Friday, November 5th, 2004
© Paul Kaiser
At first, have your students concentrate on just one or two aspects of composition at a time. Of all academic activities, writing demands the most rigorous integration of diverse skills (handwriting, spelling, punctuation, word retrieval, syntax, rhetoric, etc.). For your learning disabled students, such tasks as forming letters, recalling spelling sequences or applying punctuation rules are often taxing and unforgiving. Writing becomes paralyzingly difficult for your students when you require them to do all these tasks simultaneously. Instead, you should offer your students props for some aspects of writing while they concentrate on others. It’ s perfectly acceptable for a severely dyslexic student to begin a composition by dictating and then to edit his or her work on the computer.
Don’t conceive of writing skills as if they’re in a rigid hierarchy. That’s a mistake often made in the past. Students don’t need to know how to spell or to write in cursive in order to begin making extraordinary progress in thinking and composition (for example, by studying and practicing storytelling). Don’t kill writing for your students by restricting them to work on mechanical skills alone.
Join your students in writing whenever possible. Do the same assignments, but don’t condescend if the subject is a good one, it should engage your serious attention as much as it does theirs. Allow your students to watch you scratch your head, cross out words, write in the margins, draw arrows. Let them watch you curse, ponder, and beam.
Acknowledge that writing can be gut-wrenching work. Don’t pretend it’s always easy and fun. Tell stories about the struggles even the greatest writers faced in writing. Explain that writing is revision, and that for revision we need to question our work ourselves and then to allow others to do the same. Show facsimile copies of famous writers’ manuscripts, with all the crossings-out and rewordings covering the page.
Use small group conferences to correct and discuss student work. Here, each student should be given a chance to become the author while his classmates (and you) become critics or editors. Explain exactly what these roles entail, giving examples of famous authors discussing work with their editors or being analyzed by book critics. Emphasize that no comments should be personal and that all must be specific. Model how a constructive comment is made.
As students raise interesting formal issues in their conferences, introduce them to any relevant literary terminology that might help them clarify their ideas or focus their comments. This is the best place to teach such concepts as first versus third person narration, foreshadowing, climax, and so on.
Don’t always work on the whole of a student’s composition. Sometimes it’s best to go over just one paragraph or even one sentence very thoroughly. This gives you, your student, and his or her classmates the chance to explore the organization and feeling of text very specifically. Examine the word chosen and then compare it with other possibilities. Look at the order of a sentence and then explore other permutations.
Avoid marginal comments written in red ink. Even if you were to put great thought into every paper you corrected this way, the care you gave them would be wasted. Rarely do students read them, and even when they do, they’re usually unable to reconstruct their original intention and come away with only a fragmentary understanding of your points.
Break down the writing process into basic steps that the student can follow each time he or she writes. There are many such schemes you can find in almost any textbook. These generally include brainstorming, outlining, writing the first draft, revising the content and style, correcting mechanical errors, writing the final draft, and displaying or publishing the finished composition. Such sequences are usually very useful, but don’t force students to adhere to them slavishly: some may work differently.
Start by having your students write from encounters with real objects and real situations rather than with written ones. Words about real experiences well up from a much deeper source than do words about reading, especially for dyslexics. (From first grade book reports to college research papers, too much writing is merely paraphrasing – and that’s as often a consequence of the assignment as it is the sin of the student). Far better for students to start writing a story about a real mask that they’ve tried on and confronted in a mirror, for example, than to write a book report about such a thing. In general, borrow from the Academic Club methods of the Lab School: make your writing classes vivid experiences that draw not only on sight and sound, but also on role-play and smell and touch. Bring in a rose with thorns.
Use props to make narrative situations vivid and clear. Use a sand tray with miniatures, or a felt board with figures, or puppets in conversation. You’ll be amazed at the narrative imaginations of your students when they are freed from the written word for a while.
“Spider outlines” (or, more pretentiously, “cognitive maps”) often work better than traditional outlines because by dispensing with rigid sequence they encourage students to think expansively. Such alternate outline techniques are discussed in most writing textbooks, but again don’t enslave your students to one rigid format. You can also do real maps of stories (from bird’s eye view) or cartoon storyboards or computer flowcharts.
Repeat the basic structure of an assignment several, or even many, times. First, lead work on the assignment in a group, modeling the correct way of doing it. Then provide a partial framework on the worksheet page when your students begin on their own. Withdraw this scaffolding only when the structure has been built independently.
Tie all your instruction in grammar to specific needs in your students’ writings. In other words, don’t teach quotation marks until they’re writing dialogue. Give your grammar instruction in short, frequently repeated lessons.
Teach specific sentence-writing skills not by sentence analysis but by sentence patterns and combinations. While you may find it necessary to teach a basic knowledge of the parts of speech, your students aren’t likely to write better sentences once they know what a noun and verb are. You’ll find it more effective to have students practice combining simple sentences into compound or complex ones. For example, combine “It rained. She had an umbrella. ” One solution: “It rained, but she had an umbrella. ” Eventually, you can have your students construct sentences of a certain minimum length, providing them with certain useful words such as the subordinating conjunctions (because, while, unless, etc.).
Use a writing checklist as an individualized reminder for each student. Your students can consult such checklists after writing their first drafts (all drafts should be called ”first drafts” even if no final draft is to be required). The checklists should be limited to a small number of items, and these should include stylistic as well as mechanical errors. These might be in the form of prompting questions: “Did I put question marks after my questioning sentence ? Did 1 use a specific colorful word instead of said at least once ? ” Update such a checklist as soon as a student has mastered any point on it.
Try to make a fair number of your assignments expository. Expository writing demands precision in a way that imaginative writing doesn’t necessarily require, for the accuracy of its sentences can be checked against reality (with a creative piece, the student may reply to any objection to illogical or awkward passages, “But that’s how I see it in my head!”).
Insure that your expository assignments require real thinking rather than simple rehashing. The subject should raise questions that your student can think through for themselves. For instance: How is a fireplace like a television set? Or: Compare and contrast the sun and the moon.
Make your expository assignments short and frequent rather than long and protracted. Your students must be able to write an expository sentence before they can write a paragraph or an essay. You might be surprised by how hard it is for many students even in the higher grades to write the simplest sentences of comparison and contrast.
Try using writing to explore pressing personal issues your students may face. Use your discretion: some problems may be addressed straightforwardly, while others might be put in terms of a story (e.g.., You get stomach-aches every time you have to read as opposed to Once there was a boy who got sick every time he was asked to read.) Write a loaded topic sentence, impose silence on the small circle of students, and watch the explosions of thought and expression occur on their pages rather than out loud.
Have students share their work with each other, with other classes, with their families, and with the world at large. Make sure to give them an audience for their work. Always have them write to somebody. Persuasive writing assignments are surprisingly popular, especially in the form of letters to politicians and lobbyists, who always have someone to answer their mail.
If your students want you to read their work for them, then do so. Reading their own work may become a key part of their individual instruction in reading, but for readings to a group you can take their place, reading as impressively as possible.
Lavish attention on the presentation of your students’ work. Publications usually work better than bulletin boards, especially for longer compositions, because while people are apt to glance at a poster, they sometimes immerse themselves in the reading of a book. Make your publications absolutely beautiful: typeface, paper, illustration, binding – every detail is telling.
Have your students write on a computer, preferably a Macintosh or a NeXT. The display is far clearer and more impressive than their handwriting, revision is easy and clean, and publication is a much quicker process.
Don’t be discouraged by any lack of progress you may see. If your writing classes have engaged your students in deep thoughtful work, then even if at the end of the year they seem unable to write more than just a few words at a time, still those words may well stand for much more than they seem. Be patient, for it may be just the tip of that mental iceberg you see just then, the bulk of it to emerge sometime later on, if not for you then for some lucky colleague down the line. Your students will be thinking and writing, and someone somewhere will thank you.