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What Is Writing, Really?

Updated: Apr 13

student writing in the classroom

I remember several times during my time as a teacher hearing that I should write with my students or take time to write on my own. To be completely honest, my first reaction was---Um, no thank you. I don't need to do that, and I don't have time to do that.

My mind was focused on so many other things, and I just didn't realize the benefit and importance of being a writer while teaching others to write. I'm sorry to admit that I can't say I quickly changed my mind. On a few occasions, I did do a bit of writing, but it did not become a habit.

Years later, I realized I had missed out. Hindsight is 20-20 of course, but I do wish I had tried to keep up with writing while I was teaching. You see, when we don't write ourselves, we are far removed from the process. Because of this, we forget what writing truly is.

What I see now

When I first work with a school or district, I gather information and data on its writing instruction program. I survey teachers on their comfort level, experience and training in writing, observe writers during writing time, confer with student writers and speak with teachers about their planning process and utilized resources.

What I find most often are writing activities or practices that all focus on one part of writing. For example, students in second through fifth grade may be asked to do things such as complete a prompt, write a sentence or paragraph in response to a reading they have completed, or write an essay using a detailed graphic organizer. In a kindergarten or first grade class, students may work with the class and teacher to complete a sentence using a sentence starter, fill in words on a worksheet or copy a teacher's sentence. When writers are being provided feedback, I most often hear thoughts related to spelling and grammar, or specific suggestions for adding or changing something in the writer's piece.

You may be wondering how these things are only one part of writing. They seem to be completely acceptable activities for young writers. I completely understand because I have been in your shoes. I have also used practices such as these in my classroom, and not much more. It was only when I had the opportunity to look at writing in a different way that I understood what was missing.

"Writing is defined as: the activity or skill of marking coherent words on paper and composing text."

But there's more!

According to the Oxford English dictionary, writing is defined as; the activity or skill of marking coherent words on paper and composing text. I don't know about you, but that definition leaves me wanting to know how they define composing. Well, composing is defined as; to write or create! (I find it interesting that they include 'composing' in the definition of writing and the word 'write' in the definition of composing) The word create, however is very important to note! Even more helpful are the additional definitions listed as; to form by putting together and to produce by composition.

Yes, writing is about putting words or symbols on paper in order to communicate. We need to be sure students are able to do so, using the standard of language for which strive to meet. Luckily, schools seem to have that covered with the practices I commonly find being used.

Although I do believe there is a time and place (although sometimes perhaps not very much time!) for most of the writing activities mentioned previously, if these activities are the only type of writing students are taking part in, then the focus is only on the "words on paper" or transcription part of writing.

What about the composing piece of writing? When and how are student writers able to "write or CREATE", to "form by putting together" or to "produce by composition". When and how do they experience all of the integral pieces of what writers really do? Things like; understand how to come up with an idea, consider how they will put that idea into words on the page, try many versions of a piece of writing, ponder, enhance, take risks, be vulnerable, and bring something of their own into fruition?

With each activity listed above, students are not taking part in all aspects of the writing process (generating ideas, planning, drafting, revising and editing). When students are writing to a prompt, there are not able to practice generating an idea of their own. When they are provided a graphic organizer to plan their piece, they are not able to discover the way of planning that works for them, nor do they have the ability to make mistakes with their planning and organization and therefore learn from them! The same ideas hold true for the examples given for kindergarten and first grade writing. First, when students are all working together, there is very limited ability to generate an idea or think through the process of writing. It is then clear that the focus in on the product, or transcription, itself, and not the idea of composing.

When it comes to providing feedback to writers, the topics are also focused on the 'words on paper' aspect of writing when they discuss spelling and grammar, and not the writer's thoughts on how they organized their work, why they chose certain details or how they planned their piece.  

How do we teach both?

In order to compose a piece of writing that is more than a note, or an answer to a simple question, there are numerous steps a writer must implement. If we want our young writers to become independent, skilled writers, we must have them do more than transcribe. We must teach them, as well as provide opportunities for, each step in the writing process, and how to do so on their own. Carl Anderson and Matt Glover state in Writing Instruction Considerations, "While we think that these kind of “writing to learn” activities are useful tools to support learning in other subjects, they don’t usually include instruction on how to write better.

We need to know about students' abilities to generate ideas, make a plan, revise and so on, in addition to having awareness on their level of skill in conventions and sentence structure.

If we want our writers to write well, and be able to do so on their own, we need to find and provide ways for them to learn all of the unique things about themselves as writers. We need to see what THEY can do and show them how to hone all skills for writing.

Writing is about more than the words on the page. When we incorporate the creating and composing piece of writing into our writing instruction, our students will come to know how beautiful and meaningful writing can be. They will have the chance to dig deep and find their own ideas and compose something that only they can write, and they will be proud and ready to do it all over again!

As you plan your next writing lesson, unit or activity, find a way to include at least one more aspect of writing. Perhaps instead of providing the topic or prompt, students will choose their own idea or topic. Or, after you practice doing so yourself with your own writing, you can teach them about different ways to find ideas for writing. If you most often have students respond to reading for their writing time, perhaps one time next week they can write independently in a genre of their choice.

I don't promise there won't be struggles, but I do promise that your students will surprise you! I also know that you if remember what writing truly is, your young writers will be all the better for it!

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