I have heard comments similar to the observation posted on my blog recently — “Our youngsters seem to be most capable in music, dance, sport, and creativity when they graduate from high school.  What they cannot do is write a simple paragrah [sic] or solve a simple math problem.”

I have said similar things myself. I have rarely heard anyone say that our students write well, but are not capable at all in music, dance or sport.  When I was president of International Pacific College in New Zealand, I discussed these contrasting comments with staff, students and parents and members of the community.  One of the points I wanted to make in my last blog was not that writing and math were unimportant. Rather that I would like to see the arts and sport activities valued at the same level as writing and math. I would add science as well.

teacherSaid another way, my hope is that over time we will value the individual talents and skills of others equally. If we continue to think writing is like gold and dancing is like copper or lead, we demean those who cannot write. There is no reason that students cannot be capable in all areas! I have urged teachers in previous blogs to read Sylvia Ashton Warner, either Teacher (Touchstone 1986) spinster2or Spinster: The Story of a Teacher of Maori Children (Touchstone 1971). She tells of how her first efforts to teach writing and reading to her Maori students in New Zealand failed. She stopped using readers about English children and began writing what her students said about their lives. She then had them read these stories — their stories. And over time she had them embellish the stories by adding words, combining similar experiences different students had but had described differently, to cite just a few of her activities.  If students can sing lyrics, they can begin to learn to read them. They can begin to change them a bit. If they record some of their conversations as they practice and play sport and dance, and then transcribe what they say, they have natural texts to read. They can over time write about what they say, embellish what they say, change the tone of their dialogs, again to mention just a few obvious activities.

I have asked students to tell a friend what they want to write about and why, and record what they say. When they transcribe what they say and the comments from their friend, they have 75% of their “paper” written. Said another way, I believe it is a tragedy if students cannot read and write.

But to try to teach those who for multiple reasons have not learned these skills in the usual way — by simply giving writing assignments — has never worked. We need a genuine audience and a reason for writing. Sharing experiences orally is a place to start. The comments Eleanor Duckworth has recorded when she has her students predict outcomes of science experiences are very, very sophisticated. Most of the ideas are in fact more sophisticated than the pat answers given in textbooks.

communications-curriculumIf more teachers tried the activities that Sylvia and Eleanor have done, fewer would have to say that their students couldn’t write. The conversations Douglas R. Barnes transcribed in classes and analyzed in From Communication to Curriculum (Boynton/Cook 1982) show some of the same richness Sylvia and Eleanor reveal in their books. But Douglas also points out how students in groups often fail to go beyond the superficial if they are used to being told that they should try to get the right answer rather than to explore and relate their experiences to the topic.

Though William Labov in his early sociolinguistic research was not focused on teaching, when he recorded the rapping of black children in Harlem he realized how complex their use of language was. And he reminded those who thought that black children could not speak much less write could in fact run linguistic circles around many non-black children of the same age. So check out Labov’s web site for more ideas about how to make use of the rich language children use which we often smother and do not acknowledge.

65% Reading Ease — 9th Grade Level

P.S. I have found it useful to compare transcriptions of students’ comments with sentences they write. Often their spoken language has a higher Reading Ease score and a lower grade level, meaning that they are making sense as they speak. I have also found consistently that when students write comments before they speak, they tend to say more than if they speak without time before hand to write some ideas.

[TUTORS: If you  are interested in raising the achievement levels of struggling readers in low income schools, "The Reading Road," an instructional program, is available for downloading at Penn Reading Initiative site. Recommended by William Labov]