How DO You Teach Writing?
The first time I was asked the question, I probably looked like a tongue-tied idiot. It seems like a simple enough question now, but at the time, I honestly didn’t know what to make of it.
I was at one of many homeschool conventions, talking to people about WriteAtHome and our tutorial online writing courses, when a woman asked, “Do you teach them how to write or do you just tell them to write?”
My response was probably something like, “Um…huh?”
I don’t remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure she didn’t become a customer that day.
It’s a reasonable question, I know. And as I’ve become more familiar with the various approaches to writing instruction out there, I’ve developed a simple answer, but at the time, I had never imagined that it was possible to teach writing before asking a student to write. I had always believed that the teaching and the doing happen simultaneously. People learn to write as they write.
Sure, there’s direction students can benefit from before launching into a writing project. We provide that. We give parameters, objectives, and guidelines for every assignment. We provide strategies for organizing paragraphs in an essay, for example. Maybe that’s all the lady meant. But that’s hardly “teaching them how to write.”
As I’ve said before, writing is a skill akin to music, art, or athletics. A music teacher can explain the workings of a saxophone and describe the technique of blowing into a reed instrument, but nobody’s going to learn how to play a sax without putting his lips to it. An art teacher might discuss the concepts of perspective, color, and shading, but kids become artists by fiddling with pencils and paintbrushes. I can give you diagrams for riding a bike or doing the breaststroke, but until you start peddling or jump in the pool, you’ll never really learn.
I think most people who ask this question — and it’s been asked many times since that first lady — are thinking in terms of curriculum and don’t fully understand the WriteAtHome program or our approach. They’ve probably had bad experiences with teachers who assigned writing and later punished students with a low grades for not demonstrating skills that had never been taught. And they are probably familiar with one or more of the excellent “incremental” writing curricula popular in the homeschool world. These ingenious programs break writing into manageable steps that young and reluctant writers can follow with confidence.
But even these step-by-step systems have kids writing as they go. There’s no way around it.
WriteAtHome doesn’t take an incremental approach. Our approach to writing instruction is more organic, and it works because we offer more than a curriculum. In fact, our curriculum is the least important part of our program. WriteAtHome provides students with a personal tutor — a writing coach — who works alongside the student through multiple drafts of a variety of papers. Coaches never punish students for what they don’t know (they don’t punish students at all). In fact, they learn what the student does and doesn’t know as he submits papers. Then coaches suggest ways each student can improve each paper. The teaching and learning happens in the midst of the writing process. It’s a wonderfully natural and effective way to teach.
So, no, we don’t teach students how to write before we ask them to write. We teach them to write as they write.
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