Teaching students to be writers. Approach emphasizes process, purpose - and reading good books

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IT is no longer news that American students have difficulty writing. A 1983 study of American high schools by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching concluded that ``writing is the most important and most neglected skill in school.'' In its 1986 ``writing report card,'' the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that ``analytic writing was difficult for students in all grades.'' Yet some teachers are encouraged by a new approach to teaching writing that is steadily gaining converts around the country. It's loosely called ``process writing'' or ``writing workshops.'' Rather than the traditional focus on mechanics, this approach has students tap their own experiences, write for a real reader (not just a teacher), write for an actual purpose, and learn how to revise and expand on their ideas in successive drafts. Students learn to write the way professional writers do, often with impressive results.

Phyllis Bilus's class at PS 321 in Brooklyn, N.Y., for example, fairly hums with authorship. William has just finished his ``sequel'' to Judy Blume's ``Superfudge.'' Rebecca and Ryan are lying on the floor co-writing their second book. And David is working on a mystery about a sleuth who discovers that the ``original'' copy of a Sherlock Holmes book being sold at an auction is a fake. These second-graders are writing poetry, picture books, personal narratives, essays, how-to pieces, and observation of science projects. Mrs. Bilus's class last year published a book of hints for future classes, including what to do ``When You're Stuck.''

In the past, second-graders would be practicing writing words. In higher grades, students would write in class on a topic the teacher assigned. Their papers would come back with cryptic corrections like ``awk!'' scrawled in the margins, and spelling mistakes circled in red.

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``Writing was assigned and corrected, but never taught,'' says Lucy Calkins, director of the Writing Project in New York City, and author of ``The Art of Teaching Writing'' (Heinemann, Portsmouth, N.H., 1986).

In Bilus's class, students learn to pick their own topics, make a draft, research, revise, edit, read their work aloud, and finally ``publish'' it in small books. They are treated like authors. Bilus confers with students individually, encouraging them to expand on their ideas and make their characters more alive.

``The problem seemed real,'' she says to one, ``but I felt like you didn't know your character. I wanted to know more. Did she have red hair? Glasses?''

When another student announces, ``I'm done,'' Bilus gets him to assess his own work. ``How did you decide? What did you accomplish in this piece?'' The students' work is kept in individual folders, and they read it aloud from a specially designated ``author's chair.''

``The goal is to turn the classroom into writing workshops where kids can do what writers all over the world do, which is writing for real-life purposes: to sort through one's life, to savor special moments, to get a job, to protest that you've been ripped off,'' says Professor Calkins.

A major component of writing workshops is having the students read what is considered the best of children's literature. Writing process teachers eschew traditional reading textbooks, with their snippets of stories, in favor of reading entire books by an author. The students read for specifics: the author's way with characterization, or a quality that they can use.

Some critics charge that spelling and mechanics get short shrift. Indeed, in the early grades, spelling is sometimes ``inventive.'' But Calkins disagrees that basics are neglected. The important thing, she says, is for students to gain confidence in their writing; corrections can come in the final drafts. Students are encouraged to write down words they're unsure of and look them up later.

The writing process approach has been explored in various parts of the country for about 15 years. It's now starting to reach many more teachers. The biggest effort is being done by the National Writing Project, which started at the University of California at Berkeley 14 years ago. The program, which focuses on upper grades, locates the best teachers and has them pass on their skills to others. It's now being replicated at 166 university sites in 46 states and six other countries.

There are other independent Writing Projects in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Iowa. In New York City, Calkins just finished another all-day seminar for teachers of writing, the ninth one she's held. Even though the only publicity was word-of-mouth, it was packed to the rafters with enthusiastic teachers.

Sales of books on process writing have been growing 10 to 20 percent each year since 1983, says Bob Thomas, marketing director at Heinemann, ``The Art of Writing,'' he says, sold 30,000 copies last year.

Just as writers use different methods to write, so there are many roads to ``writing process.'' ``That's an ongoing concern, to keep good practice from turning into sterile formula,'' says James Gray, director of the Berkeley Writing Project.

``People think it's a methodology; that if you have the kids write every day and publish a book, that's process writing,'' says Donald Graves, professor of education at the University of New Hampshire, and one of the foremost researchers of the writing process. ``It's not. [Process writing] is a system of learning.''

And getting the students charged up is key. ``Most of the major school reform is saying the same thing: We've got to involve the students,'' says Dr. Graves. ``That's one of the reasons writing process has stayed around. Other reforms - if they last more than five years, it's a miracle. This is still going. The kids aren't bored, and the teachers aren't burned out.''

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