Transcript from an interview with
Dr. Steve Graham
Why Focus on Writing?
I've spent a lot of my life, almost since 1983, devoted to teaching writing and learning how to do a better job. Why is that the case? Some of the reasons are idiosyncratic to me and some relate to very personal things. So one reason is initially I was most interested in teaching reading. And I realized that there are hundreds and hundreds of people who look at reading and investigate it. And when I looked at writing, I realize that there's a much smaller group. And at the same time, I was moving from being a reader to being a writer.
And I was fascinated because I did not consider myself to be a good writer as to this transition that I was making from actually feeling comfortable in my own skin as a writer to not feeling so comfortable with that. And it increased my interest in writing. And I wanted to know more about how professional writers wrote. And I started reading a lot about that. But at the same time, I've always been interested in kids that struggled. In part, I think this is an idiosyncratic thing. I was a kid who had great difficulty in school in my first four years in school. I had a great teacher in fifth grade who turned that around.
The other thing that's driven this is I had a daughter who really struggled mightily with writing in first and second grade. She had a great deal of difficulty with handwriting. And forget spelling. It was almost impossible for her. She was able to turn that around by using word processing and a fluky thing with Xena Warrior Princess that helped her become a better speller.
So my daughter was making a transition from sixth grade, which she was in a school in the Washington, D.C. area. It was a Quaker school, wonderful school. But they didn't do any formal testing. She moved to another school that was college bound in a sense that it really was high stakes. And I was sweating spelling, because she had such difficulty with it. The summer before she was to make the transition, she was playing an online game called Xena the Warrior Princess.
And I think most of the people who must have played the game were probably in their upper teens, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two. And here's this twelve-year old typing in her responses. And she can't spell correctly. And she was completely ignored. And she loved this game so much that in basically a two-month period of time, she probably raised her spelling level three grades.
Now, my wife spent forever back there spelling words and helping her with them. So it's an idiosyncratic kind of thing. I wish I could recommend Xena the Warrior Princess to everyone. But it also illustrates how important motivation can be in terms of learning something that's difficult for you. For her, it made all the difference in the world when she went to middle school. Because she'll never be a great speller, but she spells well enough that it's not a major problem.
The Consequences of Not Learning to Write Well
I'm going to start by talking about one of the consequences of not learning to write well. One of the consequences is that you're at-risk for school failure. As kids move up the educational ladder, they're required to write more and more. And if you don't write well or you dislike writing, then if you're in a classroom in middle school or high school where the primary way in which you're graded is by things that you write, either on tests or essays or other kinds of things or reports that you do, you're at risk.
And that's going to have an effect when you move into college. Because now as you go to college, most colleges are requiring that you do the writing portion on the SAT and that's going to influence whether you get into college or the college that you do get into, and clearly as you move into college, unless you're in a very unusual major, you're going to be asked to write as well. Now, that's within the educational realm. There are also consequences in terms of occupations. So one of the things that when you take a look at white collar jobs in the U.S., what employees are telling us, whether it's government or business, is that writing is a gateway into the world of work, getting salaried jobs. And it's also a gateway in terms of advancement. And people who do not write well are at risk for not getting those kinds of jobs and are also at risk for not advancing in their professions.
The other thing is that writing also serves a very important social function now. If you think about all the kind of talk that goes on between people on the Internet, that involves writing. And for certain kinds of things, you may not be as persuasive. You may not be able to communicate as well if you're not good at this particular skill. Now, what are the positive consequences of writing well. In some ways, they are a mirror of the ones that we talked about. They're more likely to do well in school.
Writing can be a useful tool in terms of thinking about what you've learned. So it's going to be facilitated there. If you're a good writer, it's going to ease that path through college a whole lot more. Obviously, for the kind of social things we use writing for, it's going to make that more facilitated. In addition to that, for people who use it in this way, there's considerable evidence that writing has a positive effect both physiologically and psychologically on people when you write about something that's happened to you.
As an example of this, there was a study a couple of years back that had kids in Israel who were in settlements write about their daily lives. And these kids were under a lot of stress. Because there were rocket attacks and other kinds of things going on in their life that you and I don't experience. And what they found is it reduced the level of stress for these kids, writing about those events and sharing them as well. So there are a lot of positive benefits for writing, not just educational, occupational, social, but also in terms of your well-being, your mental well-being.
Teacher Preparation for Writing Instruction
I'm very concerned about preparation for middle and high school teachers to teach writing. I would also probably expand that to elementary teachers as well. I want to give a caveat to this: there are some great teachers out there who do wonderful things. I typically ask this question of people: How many of you can write well? And not everybody raises their hand. But for those who do, I'm going to ask a follow-up question. Do you attribute that to one teacher or a series of teachers? And usually about 60-70% can only cite one teacher that taught them well. So one issue is we probably don't have as many teachers teaching this skill as well as we'd like. There are too many people that relied on one teacher. We also have some evidence from the survey that we did that would suggest that teachers are not well enough prepared to do this.
We found that almost three out of five, or seven out of ten if you want to go that way, teachers indicate they don't get proper preparation in the teacher preparation programs to teach writing effectively. They say it's inadequate. We still find close to fifty percent of these teachers saying when they take everything else into consideration, their in-service preparation, the work that they've done on their own, they still feel that they have minimal preparation to do this.
There are too many teachers presently who indicate that they're not well prepared to teach writing at the middle and high school level. We need to change that. So that when I ask that question how many people helped you become a good writer, you don't have 60 or 70 percent saying one. We want them to be saying six, ten, and twelve. So that it's many more teachers and it's really basically the majority of teachers across their educational career.
Content-Area Teachers and Writing Instruction
My opinion is that schools should take the school wide approach to teaching writing. And this is particularly important at middle and high school levels. Because a lot of teachers come into middle and high school and they're not really well prepared to teach writing. We just completed a national survey of secondary teachers-a very good response rate, randomly sampled from across the U.S., a group of language arts teachers, a group of social studies teachers, and a group of science teachers-and we asked them about their preparation. Seventy-two percent indicated that at the college level, they had little to no preparation in terms of teaching writing. And 42 percent indicated the same thing when we asked about everything that they'd done since then, their personal learning, in service, etc. And that was buoyed somewhat by language teachers, because as you might expect, they felt better prepared to teach this skill. So I think it's important in that sense when you consider that we have a large number of teachers who don't feel so comfortable with this skill that we approach it as a group in terms of bringing all of our expertise to bear on this.
In terms of the teaching part of this, the language arts teachers really should have responsibility for the primary writing program. But what we'd like to see is that science teachers, social studies teachers and other teachers, use writing as a tool for learning and thinking about what they're learning. There's reasonable evidence that this has a positive effect in terms of content learning. And that content learning may even be more strongly affected in the sciences than in things like social studies and the language arts.
So we want to be sure to take advantage of how writing can help people think about what they're learning. One of the things that we have to think about is that for kids into middle school and more so into high school, writing becomes more differentiated by discipline. So if you take something like persuasive writing, writing a persuasive text for social studies, the kinds of things that you draw upon as evidenced to make your claim versus writing a scientific persuasive paper can be very different.
And so one of the things that kids need to have coming into those classes, they need to have a general sense of what persuasion is, the basic parameters that you're going to establish, how you make your claim to support that, how you argue on the other side. But beyond that, they need to learn really the canon of that discipline, what counts as evidence, what's important in terms of making your case. So that means that social studies teachers, science teachers, et cetera, not only need to be involved in terms of using writing as a tool for learning, but helping people learn to use the canon of writing for their discipline.
And so there is this kind of demarcation that exists that just being in English class to learning how to write a persuasive essay for English isn't going to be enough to be successful in other classes. And as we move into college, that becomes even more the case as we move into your major. If you're a history major, you know you've got to go out and look at those primary sources. You can't be relying on secondary sources anymore. The way that you present that information, how you handle it, is going to differ considerably than if you're a computer science major and you're writing a paper there.
Improving Writing Instruction
One of the things that teachers can do to become better writing teachers is that they want to look to take course ... at least one or more courses in terms of how to teach writing. Another thing that I think is really important and a great resource in this country is a National Writing Project. In fact, in some ways, the National Writing Project is probably in terms of in-service preparation the largest organization that exists in the U.S. They started out in the Bay Area in San Francisco. And it was preparation that centered around teachers teaching each other and they've expanded nationwide.
And what I love about the National Writing Project teachers, they have a "can do" attitude. They believe that they can be successful. They work on preparation. They're constantly expanding the scope of what they can do. So if I had to say one thing right now, it's get involved with the National Writing Project. I think, you know, the other kinds of things are pretty obvious. There are a lot of good books out there that take the research that we have and there's increasingly large amount of research on how to teach writing effectively and they translate that into practice.
And obviously, if you're serious about this, the more knowledge you gain, the more you try things out, the more you talk and interact with others who are of the same feather or ilk that you are, the more likely you'll become better at doing this.
I think it's also important to be a writer yourself. It's a lot more convincing to kids if you share what you write if you're asking them to write as well.
Tailoring Writing Instruction
One of the issues is how to individualize instructions for writing. There's a range of skills and approaches that kids bring to learning in the classroom. And my response always to that is you first need a structure for teaching writing that you're operating out of, because it's too difficult to have an individualized program for everyone. It's just overload for a teacher to do that. But once you're operating within a structure, it allows you to loosen up and change things for individual kids. So let me give you a practical example of that.
If we were looking to teach a strategy for peer revising as an example, we may have some kids who pick it up quicker than other kids, and some kids who may need more assistance to make that work for them. So the way that we always start is that we explain or describe the strategy so kids have a sense of what it is. We work with the kids to establish the rationale for the various processes or steps in the strategy. And then more importantly, we model how to do it.
Now, it may be that we have a lot of kids who get it right away when we model it the first time. But we may have a couple of kids in our class that we know that will need some additional assistance. So we'll have another session where we model for those kids in a small group situation. We also will probably go from that modeling to kids working together to apply the skill before they start to apply it independently. And that way we're able to give individualization to each kid depending upon the needs that they have for support.
We're also going to be sure that we go around the room and watch what people are doing, see if they need something at that point in time, and provide positive feedback when and where they need it as much as possible. But if we have a structure that we're working from, we're able to provide that individualized assistance within that structure.
One of the things that I think is really important to realize is that the type of feedback that you give to a writer-whether it's a kid with a learning disability or a kid who doesn't have it-can have a huge impact. So I'm going to use a personal story to illustrate this.
When I was in college as a sophomore, I took my second course in English composition. It was a particularly tough semester because I got a D in that course. When I got that paper back, it looked like it had red, red ink. I burned that paper and the French book for the French class that I also got a poor grade in, in my backyard. And for years afterwards, I really felt that I could not write well. One experience had a pretty lasting effect for me.
So it's very important that we think about the type of feedback that we share with kids. There's considerable evidence that pointing out the positive features of what kids do has a positive effect on their writing. There's not very strong evidence to suggest in the other direction that pointing out the negative things has a positive effect. But I'm not saying that we need to ignore things that need improvement. But we're much better off if we pick one or two things at a time that we focus attention in on. And that we just don't do it once and let it go away. But that we return to it until a kid gets it right.
We also want to be very careful about saying negative things about the content of what kids write. Content is very personal to each of us. So if we're unsure about something kids write, we can say, "I don't know exactly what you meant there, can you tell me" versus saying "I don't like this part". We can do this in a much more positive way that then gets the kid to be a participant in the discussion. I think that's particularly important.
Teaching Struggling Writers
In terms of thinking about many of the techniques that are out there now, the majority of techniques for teaching writing actually have been applied -in terms of research and evidence-based practice- with kids who don't have writing problems. So one of the questions that comes up repeatedly is do procedures that have been effective for struggling writers have some merit for use with kids who are average writers or above average writers? It in part depends upon what you're teaching. So let me use one example here.
There's considerable research that suggests that exclusively teaching kids, strategies for planning, revising, monitoring and evaluating the effects, can have a very positive effect on the writing of struggling writers. It's a nice thing to say that there's also research to suggest that that's the case for kids who are not struggling with writers. You have to ask why is that the case? But if you think about those processes, they take place inside somebody's head. They're not visible to young writers as they're developing.
And what that strategy instruction does is it takes them out of their head and makes them visible for teacher modeling and teacher support for kids, giving them the kind of assistance they need to be able to apply the same kinds of strategies. And since you can't see it, it has a beneficial effect for not only struggling writers but average writers as well. Now, the effect is stronger for struggling writers. But it's also very positive for average writers as well. Now, you can take a different approach to this and say something like handwriting or spelling instruction for adolescents.
So we still have some kids who struggle with writing who have difficulty with this skill as they reach adolescence. Now, one way of dealing with that for some kids is to move to word processing or some other compensatory type need. But there is some evidence that providing some additional instruction on those skills for struggling writers is useful at that point, which probably makes no sense to do with most kids who don't have problems in those areas. They've done just fine. They've gotten to a level where they're quick enough and automatic enough in their handwriting and they spell enough words correctly that it doesn't interfere with other writing processes at that point.
If you're going to teach a strategy or a process, to a student who struggles, there are a couple of things that are very important. One of the things that we try to do is we boil that down into either heuristic or series of steps for carrying out the strategy. We try to put that in kid-friendly language, something they'll understand. If we need to teach something in advance in terms of that vocabulary, we'll do that up front, because we don't want confusion between the vocabulary and the strategy steps.
So that's an important aspect of this as well. The second thing is we need to be certain that we help kids be clear about why they're doing each of the steps in the strategy, what the rationale behind each step is. And we want to be sure that, again, we do that in simple language that kids understand. And often what we'll do is we'll try to elicit from the kid first the reason that this might be helpful. And often, they'll get it right on the nose to begin with. That makes that whole process-we don't have to worry so much about language-a lot easier.
When we model, it's a whole different ball of wax. Because what we want to do when we model, we want to make a process that's going on inside our head as we do this visible to kids. So if we have a strategy, we'll have that where it's visible for the kid to see in simple language. And we'll use those words as we show. But we also do a lot of other talk and it's purposeful. So we'll say things to ourselves, okay. What is it I have to do? Well, you know one of the things I really want to do today is I want to write a story that my friend will enjoy.
So we set a purpose. So we use talk that sets goals. We also use talk as we're working through this that helps show how we cope with difficulties. So if we're trying to generate ideas for what we're going to say up front and we're teaching kids how to brainstorm with the idea that you don't start evaluating right away, well, we'll slip up. And we'll say, no, we weren't supposed to do that. I'm supposed to wait. So I'll wait. Or we get to a part that's pretty difficult as we're modeling and the kid's helping us do this, and we'll say something positive to ourselves to keep going.
Now, we don't overdo it. But we make sure that we make the "self talk" that goes on inside the head visible to kids. So once we've done the strategy, the kids have helped us generate the ideas and helped us craft the story that we're writing, then what we do is we hold a conversation with the kids about what it was that we said to ourselves that helped us with this writing. And the kids with LD, then what we do is we work on one thing that you will say to yourself as you're writing that will help you.
Self-Regulated Strategy Development
About 25 years ago, Karen Harris, my wife, developed an approach to teaching strategies that over time evolved into what we refer to now as self-regulated strategy development. And the basic idea behind this is that we wanted to teach kids strategies that could be used to accomplish particular academic tasks for a series of steps or heuristic that would help direct your behavior, organize your behavior, so that you could be successful with a task, whether it was writing, reading, or mathematics.
And we also realized that that wasn't enough. So the kid might know how to carry out a series of steps for a strategy, but may not apply it. So we also thought that it was very important that we were very clear about when and where to use the strategies that we're learning. And that occurs in part through discussion. And it also occurs in part through having kids go out and set goals for ways to apply some aspect of what they're learning, try it out, come back and talk about its successes, how they need to modify it as well. So two parts of this are, strategy and what we call "strategy knowledge" about when, where, and how to use it. And that would include how to modify.
Another thing that we thought was particularly important, because initially we were doing this with kids with learning problems. And kids with learning problems also often have difficulty with self-regulation. We wanted them to build into that process teaching kids basic self-regulation processes, things that you use every day, setting goals, monitoring your performance, reinforcing yourself, those kinds of things. And so what we did is we pulled all of that together. And the basic idea is that we would be able to teach strategies. We will teach the knowledge needed to use those strategies. We would teach the knowledge about when, where and how to use those strategies. And we'd teach kids how to regulate the use of those strategies.
So, for example, in regulation, if I'm teaching kids a story-writing strategy and it involved learning how to generate ideas in advance of writing for each of those apart, then they would set a goal to not only use the strategy, but to use all of the basic parts in their story. Once they're done, they would go back through and evaluate and see if they met those goals. They would graph their performance. And they would look for places where they reinforced effort and reinforcement over time.
So in a sense, they provide you with a way of regulating the strategy itself. Because goal setting basically if you buy into the goal, then what happens is then you're going to bring your cognitive resources to bear. You're more likely to persist over time. And by getting feedback on that, you see if it works and that you're more likely to use it.
So that's the basic idea behind self-regulating strategy development. And Karen also put that within the context of a teaching routine developed by Don Mikenbaum. I also just realized we also incorporated self-instruction, self-talking. So the kids would learn to say things to themselves to help regulate their behavior. And the instructional routine developed by Don Mikenbaum, who studied how kids talk to each other, initially involved presenting the strategy, knowing what its strengths and weaknesses were, and then modeling how to use it, supporting students so they could do it independently.
We've extended that out recently by then having kids set goals for how they would use some aspect of what we were teaching them in other situations. So if you're learning how to brainstorm, then you can use brainstorming in a lot of different places. And we want kids to generalize what they learn broadly. And one way of doing that is having set goals to do it, talk about how they're going to modify it for that situation. How you would go out and do it like a homework assignment. And then coming back and talking about whether it was successful or not.
And sometimes it's not successful. Sometimes it takes making some additional revisions on it. So that's the basis of self-regulating strategy development. Strategies, amount of knowledge, self-regulation. And in addition, we teach that knowledge that you need and ways of promoting maintenance and generalization.
One of the strategies that we developed and used and we've done this with Charles McArthur — I want to be sure to mention his name — is a peer revising strategy. And basically, what it does is it provides a structure for kids to get feedback to each other on their writing. So I'm going to share a little story with you about its development. When we first tried this out, we came through with the idea if we could get kids to say something about each other's writing, it might be useful, both in terms of their own writing and the other students' writing.
We sat down with two fifth-grade kids. We had each of the kids write a story. And then I said to one of the kids, I'd like for you to read your story to the other kids. And when he was done reading the story, I asked the other young lady to give him some feedback on it that might be useful. The first thing out of her mouth was "it stinks". And so as a result, the poor kid who wrote the story went storming out of the classroom and I went home for the evening. And so we went back the next day and I asked the young lady if she would share her story with the young man.
And beforehand, I got together with him and I said what I want you to do is when I know it was tough yesterday. So it was my fault that we approached it the wrong way. I said I want you to tell her three things that you like about the story. And then I'm going to ask you to take it away and I want you to look for two things. I want you to look very closely where there could be additional information that would help you understand the story. Because this young lady was very sparse in what she said. And I want you to also look for anyplace where there's some confusion.
Because there were a lot of confusions in what she wrote. And so if there's confusion, put a question mark. If there was more detail, you put a caret. And then he'd come back and say, you know, can you tell me more about what you meant there? I didn't quite understand this. And it worked great. And so we used that as the basic structure for this kid's advising strategy. Each kid writes. They share their composition with the other kids. The rule is you always say something positive about your partner's composition.
And then you look at that composition with certain things in mind. And what I like about it is it's structural-you can gear upward or downward the number of criteria that you take a look at. And so you could have two criteria and one criterion. You could go up to four. A criterion could drop out once you've gotten that one kind of satisfied. And what we found with the kids is that it not only improved the peer adviser, but we started seeing things that we were looking for pop up in the first drafts of each of the kids.
So they started internalizing those criteria as their own. So that's a strategy that can be used all the way from first grade up to twelfth grade. So it's very flexible. Use one strategy only, but with changing criteria for teaching it.
Collaborative writing is a great tool for helping kids both who struggle and kids in general learn to write better. And the collaboration can involve collaboration between teacher and students. Or it can involve collaboration between students and students. So, on the teacher and student end, that often involves a teacher initially modeling or taking some responsibility, kind of an interactive writing, for showing kids how to do it. But the important part here is that kids don't end up being strapped in their seats doing nothing.
So that as the teacher kind of structures the activity, kids are getting into it by generating ideas, helping to organize the ideas, coming up with the ideas for writing. And then in terms of students working together, that can be a structured situation. There are kids that have a very specific series of things that they do with each other. And sometimes that can be with one kid who's a stronger writer helping a kid who's a weaker writer. And sometimes it can be reciprocal with both kids giving feedback to help each other.
You can also use these two things in tandem. Teachers can use the model when you're doing an interactive writing session with kids. And then kids work together to apply the same things that teachers are doing. But the nice thing is that it makes any activity more fun if you do it with somebody else. So it's more motivating. Second, you get extra help, either from the teacher or the other student in terms of doing it. And third, one of the things that happens when you are forced to work with another person ... maybe forced is not the right word. But when you work with another person, you see how they carry out that task. It makes it more likely that you might incorporate something that they were doing in your own approach to writing. So all of those are advantages to doing these kind of interactive or cooperative writing approaches, whether it's teacher to student to student to student.
The question about whether or not teachers teach grammar has bedeviled writing instructors for the last 100 years. We probably know as much about this particular aspect of writing as we know about anything else. If you were to ask me the traditional approach to teaching grammar, should we do it, the answer's no. So what does that traditional approach look like? Typically, it involves going from definition to example. So we define what an adjective is. And then we ask kids to generate examples. Then what happens is we have them practice that skill in de-contextualized situations, filling in the blank, picking the correct answer. And there's never any transfer over to your writing.
So when you compare that approach to almost any other approach, the other approach is more effective. Now, I think there's two ways that we can deal with this. We don't want to ignore grammar all together. One of the ways to teach grammar is to use a procedure like sentence-combining. We have considerable evidence that when you teach kids to take small kernel sentences, model how to combine those into more complex sentences, work with them to help them do that until they get a handle on the skill, and then have them do it with others and then do it in their own writing, that has a positive both on the quality of their writing and the complexity syntactically of what they write. So it improves grammar. Not only grammar, but quality.
The other approach, and this is a little bit more risky because we don't have a lot of research on this, is to turn grammar instruction, that traditional instruction, on its head. So think about what I said before definition to example. Instead, we do from example and use that to establish the definition. So we might start off by getting all the describing words that we can for a dog that we have or something in the classroom. And we write all of those on the board. And when we have kids generate other describing words. And we say, you know what?, another word for describing words is adjective.
So we know that kids know what the describing words are first. Then we use those to define it.
So I want to give an example of another way that we can approach teaching grammar other than sentence combining is in a sense turning traditional grammar instruction on its head. Then when I said that the way traditional grammar instruction operates is that we go from definition to example to de-contextualized practice. So we can swap or switch that over by starting with having kids generate examples to generate or develop a definition. So, for example, if I want to work on adjectives which basically are describing words, they describe persons, places and things.
So what I might do is to help me generate as many describing words about a person, place or a thing. And that's pretty easy for kids to do. Then we'll move from that once we're certain that they are able to generate those to getting a definition. But that's only a small percentage of what we need to do, because that requires no application. So what I then might do as a teacher is give a small kernel sentence: mailman, dog, bite.
And what I might say is, you know, we really don't know a lot about this dog. And we know nothing about the mailman. So let's generate some describing words together that will describe this dog. And so then what I might do is say, okay. We've got all these words. I'm going to rewrite this sentence. The vicious huge dog bit the cowering running mailman. And so what we do is we give more description to that. And then we do more of those kinds of things together. Then kids do those together. And then they go back to their writing. And they look for places where they can add more description to it. And we encourage that.
So we've gone from example to definition. We've shown how to apply. We've given assistance in applied. And then we ask kids to use it in text. So that I think is much more effective in the traditional approach. Although, I've got to be straight forward. We don't have a lot of evidence on that yet. It's a small corpus of work that supports it. But I hope that grows over time.
A question I sometimes get asked is what about sentence combining? I have a very famous colleague, Lynn Pughes, that tells me that she learned to write through sentence combining and other traditional grammar approaches. And I have no doubt that that worked for her. It's important to realize that there is considerable variation in what is effective for other people. She's a very analytical person. So I can see that working very well for her.
But what we see when we look at kids in general using things like sentence diagram is that they often can learn how to diagram a sentence, but it doesn't carry over to their writing. So they have this kind of skill that operates in outer space. But if it doesn't make it to your writing, it's not an effective procedure. Another question that sometimes comes up is what about punctuation and capitalization? Well, one of the places that we can take care of that is we can take care of that when we teach sentence combining.
Because it requires that you model how to use punctuation correctly. And so you're working on combining two sentences together into a compound one, you're going to write that on the board with the comma there. And kids are going to help you do it. It puts that instruction within context. That's not to say that it's not sometimes effective to take it out of context. And that maybe even more the case for kids who struggle with writing. But we always want to model. We always want to give scaffolded assistance. And we want to make sure the kids apply it back in the text.
The Demise of Handwriting
One of the things that I'm asked about frequently in the last three to five years is writing and whether there is a demise in handwriting. And this takes various forms: whether or not we should teach cursive writing; whether we should teach handwriting at all. I've probably done close to 100 interviews with reporters over that time. And ninety of them have asked almost exclusively about handwriting. And I always say to them that's the tail of the dog. I'm glad to answer questions about the tail of the dog. But the tail shouldn't wag the whole dog.
Handwriting's important. But we also need to focus in on the full dog. Two out of every three kids in this country, according to the national assessment of educational progress, don't write well enough to keep up with grade level demands. So we need to have a much more complex picture of what we're focusing in on. But I don't want to ignore the school about handwriting. It is important in the sense that we need to become fluent and automatic with either manuscript, cursive, some combination of it, at college or typing.
So you don't really have to think about it. You can do it without conscious thought. Or if you run into something, it's going to take very little of your effort on it. I don't really care if it's manuscript cursive. You're mixing those two things together, italics or typing. But if you're going to develop as a writer, you need to get to the point where you're fluent with this particular skill. Otherwise, it takes up resources that can be used with planning, monitoring and evaluating, revising. Or it may even interfere with other writing processes like content generation.
Impact of Text Messaging on Writing
There's been a lot of question about whether or not text messaging and other kinds of advances that kids use in terms of electronics today, whether or not they have a negative impact in terms of kids writing. You see a lot of press on this. And you see a lot of bemoaning by people that, oh, the writing skills of adolescents are deteriorating because they're text messaging each other. We really don't know. My guess is, is that kids often become pretty proficient in switching codes. So they are pretty good in terms of writing informally.
When they write to kids in terms of email, other kids in terms of email and they can switch codes and write in a formal way. So I'm not sure that it's as big a problem as we're concerned about. I also think that we can take this and turn it on its head. And one way of doing that is to use text messaging or other ways in which kids create this more informal text and use that as a starting point for creating more formal text. So bring it into the service of more formal writing.
The other thing I think is important to realize is that this is the wave of the future. Writing is a way of communicating. This is another way of communicating through writing. And so we want to be sure that we embrace it, because kids have already done that.
Impact of Word Processors on Writing
Word processing can have an incredible impact as a tool for writing. It does at least three things for you. They're phenomenal. If you had to write by hand, revising text is really problematic. Because either you've got to scratch something out and write it in or get approval and come back and rewrite the whole thing. On the word processor, you can move stuff, you can delete stuff, you can write over. It makes revising so much easier. Second, if you become fluent on the keyboard, you can go a lot faster than you can with handwriting, and that can be a great thing in terms of productivity. Third, many kids find working on the computer to be much more motivating. And I have to tell you that often disappears after a year or two. But you take motivation where you can get it.
The other thing is that computers bring other software along with them or can bring them along with them that can help a struggling writer, something like inspiration where you can use that as a planning tool. Spell-checkers. Now, often we think of spellcheckers as betting rid of all the spelling errors.
The kids with learning disabilities in middle school, it probably helps you with about a third of them. But that's better than about the ten percent that kids get on their own. So it brings these other things that it bundles in with it that also are advantageous for writers. And those kinds of things are going to increase in their effectiveness over time as we get better with this. And the new wave in the future is going to be speech synthesis. It works with some kids with learning disabilities, now as they're in high school, who are very motivated to write in a way where that can correct the miscues that occur as a result of the oral input. But you can bank they're going to get better and better over time. They'll create their own problems, but they'll give kids a way of circumventing the transcription skill of handwriting and spelling.
One option for kids who have handwriting difficulties is to take word processing in the classroom. And a nifty little tool for doing this is alpha smart or what is now called Neo. Because it's cheap, around $100 for a regular Neo. And kids can take it into the classroom. You can throw it up against the wall. I'm not advising that you do that. But it's not fragile either. And so kids can carry it around with them, and for kids who can use keyboards quickly, it's a great tool. And it's an inexpensive one.
Interested in wonderful interviews with tween and teen authors? Hop on over to our sister site, AdLit.org, and browse the library.