Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Where’s the love for reading and writing? An Interview with Laurie Halse Anderson

By Peter DeWitt — October 15, 2011 8 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

“Children are born creative. I think that the emphasis on tests and judging creative expression damages that inherent creativity very early on.” Laurie Halse Anderson

Educators are the Jack of All Trades when it comes to teaching. Most educators can teach any subject area given the proper amount of time and effort. However, one of the hardest areas to teach is the one we are all responsible for and that is writing. It’s kind of sad because being able to write is a massively powerful tool. Whether you’re writing a sentimental card to a loved one or a wildly creative story to capture the attention of your students, writing is a form of communication and entertainment everyone should be able to do.

Another area where we seem to lose our students is in reading. Given that there are more books in a wider variety of genres than ever before, I’m surprised that many of our students fall out of love with reading as they get older. There are many reasons why students are at risk of becoming non-readers. Perhaps it’s that they do not feel that they are good at it, or they would rather play video games because it’s a faster-paced activity, I worry that reading is becoming a lost art.


Kindergartners and first graders always approach me in school to share a story they have written or read their favorite new book. They have such pride when they read their story to me, and of course, I always try to give an over the top reaction. It’s truly a gift to see students read a book or share something they have written. The awesome part of being in an elementary school is that we get to watch kids read their first book or write their first story.

Unfortunately, as kids get older they like reading and writing less. We need to find a way to reignite that love for reading and writing. Do we put out their fires because we make it too scientific? After all, we can’t do anything without hearing the words “scientifically based!” Or, are we not giving them exciting topics to write about?

We need to bring back creativity to the classroom. If we truly want to show everyone that high stakes testing doesn’t matter, then we need to teach students what does matter. Perhaps in the future we will enter our own enlightenment era and not have to be concerned about high stakes testing. However, that’s not going to happen for awhile. We may not be able to control what we teach but we can certainly control how we teach it!

Going to the Professional

This summer, I spent a great deal of time reflecting on how we teach students to write and read but as much as I may think I know about writing and reading, I wanted an outside perspective. I contacted world-renowned children’s author Laurie Halse Anderson. Laurie has visited thousands of schools and has spoken to thousands of children and educators. She has a unique perspective on teaching a love for writing and bringing back the magic of reading.

PD: What are your thoughts on how schools teach writing?

LHA: I’m a mom, a former student, and someone who spends a lot of time writing. I’ve observed a fair number of classrooms and talked to many students about writing, but I am not a professional educator. That caveat aside, I have a few opinions.

I think that the desire to teach writing well is there. But the omnipresence of The Standardized Test combined with the other pressures facing classroom teachers has eroded the time teachers have to do the actual teaching, as well as any willingness on the part of administrations to give teachers some flexibility to try different techniques.

Writing could and should be as natural as speaking. Human beings are born story-tellers, both in the fictional and non-fictional way. Our species is wired to communicate and to enjoy receiving communication from others. But too often, by the time a child is in third grade, she says “I hate writing.” I take that as a sign that we’re doing something wrong.

PD: Do you have any suggestions on how we could do a better job of it?

LHA: I think that student’s statement, “I hate writing” hides a larger truth. In my experience, the student is really saying “I hate the way that writing makes me feel.”

I understand that pain!

I hated writing when I was a kid because I was a lousy speller. My teachers never seemed to be able to look past my spelling mistakes and evaluate what I was trying to say. I still hate writing (sometimes) when I’m stuck in a draft. Being honest about the emotional highs and lows of the writing process could help students enormously. I love to compare writing to sports; I have to work out and sweat and be sore and practice when I don’t want to in order to experience the rewards of a well-played game of soccer, or a great race. Likewise, I have to endure the anxiety of those stinky early drafts, the frustration of feedback suggesting I revise again, and the occasional bout of tedium to enjoy the thrill of have a reader love my book.

I would also love to see teachers keep track of their own writing process and post drafts of their work. (This is easily done with the mark-up function of most word processors.) To be effective, the writing sample in question would need to be short; no more than a few paragraphs. Perhaps a letter home to parents might work as an example. Or a complaint letter to a manufacturer. Something that is real-world and has an interest or a connection to the student. I don’t think I have ever sent an email that was longer than three sentences that wasn’t revised at least once. Revision is such a hurdle for so many students we need to surround them with the evidence that it is done constantly.

Third, I wish that there was a clearer distinction between the kinds of writing that students are asked to do; informative, persuasive, creative, etc. (For the record, look at those three words: informative, persuasive, creative. They are not exactly stirring words, are they? Kind of vague. Adult. When we use vague words, noun-less words, we run the risk of confusing some children. Yes, they must know what the words’ meaning (especially when it comes time to take the almighty test!), but in the teachable moment, I think finding words that are more concrete make the concepts easier to understand.) Is there a way to make the types of writing as distinct from each other as the branches of mathematics?

Some kids are great at geometry, but struggle with algebra. If we did a better job differentiating between the types of writing and their associated skill sets, maybe we could find more ways to play to the strengths of many students, and help them figure out how to improve in the areas that are problematic.

PD: In schools we mention the words scientifically-based a lot. What are your thoughts on scientifically-based writing and reading?

LHA: Again, I am not a professional educator, so my opinions are based on instinct and emotion, not research or classroom experience. I suspect that there are scientifically-based evaluative techniques that are quite useful when trying to measure a child’s performance in reading. I imagine that the waters are a bit muddier when it comes to evaluating writing. For example, I know that the concept of “voice” is an important one in writing classes. But I cannot imagine how one would begin to measure or analyze it.

There are a number of corporations that have turned a tidy profit by convincing school districts to invest in their “writing system.” Three tricks, five steps, six traits, eight levels, ten tested-techniques; that wheel gets reinvented over and over again. I can understand why a teacher would look for this kind of guidance; writing well is a foundation stone of education and teaching writing - especially to students who are struggling - is hard.

But I think these programs make the matter more difficult than it has to be.

Imagine this; structuring a writing curriculum around three concepts. Number One: the writer learns how to understand what she wants to communicate. Number Two: she writes what she wants to communicate and tests it out on a reader. Number Three: the reader gives immediate, constructive, written feedback so the writer can see if she achieved her goals. If started as a young enough age, this could be turned into a game, so that the writer is rewarded when she has effectively communicated with text. Not just a good grade; something that has meaning.

PD: How can we teach kids to be more creative?

LHA: We need to get out of the way! Children are born creative. I think that the emphasis on tests and judging creative expression damages that inherent creativity very early on. One of the first places this happens is when children draw. Some kids are born with artistic gifts; they are better able to reproduce images and create visual art that goes beyond the mechanical to the expressive and meaningful. Too often the children without those gifts quickly feel that they “can’t draw.” They shut off an entire avenue of creative expression for themselves, to their detriment and ours.

I think it is important to recognize that writing is an art and a skill-set that is going to come more easily to some students than others. But everyone can learn how to write well, write fluently, write with passion and purpose.

Boiling writing down to the concept of sharing, of communicating, and then turning that into games for younger children might be an interesting approach.

PD: Given the influence of technology do you feel writing is at risk of becoming a lost art?

LHA: That depends on how you define “writing.” If you had asked me twenty years ago, I would have said that writing is text-based, effective communication that conveys to the reader what the writer intends. Today I’d have to modify that, because technology allows image and sound to be braided into text in ways that enhance that communication. Text-based communication will never vanish, but as with all things human, it will change and grow.

PD: How has technology changed the way kids read your books?

LHA: I suspect that attention spans are shorter. I know that within a few years I hope to be offering e-books that have enhanced features like images, sound, and video that you cannot share in a paper book. But the need for compelling Story has not, and will not, change (End of Interview).

Follow Peter on Twitter.

Laurie Halse Anderson is the New York Times-bestselling author who writes for kids of all ages. Known for tackling tough subjects with humor and sensitivity, her work has earned numerous national and state awards, as well as international recognition. Two of her books, Speak and Chains, were National Book Award finalists. Laurie was honored with the 2009 Margaret A. Edwards Award given by YALSA division of the American Library Association for her "significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature...". Mother of four and wife of one, Laurie lives in Northern New York, where she likes to watch the snow fall as she writes.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.