We feel strongly that certain myths about writing must be dispelled to allow genuine learning to take place. This post identifies and counters eight of the most common myths about writing in middle school. In truth, the myths extend to writing in elementary school, high school, and beyond.
Myth 1: Students need a textbook.
Textbooks by their very nature are prescriptive. That is, they are designed so that a language arts curriculum is essentially built around them. As you know, textbook series are accompanied by volumes of supplementary materials that essentially tie teachers and students into the “system” more than they help students develop as independent thinkers and writers.
We believe that students must have a chance to develop their own ideas, to think and write for themselves. Teachers and students—with the aid of a few references (see below)—should help each other develop and refine their ideas in writing. This makes for meaningful learning.
Essential writing references: Internet access, a collection of writing models, a library of reading materials, and a writing handbook.
Myth 2: Students dislike writing.
Students don’t necessarily dislike writing; they just dislike writing about subjects that have little meaning to them. Students learn to enjoy writing when they develop their own ideas. This doesn’t mean that teachers should forgo assigning compositions. It simply means that writing assignments should have enough breadth and scope to allow students to select specific topics that interest them
In addition, students will learn to enjoy writing if they are encouraged to write freely about their own experience. Young learners love to write about themselves in journals, social posts, blogs, narratives, and personal essays. And of course, many students enjoy creative forms of writing—stories, plays, poems—as well.
Myth 3: Students cannot express themselves clearly and completely.
This is a common complaint made by teachers. But what may look like a poorly written paper might be a sign that a student is still developing his or her writing idea. That is, a student might have handed in a paper before he or she gave it the proper attention, especially during the revising and editing steps in the process.
It may also be true that a student hasn’t felt committed enough to a writing idea to attend to it properly. Students need to feel strongly about their writing and know that they will share it. Then they will stay with a text until it is as clear and complete as they can make it.
Myth 4: Students write to learn the conventions of English.
Certainly all teachers want their students to understand the conventions of the language and use them accurately in their writing. But teachers must not forget that the goal of writing instruction should be to help students develop meaningful texts. To achieve this goal, students should approach writing as a process of discovery and learning, not as a means for skills work and practice.
If students feel ownership of their writing and know that it will be shared with a specific audience, they will be receptive to skills instruction as needed (preferably in the form of minilessons) because it will help them produce stronger finished products. Study after study shows that the most effective skills instruction occurs in context, when it is tied to the students’ writing.
Myth 5: Students have a difficult time working independently.
Textbook series provide teachers with more than enough activities to fill every minute of every class period with skills work. Many of these activities are well-meaning and important. Others, unfortunately, are essentially “fill in” activities designed to keep students busy, perhaps in the belief that they can’t work independently on their own projects.
This, of course, has been proven untrue in many classrooms, most notably by Nancie Atwell and her students in Maine. In her book In the Middle, Atwell explains that she had her students for two hours each day: one hour for writing workshop and one hour for reading workshop. In the writing workshop, students researched and developed pieces of genuine writing and helped each other in conferences. In the reading workshop, students read and reacted to books, mostly of their own choosing.
Atwell provided the basic workshop structure, established class rules, instructed as needed, and kept tabs on each student’s work. The rest was up to students. They took their work very seriously and developed a deep appreciation for writing and reading.
Myth 6: Students learn about writing by starting with the most basic elements.
A piece of writing isn’t something that students bake, so it shouldn’t be taught as if it were a recipe—sprinkle in the parts of speech, then add in some sentences, before mixing in some of the basic forms. There are no active ingredients in such an approach, nothing to make writing rise into appetizing creations.
Writing is communication and should be treated as such. Students need opportunities to immerse themselves in whole texts and share their ideas in journals, narratives, essays, stories, and poems. It is within specific pieces of writing that basic elements such as word choice, subject-verb agreement, and sentence structure should be discussed.
Myth 7: Students cannot assess writing.
Assessing writing is a challenge for students, especially since they are often unsure of their own writing abilities. But if teachers provide students with the proper tools, they can become competent evaluators. First, teachers should provide students with evaluating rubrics that identify the specific traits for the different modes of writing (narrative, explanatory, argument, etc.). Then students should use these rubrics to assess sample writings.
To gain additional experiences, students should participate in peer-conferencing sessions, using rubrics or peer-response sheets to assess their peers’ writing. With practice, students will begin to understand the dynamics of assessment.
Myth 8: Students don’t need creative writing.
If teachers follow the recommendations established by state standards, they will spend as much time as possible on explanatory and argument writing and emphasize the critical-thinking skills related to these modes, such as forming thesis statements and developing effective support. But in doing so, they may leave little time for more imaginative forms of writing that help students develop important creative-thinking skills such as flexibility, fluency, originality, and elaboration. A well-balanced writing curriculum should help students develop their critical and creative thinking abilities.
Besides, students love to use their imaginations and should have as many opportunities as possible to develop a wide variety of creative texts.