What is Writing?

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20 thoughts on “What is Writing?”

  1. The conscious cannot handle, cannot multitask, what is so complex – the complexity argument.

    There is so much to acquire. Here is a partial list: words, sounds, word endings, word order, language intention, appropriate use, cohesion between sentences, comprehension and production. (This list comes from VanPatten and I’ve avoided linguistic terminology).

    Does anyone really think that each of these has to be taught and practiced in order to automatize?! You cannot “drill” it into the unconscious and even if you could, that would be horribly inefficient.

    All of that is going on in an acquisition-based classroom, so next time someone is asking about the “higher level thinking” going on in our classrooms, point them to all those elements that are being simultaneously grappled with.

  2. I believe we are speaking of two different things here which are both part of writing and presentational speech: acquired language and thinking.

    There is nothing wrong with consciously organizing one’s thinking so that one’s writing or prepared speech is cogent, accurate (says what you mean it to say), and interesting. However, in order to do that, one must have sufficient unconsciously producible language available–in other words, fluency. Am I being clear?

  3. Writing teachers will say that writing has to be taught. And I guess to a certain extent it does. Things like organization, giving evidence, using good transitions, using style, all of those things are woefully lacking in almost every high school student’s essays written in their native language! But I wonder how much the writing teachers really help to develop real writing, the kind you would consider buying off the shelf. Maybe for that we all just need to read more Austen?

  4. Agreed, James. Read, read, read, and writing fluency takes care of itself.

    Thinking still needs to happen. Might we say, “The purpose of writing is to organize our thoughts and communicate them?” or is it, “Organizing our thoughts and getting them out on paper/screen equals writing?” I have a virus. I believe it is affecting my thinking this morning. 🙂

    1. Yeah I know what you mean. There is time necessary to think out what one will say and write. Your second one looks better to me at first glance:

      “Organizing our thoughts and getting them out on paper/screen equals writing?”

      If the “getting out” is in L2, now we are talking.

      But does the thinking happen in L1 or L2? I want to write a common assessment for that which we can all use.


  5. “Writing” gets a bad rap, especially in school. To me, writing is simply allowing your story to flow onto a page. Then there is editing and revising. That is what “writing” is in most school settings. That is the thinking and organizing part. This is dangerous, because it makes kids (people) develop the idea “I can’t write,” which is absolutely not true. People tend to say this because they have been conditioned to believe that writing is about correctness and spelling and all of that stuff. So we grow up to hate writing, when actually the process of putting a story onto a page can be rich and rewarding process. Everyone has a story that only they can tell. The writing process has an unconscious component for sure, but in school we emphasize only the conscious parts. Shocking, I know.

    For my purposes in L2 class, I emphasize the unconscious part. I really only “use” writing as a way to see what has gotten in, i.e., just let a story flow out onto the page. For this purpose I don’t think there needs to be organizing of thoughts. But that is what I tend toward in L2 (beginning levels) in order to keep the flow of L2. Not saying this is the only way to write in L2, clearly not at all. There are lots of ways to use various components of the writing process. Most important is to be clear about why we do what we do.

    I guess I am just making a distinction between differing purposes of writing.

  6. In Denver Public Schools the principals were all told to make a certain year the year – I think it was in 2008 – of total focus on writing. All teachers had to show how they were focusing their kids attention on writing. Annick Chen dutifully did that at Lincoln High School. She spent a lot more time on writing in her Chinese classes. Her writing scores that year went down.

  7. I believe that it’s kind of like our spoken accent, our writing style that is. I think we write very much like those whom we read.

    That story about Annick is a sad (for those students) but good one Ben. Did she ever publish anything about that?

    Thanks for the links Eric. Looks very similar to the chapter in Power of Reading on the topic. So, why would we even think about teaching writing to kids in FL in first 6 years of study. They should spend that time on reading, or just writing in the way that Jen describes. They can work on writing skills in their L1.

  8. Absolutely…power of reading reading reading! I basically only do writing as a “feed the need” sort of thing. Sporadically. Makes them feel smart. No, it does nothing for acquisition, but sometimes helpful for a little confidence boost. Mostly I think kids like using my different colored pens.

    Does anyone know why ppl do not believe the research and anecdotal evidence that reading is the key? L1 and L2, 3, …??? Why does everyone think everything needs to be dissected and pulled apart? I am not a reading specialist. Maybe there are some studies to the contrary? Who knows about this???

      1. I think that Krashen is not that much of an outlier in the area of reading. From my own encounters with the topic, reading is generally seen as an extremely effective method. However, I think there are some factors that work against adopting a vigorous reading program as envisioned by Krashen and others:
        1. Inertia: It is difficult to move large numbers of people and institutions toward adopting new ways of doing things. Witness the fact that so many TCI people are loners in their respective settings. Everyone seems to be waiting for someone else to make the move, and most people are not secure enough in their own judgment and understanding to be willing to throw off the shackles of “received wisdom” and tradition.
        2. Ignorance: Most teachers are simply trying to get through the day and lack the time, passion, resources, and energy to research second language acquisition. Probably the last time it was seriously addressed was in a university methods course.
        3. Institutionalism (I’m using this as a broad term because it alliterates): Particularly with the current “reform movement” in education, it is all about “accountability” – but how can you hold someone accountable for reading for pleasure? So we create reading logs, reports, infamous color-coded sets of books, etc. and turn reading into another academic pursuit that separates the “smart kids” from the “dumb kids” and creates an atmosphere of competition in which there must be winners and losers because that’s how the system works. It’s all about extrinsic rewards (grades) and punishments (grades) because how could something like reading be worthwhile all by itself – it has to have a utilitarian purpose, you know. *sarcasm off*

        During our Sustained Silent Reading time, I have a second-year student who has finished “The Hobbit” and is working her way through “The Lord of the Rings” in German. I am thrilled, and she will reap immense benefits from this, but she gets no more academic credit than the students who are still reading a Blaine Ray reader from level 1. She will, however, exhibit much greater command of the language than others, and that will ultimately result in a higher grade. (She’s definitely “Advanced” and not just “Proficient” or “Basic” on my grading scale.) However, she is not doing this for the grade but because it is interesting to her. She is a perfect example of my maxim that if you concentrate on using the language, the grade will take care of itself.

      2. Krashen as an outlier. Really speaking, the people who are unable to grasp the full significance of what he is saying are the outliers, sad inhabitants of their own limited views on what language is and how the human brain acquires it in the real sense.

        Krashen told me a story about this once. I had asked a pointed question to him in a private conversation in a hallway in Denver some years ago. The question I asked him was how long did he think people will oppose what he is saying about language acquisition.

        His answer, here paraphrased, was:

        “Ben, imagine a mountain and, above it, a bird flying slowly overhead. In the bird’s beak is a scarf, which it drops onto the mountain. When the scarf makes contact with the mountain, a minute part of it is worn down. Then another bird flies over the mountain, also with a scarf in it’s beak, the scarf is dropped, and another infinitesimal part of the mountain is worn away. This repeats itself for centuries upon centuries. It will take that long before the mountain of ignorance is worn away.”

  9. Good question! I think it’s a matter of interpretation. People are looking at the same data, but come to different conclusions. As far as reading, the length of the study usually has to be 1+ year I think to see gains. And you MUST do delayed testing if you want to be sure to see reading reign supreme. Our ELA teacher puts way more emphasis on reading and last year her kids placed first on the state test.

  10. I’m also an English teacher. The best writers, without exception, are voracious readers and or Irish.

    I got the best output of all time with TPRS, the irony being that literally 85% of class time is reading or listening. If it takes 6 days for one story cycle, that’s 7.5 hrs of class. 40 of those minutes are writing (speedwrite and relaxed write). I read a VanPatten arfticle (I think– Eric will know this) where they said that feedback with writing is most effective when it’s meaning focused, and also in the upper levels. Students need a REALLY solid “feeling” base of language to write and revise.

    My colleague Leanda is vainly trying to bridge the gap between us two TPRSers and the uhhhh “communicative grammarians” by participating in their portfolio-based, C.E.F.R.-aligned biweekly PLC and has been urged to do writing feedback. Having given it the ol’ college try, she’s noted that

    a) specific, grammar-driven feedback is totally useless. At best, the kids will copy out a correction (which will not show up during speedwrites); more often they will just not understand what to do.

    b) the only useful feedback is things like “add detail” and “ok where is the boy from?” etc, i.e. meaning-based requests for more info.

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