Let’s Change How We Teach Writing

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By Metusalem Nakale

Our testing and teaching of writing skills are faulty and are contributing to the high failure rate in our educational institutions. About three years ago, I brought up the issue in The Namibian with the view to drawing the nation’s attention to it.

However, it seems my concern fell on deaf ears. Nobody acted to rectify the problem. As a result, two or three years later here we are still facing the same problem: our pupils’ writing skills are still examined under exam conditions without sufficient time to allow them to do what I view as real writing.

Consequently, many pupils fail and are condemned to the streets, leaving school with Bs in other subjects, but Es and Fs in English.

Obviously, many such pupils cannot express themselves effectively in writing. For example, they cannot write letters, paragraphs, essays and reports, let alone string words together to form sentences in order to communicate in writing.

When asked to write such pieces, some produce pieces which you cannot tell the head from the tail. It may sound amusing but this is the reality. Although some secondary school graduates can express themselves with reasonable fluency in spoken English, their writing skills are deplorable.

In my opinion, the above situation is partly caused by the manner in which we teach and test writing, particularly writing in English. Our teaching and testing of writing do not reflect what we now know about the writing process.

Our education is still clinging to an old view of writing, which regards writing as linear. This way of looking at writing sees writing as something you do once and finish – a one-off activity.

According to this view, you start writing at point A and finish at point B. In my view, this is a gross simplification of a very complex process. How many of us produce readable texts at the first attempt?

I am sure if we have such gifted writers, they are not many. Even seasoned writers, journalists and novelists, write in drafts. They rewrite their texts several times, even twenty times, before they come up with a final version (Becker, 1986), unlike in our tests and some of our classrooms.

Those who seem to support the current way of testing and teaching writing are always quick to argue that the purpose of testing writing in this manner is to see if pupils can write under examination conditions.

Yes, I agree that we want to have future citizens who are able to think quickly when putting their ideas on paper. However, my argument is that the nature of the writing process is such that it cannot allow the writer to take shortcuts.

Therefore, testing in this way is not likely to yield the desired results. If anything, it is reinforcing a wrong perception of the writing process and blind pupil writers to the fact that writing is something that can be improved.

Besides, it denies pupils opportunities to engage in the thinking processes which writing offers, as you will see later.

As a result of the current way of testing writing, markers evaluate pupils’ first ideas. In other words, pupils are asked to submit their papers just when they are beginning to write. They are allocated grades on the basis of their first ideas which, as all writers know, are not the best.

This is not only unfair but, it also has serious negative far-reaching consequences for the pupils, the state and society at large, as many of the pupils do not do well in English.

What many people do not seem to realize is that the ideas we communicate through writing are not buried somewhere in the recesses of our heads, waiting to be offloaded onto paper at a push of a button, as it were.

We think to generate ideas then arrange them on paper or screen as we go along, read through them to see if they say what we want them to say, change or discard those we think do not help us to communicate and sometimes we rewrite the entire text several times. Sometimes we start without knowing our destination.

In fact, the process is more complicated than words can express and requires time, creativity and takes writers through a number of stages (White and Arndt, 1991).

Therefore more time is necessary to allow inexperienced writers to go through the whole process and cultivate the right attitude toward this important skill, the power of which has hitherto been neglected in our schools.

But why am I worried about writing? I have a genuine reason to be worried. Writing, when nurtured, can benefit our education system in many ways. In fact, when used creatively, writing can transform our education system, as I will illustrate next.

First, writing is thinking. In other words, although many of us have not realised it, writing involves cognitive processes (Henning, et al., 2005).

Through writing, we are able to generate ideas.

Sometimes the interaction between the writer and the emerging text leads to more idea-generation, creativity and critical thinking (Lunsford & Connor, 1999).

For instance, as I was writing this article, there were occasions when I got stuck. Reading through the ideas trapped on the screen suggested new ideas, it spurred me on.

Secondly, writing enables writers to separate themselves from their thoughts and impose order on them on paper or screen. In this way, writing provides writers opportunities to examine their thinking. This is because we can only see how we are thinking when we distance ourselves from our thoughts.

New Ideas

Thirdly, learning takes place when we are interacting with new materials through writing and when we are questioning what we are writing or what others have written.

In the process, we relate new ideas to old ones and clarify our understanding.

What is more, writing contributes to success in life, which should not be difficult to see if we agree that writing is thinking and influences thinking.

Explaining how writing contributes to success Axelrod and Cooper (1997), say that [writing] ‘also makes a significant contribution to academic and professional success’ (p. 3). For instance, those students whose assignments are well written usually get good grades.

Finally, in business, executives are required to produce reports on the basis of which important decisions are made. To enable the business to make effective decisions, which will help it to realise its goals such reports must be logically organised and effectively written.

At a personal level, as an employee, effective writing skills can catapult you to higher positions (perhaps not in Namibia, but certainly in other countries!).

Clearly, writing skills are very useful: they can contribute enormously to the transformation of our economy into a learning-driven knowledge economy.

Writing will enable us to do this by fostering creative and critical thinking among our pupils. It will also help them to come to grips with new learning materials in their academic subjects. As such, writing is a useful tool in the unlocking of creative potential and knowledge embedded in our people.

However, if we are to benefit from writing, our perception of writing needs to change. We must see writing as a very powerful tool, which if fully exploited and allocated sufficient time, will not only enable many of our pupils to do well, but will have many positive benefits for our education system in general.

Recommendations

Based on the above, I recommend that:
More time be allocated to teaching and testing writing. Or the latter can be done away with so that pupils can be assessed throughout the year through assignments.
New innovative ways be sought to use writing as a learning and thinking tool in other subjects
‘Teachers’ write with their pupils in order for the former to understand the process better.

References

1. Axelrod, B. R., & Cooper, R.C. (1997) . The St Martin’s Guide to Writing ( 5th ed.).
New York: St Martin’s Press.
2. Becker, H.S. (1986) Writing for Social Scientists. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
3. Henning, E. , Gravett, S., & Rensberg,W. (2005) Finding your Way in Academic Writing.
Pretoria: Van Shaik Publishers.
4. Lesikar,R.V.,& Pettit, J. (1979). Report Writing for Business. (10th ed.). Illinoise:
Burr Ridge.
5. Lunsford, A. & Connors, R. (1999). The New St Martin’s Handbook. Boston, MA:
St Martin’s Press.
6. White, R . , & Arndt , V. (1991). Process Writing. London: Longman.

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