Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Writing Well Matters

In his outstanding book, Writing Well, Mark Tredinnick (2008) offers the following insight:
“In these times, more than ever, we need a little depth and care, generosity and poise. We need a little perspective and honesty and restraint. And politically, a little low-voltage rage. We need, in other words, to rediscover the syntax of civility and the diction of democracy” (p. 230).

The “diction of democracy,” claims Tredinnick, is found in “the struggle to improve our sentences.” By equipping and empowering students as writers, we provide them with a critical tool for participation in democratic society. Being able to communicate well empowers expression. 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.

The benefits of learning to write also equip students for in-school success. Writing is a means of learning. Experts refer to this aspect of writing as “knowledge transforming”—“constructing ideas and images through writing” (Fearn & Farnan, 2001). 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 also 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, capacities “critical for wide variety of cognitive tasks” and “considered one of the most important factors in learning” (Jaeggi, Buschkuehl, Jonides, & Perrig, 2008). Teaching students to write may not only give them a means of constructing understanding, but may actually equip them for better or more efficient learning in multiple areas. Writing engages “more areas of the brain and involves them more intensely than any activity thus far investigated” (Houston, 2004, p. 8).

Despite these immediate and long-range benefits, our schools fail to produce writers. A recent study found that 70% of students in Grades 4–12 are considered low-achieving writers. Seventy percent! Researchers describe our current writing instruction as being stuck in the eighteenth century with little real relationship to actual writing. In other words, we are teaching something other than writing while we claim to be teaching writing. We must reclaim writing instruction and give it the time and energy it needs.

How should it be taught? The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement offers insights in its report “Writing Next,” and the Writer’s Stylus professional development and instructional program offers an “optimal mix” of effective methods.

If 70% of our students lack the “diction of democracy,” their influence could be limited. Let’s change the world through "
depth and care, generosity and poise," "perspective and honesty and restraint," and "a little low-voltage rage." Let’s develop writers!

Dingfelder, S. (2006). Writing exercises all aspects of working memory. Monitor on Psychology 37 (7). 19.

Fearn, L. & Farnan, N. (2001). Interactions: Teaching writing and the language arts. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Houston, G. (2004). How writing works: Imposing organizational structure within the writing process. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

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, March 18, 2008.

Tredinnick, M. (2008). Writing well: The essential guide. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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