American education is in crisis and nowhere is this more evident than when we look at the teaching of writing. Despite decades of research in support of the teaching of writing and the fact that we know more than ever before about how people learn to write as well as how to effectively teach writing – we do not see this knowledge used to improve the teaching of writing in any consistent fashion. We need a revolution in the teaching of writing but there is not even a whisper of a battle cry in the trenches. As a writing teacher I ask myself every day what we should be doing to improve the teaching of writing and I have come to the conclusion that we are simply focusing on the wrong things.
Far too much focus in the teaching of writing is on the end product. This appears to be all that administrators and non-writing teachers (don’t get me started on how every teacher is a writing teacher as this isn’t the time or place for that rant) care about. It is also what the public appears to care about. These attitudes then drive what our students think is important and, more often than I care to think about, drive what my fellow teachers of writing think is important. This, of course, runs counter to everything we know about how people learn to write and how good writers become good writers, but in our numbers-focused world it is much easier to focus on a test score (as if any standardized test can give us any information of value when it comes to writing) or final grade or number of errors. That is the easy way out. That is the easy to way evaluate writing. Never mind that all these methods are completely useless when it comes to evaluating writing.
Of course, in the past, the focus on writing process has been equally problematic. While an important part of the process of becoming a writer, focusing on process alone is not the answer to making someone a good writer. In addition, process has been rather haphazardly taught in many writing classrooms and in many writing textbooks. Quite simply, a focus on process is not a solution to the problem of teaching writing.
So what is the solution? I believe the solution to the problem of teaching writing is not focusing on the writing but instead focusing on the writer. If we do not focus on the root of the problem then we are only treating the symptoms – we are not curing the patient. While asking for a definition of good writing is problematic – you will often get four definitions when you ask any two people because the value of writing can only be judged in context and context is variable – we do know, thanks to research, what makes a good writer. Good writers can consistently deliver suitable writing. Suitable writing is not of course judged solely on correctness, although it does play a role, but is determined by the effectiveness of the writing for its purpose. Does it do the job? Of course, not every writer creates terrific writing every day and not every writer can write effectively in every situation, but a good writer can study the particular context, and through practice and study, deliver the goods. Every good writer that I know did not become a good writer by fortuitous accident. They may have been blessed with a good ear, quick mind, or strong support system, but it takes diligent practice and study to capitalize on those blessings and become a good writer. It takes even more perseverance to overcome the lack of these blessings to become a good writer. We do not do enough in our education system to help would-be writers capitalize on their blessings, or overcome their lack, and we do very little to help would-be writers actually become writers. For centuries (forever?) we have depended on the individuals’ drive to become a writer to struggle and persevere to learn, grow, and develop as a writer, but our education system does not offer a consistent, effective plan to help people become writers.
Perhaps the battle cry for our revolution could be adapted from Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign – It’s about the writer, stupid. If we ask this basic question whenever we make a decision (big or small) that concerns the teaching of writing – will this help our students become writers – and judge the answer using real research – then and only then we will see an improvement in their writing in the long-term but even more important we will make them writers – and that after all is the goal.