Good Writing. What is it? Everyone has an
opinion, but opinions differ widely. While one language arts curriculum infers
that simply adding in more adjectives will "improve" sentences, other
experts 'quoting Mark Twain' suggest that adjectives and adverbs should be
hunted down and killed. Although most people would agree that clear and
to-the-point writing is best, few are able to balance the problem of how to
teach conciseness while helping children develop more complete ideas and
sophisticated expression. Over the past year, a few well known journalists and
teachers have weighed in on the subject,1 even going so far as to quote some popular
teaching materials (ours among them), stressing the need for parents and
teachers to help children write clearly and not be sucked into the dreadful
habit of "overwriting".
While journalists, English teachers,
historians, technical writers, children's book authors, poets, parents, and
college students all have a right to their idea of what makes "good"
writing, they must avoid making assumptions about the best way to develop
linguistic ability in children based on the skills required for their own
vocation. It is erroneous to assume that elementary age children should receive
the same sort of writing instruction as high school essayists or university
journalism students. Children differ not only in what they need to learn, but
in how they best learn it. Therefore, how writing is taught must be adjusted to
the developmental level of the child and the appropriate goals for each stage.
According to one interpretation of the
"classical" model, children pass through three preparatory stages
(the "trivium") before embarking upon more advanced study (the
"quadrivium"). These stages are often referred to as Grammar, Logic,
and Rhetoric. Whole books have been written to define these words, but for now
a brief description is appropriate.
Grammar: A time when the child is primarily concerned with
collecting facts "the grammar of life" about a wide range of
subjects. Theory and reasons are not as necessary as the facts themselves. This
is a corollary to Montessori's "absorbent mind" period a time when
memorization, repetition, and recitation are of huge educational importance.
Although all children are different, this is the primary stage of children six
to ten years old.
Logic: A time when children feel compelled to test the
facts they have learned. They love to argue, debate, challenge, validate, or
repudiate the reality they've been given. Reasons, causes, theories, and
relationships are of greater interest during this stage, which is typical of
pre-teens and adolescents.
Rhetoric: After facts have been learned and tested, they can
be used. This is a time when creativity, artistry, and ingenuity can be
stressed in all areas. Original thinking is the result of the combination and
permutation of previously learned facts and relationships. Analytical thinking
is possible because of its foundation of grammar and logic.
For a detailed discussion of these stages
and how to teach to them more effectively, study Recovering the Lost Tools
of Learning by Doug Wilson.2
Glen Doman,3 as a result of his work
with brain-injured children (many of whom are stuck in the first stage for a
long time), concisely stated the essence of Grammar-ness: If you teach a
child the Facts, he will intuit the Laws, but if you teach a child the Laws, he
cannot intuit the Facts. This explains in great part the failure of newer
elementary math curricula with their emphasis on understanding operations
rather than mastery of the facts themselves. Dr. Arthur Robinson recently noted
that even the GRE exam primarily tests speed and accuracy in arithmetic and
mastery of vocabulary -- the two foundations upon which all learning rests.4
What we must do, applying these truths to
teaching writing, is to focus on building linguistic aptitude during the
grammar stage and refining it during the logic stage so it can be useful during
the rhetoric stage. What the writing experts have suggested, it seems, is that
we should give rhetoric-level instruction to grammar-level students; but what
master teachers know is that this would be folly.
The work of a child is to play (not
"play" in the frivolous sense) but to collect, manipulate, practice,
and experiment with the stuff of life. Most often, their play is based on
imitation. The Montessori approach capitalizes on this innate need
magnificently. First, the lesson is modeled, usually silently and very
precisely, for the child, who is then invited to try it -- as often as they
wish. If the lesson is not understood, the teacher simply presents it again,
usually silently, as often as needed. Direct correction is minimal or
non-existent. The child "plays" (experiments, practices) with the lesson
until mastered. Play is the natural inclination of a healthy child and a highly
effective learning and teaching tool.
Dorothy Sayers notes in her landmark
essay, The Lost Tools of Learning, that even a carpenter will
"play" with a new tool to get a sense of it before putting it to
Therefore, if older students are lacking factual information and logical
connections in any given area, they must first acquire that knowledge and
practice using it before being expected to put it to creative use. One cannot
successfully bypass the Grammar and Logic stage.
How does this relate to teaching English
composition? Well, first we must set the linguistic foundation of the young
child by saturating him with language through constant high-quality auditory
input and large amounts of language memorization.6 Additionally, we must
provide for the presentation of the facts, along with the opportunity to
practice using them. In writing, the "grammar" or facts include
vocabulary, usage, sentence patterns, organizational tools (paragraph, story,
report, essay), decorations and special devices. These can be presented
gradually or rapidly, according to the maturity of the student, but immediate
mastery should be expected of no one.
The student must then "play
with" these facts. In using adjectives, adverbs, strong verbs, clauses,
prepositions, participles, very short sentences, and the like, the student
gains a sense of confidence and gradually a sense of appropriateness in their
usage. As in a Montessori classroom, re-presentation should be maximized;
direct correction should be minimized. Certainly, we must gently lead the
student toward better usage, but not at the expense of developing confidence
and enthusiasm for trying new words. If teachers and coaches in the name of following
someone's idea of what "good" writing is, begin to try to cut and
prune the student's language too early during the Grammar stage, they will find
that their students linguistic ability becomes far less than it might have been
had they postponed such advanced criticism. Later, during the Logic stage, and
certainly during the Rhetoric stage, technique and artistry can be taught more
successfully when built on a solid Grammar stage foundation.
Additionally we must consider the
reluctant writer who has struggled all along. If he tries to stretch his
vocabulary and usage but is then made to feel that his word experiments have
failed to produce "good" writing, future attempts to use adjectives
and adverbs, or anything at all "risky" will now be much less likely
to occur. His interest in words will dwindle, he will "play it safe"
in order to avoid being "wrong". Aptitude will shrivel.
Let us encourage children to experiment
and play with words, remembering that what they do and how they learn is vastly
more important than what they produce. Children who are free to play with words
will fall in love with words; time, maturity, and life will help them balance
creativity, eloquence, and conciseness. It is okay, in fact good, for children
to be bold with words -- even to an extreme. We don't know what they will be
called to do in life. One may become a technical writer or a playwright while
another may become a novelist or journalist. Our job is not to decide what is
"good" or "right" and chisel too early, but to feed,
nurture, encourage and build up the child with the "stuff" of
language and the joy of using it. Our work is to help form the linguistic
marble from which they will create their profession or vocation; and others
will help carve it away. For a sculptor, more marble is better than less.
It is okay "even beneficial" for
children to exaggerate with words. This is how they build their linguistic
foundations. Children's book authors know this well. Take, for example, Alexander
And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. This
book has a five-star rating everywhere it is sold and ranks in sales as number
439 on Amazon.com! Few journalists could stomach even the title, but for
children it's a classic. Why? It builds their linguistic marble. They need the
repetition, the categorization, the play of the words in that book. And
besides, if everyone believed and followed the writing advice of journalism
professors and writing experts, Dr. Seuss wouldn't exist, and Judith Viorst
could never have written about Alexander's day in such an engaging way.
During the Grammar stage, what goes into
the child's brain is much more significant than what comes out. Children's
experience while learning is infinitely more important than what they can
produce. Certainly output is part of experience, and much is learned by
producing a product. However, we must remember to place the value on the
process -- not the product. This is hard, as we live in a very product-based,
materialistic society, which always looks for results, proof, evidence, and
profit -- often at the wrong time and in the wrong place.
But keep all of this in perspective.
Certainly we do agree with Twain, Barzun, Zinsser, and Olasky; good writing is
simple, free of clutter, clear and specific. We must agree with Lewis,
Hemingway, and Marks; it is important to avoid overwriting and to concentrate
on ideas and information. However, to practice the discipline of writing as an
adult at the post-Rhetoric level and to teach writing to children at the Grammar
and Logic level are very different activities. Let us understand who we are
teaching, and not become confused.
1 Marvin Olasky, The Write Stuff,
World Magazine, May 10, 2003, page 60
Dave Marks, Creative Writing, Practical Homeschooling,
May/June 2003, p.28
2 Good News Publications (April 1991)
3 Institutes for Achievement of Human Potential, Philadelphia, PA (www.iahp.org)
4 How to Raise a Thinker, Practical Homeschooling, Sept/Oct 2003,
5 Currently available at: http://veritasacademy.com/lostools.htm
6 One Myth and Two Truths, http://www.writing-edu.com
Originally used with
The Old Schoolhouse Magazine.