Teaching Writing: What is Your Story?

By Erinn Bentley and Becky Snow

“People learn to write by writing.”  At first glance, this statement seems simple. Yet anyone who has struggled with a writing task, suffered from a case of writer’s block, or tried to teach writing knows this statement is anything but simple.  “People learn to write by writing” is one of eleven belief statements published by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).  As educators, we subscribe to these beliefs; we quote them in papers and articles.  But, what do these beliefs really mean?  How do they connect with our lives as teachers and writers?

To the outside observer, our teaching beliefs and the complexity of our professional training may not be visible.  Some may believe that we simply “teach to the test.”  Others may think our instruction is solely determined by standards, assessments, and curricula.  While these external factors do impact our instructional decisions, they do not define our identities, our beliefs, or our practices as writers and teachers.   As teachers, now is the time to tell our stories, naming and describing the many factors that shape who we are as writers and teachers. Below are stories detailing how “people learn to write by writing” is more than just a general statement put forth by an organization; it symbolizes our personal teaching philosophies.

Erinn’s Story: Notebook Knowledge

I remember when I first became a writer.  I was in third grade, and I discovered short stories.  In page after page of my little brown notebook, I scribbled stories about ponies, leprechauns, and cowgirls.  Every one took me to a far-off place, a world where real words and made-up words lived side-by-side.  I was a writer. Then, I entered fourth grade.  Everything changed.  We had to read and write poems.  I was lost.  I had plenty of words, but I did not know how to fit those words into stanzas.  Without paragraphs and plot twists, I was lost.

People learn to write by writing, but when a writing task seems too difficult, too confusing, and too unfamiliar, putting ideas down on paper can feel impossible. At age ten, I certainly felt this way about poetry.  Eventually, I wrote.  Using rhyme and rhythm, I wrote alongside my peers and teacher.  Together, we read examples of “good” poetry, we practiced writing, and we shared advice.

I had no idea I would become a writing teacher.  I was simply a writer – until I began sharing my composing processes with others.  Then, something happened.  I became a “teacher-writer,” as described in Anne Elrod Whitney’s post; I found ways to write alongside my students, similar to the teaching scenarios described in Meg Peterson’s post .  Knowledge of writing came straight from my notebook.  Writers teach writing by being writers.  

Now, I teach English methods courses to preservice teachers.  Often, students say their favorite part of class is when I wrote with them or brought in drafts of my writing to share.  They may have thought I was simply modeling a teaching strategy described in our course readings.  What my students may not realize is that I am still learning to write myself, and I’m sharing my journey with them.

Hands hold a pen over a blank page in an open notebook

Becky’s Story: Becoming a True Writer

In contemplating this NCTE belief about the teaching of writing, that people learn to write by writing, I thought back to my experiences as a writer.  Even though I have written for jobs, for school and for personal reasons, I have never considered myself as a true writer.  I have never published any writing.  I have never presented my writing to an audience, other than a small classroom audience.  I have never shared my personal writing with anyone, other than close family. Now, as a preservice teacher, I feel the need to reflect on these writing experiences and the NCTE belief of learning to write by writing. With my recent experiences as an early childhood education student, my classroom interactions with fourth grade students have greatly altered my writing familiarities. I have seen my cooperating teacher share her love and passion for writing with students, and I have seen these students use her instruction to develop their writing habits and skills throughout the semester.  Unknowingly, the teacher and students have helped me discover how I feel about teaching and writing, along with the idea that through writing we become better writers.  Because of the influence this teacher has had on my writing beliefs, I would like to share my story and what I saw during the first day I observed her classroom.  

As I strolled among the desks and peeked over shoulders to read their work, students were enthusiastically scrawling away in their writing journals.  They all had the same topic, but the ideas varied immensely among the students.  There were some journals with a full page of writing, while others had only a few sentences. I was told that students have a writing prompt every morning as they arrive, either an assigned topic or one of their choice.  When there is time throughout the day, students share their writing with peers, and often the teacher shares her writing with the students. The daily writings are not typically graded for spelling or grammar, but instead the teacher gives them feedback for understanding and future revisions. With this strategy, she is encouraging their efforts and offering them skills they need to become better writers instead of focusing on grammatical efforts. As Patricia Dunn emphasized in her post, grammar is important, but in order for her students to improve their writing skills, they must continue to write. Again, we see evidence of NCTE’s first belief statement – “people learn to write by writing.”

In reflecting on my cooperating teacher’s methods of teaching writing, I understand better why I have never considered myself a writer.  I have never had the opportunity to share my writing with others as a way for them to learn.  As an educator-in-training, I am discovering that by expanding my writing experiences through personal, academic, and professional writing, I am in turn creating a stronger foundation for teaching young students how to write.  I know that the more I write on different occasions, the more my students will benefit and improve in their own writing.

Putting the Belief into Practice: People Learn to Write by Writing

As teachers, we make countless decisions daily on ways to engage our students as writers and learners.  These decisions stem from beliefs that have been shaped by mentors, theories, coursework, observations, professional organizations, and writing experiences.  Not only is it important to acknowledge our teaching beliefs; we must also live them. Below are some ways that we (and other teachers) have adopted the “people learn to write by writing” belief.

  • Authentic and meaningful writing assignments can go a long way in inspiring students to put forth their best effort in their work. As Ken Lindblom discussed in an earlier post, teachers make the choice concerning the main focus of the writing tasks. Is it to check for students’ grammar and spelling?  Is it to help students improve writing in different genres? Is it to encourage students to make a difference in the world with their writing? Whatever the intent for the assignment, having choices in topics and having a purpose for writing will help motivate students to continue writing, thus increase their knowledge of writing.
  • Also of great importance in the NCTE belief is for students to observe teachers writing alongside them during writing assignments. Students may begin to see that these writing tasks asked of them are not trivial or meaningless, and that writing can be quite enjoyable. Teachers can also share their own writing as a model and guide to good work.
  • Realistically, not all students may feel confident as writers. If our main goal as teachers is to not teach students about writing but encourage them to do writing, we may need to find ways to bolster their confidence and motivation, such as publishing or celebrating their work.

Authors’ information:

Erinn Bentley is a former secondary teacher and currently is an assistant professor of English education at Columbus State University.

Becky Snow is a graduate student pursuing a Master of Arts in Teaching at Columbus State University.

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