Q & A: A 'Revisionist' View of Teaching Writing: Donald Graves on Methods That Work

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At the recent meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English, Donald H. Graves received the David H. Russell Award for Distinguished Research in the Teaching of English. For the past 10 years, Mr. Graves, a professor of early-childhood education and director of the Writing Process Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, has been studying the ways that children learn to write and how teachers can best make writers out of nonwriters.

In the course of his work, which involved working with and studying schoolchildren in New Hampshire and elsewhere, he concluded that children learn to write by writing daily and by learning to revise their work through as many drafts as necessary to produce a polished result. His ideas have influenced the teaching of writing here and abroad, but, he says, the fact remains that too few schools include sustained writing in their curricula. His latest book, Writing: Teachers and Children at Work, is intended to be a how-to guide for educators who want to apply his findings to their own teaching. The book will be available shortly from Heinemann Educational Books Inc.

During the ncte meeting, Mr. Graves talked with Susan Walton about the pleasures of writing and the methods that he and his research colleagues believe lead to success in teaching children how to write.

QYou talk about writing as a process, which, I imagine, is not the way most teachers think about it. What do you mean when you use the phrase "the process of writing"?

AThe process of writing describes everything a child does from the time he or she chooses the topic until the child finishes the final draft and it goes to publication. ... We stress the writer learning how to choose a topic wisely, how to do a discovery draft, how to revise, and finally, how to go to publication, either in hardcover, in a newspaper, or in a class literary supplement, so that your writing is always going to audiences beyond the teacher.

QIs there also a process that begins when a child first picks up a pencil and continues all through life?

AYes, that's right. There's also a process to the writer's development. First, the writer is concerned with spelling and handwriting, because that's where the struggle is, getting a word down so that someone else can understand the word. You ask a child at the age of 6, "What do you need to do in order to be able to write well?" and the child says, "Spell good." And that's the answer.

Gradually, the child goes from focusing on spelling and handwriting to esthetics, the appearance of the page. Next, children think the piece is good because they chose the right topic. Then they develop a concern for information: "I should have had more of this." And finally, they learn to see the words as manipulable. They see the draft as temporary. They are able to suspend judgment and take a piece up through four or five drafts, unassigned. In other words, they've taken over the process. The teacher doesn't have to push them or cajole them into doing it.

QHow does one guide a child through this process, and how long does it take?

AWith a good teacher, you can do it within two years. There are a lot of conditions in the classroom that make that possible. Number one, children can do it by the age of 8 if they write every day. If they write the national average of one day in 10--no way.

The reason most people hate writing is they don't get a chance to do it. The teachers say, "How do I get them to write?" You don't "get'' a kid to write who writes every day. It's the person who doesn't write that you have to get to write.

We find the breakthrough comes for children when they "write" even when they're not writing. You are not idle if you write daily.

So Johnny, age 6, says, "My daddy found a bat in the attic and you know, I couldn't wait to get to school to write about that bat." Now--a key thing--John thought about it because he knew that on Monday, he'd write. And secondly, he knew he could write about bats. But suppose John didn't know that he was ever going to write, and suppose he had to wait for the teacher to write the topic on the board?

QThe likelihood is that the teacher wouldn't pick something as interesting as bats?

AThe likelihood is that the teacher would pick something the kid didn't know a dang thing about, something morally uplifting like "Should there be capital punishment?" Well, how can you suddenly gin up your thinking, on the spot, to come up with good information? That's the trick. You can't. Kids come up with lousy information if they don't get in and gather the facts, as a journalist has to do, as any writer has to do. It's no different.

QAnd that is a skill that comes from frequent writing?


QAren't you also countering another thing that scares people about writing--their fear that if they write about something they know, that it's not serious, that it's just trivial to write about their trip to the grocery store with their mother, for instance.

ARight. But you can't write about nothing.

QYou can try.

AYou can try, but somebody's going to say, "What the heck is this all about?" Every day, kids all across the country have to write about nothing.

QBut in writing about something they know, they are learning other things about writing, too?

AYes. We find, for example, that in working with kids in 1st grade up through 3rd grade, they get a pretty heavy dose of working in personal narrative. Through that, they learn what information is all about. They learn what it is to be persuasive. They know a lot of things. They can make the switch--and we've got the data on it--in writing in content areas, up to eight drafts, in two weeks' time. Because they know what it is to document propositions with facts, you've got to back it up with something. And it takes time. You can't get it in a first draft, because in a first draft, you're discovering, you're just getting into the subject.

QYou say that 90 percent of all children come to school thinking that they already know how to write. They make lines on paper, and someone says, "No, that's just pretend writing, that isn't real writing." Is it real writing they're doing?

ASure it is. It's what we call "inventive writing."

QWhat does that mean?

AIt means the child will spell like this: "I wt to str." I went to the store. The child is inventing spellings as he hears them, just the way he learns to talk. But the child can read what he's written again. The teacher can read it again in most cases. If kids know about six consonants, they can begin to write. They can begin to parlay those into meanings, along with the drawings they make to go with the writing.

QSo the drawing is a part of the writing?

AOh, yes. It's an organic whole. We need to treat the child's early art much more seriously than we do because there's more information there than there is in the writing. But it doesn't end there. We have hard data on how a child makes the shift until there's no drawing at all.

QSo they're doing this early writing, but it's generally not reinforced by teachers?

ARight. Teachers look at it as incorrect spelling. It is incorrect in the full sense, but we have data that show how these spellings evolve. They don't end up there.

QIf I were a 1st-grade teacher, and I wanted to teach writing as a process, what should I do?

AThe first thing you do is go around to each child, and you stress what the kid knows. Let's say the child has a drawing of a house, a tree, and two people standing there. And the child writes, "This is my family." As a teacher, I go around, and the first thing I do is I receive it, that is, let him know that something is coming through. Every writer needs to know, for gosh sake, does anything come through? Anything? I say "John, I see that you have a house here, and then there are some people standing here, and you said that is your family. Did I get that right? Is that what you have here?" "Yes, that's right," he says. "See that over there in the corner? That's my cat, too." "So, this is your family, and then your cat is over there, too."

QWhat does that do for the child?

AIt helps the child, above all, to know that what you write down, another person can understand at another place in time. And that's what writing is for, to communicate information, to communicate what is of interest to the writer to an audience at another place in time.

Then I'll bring it out the next day and I'll say "John, tell me about that again. Isn't that amazing? You wrote it on Monday and here it is Wednesday and we can still read it again." It's the miracle of print, as opposed to talk. It's the poor man's instant replay.

QSo part of this is the process of communicating the excitement of writing, the amazing fact that you can get through to other people?

AThat's right. It produces an impact on me, but it's important that it not just be the teacher who reads it. It should be the other children as well. So we have the children go through the same process of receiving each other's writing. We confirm: "This is your family and this is your cat over there. Did we get that right, John?" "Yes." "Now we have some questions." Then we ask questions.

QSuch as?

AWhat about your goldfish? You said you had a goldfish the other day. John grabs the pen, and writes it in.

QSo you're teaching them to notice detail as well.

AAbsolutely. Actually we began revision with him right there.

QBut you don't use that word. You don't say, "'John, this is very nice but it isn't enough."

ANo, none of that. We say to the child, "You know it, and if we are to understand it at another place in time, you'd probably better put it down, if you want us to understand it."

At first they say, "Forget it. I know it, if I know it, that's enough." But that's how writers change. When they begin to realize the impact that their words have on other people, then they want to put it in.

QSo this is something that every day, in the 1st-grade classroom, the teacher who wishes to go through this process should do. How much time should he or she spend on it?

AIt varies with the classroom. Also, we don't differentiate between the [teaching of] reading and the [teaching of] writing. We found out the hard way that you lose so much when you treat kids' writing differently than you do the writing of other people. When you treat it the same, what you create is an assertive author. John is reading his friends' pieces. He's also reading story books. We treat the reading of other people the same way we treat his writing, which has become reading. So that when the children read a book by Beatrix Potter, they receive it and ask questions of the author, just as they do of each other. It becomes an integrated process. And writers read differently than nonwriters.


AThey're assertive. They want to know, "How did you start that? How come you started with that lead?' Six year olds don't use words like "lead" and "draft." They'll say "How come you didn't say they felt sad at the end? Or how did you come up with that topic? Where did you find it? What are you going to do next with your piece?"

They stretch the writer, challenge the writer. That's how the writer becomes an assertive reader. If you've published, and you defended your piece, you turn those same tools around and use them on others. And that's what we want--assertive readers and writers who are willing to defend their pieces.

The other thing is that the process of writing is the making of reading. If you make [reading], you take it apart different-ly. If you read an article in your field, you're going to be much more assertive and critical in your judgment. That's what we want--writers with turf, writers who have sort of charted out a little bit of territory. They know something about it, and they put it on the line. You're continually expanding that turf.

QSo a 1st-grade teacher begins spending a daily period of time on these things. What happens? And what else must the teacher do?

AWhat happens is that the reading and writing take off, and the kids are doing it all day long. But there is a time when the teacher responds more formally to it and pulls four or five kids over to work with them and gets two or three kids to help each other.

QNow, if I were a teacher, I'd probably say, "This is all very nice, but I have several questions. When do I teach the grammar that the children need to pass minimum-competency tests?" What would you say?

AThat question usually comes up with older kids, but let's address it. Grammar, punctuation, and spelling are handled when the writer goes into the final draft. Now, as writing is usually taught, the kid writes a piece, he gets it all corrected, he gets it back, he changes it, he cleans it up, he sort of puts a manicure on the corpse. He passes it back to the teacher, who says, "Fine, you got all the errors." But all he did was to take all the red marks out and clean it up--there's no change in information. That's before the writer even knows his subject. There's more convoluted prose and poor grammar because the writer doesn't know his or her subject. We find that when kids go through successive drafts, and they learn to control the information more, you're automatically dealing with a lot of the problems of grammar that somebody had to bust their brains on in the first draft.

QWhat about the issue of minimum-competency testing?

AI have a very hard job with minimum-competency testing. I'll speak on what I see as benefits and liabilities. In the state of New York, for example, they've got a very extensive minimum-competency program, ordained by the legislature. On the positive side, the interest that has come about in writing is phenomenal. It really is. But I have real problems with the words "minimum competency." Suppose I came to you and said, "I'd like to make you a minimal journalist?" Something goes click in the head of the teacher and in the head of the kid. I want every kid to be stretched to his fullest. If I do that, we'll take care of all this minimal stuff. We really need to press for excellence, never knowing who the good writers will be.

QHow else do you work on grammar and spelling?

ABefore a child goes to the final copy, we ask that he circle any word that he thinks may be misspelled. The problem of the poor speller is that he or she is afraid that a word may be wrong, and what we want is the speller who learns to estimate, to guess well, which words may be spelled wrong. So we give high praise to the poor speller who at least has estimated well, even though the word may be off the wall and they can't find it in the dictionary. That also gives us a continuing picture as to what to teach.

We also tell them to put boxes around places where they think there may be problems of punctuation. And, to put lines under places where they think there still may be problems of information. In other words, I want a good, strong, self-audit before I go to all the trouble to do what you, the student, ought to be doing. Then I can teach. I can teach better when you've done a self-audit, because then I see what your perceptions are. But if I do it all for you and correct it, that's not teaching. Correcting is not teaching at all. There's hard data on that one. Estimation is the beginning of learning. I can give you precision if you can begin to estimate well.

QWhat about the language of grammar? Do you talk about things like subordinate clauses?

ASure. For example, there are some times when a child has connected everything with "and." This is a common problem. "We went to the store and we bought toys and we got in the car and we went home and we went to bed." Period. It may not even have the period there. As a teacher, you've got to show what you mean by subordination. You say, "Tell me which one you like the sound of better. Which one do you think I'll understand more because all of this exists for the sake of meaning." If we get off the subject of meaning, it doesn't make a damn bit of sense to the kid.

You say, "All right, you went to the store, you got some toys, you got in the car, and you went home." Kids can pick up that kind of structure in two minutes' time. They say, "Boy, I don't have to do all that work, writing all those ands in there. What's that thing called again?" A third of the children in our classrooms use quotation marks accurately at the age of 6. They can't tell you what the name of it is, but they say, "When you say words, that's what you put in there." They get it because they want the people who are reading to realize that someone is talking. That's a big thrill, that somebody can talk off their pages.

QIt sounds as if teachers would have to revise their thinking a lot if they used this method.

ARight. Take the usual two-day assignment. On Monday, the teacher puts the topic on the board, children write it in class, take it home at night for homework, finish it up, pass it in. Tuesday, the teacher gets it, corrects it, passes it back, and Wednesday the children smooth out all the bumps in it. End of process.

I can't do it that way. These kids' pieces develop significantly over a 10-day period. For 8- and 9-year-olds, it's nothing to have a piece develop over three weeks, with good editor's conferences with the teacher. Now, those kids are learning what information is all about. And the teacher can participate in the process all the way through choosing the topic through early drafts into final copy. But if it's done in two days only, he or she can't get to everybody. That's why peo-ple can't teach process, that's why they put the topic on the board. They've got the writer on welfare--depending on the teacher for everything. And then the teachers say, "How do I get them to do it?"

QWhat you're saying, then, is that the teacher who thinks in terms of "Oh my God, I have to correct all those papers" is not looking at the "process" the right way?

ANo, they're looking at it from the standpoint of taking all the papers home Tuesday night and passing them back on Wednesday. That's not teaching, and they've got themselves in a corner on those two days. What we have to do is to gradually help writers to learn to use time by writing every day; then gradually that time expands, and expands, and expands as they go through the process all the way to publication. Not on every piece. Some pieces should be abandoned. You didn't know your subject, you chose it because your friend over there chose it.

QAre most teachers well prepared to do this?

ANo. They have to start with their own writing. You can't teach what you don't practice. The first thing we do in working with the faculties is write together. And we go through the process. You've got to find out what it's like from the inside before you help someone else.

QHow do you grade students using this method?

AEveryone keeps a writing folder. You don't throw anything away. When you pass in your final copy, you staple your drafts to it.

In the marking period, which is usually eight to 10 weeks, you've done probably eight or nine pieces. We ask that you choose 10 days before the end of the marking period, take your top two or three pieces, and then you make your best better. It's the worst thing in the world when a piece that you had to abandon, that you didn't know anything about, tears down a subject that you really did well on. I'd hate for Don Graves' work to be averaged at the end of the year. I want to be known for my top two or three pieces, thank you. Artists, when they go on exhibitions, don't hang up everything. They choose their best, and they'll stand by that.

QAre they embarrassed by those early drafts?

AYou're not embarrassed if you've got your final copy--then it goes the other way. "Look at the chaos I came from to the victory that's on the top." It's really pretty heady. It's really nice to show how they've changed. Sometimes it boomerangs--some kids don't think they've done a good piece unless they've done eight drafts.

Actually, our study showed that in the first year [students] did far more drafts than in the second, the next year, subsequently less, because they were learning to choose their topics better. They were learning better how to rehearse when theyn't writing so that when they came to write, they'd probably done two drafts in their heads.

QHow do students react to this?

AThere's no misunderstanding. You did it, or you didn't do it, and you had plenty of shots at it. There's far less misunderstanding than you find in a kid who gets a red-lined first draft back and doesn't know what the hell the comments mean.

There's a lot of research on kids' interpretation of teachers' comments on their papers. If teachers could read what the interpretations were, they'd never waste their time that way.

QGive me an example.

AOh, you know, "awk." Awk what? The kid may translate "awkward," but it's usually written in the margin. Well, the child wonders, is it an awkward word, is it an awkward idea, is it an awkward syntax? How do you know? You don't. The great awk bird.

QIn your book, you say that variability in writing is good, and that a consistently acceptable product is not necessarily good.

[Mr. Graves takes out a graph depicting the wildly fluctuating performance of one child.]

AThis is how variable one of the top writers was. In the course of two years, we had two professional writers reading her pieces, not knowing the order they were writ-ten in. The judges evaluated all of the pieces that Andy did over two years. So this [Mr. Graves points to the lowest point on the line graph] would be her poorest and this [a peak on the line graph] would be her best piece. Look how close they are, chronologically.

If you charted your performance over a year, your graph wouldn't be a lot different from this one. But we get on the child and say, "Look at that last piece you did, Brian--you can shape up." But every writer has dry periods and periods that are up. Let's treat it as the norm for every person who writes regularly.

Now, this is the other side: These kids are taking big risks with their writing. That's part of the territory. That's why they get this level of excellence. They were waiting for the big one. They really knew and they juiced it.

QAnd they were also willing to experiment?


QSo if someone responds to the praise that the first piece received and says "You liked that so I'm going to do another one just like it ... "

AIt falls on its face every time.

QOr even if it didn't, the person would not progress as a writer.

AThat's true. In a class of 25, about five kids will be on hot topics at any given moment. The rest are putting their time in. But in a classroom, we treat everyone as if this should be their day, and kill them if it isn't. You can't write well that way. I'll always push with the highest of expectations, knowing full well that if it doesn't hit, you're not immoral, or you're not a laggard. It just wasn't the one.

QAnd you've still gone through the process.

AThat's right. You learned by it. The other thing is, conceptually, we've found that kids were making statements about writing [at their low points] that were equal in quality to their statements about writing [at their high points]. There was a lucidity of judgment that went with the lows and the highs that was very useful to the development of the writer.

QSo actually, children's understanding of these things is quite sophisticated.

ASure. Here's what one eight-year-old girl says: "Sometimes when I write a sentence and I realize it doesn't make sense, I'll cross out part of it and make like a circle and up on a space that is blank I'll write what I wanted to write but didn't have room on my paper. Like here, I put 'More and more snow falls, and for a long time something amazing happens.' But I didn't like the word 'happens,' so I put a little sign and I put the same sign at the top of the page and I put 'starts to form."' She felt that was a better way to say what a glacier was doing. I think that's a writer talking.

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