Writing with Voice

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By Mary Shea, co-author of The FIVES Strategy for Reading Comprehension

Writing is an expressive language process that allows us to record thoughts, feelings, knowledge, and inspirations. That expression can be for ourselves or for an audience. Transforming ideas into written words requires considerable effort, making the message clear and interesting enough to hold readers’ attention. Passion for sharing ideas is the force that drives writers to persist at refining a composition.

If the content of the message is something a writer knows and cares about, the work is personally relevant; stamina comes naturally. It may be knowledge about an issue he is compelled to share that sustains the desire to carry on. Or, it might be interest in a topic that leads to investigating more deeply and reporting findings.

Unless appreciated as composing first and related secretarial elements (i.e. grammar, spelling, sentence structure) second, writing will not fully develop traits related to craft. Developing writers are motivated to hone skills when the purposes for writing are authentic — when they can attend to function (e.g., purposes meaningful to them) ahead of, but not neglecting, form (i.e., conventions).

Effective writing classrooms put a Latin principle into practice. The message is ancient, but simple. Scribendo disces scribere — By writing you will learn to write. It’s the same for so many things in life; it’s how the term on-the-job training came into our lexicon. Doing the task makes components easier to understand, especially when the work has meaning to the one doing it.

Students must write in school for the same reasons people use writing in the world.

Developing writers need opportunities to comfortably engage in practices that prepare them for the target performance. They need to

  • watch experts,
  • receive instruction,
  • have models as a reference,
  • opportunities to take chances,
  • make mistakes, get feedback,
  • be encouraged and guided, and
  • be nudged to try something new.

This happens in a classroom with a community of writers who have time to write, choice in topics, and ownership of their work — and an effective workshop facilitator who continuously gathers information on their strengths and needs.

The effective writing teacher gathers valuable performance data while watching and interacting with writers. To relieve memory of the burden, she makes anecdotal notes, capturing the smallest learning milestones that may otherwise be forgotten. There’s no one right way to take notes; the key is to have a system for doing it — one that’s consistent and easy to access.

The teacher stops to visit with a writer, asking, “Would you tell me about what you are working on?” She shares her reactions to and understanding of the message and awaits the writer’s response to confirm, explain, and extend. They may discuss the writer’s intent, the content and clarity of the ideas, or the style of writing. As a writing coach, teachers do in-the-moment assessment and provide just enough instruction to meet the writer’s immediate needs.

The writer is always in the lead, assuming control; the teacher offers constructive feedback sensitively delivered, coaching, and nurturing. The goal is to help the writer take a step forward — to write better. It’s important to allow trust to grow in this relationship. Combined, observations and interactions inform the teacher’s plans for differentiated, targeted instruction. Without such a balance, interventions are futile interference.

Learning to write well takes time. Acquiring the skill to do that happens when adults offer patience, effective instruction, opportunities for guided practice, genuine feedback, appreciation and respect for approximations, and an audience for the message. The same ingredients lead to an athlete’s agility at a sport.

Perfecting the elements of quality writing represents a long-term goal; it’s actually a lifetime pursuit. Successful teachers keep an eye on the target while working in the moment — letting students write daily to say what they think, know, wish, wonder, care about, imagine, believe … and more, ensuring that writers find their voice.

Order your copy of The FIVES Strategy for Reading Comprehension.