Somehow, over the many years of public education, it was decided that children could best learn to write by first mastering the basics of spelling and grammar. Unfortunately, this mistaken assumption has been proven false by best practice, yet word searches, spelling lists and the teaching of the parts of speech, still dominate our Language Arts and English classrooms. The fixation on spelling and mechanics – or memory and error – hamstrings writing fluency, so even excellent students feel they, “can’t write.”
College graduates will admit this, even after pursuing some of the most demanding college coursework and degrees. Why? Because we don’t value fluency over basics, and we lose the opportunity to create writers. The best teachers in all content areas understand that informal writing helps them understand how students learn, and allows them to share their written ideas with their classmates. This process not only compliments writing, it builds content knowledge and understanding since writing makes meaning.
Another reason for the insistence on spelling and mechanics is that academic and business writing is “formal” so educators feel obligated to teach formality at the expense of fluency. Also, many feel creative writing and writing to learn waste too much class time, which is too bad since this is what’s required to build fluency.
What I’ve learned is spelling and mechanics are best taught through writing in which students are invested – for example, if a student wants to share a thought with a peer, she’s more willing to listen to – and remember -- how a properly placed comma or period will better convey her idea.
Fluency and confidence go hand-in-hand. Confident writers are willing to take on formal writing, so time initially spent “free” writing brings dividends. Students quickly improve spelling and mechanics once they feel confident in their abilities.
We need to build writers the way teachers of art and music do: they encourage, not discourage, students to try. They use hands-on experiences and don’t focus on error. I once overheard a conversation with a high school art teacher who asked why a student didn’t take her basic art class. When the student said he couldn’t draw, the art teacher told him not to worry. “No one knows how to draw at first,” she said. “It’s my job to help you.”
Helping our students develop fluency throughout the school day will make them better writers and learners, and it’s time to rethink how we do it.
Kafalas' fiction captures the wonder, sadness, irony and joy of life. His characters are unlikely heroes who find courage and inspiration in the lives of others. His writing belief is that less is more—his characters can tell their stories better than he can.