by Agnes Tirrito
How do children become writers? That seems to be the million dollar question these days. Students are struggling with communicating their ideas in a thoughtful, organized way. State test results confirm this. From elementary school through high school (and even college), the message is clear: students need help in the area of writing. I know students from first grade through college level who say, I am a writer. I know others who struggle miserably. What makes the difference?
First, writers need time to write. Daily writing is so important. Whether at school or home, a time that is set aside for journaling gives writers an appointment with themselves to get words on the page. If that time can be the same time, same place every day, even better.
While journaling is a great way “in” to writing, sooner or later writers need to move from the thoughts poured out onto the page into something more structured. That’s where models come in.
Writers need examples of good writing. Once they understand the structure of language and how certain parts of speech work, they will experiment and write with their unique voice. In “The Writing Revolution”, an article in the September 2012 issue of The Atlantic, Peg Tyre’s research reminds us that explicit instruction is necessary. When teachers at New Dorp High School in New York started dissecting students’ writing to find out why they were struggling, they found some interesting data. “What words,” Nelle Scharff (an instructional expert hired to help the struggling school) asked, “did kids who wrote solid paragraphs use that poor writers didn’t?” She found that coordinating conjunctions—words like “for”, “and”, “nor”, “but”, “or”, “yet”, and so—were used by good essay writers. Some students simply could not use these simple words effectively.
Students can learn to use specific parts of speech through models that demonstrate a variety of sentence structures. These models come from language in the poetry, songs, and books the students enjoy. They come from conversations they have with parents and teachers. When writers pay attention to language, their own language improves. Writers also look at how authors structure their work. Reading a book for enjoyment is great. Reading it as a writer gives an insight into the author’s own work. Did he start his book with a question? Did he include a historical perspective? How did he use dialogue or a quotation to get his point across to the reader? Did he vary his sentence length? Why? When beginning writers start paying attention to the skills that authors use, they can adapt those skills and use them when it makes sense in their own pieces. Connections among texts become evident, and writing improves.
Writing, in its most basic form, is thinking upon the page. It is necessary, not only for a state assessment every few years, but for the daily living and communicating with others that is essential for a productive life. Writing is not a secret skill for which only a few have a gift; like any skill, it can be learned and improved with practice and attention to detail. The result of reading, writing, and producing new language enriches not only our lives, but the lives of others. Writing really is a new creation. Our children deserve to know that they have the power within them to use it for life.