Common Mistakes and some options for teachers


We've all suffered it at one time or another: Frustration about writing assignments. Either on the receiving end, or perhaps now on the giving end, there can be a few distinctly discouraging aspects to teaching and being taught writing. The tough questions include:

  • What to correct and how to give a grade?
  • How much help is too much?
  • Isn't the assignment clear enough?
  • Why don't students find their own errors?

Because we are so much a product of our environment, our style of instruction often becomes a reflection of how we were taught, and consequently the "sins" of our teachers can easily be passed on to our own students if we are not diligent in evaluating and honing our teaching skills.

Unlike math, history and science, writing does not consist simply of a set of facts to be learned and manipulated; it is an art, and should be taught more like art. Think about piano or violin. Do we expect perfection immediately? Not at all. We expect wrong notes. We expect awkward expression. But through a process of modeling, listening, practicing and reviewing specific, graded techniques, anyone can learn to play violin or piano. Writing is similar. Modeling when teaching art is not only effective, but absolutely necessary.

In music lessons, do successful teachers correct every position problem, every rhythmic error, every wrong note all at once? Certainly not. They point out one or two specific areas for improvement and assign practice goals to address those problems. As one technique improves, another gains the spotlight. Put simply, good teachers know the secret of the "one point lesson." With this in mind, let us consider some mistakes which are so easy to make when teaching writing.

#1 Overcorrecting. This is perhaps the most common and dangerous mistake, especially for elementary and intermediate level children. Many of us might recall the experience of getting back a red-mark plastered paper. Did we look at it and think, "Wow, look at all these great corrections. If I carefully study the teacher's marks and really try to remember these things when I write my next paper, I'll probably get a better grade. I can hardly wait!"? Unlikely.

More commonly a child looks at the paper and each red mark makes him feel: "I'm wrong...I'm bad....I'm stupid...I don't know anything...I'll never be able to do this.....etc." Or perhaps we received a paper with no corrections or comments but simply a "C+/B-" at the top and no explanation as to why the poor grade. That's another cause for hopelessly thinking: "I'm lousy at this and have no idea how to do better."

How then to correct? Think of "editing" rather than correcting. Every good writer has an editor (and few good editors are accomplished writers). The purpose of editing is to prepare a piece for publication. Compositions should be marked on specifically and only for the purpose of helping the child create a finished product which will be as correct and fluent as possible. Fortunately, the child will, in the process of rewriting or typing your suggested changes, semi-consciously internalize those corrections, thus learning by example and imitation, rather than by direct instruction. Every child needs an editor, and parents often need to know what that means. They must adjust their role accordingly.

The difference between a Mom and an editor is that an editor gives corrections without a lecture attached. An editor does not give grades; he helps prepare a piece for publication. He is an assistant rather than a teacher. With children, your goal is to help them produce a finished product they can be proud of and teach by "editing" not "correcting."

#2 Holding back help. In our syllabus, we overcome the problem of "I don't know what to write about" by providing content through "source text." This is the equivalent of teaching music by assigning specific pieces to learn and practice. First we provide content to use, teaching the "how to write," before charging into the "what" to write. But even so, children hit blocks. As we work through the syllabus of stylistic techniques, we might easily hear children complain: "I can't think of a 'which' clause." "I forgot what a "prepositional opener" is. "An '-ing opener' just won't work in this paragraph." Does this mean we have failed? Of course not! It simply means that that technique is not yet easy and fluent.