Writing - American Education
A method of human intercommunication by inscribing visible symbols on any of a wide variety of surfaces. Unlike copying, the skill of writing is inextricably tied to the ability to think and read. The mere copying of letters and words that are unintelligible to the copier does not constitute writing.
The earliest forms of writing were limited systems of pictography. From the earliest pictographic systems that represented only concrete objects, two modern, full systems of writing evolved that communicated abstract concepts through symbols: ideographic systems, in which each symbol represents a word, as in Chinese, and alphabetic systems, with each symbol representing a phoneme, or unit of speech, as in English.
The first known full systems appear to have developed among the Sumerians of Mesopotamia sometime before 3000 B.C. Full alphabetic writing that distinguishes between vowels and consonants was developed about 800 B.C. by the ancient Greeks. Like reading, however, writing as a means of mass communication had the potential for promoting popular disaffection; thus writing, like reading, remained a skill taught only to the ruling classes throughout the Greek and Roman eras and, during the early Christian era, only to aspiring members of the church hierarchy. Writing lagged behind reading in its development as a popular skill. In the English-speaking world, reading as a popular skill can be traced to John Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible into English at the end of the 14th century. Writing, however, dates only to the expansion of schooling under the Tudors in 16th-century England. By the time settlers opened their first schools in the American colonies, writing and ciphering, along with reading, had become the foundation of all instruction.
In modern American education, writing instruction generally begins in kindergarten, with the teacher translating spoken words into print. Individual children orally describe an experience or relate an imaginary story, and the teacher carefully writes each word on the chalk board in large letters. As the letters appear, the children gradually learn how letters and words are formed and, inevitably, begin imitating the process, both with the urging of the teacher and on their own. Individual progress is tied to the rate of development of each child’s intellectual and motor skills.
Unlike earlier, traditional writing instruction, many schools now de-emphasize spelling and penmanship in early writing instruction. The theory is that children instinctively enjoy communicating, but their limited attention spans tend to make endless writing, rewriting and shaping of individual letters and words discouraging to the writing process. Instead of focusing on penmanship and motor skills, therefore, many reading programs emphasize storytelling as a basic form of communication to enhance children’s thinking skills while postponing the development of mechanical writing skills.
They support their criticisms of traditional writing instruction with results from the NATIONAL ASSESSMENT OF EDUCATIONAL PROGRESS testing (NAEP), which found only 28% of fourth graders, 31% of eighth graders and 24% of twelfth graders proficient in writing; 15% of the two younger groups and fully 26% of the twelfth graders—high school seniors about to graduate—were unable to demonstrate even the most basic writing skills. Critics of traditional writing instruction found even more support in the failure of average writing skills to improve over the years, as students now register either the same or lower scores than students in seven previous NAEP tests since 1988.
American fourth graders scored only 207 on writing achievement tests (scored on a scale from 0 to 500, with 300 considered a minimum level of “adequate” proficiency). The average scores for fourth graders were relatively unchanged in tests of 11 writing skills administered every other year, from 1984 to 1998. Scores of eighth graders actually fell during those years, from 267 to 264, while scores of eleventh graders fell from 290 to 283. Although there were significant differences in average scores in each grade on the basis of race, ethnicity, economic status, parental education, region and type of school, not a single group scored as high as 300 or better.
The poor performance provoked radical changes in the teaching of writing at some schools, to the so-called whole language method of instruction, with kindergarten children encouraged to write by using their own personal, phonetic spellings (and to read aloud what they write) rather than to copy letter after letter and word after word to improve their penmanship and spelling. Children write and read phonetically with amazing ease and not inconsiderable joy and a sense of accomplishment. Instead of rote learning, a type of evolutionary learning takes place, as students watch (and later imitate) the teacher slowly spell each word correctly on the chalkboard, with bold, carefully formed letters.
Unlike kindergarten, where children decide what they write, most first grade programs see teachers begin to assign specific writing tasks— usually related to social studies, science or class trips. Children are encouraged to illustrate their stories, making the important connection between the visual and the abstract letter symbols that describe the visual. Through the first grade, extended periods of time are set aside for students to express themselves on paper. Depending on content, stories are shared either privately with the teacher or publicly with the entire class. In almost all cases, the stories are edited and rewritten to improve spelling, content and organization. The emphasis, however, is always on content, until motor skills permit a shift toward legibility and spelling and students are mature enough to recognize the importance of standards in effective communication.
Many teachers in the early elementary grades now use so-called “process writing” as a basic pedagogical technique. Under the process-writing approach, students engage in “brain-storming” sessions, listing rough ideas or thoughts, with no concern for spelling or punctuation. Then they write rough drafts, edit them with their teachers and produce a “publishable” paper. Teachers say recording thoughts and wild stories without fear of being “wrong” liberates young minds and engenders a deep appreciation of writing and communication. Although the process- writing technique is effective throughout the elementary school years, most teachers gradually attempt to introduce discipline into the program by the third grade, when most students have developed motor skills sufficiently advanced to learn cursive writing, and the intellectual maturity and discipline to learn proper spelling, punctuation and rules of grammar. (See also READING.)