Kehinde Dosunmu, 17, writes in her journal in early 2014 at the a coffee shop in Washington D.C.  She said her interest in reading shapes the way she writes. (Photograph by Laura Lakeway)

What is the best way for students to become writers? If you were going to say “by practicing writing,” you may be surprised by the answer in the following post, written by Joanne Yatvin, a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English. Most recently she has written books about teaching reading and writing in mixed language classrooms.

 

By Joanne Yatvin

In first grade my son wrote a fairy tale, “The Bat Who Eats Children.” When I read the finished product, nicely mounted with a cloth cover, I saw complete sentences and correct spelling and punctuation throughout. Although I credited his teacher with editing for technical correctness, I was sure that the story was of my son’s own making. He had modeled the plot on the fairy tale, “Hansel and Gretel,” which I had read to him more than once, and borrowed the bat character from television’s Sesame Street. The children and events in his story were variations on the original. Although at age 6 my son was not yet an accomplished reader, he had learned the basics of writing from being read to at home and in school. No one had outlined the structure of a fairy tale for him, told him how the characters should behave, or pointed out examples of fairy-tale language.

At that time I was teaching high school English, and laying out a path of reading and writing for my students that was similar to the one that was working for my son. When I taught a unit on short stories, for instance, I did not ask my students to analyze story structure or types of sentences, which the Common Core Standards now expect students to do from third grade on up. Nor did I ask them to write in their personal journals every day as many Writers Workshop advocates do. Instead we talked about the overall message of each story, the nature of the characters, and the frequent surprise endings. I concluded the unit by asking my students to write their own short stories. As I expected, most of them did very well.

Much later, as principal of an elementary school I learned more from our teachers about the power of reading to teach writing. They did not use commercial textbooks or workbooks to teach reading, but a variety of real pieces of literature suited to students’ interests and needs. Then, they used some of those sources as models for student writing.

One such model for the primary grades was, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” by Judith Viorst. After reading the book, children used it as a model for writing about their own bad, good, boring, or whatever kind of day. They were free to use as much or as little of the original story as they wanted. Some of the final pieces of writing showed only minor changes from the model, but others were truly creative. More important, however, was the fact that all children were learning something about the basic structure of one type of children’s literature.

Now, as a writer myself, I still believe that the best way for students to become writers is by reading as much good writing as possible and internalizing the various structures and techniques they encounter. For extras, the habit of reading will also increase their vocabulary, improve their spelling, and help them grasp the fact that many of the conventions of written language are different from those of spoken language.

More than lessons on how to write an effective argument or an informational piece students need to immerse themselves in the worlds of stories, poems, myths, fables, business letters, opinion and information essays, advertisements, instructional manuals, newspaper articles, memoirs, biographies, and whatever else captures their interest. Although only a very few will become professional writers, almost all of them will be able to do the kinds of writing needed for success in “college and careers” and every day life.

You may also be interested in Yatvin’s previous post, Why students should choose their own books to read in school