Saturday, October 4, 2008

Transforming Substance into Significance, Part 3: Authenticity—Reasons for Writing Instruction

Authentic writing programs recognize valid reasons for instruction. Obviously, students need to learn to write because life often requires written communication—a tendency expanding due to technology. But learning to write well influences a student’s academic abilities and quality of life.

First, by learning to write well, a student gains a means of expressing his perspectives. We teach individuals, each with a voice worthy of being heard. Writer Brenda Ueland (1987) challenges teachers, stating, “The only good teachers for you are those friends who love you, who think you are interesting, or very important, or wonderfully funny; whose attitude is: ‘Tell me more. Tell me all you can. I want to understand more about everything you feel and know and all the changes inside and out of you. Let more come out’” (p. 8). Students equipped with good writing capacity can express their created individuality—their interests, their passions, and their humor.

Writing also serves as a means of learning. Writing experts refer to this aspect of writing as “knowledge transforming,” a “constructing ideas and images through writing” (Fearn & Farnan, 2001, p. 183). In writing, “information promotes curiosity or speculation, and the writer uses the information and the curiosity to construct knowledge not originally accumulated” (p. 183-184). Writing promotes elaboration, the forging of conceptual connections that construct understanding. Writing creates an intersection of learner, learning, and expression. This merging transforms distinct data to integrated understanding.

Third, writing capacity influences how a student views himself. If a student believes his thoughts and opinions matter AND he possesses the means to communicate those thoughts and opinions, he is more likely to become a PARTICIPANT in democracy—someone with the means to change his standing rather than view himself as a victim of forces over which he has no control.

Writing develops important cognitive functions such as working memory. “Few activities are as cognitively demanding as writing” (Dingfelder, 2006). In fact, different writing phases engage different elements of working memory. While drafting obviously engages verbal working memory, planning a piece of writing actually engages spatial working memory. Writers “represent their ideas visually when trying to structure their essays,” notes neuropsychologist David Galbraith (Dingfelder, 2006). Spatial working memory empowers planning, verbal working memory empowers drafting, and both empower revision as writers evaluate and improve both idea-level structure and word-level details. Improving working memory abilities influences fluid intelligence, a group of abilities “considered one of the most important factors in learning” and “critical for wide variety of cognitive tasks” (Jaeggi, Buschkuehl, Jonides, & Perrig, 2008). Teaching students to write may actually equip them for better overall learning.

Writing develops thinking abilities and increases student achievement. In one study, students who were engaged in writing in all classes during a school year had final exam scores averaging seven points higher than their peers, did not earn any report card grades of D or lower (i.e., there were no failing students in the writing group), and demonstrated more positive attitudes toward learning. Researcher John Franklin (2003) suggests writing as a “key to improving student learning” (p. 5).

Finally, writing provides insight on student learning. As teachers, we gain insight into student understanding through a student’s writing and can make the instructional adjustments—either greater challenge or additional instruction—that optimize student learning.

A program’s philosophical statement addresses its instructional rationale, and an authentic instructional writing program recognizes valid reasons for teaching students to write well. These reasons extend beyond the obvious ability to use writing to respond to circumstances. They address a student’s quality of learning and life. Without such an understanding of writing instruction’s potential contribution to a student’s education, a writing program may lack the instructional emphasis that will optimize student achievement.

Up next: the importance of genre variety

Dingfelder, S. (2006). Writing exercises all aspects of working memory. Monitor on Psychology 37 (7). 19.
Franklin, J. (2003, Summer). Breaking the barriers: How writing across the curriculum programs help students and teachers. Curriculum Update, 4-5.
Fearn, L. & Farnan, N. (2001). Interactions: Teaching writing and the language arts. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Jaeggi, S. M., Buschkuehl, M., Jonides, J., & Perrig, W. J. (2008).
Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105 (39).
Ueland, B. (1987). If you want to write: A book about art, independence and spirit. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press.

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