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Sharing the writing process

ONCE again, a new and influential report about how poorly our children perform after years of instruction in the schools of this country has been issued, this time to tell us that their writing skills are ``distressingly poor.'' Anyone who has anything to do with today's youngsters doesn't really need to have this fact spelled out for him, at least not anyone who has to read their written output. Having been a classroom teacher and remedial therapist for three decades, my only disagreement with the conclusion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress report is the choice of the word used to describe the present situation. A better selection would have been ``catastrophic.''

We might wonder why these children write so poorly.

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Interestingly, the children whose written output provided the basis for the gloomy conclusions of the report also quite innocently provided a vital clue for use in explaining poor writing in the schools. They stated that although their writing was corrected for spelling and grammar 75 percent of the time, the ``quality of their ideas'' was discussed by their teachers less than one-third of the time.

And I suspect that even less time was spent on the process of writing. Not once during my own school days did any of my teachers have the courage to do what must be done if we are ever to make the statement that we are teaching children how to write.

It takes a tremendous amount of confidence to stand before a classroom full of students and say, ``I am going to let you watch me, as I try to write a paragraph, or essay, or term paper, so that you can have at least one model to imitate in your own efforts to `think on paper.' ''

Using a prepared lesson plan about word analysis, or the uses of descriptive adjectives, or topic sentences, or paragraph development, isn't the same as nakedly baring one's soul before students and demonstrating the mental and physical effort that must go into writing anything of value.

To learn to write well, children must be allowed to share the writing process, to observe the false starts, the crumpled papers, the misuses of grammar, the misspellings that inevitably appear in every writer's first drafts.

Not once during my own school days did I get to see how my academic models went about the mind-boggling task of collecting the various bits of information that must coalesce somewhere in the foundry of the mind before chaos is channeled into the order and sequence of a finished work. Not once did any of my teachers allow me the privilege of sharing the inevitable failures that are part and parcel of the baggage which even the most competent writer carries with him as part of the learning process.

Children still aren't learning how to write because we still aren't teaching them how to do it.

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Instead, we persevere in our efforts and teach them ``about'' writing by emphasizing the abstract and technical aspects of the act before they have perceived the big picture.

Anyone who has ever aspired to earn a living by writing has been told that the only way to learn to write is by writing. The same advice should serve as the cardinal principle of those who teach writing to students at any age.

Raymond Laurita, a free-lance writer, is director of the Learning Center, Yorktown Heights, N.Y.

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