Education Opinion

Waiting to Exhale

By Donalyn Miller — February 25, 2009 3 min read
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“If you want to be a writer,” Stephen King says, “you must do two things above all else: read a lot and write a lot.” Reciprocal processes, reading and writing naturally fit together. The most prolific readers are the best writers, and my students and I write every day, as well as read. We inhale rich, powerful language, gain sustenance from it, and create our own ideas. We must read so we can write, and we must write so we have more to read.

This week, we are analyzing excerpts from our favorite books, examining how authors breathe life into their writing by using prepositional phrases. Each day, students select examples from their own books, and I provide one, too. I chose today’s model sentences from our current read aloud, Rick Riordan’s modern-day Greek Mythology adventure, The Lightning Thief:

“We were on a stretch of country road—no place you’d notice if you didn’t break down there. On our side of the highway was nothing but maple trees and litter from passing cars. On the other side, across four lanes of asphalt shimmering with afternoon heat, was an old-fashioned fruit stand (p. 25)”

We discuss how these prepositional phrases help us visualize the setting, then mark out the phrases and read the sentences again. While the passage still basically makes sense, we agree that there is not much imagery left.

I tell students, “My husband claims that fat and sugar carry flavor and without them, food is pretty boring. I suppose prepositional phrases are a sentence’s fat and sugar. Without them, you have a sentence as flavorless as rice cakes!” Having just given up sugar for Lent, I imagine my instructional analogies will be food-focused for the next forty days…

Students identify prepositional phrases in the sentences they collected, and remove them—comparing the flavorful sentences to the rice cake ones. Afterward, we look through our personal writing and choose sentences that need prepositional phrases to clarify ideas or add detail. We read, study how writers use language, and use what we learn to improve our own writing. We breathe in, we breathe out.

How can you teach reading without teaching writing? It shocks me when I hear about secondary school classes where reading and writing are taught as different courses. Same goes for those elementary school classes where writing is sidelined altogether. Writing often takes a back seat to its more-tested brother—reading, which demands more focus due to standardized testing mandates. Even when students write, most don’t engage in process writing—drafting, revising, editing, and publishing original compositions. Studies find that answering worksheet questions is the most commonly practiced writing task in America’s classrooms. Can we claim that filling in blanks on a worksheet counts as authentic writing?

What we need it seems is a national call to arms, a large scale effort to improve writing instruction. In response to this need, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) released its latest report this week, Writing in the 21st Century . Written by Kathleen Blake Yancey, a prominent writing researcher and past president of NCTE, this report challenges educators to reshape how we teach writing, begs us to consider how writing authentically occurs beyond the classroom, and suggests targets for reform.

In addition to the report, NCTE has dedicated October 20, 2009 as a National Day on Writing . Inviting people to post their writing into its National Gallery of Writing, NCTE celebrates the diversity of American writing and its writers—from every life stage and sector. Submit your own writing, ask your family and friends to do the same, and spend some time this spring encouraging your students and their parents to contribute. Send the message loud and clear that writing is a valuable skill, and a vital form of human expression that deserves a prominent place in our lives and in our schools.

The opinions expressed in The Book Whisperer are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.