Do good writers always know how to write?
Are we really going to make our kids better at writing by teaching them how to do it?
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been teaching grammar and sentence/paragraph construction. I’ve found it very satisfying indeed – almost therapeutic. I’ve been teaching front of class, pen in hand, fully embracing the didactic.
They’ve been sitting in rows. A couple of times, I’ve even referred to a couple of kids by surname only (“Jones, define a clause. Good, now give me an example of a clause. Good, now identify the verb and subject in the clause you’ve given me.”) Gradgrind is alive and well, and he’s a 26-year old Datsuns fan.
Of course, what I’m really finding satisfying about teaching grammar is the teaching of real, tangible knowledge. This is how Maths teachers must feel every day, those lucky blighters.
There is a debate at the moment about the ‘Knowledge Curriculum’ of which I am a fan, as are many others. David Didau spoke in a recent blog entry about how he used to think “developing Higher Order Thinking skills was much more important than knowledge ” but now thinks “understanding is useless if you can’t remember what it was you understood.” There are some good ideas for knowledge-based English teaching around, David has uploaded a lesson about sentence construction here, which along with Daisy Christodoulou’s message about the explicit teaching of vocabulary here, and some ideas on teaching sentence types I burgled from Chris Curtis at a TeachMeet here, has informed some of my KS3 teaching recently.
But… inspired by the recent blogs by both Joe Kirby and David Didau on cognitive bias, I have tried to challenge my thinking. Am I teaching this knowledge because I happen to like teaching it, or is it really absolutely the best way to ensure that my students write well?
I’m a little unsure about whether you have to know how to write in order to write well, and indeed whether it actually gives you any advantage at all.
There is a big difference between knowing how to add fractions, knowing that Queen Victoria died in 1901, and knowing what the subjunctive clause is. The difference is, if you don’t know how to add fractions, you will not be able to add fractions. If you don’t know that Queen Victoria died in 1901, you will not be able to answer the question ‘when did Queen Victoria die?’
However, if you don’t know what a subjunctive clause is, there is every chance you will still use it in your own writing, particularly if you are someone who is very well read.
Indeed, being very well read (whether or not you know what a subjunctive clause is) is probably more of a guarantee that you will use subjunctive clauses in your own writing than the fact that in your past you were taught what a subjunctive clause is.
Let’s say you take some time each lesson, over many lessons, to explicitly teach this entire set of 100 A* words to one of your classes. You’ll notice they start to use the vocabulary in their writing, which is all to the good.
However, print the same list off and show it to a friend or acquaintance you have who you know to be extremely well read. It is very likely they won’t have been actually taught all of these pieces of vocabulary, but you’ll probably find that they know all of the words, and can use them in a sentence more accurately and more convincingly than the students you’ve been teaching the words to.
Of course, just because some people have acquired a large vocabulary and an innate sense of good grammar without being explicitly taught vocab and grammar doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with teaching these things. I think teaching vocab and grammar is definitely something we should be doing.
My main concern however, is that students who are explicitly taught a piece of grammar or vocabulary might then use it in a functional or formulaic way, producing writing which doesn’t really excite. This is the same concern I have with teaching P.E.E for essay writing. It might help your D students move towards a C, but it won’t help anyone write with the je ne sais quoi needed to achieve a higher grade.
This is a problem with teaching students to write in a specific style or format, for instance ‘in the style of a broadsheet/tabloid newspaper’ or ‘in the style of Dickens’. The only way for a student to fully be able to write convincingly, and to an A or A* standard, in these styles, is for them to have a deep exposure to these types of text, where they will learn the specific tone and nuance of these types of writing in the same way they originally will have learnt the grammar of the English language (that is to say, by osmosis, and without actually knowing that they’re learning it).
Additionally, whilst it is very important to have a good bank of knowledge (or schema) in order to be able to write intelligently about a range of topics (which students need to do in the Unit 2 exam of the Edexcel Language course, and in the iGCSE exam), I cannot possibly guide them through the entirety of human creation and teach them what all the things in the world are between the ages of 11 and 16. However, if a student can be encouraged to read a newspaper every day, and is willing to read a good diet of magazines (some popular science, some current affairs, plus of course something on music / sport / computer gaming) they’ll grow their bank of knowledge and their worldliness very quickly.
Therefore, if I want my students to write well – extremely well, A*-grade – then perhaps the surest way to do that is by bombarding them all through school with quality written material which they read at home, at school, and whenever they can (I don’t mean highbrow, I mean well written. There are lots of well written magazines interesting to year 7 boys, you don’t have to give them Tolstoy).
I think that knowing grammatical terms and the mechanics of a sentence construction are important, but one could still be very well versed in these rules and write in a formulaic way. Knowing the rules of tennis doesn’t necessarily make you any good at it.
Of course, teaching grammar, sentences and vocabulary does not stop a teacher from also working hard to instil a love of reading. I’m still a very big fan of the knowledge curriculum. But as English teachers, we’re reliant on our students proving their knowledge and writing skills in a written exam, and I don’t think that just telling them how to write well is enough of a guarantee that they will write well.
If anything, I think a vast and well-balanced diet of reading materials is a much surer way to ensure they write well. Alongside, of course, of a good knowledge based curriculum.