Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Nobody remembers a nation for its readers

Is our obsession with reading causing unintended consequences - poor writers?

No one would disagree that learning to read is a vital skill but people will make their mark through writing or other forms of creating not just by being a reader. Reading is not everything that counts - being able to express thoughts through speech and writing is equally important.

The first thing Alexei Leonov , the Soviet cosmonaut did,after his world first historic walk in space miles above the Earth, was to sit down and write about it, 'I wrote down everything I saw, so as to not forget something later'. the human statement from US space explorers reduces to , 'golly!'

In our classes if you ask students to write about an important experience they have had you would be surprised ( or maybe not) of how little they can write let alone the lack of enthusiasm they show for such a task.

The uneven push for reading has distorted students learning and has 'warped' reading away from writing when they are complimentary forms of interpersonal communication.

This ought not to be the case - it is entirely a school problem.

Young children achieve 'mans' most impressive language skill by being exposed to an environment which naturally encourages them to talk, building on their innate desire to make meaning and to communicate. From this talk emerged a need to their record ideas at first with art and then writing. Unlike talk, such expression saves our thoughts making them available to be read by others. According to business philosopher Peter Drucker, 'the ability to express oneself is perhaps the most important of all the skills a man can possess'.

We need to get reading and writing into perspective. Before any words arise in the mind comes the experience. Such experience is a mix of emotions and learning through sensory impressions resulting from something that has attracted the child's curiosity. Educating children's senses is a vital aspect of the writing process

Children begin to write well before school even if it is at first incomprehensible, even to the early authors. Soon certain powerful words become memorable ( their own name ) and easily recognised. This is the beginning of their written vocabulary. The young child, not hindered by adult perceptions of correctness, happily write all sorts of things, often imitating those around them. Through such experiences they see thinking, talking, writing and reading as part of a interconnected process.

The trouble is we do not 'teach' the power of writing to the degree we obsess over reading. Writing is part of the active expressive side of being human - reading reflective passive side. If writing were taken more seriously children would learn to notice more, be encouraged to think more deeply and precisely, and to see value in writing.

Creative teachers, in the past, valued students own stories as the basis of reading. They did this by first 'scribing' their thoughts, valuing what they had to say and, by asking perceptive questions to encourage deeper thoughts. They valued students' thoughts about the secrets and feelings in their minds, their thoughts about environmental experiences, about special class events, and about their ideas in other subjects such as science. Teachers helped students focus on the important things, to express what they noticed, what they were thinking, and how they felt at the time. By this process students saw themselves as writers with important things to say. Reading of other stories ( of their fellow students and adult authors) was a natural extension. By being exposed to range of genres and patterns of writing, such as myths and small thought poems ( simple haiku), students developed a range of ways of expressing their thoughts and, most of all, began to appreciate the power of language.

During such a process teachers pointed out important ideas about spelling, letter sound relationships and word families without distracting them from the main point of telling a story. Spelling originally meant to cast a spell with words not to obsess over correctness.

Teachers need to become sensitive to their students thoughts and ensure that they protect each students individuality. They will need to develop the skills of dialogue to develop the authentic relationships to be trusted by their student. If teachers can develop such trusting relationships they will have access to valuable insights, thoughts , understandings, ambitions and goals of their students.

In such an environment of respect children will develop a positive sense of self and a valuing of their individuality and uniqueness.

Through writing students will develop habits of observation and clear communication which will be valuable to them in whatever they do. To be firmly established it must begin as son as students enter school. If this were to happen students would be able to state and write opinions, to observe carefully and to reflect on their experiences.

None of this is to distract from the importance of reading but more to ask for a greater emphasis to be placed on the importance of writing in the learning process. Writing, unlike reading, values students' own stories and leads into the enjoyment of stories written by others.

The writing habit develops a way of attending to reality. It develops an acute sense of awareness and accurate identification of ideas. School failure is more than poor reading - those who cannot write may be more at risk?

Reading opens the doors to other worlds but writing opens the doors to the students own minds.

Reading cannot be the end all of learning. Reading is only one of the keys to success. The keys to school success should also be the spoken, performed, drawn ,and written products.

Nobody remembers a nation for its readers!


Anonymous said...

Good points! Genuine writing reflects children's thinking, it is in fact thinking out loud and is a good indicator of actual learning. Reading involves interpreting 'second-hand', and not always relevant information.
Over emphasis or inappropriate use of factual reading information can lead children to regurgitate information and write about what they pretend to know rather than what they think.

Bruce said...

Our schools are full of 'regurgitated information' that must make no lasting sense to students. Much of it the result of 'cut and paste' from the 'www' or inconsequential results of so called thinking skills. Hardly the basis of true inquiry or research. Fragile learning at best! Sadly you don't often even see this shallow 'evidence' of 'research'!

bentmum said...

I agree, but having been involved in Writing PD which insisted that very young children write in a variety of genre, I fear we are going for the same kind of lopsided overkill as we have with reading. 5 year-olds who can very eloquently construct (for example) an argument, are meant to celebrate a 2-sentence written argument, which isn't a patch on what they can do orally, because they don't yet have the mechanics of writing under their belt. By focussing on each as separate set of skills, we seem to miss opportunity after opportunity to make sense of communication as the raison d'etre for oracy, reading and writing.

Bruce said...

Any programme that insists on young children working their way through 'approved genre' is missing the point.

Marie Clay, and others, indicate that young chidren come to school thinking they can write but this is all too often ignored, replaced by teacher assigned tasks in either reading or writing.

Creative teachers like Sylvia Ashton Warner ( in the 50s) had her children writing about their own rich lives using words that had emotional 'power to them - including their own names. She was only interested in her children expressing their poetic thoughts about their own lives.

From this emerged our modern reading books ( and journals stories) that reflected New Zealand childrens' worlds.

Another pioneer teacher, Elwyn Richardson, ( also in the 50s) developed the idea of 'scribe' writing to capture the rich oral flow of ideas that marks young children. He talked about 'felt experiences' and encouraged his students to write deeply, with feeling, about small incidents in their lives or their natural environment.

The important issue was that both these teachers were only interested in celebrating the creative thinking of their students, not ensuring they had 'covered' at all the various genres.

With such an experiential approach, and exposure to lots of good literature, children 'grow' into writing and reading ( and the 'mechanics') and, in the process, keep the joy of learning and expressing about their world alive.

Don't see much of this today. Too many exemplars, criteria and heavy handed feedback. Imposed 'best practice' rationality has replaced teacher insight and creativity!

As you say it is all about keeping the childs primal need to communicate alive.

We have lost the plot!