The Two-Fold Task of Writing

1 Feb 2017

In all my years of teaching experience—as a middle school English teacher in public and private schools, as a high school English teacher in the same, even as a homeschooling mother—the most common questions I receive from parents have been these: 1) How can I teach my child(ren) to write? and 2) Would you do it for me?

I understand these questions. The stakes are high. We don’t have to step two feet into a homeschooling conference or sit five minutes in a private school’s introductory meeting or glance at a public school’s curriculum before we are reminded of the importance of writing. Children need to learn how to write. High school students need to be good at it. Our states test it. Our colleges want it.

Teaching writing is intimidating. I’ve known seasoned English teachers who avoid it like clichés. Teaching writing lacks concrete formula. It’s less science and more magic. And evaluating it brings its own nightmare: it seems entirely subjective.

How, then, does one teach writing (and evaluate the same) for one’s own child?

High stakes, indeed.

As the new school year approaches, I’d like to take a few minutes to look at writing from the student’s perspective and then, if possible, encourage your fearless homeschooling heart with some practical ideas that can foster good writing.

The Task at Hand

Rare is the student who, when given a writing assignment, doesn’t immediately ask the obvious question: How long does it have to be?

This is because, for most students, the process of writing is so challenging, he or she wants more than anything to get it over with. Why? Because writing is so complex. This is precisely why colleges want students who are good at it, and precisely, why it is a worthwhile skill to hone in academic training and precisely why it is so difficult.

This may seem obvious, but it’s worthy of some examination: writing is a two-fold process. In good writing, we must know and think clearly about what it is we want to say, and we must say it well.

Yes, other disciplines may require many more than two “folds.” Take, for example, a proof in geometry. It requires multiple steps and sometimes multiple theorems. But these are implemented one at a time. In writing, these two folds—those of clear thought and artful expression—must (eventually) occur simultaneously. Any writer remotely aware of the task before her can readily (and understandably) be paralyzed or at least intimidated by this truth. In fact, professional writers are intimidated by it all the time.

I think it’s helpful to any writing student to understand and name this complexity. While the expectation of good writing from your student should stand, you might want to help him see that his intimidation is reasonable. What he is doing, when writing, requires very high brain function. Good writing is hard, but it is attainable. And it is important.

Some Means for the Task

Clear Thought: I think this might be the part we are good at—from a curricular standpoint, I mean. The Internet is rife with helpful tools for organizing ideas. Graphic organizers abound, and, in a pinch, the humble outline can work miracles. Most students need this preparatory step before diving into a writing assignment. They need time to figure out what their thoughts are; and more time to decipher how their ideas are connected or might best connect to build an argument (or even a plot, for the creative writers out there).

Give your writer this time. Work to find the organizing system that works for her. Then let her talk you through her “plan,” allowing both you and her to listen to and evaluate her ideas. Do they work together in the way she has planned? Great! If not, find out where the weakness is and guide her to resolution.

Clear thinking is essential, and it boosts confidence for the other part of the writing challenge, which for most is, by far, the more difficult.

Artful Expression: The fact is that some people are tone-deaf, and these people can and do live fulfilling and productive lives. But being “tone-deaf” when it comes to the art of good writing is less favorable for a writer—and all students are writers, whether or not they like it.

Take time to help your student develop an ear for good writing. This can begin when children are very young: the rhythms and predictable sounds of nursery rhymes help develop expectation of what words and sentences can do. Without any formal instruction, reading and reciting nursery rhymes aloud help inform appreciation of language.

Memorizing poetry, too, is excellent for this. Even if your child is older—even in high school—take time to read and listen to how good poems work. Attend to the rhythm and rhyme. Even though we rightly tend to avoid rhyme in formal writing, it can help develop that ear for good sound in language. Make use, too, of the poetry your child might already be enjoying: encourage her to think about the lyrics in her favorite songs. Write them out. How do the sounds of the words and phrasings work well, and why?

Would-be writers can develop an ear for good writing by reading and listening to speeches, too. President Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. come to mind as examples of excellent writers who knew the powers that lie in repetition, parallelism, contrasting lengths of sentences. Have your student listen to their speeches, noting where and how rhythm comes into play. These are rhetorical devices we employ in writing, and developing an ear for them helps us craft it on the page.

Help your writer find books he loves to read. Read aloud to him. Have him read aloud.

And when it comes to writing, at least some of the time, have your writer write about what he wants to write about. This can free your student from the constraints of the “first fold” (that of clear thought) and practice fluid expression on a subject he feels confident with.

In Practice

Teaching writing is difficult. Evaluating it, especially your own child’s work, is more difficult. But let’s remember that writing is potentially far more difficult for the student. Give your student time to think through her ideas. Provide your student with immersion in good writing—and then let her write.

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