June 19, 2010

Walking My Talk

Do you have children who finish a summary, or report, or creative piece, and are even proud of it, but when you read it you have to work hard to fill in the missing parts? Then when you point out that they used "telling" language, instead of "showing" language, they insist that all that should be there is there. In their minds all the details, or main points, or both, were crystal clear. But transferring it to paper, and stepping into the reader's viewpoint for some of that time, lost their intricacies in translation.

For over a decade I have contributed to listservs about reading and writing, and have decided to practice what i pr(t)each, which is to write frequently, in a way that goes against the culture of txting, sound bytes, and abbreviations. No wonder our kids have writing struggles. Teen communications are in the form of sentence fragments on facebook, which I call "poem wanna-be's." Okay, at least they are writing, some opinionators say. I can't align with that, only because the kids I tutor who have trouble coming up with rich vocabulary are often immersed in simplistic reading material such as books with a lot of slapstick to carry the plot (aka The Wimpy Kid).

The more I dig down with each student, I uncover roadblocks prevent kids from writing well, which the truth of Mel Levine's treatise, which is that writing has the most sub-components of any academic task. This results in overwhelm, shut-down, or just plain avoidance. We forget that novice writers have to hold so many skills - and self-talk - in their heads at once.

When proficient writers produce a piece of writing, they cannot necessarily feel themselves performing such components of the process: moving into the reader's mind, constantly re-reading what they have written, asking themselves if this make sense, practicing verb agreement, staying on the topic and reining in other thoughts, paying attention to possible repetitive language, or repeated points, accessing the imaginary "rolodex" of synonyms in their own mind, and remembering the dozen or more comma rules.

So that is how I came up with Taming the Octopus. Writing and reading are about taking things apart and putting them together, but most of that occurs in the mind. To some children this feels mysterious and invisible, and they think there is a secret to writing that maybe they have not stumbled upon yet. My concrete, spatially-oriented students need explicit instruction in how to use words that make a distinct movie occur for the reader.

I would love to know what topics you want to hear about. I am just getting my feet wet, and hope to get some helpful posts up here, with comments from parents with a wide variety of inquiries about writing instruction.


  1. I'm glad you started this, Kendra. I agree that writing is often overlooked (in favor of reading and math) but in many ways writing is more fundamental than reading. If nothing was written, there'd be nothing to read! I'll look forward to future posts!
    ---Patricia Nan Anderson

  2. Oh, good for YOU, Kendra! And good for all readers and writers who struggle or know someone who struggles. Thanks for sharing of yourself in this way!