Emphasis Urged on the Teaching of Writing in Early Grades

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Houston--Children as young as six years old are eager and able to begin writing the day they start school, said a university researcher testifying here before the National Commission on Excellence in Education.

And those who are exposed to the writing process early in their school careers may develop important reading and thinking skills more rapidly and easily than those who do not begin writing until they are farther along.

"We're just beginning to find out what children can do in writing," Donald Graves, director of the writing-process laboratory at the University of New Hampshire's school of education, told the five commissioners who attended the meeting. The daylong hearing, the second of six that the commission will conduct this year, was convened to examine a half-dozen subjects related to language, literacy, and foreign-language instruction.

Mr. Graves, among other speakers, urged an increased emphasis on writing as one way of improving the literacy of American students.

"When students see writing as a daily exercise, when they see drafts as temporary, when they see a need for reading, very important changes go on. When writers revise, a lot of higher-level reading is involved," he said. "Even six-year-olds can choose their topics, research, revise, and draft them."

Increased Research

Speakers consistently advocated increased research on teaching and learning and thorough retraining for America's teachers.

They said that reading has too long been taught in isolation from other subjects such as history and science, and that writing--both at the elementary and secondary levels--is rarely taught at all.

Classroom time allocated for these tasks--to master higher-level writing skills or to demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language--has been inadequate.

Moreover, the background and experiences that children, particularly minority students, bring to class have been ignored in the writing process; students of all ages, even if they may lack a rich, diverse cultural perspective, should be encouraged to write about the things they do know firsthand, said the speakers. Students, they concluded, must be made active participants in the learning process.

The issue of closing the gap between high achievers and low achievers in the critical areas of reading and writing was also addressed by one speaker. Alan C. Purves, director of the curriculum laboratory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, presented the results of two recent studies conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. The studies, which compared American students with those in 14 other countries, indicated "a general lack of impact of (American) school actions in closing the gap between high- and low-level achievers," he told the commissioners.

Although this country "brings more children further than any other country tested," Mr. Purves said, "there is clear evidence of a lack of opportunity for many students to learn in critical areas of reading and literature."

Teachers of low achievers generally assigned "busy work" and drill work instead of essay writing, he said. "It's as if we teach the bright ones to be clever and the dumb ones to be honest."

However, the commissioners also heard some encouraging news from Mr. Graves, who reported on the results of a project based in Atkinson, N.H. For two years, the director of the writing-process laboratory followed the progress of six-year-olds who wrote daily and who were publishing their own "books" by the end of their first school year.

"In learning to write, a child is also learning to think," Mr. Graves told the commissioners. "He takes the facts, suspends judgment, and keeps on analyzing."

'Red-Line First Draft'

In the past, said the director, writing was either considered the domain of accelerated students or meted out as punishment. Moreover, most writing instruction still consists of what Mr. Graves characterized as the "red-line first draft."

"The assignment is given out, taken home, brought back and turned in," he explained. "The teacher then corrects it, and the students revise it by taking out the red. They don't learn to use the information and peel it away."

The Atkinson project, however, had its participants revising as many as eight drafts over a three-week period, he reported. Quotation marks were used--accurately. Teachers wrote along with their students and discovered that their charges pushed for still more. Reading, listening, and speaking abilities were stimulated.

Educators must teach like this, "through the process," Mr. Graves maintained.

Margaret Smith-Burke, associate professor in educational psychology at New York University, also called for an increased emphasis on writing, to start as early as possible in a child's education, because "thinking about what you are writing forces higher-level reading skills."

Ms. Smith-Burke said both reading and writing instruction should not be limited to language-arts classes but must be taught across the curriculum; teachers in other academic areas, especially in secondary schools, must learn to teach reading during their classes, too, she argued.

Describing successful reading programs, in Hawaii, Montana, and New York City, she listed several factors that were critical in making the efforts work.

Consideration of students' socio-ethnic background;

Sustained silent reading;

Writing as an integral part of the program;

A new "facilitator role" for the teacher, as students took an active part in the process of learning.

"We need to support development of new ways to assess higher-level skills," she said. "We cannot assume lower-order reading automatically leads to higher-level skills."

Maligned and Misunderstood

But if American students' reading and writing skills are in need of improvement, foreign-language study and bilingual education have been even more hampered, those testifying indicated. Instructional theories have been indiscriminately employed, and in the case of bilingual education, the theories have been maligned and misunderstood, according to Delia Pompa, executive director of bilingual education for the Houston schools.

"Everything that's been said about first-language acquisition applies to second-language acquisition," said Ray Clifford, dean of the federal government's Defense Lan-guage Institute in Presidio, Calif. "But in second-language teaching and instruction we have yet to reach mediocrity."

American students' foreign-language skills have declined, he said, to the point where it becomes difficult to set even minimum standards of acceptability for teacher-certification or foreign-employment purposes; as skills have declined, standards have been lowered to the point that they become meaningless, he said. And yet, Mr. Clifford pointed out, "our very safety in the world" depends on those skills.

Ms. Pompa, who oversees 28,000 Hous-ton students identified as limited-English-proficient, agreed with Mr. Clifford that the two critical factors in learning a second language are qualified language teachers and programs of adequate length. Mr. Clifford called for a national assessment on foreign languages, while Ms. Pompa urged that research on the language acquisition of all children be supported.

The commission's next hearing, which will examine teaching and teacher competency, will be held on May 12th in Atlanta. President Reagan appointed the commission to recommend ways of establishing excellence in both the nation's public and private schools. A formal report is scheduled for release in March 1983.

Vol. 01, Issue 31

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