I’ve mentioned that I’ve been thinking about writing instruction, lately, while I sort through my choices for the new year’s curricula. David (soon to be in 6th grade) has entered a new phase of consciousness (did I really say that?), and may actually benefit from something more formal. Maybe.
Not that I’ve neglected teaching writing. Over the past 4 years we’ve beta-tested 2 writing programs, have reviewed others, and tried just informal writing exercises. Last year, David participated in National Novel Writing Month and even went on to write a sequel to the novel he completed. There’s been plenty of writing going on.
In all that time, I’ve come to a few conclusions about writing programs in general:
- I didn’t actually need a formal writing program in the early elementary grades (and neither do you).
- I probably still don’t actually need a formal writing program, but I’m going to use one.
- Most writing programs for children put too much emphasis on the form of writing and lose sight of the fact that writing is all about communication.
Let me repeat that, because it’s important: Writing = Communication
Here starts my rant.;0)
I submit to you that the purpose for any writing at all is to communicate, whether it be an emotion, a thought, an idea, or even an explanation for a newly patented process. The reason we write anything at all is communicate, or, if you prefer, to have a meeting of the minds with other human beings. We share our very thoughts through words.
So all writing, if it’s worth writing at all, has some kind of content.
Therefore, the purpose of writing instruction is not so much to teach someone how to write, but to teach him how to effectively convey his message, whatever it may be. You can’t accomplish this by teaching empty forms.
I pray you, do not ever give your 13-year-old child an assignment like: “Write a business letter to a company requesting an interview for a job. Be sure to list your job qualifications and previous work experience. It is not acceptable to state that you have no previous work experience.”
This is an actual writing assignment (not in those words, but that’s it in a nutshell) that I received while in middle school in preparation for the Maryland Writing Exam. Yes, the Maryland Writing Exam. I think there still is such a thing. Oh, and I think it has to be a 5-paragraph letter, too. Shiver.
Granted, I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with the state trying to ensure that their graduates are able to write. My quibble is with how they go about it. But that’s another topic, really. My point is that there is nothing that will kill your child’s love for writing (or seal their hatred for same) faster than an asinine assignment like this.
Was that too blunt?
The problem with this type of assignment is that it attempts to separate the form of writing from it’s content, as though it’s the form that truly matters.
The message is that it doesn’t matter if the content is true. It doesn’t even matter if the content makes sense. We are looking for a well-worded business letter that might convince someone to offer someone an interview.
Putting aside the obvious moral problem of training teenagers to write convincing but bogus letters begging for job interviews…
I’ll just say it right out: when it comes to writing, content is king. Period. Form without true content is a bunch of silly nothingness.
We’ve all read magazine articles or newspaper articles or listened to anchormen that really had nothing of substance to say. My husband has read plenty of papers written by students who were doing their best to fill the word quota without ever actually coming to a conclusion or even offering a viable premise. Sure, it’s possible to fill the form with words that don’t say much of anything, but why waste your time like that?
The point of writing anything is to communicate something. You can’t communicate form. You use form to help organize your content.
Ahh, so you say, content is important, it organizes the content.
Yes, form is an important tool. But too many writing programs stop there.
I’ll just mention my arch nemesis here: the 5-paragraph essay. Shiver.
Raise your hand: how many of you were taught how to write a 5-paragraph essay as if it was the crowning achievement of all writing?
Now how many of you have actually read a (good) 5-paragraph essay outside of an English class? Anybody?
Did Jonathan Swift write 5-paragraph essays?
Now I’m going to say something that will floor you: Form is determined BY content. Not the other way around.
What you wish to say will determine how you need to say it in order to get your message across. And, hey, that may require a 17-paragraph essay. It might require a 859 word blog post chopped into little 3 sentence paragraphs with little parenthetical comments and occasional exclamation points!
Content should always determine form. If your writing program is only interested in form, scrap it.
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