Originally Published: January/February 2007
Composition often finds itself at the bottom of the teacher’s “To Do” list, continually buried by other priorities. When it finally does make its way to the top, kids often find themselves writing quickly, turning in their first thoughts as the final draft. The paper is returned with notes about spelling and punctuation errors to be corrected and attention quickly shifts to other lessons. Even though composition may be checked off the list, this approach isn’t likely to result in the development of real skill. For that sort of progress, there must be more detailed guidance as the student edits and rewrites – learning from input given during the writing process.
Consider composition a hands-on task, like teaching piano, sewing or woodworking. The student needs to know what a finished piece should look like, how to begin, and any pointers to keep in mind. While he works, he will need comments or demonstrations to guide adjustments to his piece so that it becomes a bit more like the model. Just as a budding pianist must practice and master simple songs before moving on to the complex, writers tackle narrow topics, editing just a few sentences, before advancing to essays or short stories.
Even though the focus remains on the project, some time must also be spent on related exercises that will sharpen necessary skills. The pianist takes a few minutes to improve finger coordination by playing scales. The seamstress grabs a scrap of material and tries to make more even seams. The budding carpenter pounds nails into an extra piece of wood to improve his speed and accuracy. The writer works on spelling, grammar, vocabulary, or critical thinking exercises – whatever the editor targets as especially helpful for his growth.
That is, the various components of Language Arts or English classes can serve the greater purpose of increasing the ability to not only understand what is read and heard, but also to compose with greater clarity and precision. After all, those well-written stories and essays assigned for literature also train the ear, acting as models for each student’s own writing. Discussions or workbooks used to build comprehension about fiction and nonfiction also illustrate how to support a main idea. Increasing a student’s vocabulary increases his comprehension while at the same time providing him with more choices when he selects the best words for his sentences. Spelling and grammar practice may be thought of like multiplication facts in math. Accuracy and speed in these areas make it easier to record messages, write letters or emails, and answer test questions without taking extra time to edit.
Unfortunately, too many students don’t see the connection and, so, don’t apply what they learn to their compositions. Unlike the pianist who performs a recital, or the seamstress and carpenter who show off their final results, many students view their writing as assignments to be read and graded by a teacher and then thrown away.
So, writing should be for publication or presentation. Children’s illustrated narrations can be turned into booklets or decorate the walls. Contributions to a class newsletter can be read by friends and family. Invitations to a party, thank you letters for gifts, and informative letters to pen pals are all practical “publications.” Presentations can be simple-sharing information on a topic, giving a supported opinion about a book or movie, or teaching others how to do something. The more complicated projects, like entries in geography or science fairs, can include displays with short, factual reports and even brief speeches.
The point is to implement ideas that will make writing meaningful. That, in turn, adds purpose to the required editing/rewriting process, just like preparation for a recital motivates a pianist to focus and try to improve during practice. Parents and teachers often take more time to help children prepare for a performance. If more writing assignments are viewed as performances instead of something to check off the “To Do” list, their importance may encourage the teacher to find a way to provide the feedback so necessary to improvement. Then even hesitant writers can make great progress.
*Check Kathryn Stout’s Comprehensive Composition for K-12 objectives and teaching strategies.