvement of expression of ideas and communication. The false notion that writing more is something that will impress those assessing the writing, implies quantity is valued over quality.

In my own work I have periodically asked similar questions to student writers.  -Sometimes formally, sometimes informally. In some instances, the responses I gain are eerily similar to those gathered by Graves. Too many students talk only of surface features, or tell me their writing needs more ‘describing words.’

Good writing is much more than the eradication of errors. It results from implementing an extended process that includes learning how to gather ideas, finding a stance or viewpoint, writing drafts, having other writers responds to those drafts, revising for audience and purpose, and polishing, editing and sharing through publication.

This process helps writers develop ideas more fully, build connections between each aspect of a text, so the entire piece is clear, and the errors capable of distracting readers are dealt with as a consequence of these critical processes. It suggests that writing involves many modes of communication and that writers develop more effectively when they are part of a supportive community of fellow writers. Empowering the writer to exert a sense of ownership over writing tasks; writing outcomes, increases engagement. It works every time!

When such matters are taken into account they hold immense significance for what is valued in the classroom. The responses of student writers in such writing friendly classrooms move beyond surface features and the need to get things right. It drives student understandings about writing well below the surface. They begin to embrace writing as a tool for communication. Writing becomes an activity that assists them to understand their world and themselves simultaneously.

The responses student writers provide when asked about ‘writing’ offer a window into the value systems of teachers. As teachers of writing we must never lose sight of this.


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