The last blog I wrote on the difficulties of writing discussed how incredibly complicated writing is for my pre-college students. During one semester, they must write six essays, including a literary essay on a novel. Most of them arrive with below average skills, yet in sixteen weeks, they need to understand and craft essays using correct spelling, grammar, sentence construction, punctuation, different writing purposes and modes, paraphrasing, thesis statements, topic sentences, engaging description, supporting details, and essay format. Since texting and commenting on Facebook are about the only writing they do, they are surprised that “c u latr lol” is not acceptable. Many do not make it through the semester.
The number of skills needed to write is mind-boggling, and what I have discovered is that even at the college level the biggest obstacle is language. Students with a limited vocabulary can master skills, but rarely do their essays rise above an elementary level. Writing requires words—descriptive, specific, fanciful, precise--to convey meaning to a reader. Without the right ‘words’, writing is simply black print on paper. Yet teaching vocabulary without context is useless, and since most students who struggle with writing don’t read widely, it is difficult for their vocabulary to grow.
Along with not reading, the second problem at all levels is: how often do students get to tell stories and use words in school? With twenty students and more in a class, teachers don’t have time to listen to every kid’s (big or small) tale of what happened on the way to school. My students have incredible stories of divorce, DUIs, foster care, immigration, jail time and death. Sometimes I read about their hardships in disjointed essays. Rarely do I listen.
When I first taught in the 80s, the LEA (Language Experience Approach) was big. Students recited stories to volunteers and aides who wrote them down. The kids saw their words and thoughts on paper, and when they reread them, the stories had correct spelling and punctuation. At the college level, I have used a type of LEA for not only my EL students, but for those who find that getting ideas from their heads onto paper is a daunting task. During the edit stage, I can ask questions to help each writer draw out or add details. It then gives the student a model and shows the connection between thoughts and words.
In my lowest writing class, I do an exercise on sensory description. I bring in spices to smell and food to taste. Students work in groups using an online thesaurus and dictionary to find words to describe their sensations. They love the exercise, but it is not enough. It is never enough.
In all my classes, my students brainstorm why vocabulary is important. When they are done writing their ideas on the board, I hit them with this fact: the one proven indicator of success in a career is a rich and useful vocabulary. As employers and employees we need to be able to successfully communicate, direct and inspire with words.
I would love to hear ideas on building vocabulary at all levels, and would like to share them in the next post. In the meantime, when a student wants to tell you a story, I hope you will take the time to listen. It is an important link to writing.