Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Teaching Writing Backwards

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A poster one of my students made.

Last night I was having tea with a couple of my non-writer friends, Jeremy and Barbara, while our children went trick-or-treating. The conversation turned to education. I complained how frustrated I was with how my daughter was being taught writing in school. I believed writing was being taught backward – grammar and spelling first, writing second.

In my early life, as a childcare provider, I spent a lot of time watching young kids explore new things. Take glue for example. Kids pour it out, squish it in their hands, eat it, stick it in their hair, and try to figure out how to work with it. Yes, a lot of glue is wasted, it’s a bit of a mess, but young kids aren't trying to adhere one piece of paper to another, they are discovering glue.

So, I asked, why not let this happen with the written language? Why do educators worry so much about the order of sentences, what things are called, and how exactly they are used, instead of leaving kids to mess around with words and play with the medium? Kids, I proposed, would figure grammar out on their own after they had learned to create stories, characters, and interesting articles.

My friends thought kids still needed grammar lessons, but agreed that giving them to the exclusion of creativity was probably not the right way to go about it. Jeremy, proposed that kids have a grammar class, separate from their writing class, and then only in that context would grammar be marked. Barbara on the other hand was concerned that not enough grammar would be absorbed before university.

So here’s what I came up with. In my perfect world schools would not mark grammar in regular work, but have a once a week grammar class until high school. The students would learn grammar and spelling in grammar class, and explore words as well as the nuts and bolts of creating great fiction and non-fiction in writing class. In high school, grammar lessons would be dropped and both grammar and writing would be taken as one thing and marked together. The kids going off to university should by then not only know how to construct a decent sentence but have a really good grasp of their own voice.

The gist of this is that we need to let the kids pour words on the paper. Squish words between their fingers. Eat, smear, and stick words together without worrying about if it’s wrong. Later, once the kids have figured out the medium, we can show them the proper way of doing things. Then teachers can stop fighting with their students about grammatically improper sentence fragments and start focusing on how to use them to create tension and increase pacing. Maybe if kids could play with words we’d get less kids saying “I hate writing,” and more kids thinking it’s a fun medium to explore.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Kim Firmston

Kim Firmston is a writer and creative writing instructor in Calgary. Her teen novels Schizo and Hook Up were Canadian Children's Book Centre Best Bet Selections. Her short story "Life Before War" was shortlisted for the 2008 CBC Literary Awards. Her most recent novel for teens is Touch, about a teenage hacker with a troubled family life.

Go to Kim Firmston’s Author Page