On Writing

This is from last spring. I was reflecting on how well my kids could write (free writes rules are on the posters page of this site) after very little practice that year. In fact, we didn’t focus on writing at all. I thought I would post that blog entry from last May again here as the year begins so that we can be aware that working directly on writing (the only thing I do is a ten minute free write per week, usually on a Friday) is basically a waste of time:
Since we did listening and reading 95% of the time in all my level one classes this year, one would expect that few of the kids would show any writing skills at all. After all, we only did four free writes totalling forty minutes of actual real writing all year, plus maybe twenty minutes total of dictation. That’s it.
But, in fact, the kids could write. Some wrote beautifully, communicating fairly effortlessy as per our new CO standards that say that communication is the desired goal and that grammatical accuracy is not the goal.
Why could the kids write acceptably after not working directly on the skill in the target language for more than an hour all year? I asked that question to one class today and a student said that he had seen a lot of writing on the whiteboard all year. Another said it was the reading. Another said it was “just easy after all the stories”.
It was their significant auditory and reading bases that turned into writing at a level below conscious analysis and control of the mechanics of language. They could write because they listened and read a lot, simply put. Input precedes output.
Had the kids spent their time trying to learn how to write from the beginning of the year, putting the cart before the horse, as it were, I think that they ironically would have emerged, now in the spring, worse, much worse at writing than they are.
Only the mathematical grammar jocks would have gotten it, the rest would have just learned to hate French – think about that – kids hating a language because they can’t write it….
Think of the joy they brought to learning  when they were in primary school. Aren’t their young lives difficult enough but that they now have to deal with being told they can’t learn a language, even though they may be fluent in English and/or Spanish already?
Isn’t that really a teacher lying to a child? Isn’t it lying? To tell, especially, a Latino kid that they can’t learn a third language when they already have magnificent fluency in two? What the hell?
What is scary about all this is that some teachers really do start the year off with writing, and the kids write more, and continue writing, as the teacher spends very large amounts of class time using English to explain its various forms (grammar analysis, worksheets, verb conjugations, etc.) with the result that the time that could have been using for CI reading and listening input is lost.



4 thoughts on “On Writing”

  1. That’s great Ben. I will add this to my collection of “evidence” for the value of TPRS. It makes me remember teaching with a book which was set up using PPP (Presentation, Practice and Production). I’m sure there are others out there who had this experience. In the presentation stage a grammar point was given, usually first in a short reading (not usually anything of interest to students) then a grammar focus. This was followed by the practice, which was usually a variety of fill in the blank, finish the sentence, recognize the error, type activities. Then there would be what was supposed to be a communicative activity (Production) meant to elicit the grammar in focus, usually first in speaking, then in writing. I can remember my and my colleagues frustration when few if any students would produce the target grammar or vocabulary (and then most would fail the institutionally produced, multiple choice, accuracy based final exams which were meant to test how well students had gotten the language focus–and how well we had taught it).
    Now with TPRS (or input teaching) I am amazed at what my 7th and 8th graders can do with the language on the timed writings. I don’t tell them what to produce–other than: just tell a story. There is no target grammer per se. (When I read them I am looking for indications of use of things I have introduced and circled, and intelligibility, but not for a grade–as feedback for future stories.) I am amazed when students use “advanced” grammar like “que” as a relative pronoun. I never taught that even as pop-up grammar. They heard it repeatedly, they read it in stories, they produced it spontaneously. It is a far cry from the PPP units about relative pronouns I have explicitly taught (in levels much higher than my “stage 1” Spanish students) that resulted in little if any production using relative pronouns.

  2. And when you say this, Doug, I feel less alone in this seemingly unceasing, homely, strange, and fractious schism with seemingly right thinking people who, without the knowledge and experience we have, and easily taken in by the data clown, yet give themselves permission to judge what we do. God bless their hearts.

  3. Totally what I need to hear right now. I just got two emails from the Spanish teachers in my school, and they are giving their first common writing assessment tomorrow. They asked me if I wanted to help with the rubric (I have another commitment.) But I am bound and determined NOT to have my seventh graders who are LOVING French start hating it because they can’t spell or they don’t use the apostrophe in the right place. I just won’t do it. I’ve already given a common writing assessment in 8th grade (required by my school) and my kids totally panicked (although many of them did will). That affective filter just skyrocketed. So I will give what I have to give (job preservation, CYA) but I won’t make it a big deal and I won’t do it to my 7th graders until I have to.

  4. Your testimony above echoes research that Krashen outlines in his book, The Power of Reading; namely, that writing is not a skill developed via direct instruction, but is instead developed indirectly via a large amount of language input (i.e. reading). It is exactly this type of acquisiton and automaticity that I am so hungry to see come from my students! I still do not understand why I did not see the light sooner on this most fundamental question of language ‘instruction’…actually, I think I did know that its ‘just’ a matter of immersing the students in the language, but I didnt know how to ever make that happen. God bless this TPRS Inner Circle – its truly worth so much.
    Ben: You personally: will you stick with that same amount of writing this year that you mention in the blog post above (very little) or do you plan on more frequent free writes?

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