By Patricia A. Dunn
To devote energy to their writing, children need to see it as empowering, as something that can change the world, as something they’ll want to do throughout their lives. Experienced teachers know that students must be engaged in writing the narratives, arguments, and informational/explanatory texts required in the Common Core.
Students will need this engagement, not only for the tasks required on high-stakes tests but also for the real-world writing projects they will encounter five or ten years from now when they are out of school—new, multimodal genres not yet invented. They’ll need the fluency, flexibility, and confidence that come from completing many successful writing projects aimed at readers who will not simply be assessing their writing but will be informed, moved, persuaded, amused, or entertained by it. They’ll need to develop strong editing and proofreading skills, hard work that requires effort beyond the hope for a good grade. Good writers will also need the more elusive skills such as persistence, responsibility, curiosity, and other “habits of mind” named in the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, an important document on college readiness written by professionals with both academic and practical experience teaching writing. The following are questions to help determine if students are developing this important element of engagement.
Three Questions for Parents about Your Child’s Writing
1) Is your child excited about writing?
Some stress is natural. Writers serious about their work want it to be effective, want lots of people to read it, and want it to make a positive difference in the world. Like the good kind of stage fright needed for an energetic and inspired performance, some nervousness about writing can provide motivation for further revising and editing, as well as the creative energy needed for high-level analytic or artistic thinking. “Engagement with learning is essential,” argue Irwin, Meltzer, and Dukes in their book on adolescent literacy.
For writers engaged in their project, this feeling is more excitement than negative stress. If your child avoids writing, is bored by or overly stressed about writing, find out what he or she is being asked to do in school. Make sure the writing is for real audiences (not just the teacher with a red pen), for real purposes (to inform, persuade, amuse, entertain, or argue), and in real genres: reviews, blogs, news stories, journals, narratives, fan fiction, short stories, letters, and so on. The writing should be challenging, engaging, varied, frequent, and, at least some of the time, enjoyable.
2) Does your child write outside of school?
In order to obtain the practice they need for continued improvement, students need to write on their own, in addition to what they’re doing in school. A 2008 Pew Internet Poll showed that many children do write outside of school, but that they do not think of the writing they’re doing on their own time as “writing.” (This fact makes one wonder what activities called writing are taking place in the classroom.) Students also said that they knew writing was important for their future success and that they had many suggestions about how to improve writing instruction in the school, though few adults ever asked them about those suggestions. In the same poll, parents, too, said that their children were doing much more writing than they themselves ever did at that age. We should all inquire about our children’s writing, in or out of school, and encourage the writing they do for blogs, fan fiction, or even social network writing, if it is appropriate. All these tasks have real audiences and real purposes—crucial elements that can be missing from school writing. Laura Robb’s research also shows that many middle school students are writing at home, in journals, book reviews, letters, etc. However, many—even most– teachers are not aware of this writing: “Only 8.7 percent of students surveyed report that their teachers know about their outside-of-school writing” (15). Robb goes on to argue that by at least knowing about this writing, teachers can get to know their students better, which can help motivate them and influence the design of better in-school writing tasks.
3) Does your child read outside of school?
The Common Core’s focus on text complexity notwithstanding (pages 4-10), students need to read—and read a lot—in order to write well. No matter how complex an assigned school reading might be, it won’t matter if children aren’t reading it, or if it’s turning them against reading. Good writers read all the time–in school, at home, in the back seat of the car, at the beach, or under the covers at night. They always have with them their book or e-reader. They read for information and knowledge and sometimes because they have to, but most of all they read for pleasure. By reading so much, they seamlessly learn vocabulary words their non-reading peers might be trying to cram in for a quiz the next day, only to forget the day after that. Voracious readers absorb all sorts of background knowledge on science, culture, geography, history, food, nature, clothing, animals, places, or whatever their book-of-the-moment can teach them. They learn about story grammar—the textual features of different genres such as mysteries, novels, memoirs, biographies, and so on. They absorb sentence structures and punctuation conventions. Whatever students read—young adult novels, music reviews, blogs, graphic novels, instructions on playing the guitar or tips on winning at video games—all these texts will contribute something to their literacy and engender in them a positive attitude about reading. So if some of the suggested texts in Appendix B of the Common Core (Patrick Henry’s “Speech to the Second Virginia Convention”?, Ronald Reagan’s “Address to Students at Moscow State University” are not turning your children into life-long readers, consider their interests. Tap into their passions to find whatever texts will get them to open a book, read, and keep reading—even when they’re not supposed to.
Patricia A. Dunn is a former high school teacher and two-year college instructor who has written several books on the teaching of writing: Learning Re-Abled: The Learning Disability Controversy and Composition Studies (1995 and 2011), available online at http://wac.colostate.edu/books/dunn/; Talking, Sketching, Moving: Multiple Literacies in the Teaching of Writing (2001); and, with Ken Lindblom, Grammar Rants: How a Backstage Tour of Writing Complaints Can Help Students Make Informed, Savvy Choices About Their Writing (2011). She is currently an Associate Professor of English at Stony Brook University in New York, where she teaches current and future teachers of English and writing.