As writing teachers, we have a huge impact on our students: our instruction of writing can perpetuate or destroy damaging misconceptions about writing. I am writing to present to you a claim that urges us to re-frame the way we discuss writing: the claim that writing instruction should model speech acquisition, using speech as a bridge between student thinking and writing. Immediately you may be inclined to respond that the colloquial, slang-dense, ungrammatical, media-influence language of our secondary students should have nothing to do with learning academic writing. I want to challenge that response by showing how we reinforce misconceptions of writing as teachers and present strategies for incorporating talk into the writing classroom.
One of these misconceptions I will pursue is that writing is final or indelible. Teachers are too ready with the red ink, leading students to think that writing is forever, that it cannot be changed and that it needs to be just right the first time around. These students grow up into adults who think that they are not writers or cannot write with increasing anxiety around the activity of writing. Instead, writing should be viewed as spontaneous and flexible, an activity where mistakes can be made and fixed, ideas can be explored, and thought can be free without repercussions. Another of these misconceptions I will challenge is that writing is an unnatural activity and separate from speech. Teachers talk about grammar out of context, as if split infinitives and comma splices exist in their own academic-writing universe that is parallel to the speech universe. Instead, grammar should always be presented in context with a focus on how grammar is a tool for expressing meaning to the reader by modeling the mannerisms (pauses, inflection, etc.) that are natural to speech.
Telling a room full of writing teachers that it is beneficial for students to write the way they talk will no doubt bring a lot of opposition. Many would think: students at the secondary level speak with elementary vocabulary, poorly formed sentences, and slang that is not conventional in academic writing, so encouraging them to write the way they speak would be encouraging those mistakes in their writing, right? Well, not really. Speech is actually the direct link between thinking and writing that students need to be successful in academic writing. Kellen McClendon writes in the article, “The Convergence of Thinking, Talking, and Writing: A Theory for Improving Writing” that because talking is a natural process, modeling writing after speech lowers the barrier between a student’s thoughts and the paper (3). He goes on to show that effective communication occurs at the convergence of talking, thinking and writing and that improving either one of the three skills improves the others by effect (McClendon 3-4). Peter Elbow writes in his article, “The Shifting Relationships between Speech and Writing” that student writing can improve when it is thought of, like speech, as a free, spontaneous activity where ideas can be explored without consequences (5). As writing teachers, we should strive to model the atmosphere around writing after the atmosphere around speaking; one that is relaxed and free-flowing.
Speech is the immediate expression of a thought and writing is nothing more than written speech (with more time to prepare). Therefore, McClendon argues that speech can be used to bridge the gap between student thinking and writing (18). Text has an intimate relationship with speech because in order to read, humans convert the text to sounds either aloud or in the imagination (McClendon 25). Oral expression has been around for ages, whereas written expression is a much newer skill that humans have acquired and, consequently, writing cannot exist without first being an oral expression (McClendon 25). Ignoring the connection to speech as writing teacher is asking too much of students: when we speak the audience is clear, the topic specific, and the pauses and inflection of words natural, but when we write we have to simulate those conditions for discourse all on our own.
Writing can be free and spontaneous like speech, as argued by Elbow (9). Teachers can apply this view of writing to the classroom by making writing less stiff and formulaic. One way to do this is by introducing many free-writing activities in the classroom. Students can also be asked to write in groups about specific topics in class so that the process can be direct and receive immediate feedback. Writing in class for their peers helps students imagine an audience, which can be difficult for students out of context. Imagining an audience helps students make grammar and rhetorical choices that are appropriate for writing. Sharing their writing immediately also models the communal aspect of speech, where feedback and response is given immediately after production (Elbow 10).
Writing teachers can use speech to connect to student thought processes and create a positive, non-daunting approach to grammar as well. Students practice problem-solving as they develop daily. The nature of thinking, as presented by McClendon, is that it is directed towards solving a problem by inventing a solution (8). Instead of viewing writing as an activity where answers can be right or wrong, teachers can encourage improvement by framing their language by whether the writing was effective or ineffective. Elbow points out that when we respond to speech, we reply to the content of what has been said, not how it was said (10). The more a speaker is able to experiment with language and gain experience with what is effective or ineffective in sharing his or her ideas, they learn and improve. Similarly, responses to writing do not have to focus on criticizing how the student wrote it, but instead propose changes for presenting the content more effectively. Focusing on the ideas the student wants to convey and strategies for making them more effective relieves the stress surrounding the activity and contextualizes the feedback. The more a student feels free to develop his or her writing skills the more he or she can improve.
Writing teachers often teach grammar out of context, which confuses students and adds to the anxiety around writing (because students are afraid of making grammar mistakes they do not understand). Instead, grammar should be taught in the context of real writing and presented with the idea that grammar serves the meaning the student is trying to convey. Writing is merely written speech: Elbow writes that whereas speech is the immediate communication of a thought, writing models the same language but is a delayed activity that requires more effort (3). Writing teachers need to show students that grammar rules are meant to reflect the patterns of speech that are natural to us. When transferring ideas from speech to paper, students have to work extra hard to create the patterns of speech that aid in meaning. Students just place all the words they are thinking on paper and trust that it will be well understood: they have to simulate an audience, voice, pauses, and inflection that come naturally while speaking in order to effectively communicate with the reader (Elbow 3). Writing teachers can draw upon the experience students already possess about understanding speech when teaching grammar.
In the classroom students can work through grammar problems in context by drawing on their experience as speakers and listeners. Students can tape record themselves reading their written papers aloud to find grammar and syntax errors (McClendon 4). Peers can read aloud their writing to each other. Students can also use discussion to formulate their sentences in speech before going to paper.
For minority learners, like English Language Learners or speakers of American dialects, talking about their writing can capitalize on skills they use every day when speaking to create a positive space for learning. Speakers of dialects that differ from standard American English, like African American English, learn to dialect shift in academic settings, as shown by Craig, Zhang, Hensel, and Quinn in the article, “African American English-Speaking Students: An Examination of the Relationship Between Dialect Shifting and Reading Outcomes (842). Talking about writing as a dialect-shift avoids demeaning students’ speech. Instead of correcting speech patterns, students can think of academic language as a told at their disposal for communicating with people unlike themselves. Hsn and Snow show in their article, “Social Perspective Taking: A Benefit of Bilingualism in Academic Writing,” that bilingual students have to evaluate their audience and consciously chose their vocabulary in their second language to fit the given situation, making them strong in perspective acknowledgment and perspective articulation, which are necessary for forming effective written arguments (3).
So colleagues, before complaining about the chattiness of secondary students in the classroom and their use of slang and poor grammar that creep into their academic writing, I urge you to think creatively about how the student’s speech skills can aid in writing. Think about how writing teachers contribute to a negative experience in the process of writing and how to teach academic writing as a tool at a student’s disposal versus censoring speech patterns that are a part of their uniqueness. As supported by the research of many scholars mentioned above, speech is a bridge between thought and writing and can be a model for our writing instruction.
Teacher of Writing