Prewriting, rewriting betters compositions

In a secondary school classroom, student groups are gathered around tables. In some, their activity is mostly oral and quite animated. In others, they read and discuss their papers.

A cluster of students in tablet chairs work on a sentence-combining exercise. Their task is to compose fluent sentences from groups of kernels - terse statements, each expressing one specific idea. They write several versions for each group of kernels.

One boy sits alone, writing in his journal. On the floor beside him is a brown expandable envelope, crammed with sheets of free writing.

A girl in the corner is staring out the window. A sheet of paper half covered with writing is on her desk.

We have just entered a writing laboratory in progress. At first it appears to be a teacherless classroom, but as we grow acclimated to the scene, we find the teacher seated in one of the working groups. Soon he quietly detaches himself with a nod of encouragement, steps aside to make a few notations, and then unobtrusively joins another. After listening a moment, he assumes the role of equal participant. Obviously, he has decided these students need a bit of guidance; not authoritatively but as one of them, he finds an opportunity to supply it. Eventually, when he seems to feel they are on track again, he moves on, this time to exchange a few words with the journalist.

We are watching a variety of prewritingm activities. Most of the students are talking and sharing. Little actual writing is taking place. Yet, in the process method of teaching writing, these various preparation-for-writing experiences constitute the most vital phase of composing.

Francis Christensen, a researcher in how to teach writing effectively, has said that we do not really teach our students to write better - we merely expect them to. Most secondary school teachers resort to an assign-an-essay, direct-students-to-produce-it, grade-and-return-the-papers method of ''teaching'' writing. Each time they hope the next batch of compositions will be better. It simply doesn't work, for no teaching takes place in such a procedure.

The best instructors teachm and assess student writing through every step of composing. They spend little time grading completed essays.

A substantial portion of time must be devoted to writing-readiness activities; the more basic the students, the more prewriting experiences are necessary. A prewriting activity is any experience that stimulates thinking toward such questions as ''What do I have to say?'' and ''How can I say it?''

These experiences should be rich and varied. There should be tolerance for daydreaming. There must be time for uninhibited free writing and for journal entries. Students must be involved frequently in groups to plan, to brainstorm ideas, to make decisions, to contribute to group composition, and to respond to each other's work. This is a time for self-discovery - opportunity to find that they do have something to say, and that they canm find an effective way to say it.

After adequate preparation, students finally recognize that they are ready to write. Writers must be creative and at the same time critical of what they are saying and how they are saying it. Composing the first draft can be quite complex as these two nearly opposite skills vie with each other.

The teacher's function at this important stage is to encourage the students to be more creative than critical and to monitor them as they get it all down - usually more than they need to write. Notice, they are not sent home to write on their own without support.

The rewriting phase is the time for writers to become critically tough minded about what they have produced. Again with teacher guidance, they revise and rewrite, practicing and learning the larger skill of moving back and forth between the two elements, working over what they have loosely created, refining and tightening the composition so that it becomes vivid and effective communication.

When the writers are satisfied that they have completed what they have to say in the best way, the papers are ready for proofreading. Teachers now convince students that nothing should come between the author and the audience to mar the reception of this piece of work. Correcting (and related instruction, where needed) takes on new purpose and meaning. Students, correcting their grammar, spelling, and punctuation, improve their language skills in the process.

Research shows almost all students can and do improve writing skills when writing is taught as a process by someone who knows how to write.

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