Quantity over Quality–The Problem with Writing Instruction in Our SchoolsBy Susan L. Lipson
From the archives
As an author and an itinerant writing instructor who visits schools, runs workshops, and tutors youngsters privately, I have found major problems in today’s methods of teaching writing to children. I sum them up as follows: Excessive quantification of written words diminishes the quality of both the writing and the writing experience, just as too much qualification in literary assignments diminishes the quantity of material produced and the thought given to producing it. Students who write with point values in mind merely compose words to fit a teacher’s standards, sacrificing quality to quantitative judgment; thus, verbosity–rather than ingenuity, conciseness, and preciseness–reaps rewards. On the other hand, many teachers eliminate verbosity (a good thing), but hinder fluency (a bad thing) by qualifying every assignment with required checklists demanding certain numbers of words and/or pages, specific placements for quotations, rigid structural limitations, a preset number of figurative expressions, and time-consuming, ancillary crafts projects designed, theoretically, to encourage “reluctant writers.” The competent writing teacher–who must also be a competent writer–knows how to elicit quantity with quality prompts, then grade the quantity in terms of quality.
Incompetence has flourished, however, because of our test-score-based instruction in most schools, instruction that has replaced in-depth critiques with sums of “points per section.” Sadly, the very purpose of writing–clear communication of ideas–has disappeared from many Language Arts classes today. The quantitative product has taken precedence over the qualitative process of writing.
Many teachers have misled students into believing that the scores applied to written works matter more than both the learning derived from the process, and the establishing of one’s own personal best standards in writing. If I, as a writer, create my works based only on what others expect or demand from me, I am not truly communicating, only fashioning words to serve others; not creating, but reiterating; not sighing with pride upon completion of a written work, but rather, with relief to be finished. If I, as a teacher of writing, do not lead my students into careful examination of the words they choose and the reasons they choose them, I fail to assist the communication process. Teachers must write the assignments first!
In focusing on the process, rather than solely on the product, during writing instruction, teachers serve as Muses–to inspire, enlighten, and guide. Teachers must practice more questioning (that good ole Socratic method) and less judging. We must pose questions that produce detailed and/or profound answers. Then we can guide and enrich revisions by asking, “So, is this what you were hoping to convey?” We need to ask what happened between points A and C, not simply deduct points for a lack of B. We should annotate, not simply grade papers; and offer clear example essays (which we ought to write ourselves!), not simply clever writing prompts. Teachers honor communication itself by showing young writers’ that their sweat-filled words matter enough to elicit our thoughtful reactions and sound recommendations for continued improvement.