Saturday, November 1, 2008

Transforming Substance into Significance, Part 7: Integration—Connecting Mechanics to Writing

Researchers describe our current writing instruction as being stuck in the eighteenth century with little real relationship to actual writing. A recent study found that students spent only about 15% of their time in school writing, and of that 15%, two-thirds was merely copying, word-for-word, in worktexts
(NWP, p. 6). In many classrooms, students fill time completing worktext exercises, usually identifying parts of speech with underlining, circling, or diagramming of preprinted sentences; correcting capitalization and punctuation in preprinted sentences; or identifying the correct word form (e.g., have or has?) in preprinted sentences.

Despite all this busyness, research indicates that almost no, if any, relationship exists between mechanics instruction and writing achievement. You could train world-champion sentence diagrammers and never produce a student with exemplary writing skills. According to research findings, the relationship just does not exist.

There may be a simple reason for this lack of relationship. Anything taught in isolation—that is, apart from the context in which it has influence—PREVENTS transfer. Yes, actually PREVENTS the beneficial use of knowledge. Why? Because students become habituated to only using the knowledge or skills within the contexts in which they were learned.

Connecting Mechanics to Writing

All of this does not mean we should avoid teaching mechanics, but it does implicate our current practices. If we are truly committed to improving students’ communication abilities, we cannot continue to teach mechanics in isolation. We must combine elements to provide complete instruction for constructing lasting learning.

Mechanics should be taught from the understanding that their purpose is to help the writer communicate more clearly with the reader. Author and writing teacher Gloria Houston (2004) describes mechanics as “an act of courtesy to the reader on the part of the writer” (p. 20). Keeping this perspective can help us give mechanics the attention they deserve without overemphasizing their importance. Think of it this way: you have a child who you want to learn to express gratitude when they’re given a gift. You mention to the child that it’s good to say “Thank you” in such a context. The next time they’re given something, you might prompt them with, “What do you say?” But you don’t take hours and hours of time drilling the response or abandon child when they forget. You instruct efficiently, prompt as needed, and point out the times when the child expresses gratitude without prompting.

Mechanics should be taught as a means of thinking—a way of helping students make their writing more “meaningful, well-constructed,” and “information bearing” (Rothstein, Rothstein, & Lauber, 2007, p. 72). Instruction and practice need to progress beyond the recall and identification levels to multiple and diverse uses within widened contexts.

Mechanics should be taught as prerequisites to learning actual writing practices, such as revising; instruction should move from teaching the prerequisites into teaching associated writing practices. For example, when teaching adverbs, students generally learn to identify the modifiers and circle them in preprinted text or place them correctly when diagramming a sentence. If any writing is included, teachers often ask students to write a paragraph or story using as many adverbs as possible. This is the OPPOSITE of good writing practice! Students need to know how to identify adverbs so they can ELIMINATE them from their writing: “Inspect adverbs carefully and always be suspicious. What are those little buggers up to? Are they trying to cover up for a lazy verb? Most adverbs are adjectives with ‘ly’ tacked on the end, and the majority of them should be shoveled into a truck and hauled off to the junkyard” (Provost, 1985, p. 76-77). Good writing uses strong verbs and limits adverbs. Students need to identify adverbs in order to revise their writing by strengthening verbs and eliminating adverbs. To teach students to do such revising, they must be able to identify adverbs, but they must also be able to consider the adverb’s role in the sentence, evaluate its necessity, and make decisions that result in improved writing. Students gain such skill by writing themselves AND engaging in multiple revisions of that writing. Just circling adverbs on a worksheet without the connection to revising writing PREVENTS the transfer of identifying adverbs to actually improving writing. Complete instruction connects elements of grammar with actual writing practices.

Up next: Connecting Revision Elements

Houston, G. (2004). How writing works: Imposing organizational structure within the writing process. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
National Writing Project & Nagin, C. (2003). Because writing matters: Improving student writing in our schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Provost, G. (1985). 100 ways to improve your writing. New York: New American Library.
Rothstein, A., Rothstein, E. & Lauber, G. (2007). Writing as learning. A content-based approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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