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Teaching Kids to be Pros at Prose

Is good writing less important in a visual age? Not to anyone who's tried to parse legal briefs, follow instructions - or enjoy a good read.

When it comes to teaching writing, there's little dispute over what's "in" and what's "out."

"In" are personal essays, letters, editorials - in a word, relevance. "Out" is the dinosaur-designate of the English department: the five-paragraph essay, with its carefully structured format.

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What starts the sparks flying is the question of whether this new order teaches students how to write effectively.

Advocates of banishing the classic essay say the new approach may lure in more potential prosemasters who once drifted away amid diagrammed sentences and rigid guidelines. Traditionalists argue that key skills, such as rigorous organization and the ability to fine-tune an argument, may be lost without work on old-fashioned introductions, supporting paragraphs, and conclusions.

"The word 'skills' has been dropped from the discussion of writing," says Martha Kolln, a longtime English professor at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, who recently retired. "Grammar and spelling are down there at the bottom of the heap."

Far from being a merely academic dispute, the stakes are high. The chorus of complaints has grown louder in recent years that "Johnny can't write," despite the tremendous growth in "classroom publishing" and the number of students who take advanced placement courses that require essays.

Most colleges, including the elite ones, have remedial writing programs for incoming freshmen. Consumers complain they can't make sense of communications they receive. Business from large law firms to small-town enterprises are clamoring for workers that can put together clear directives, proposals, and reports.

In an increasingly visual era, when fewer students read and are less inclined to write, it is a tough task.

In its heyday, the five-paragraph essay was considered the tool of choice by most teachers in moving children beyond book reports to more demanding forms of writing. Over and over again, they assigned essays with the requisite elements. The approach, many argued, was insurance against poor style and mushy thinking.

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But in the last two decades, many educators have bolted away from it - and scorned it ever since.

Today's hot buzzwords are "process," and "whole language." Teachers have begun giving students more guidance about the writing process - requiring numerous drafts and showing them how to pick a topic or how to develop a theme. They also adhere to whole language's insistence on careful reading in the styles that students are learning, whether it be Shakespeare's sonnets or Robert Frost's musings on New England woods.

Students learn the mechanics as they move from draft to draft. Gone, in many cases, are the days of spelling tests and diagramming sentences.

Rebel with a cause

One of the most successful rebels against the five-paragraph essay is Nancie Atwell. Six years ago, she founded the Center for Teaching and Learning, a school in the small seacoast town of Edgecomb, Maine.

In addition to being a teacher, this warm, energetic woman is also a writer. And she treats her classroom charges like the accomplished writers she says they are.

Every piece of their writing has a purpose. They ship their poems off to poetry contests. They fire their critiques of books off to the authors. Their opinion pieces appear in local papers. And their pace is fast and rigorous: They produce some 24 pieces of finished work over the year.

Ms. Atwell says the critics who charge that rigor left the English classroom along with the five-paragraph essay, miss the point.

Good writing teachers are like good parents, she says. "Sometimes you come on like gangbusters and say, 'You need to think hard about this.' But sometimes you step back and watch kids discover their purposes and directions."

On a recent Friday afternoon, Atwell perches on her oversized rocking chair. Her class of 14 seventh- and eighth-graders gathers around on the floor. In a colorful classroom that's ringed by the quiet, pine-studded hillsides of southern Maine, she starts in on her first target: the five-paragraph essay.

"You know what teachers used to consider a good piece of writing," she says. "Big words, an impressive vocabulary, and the standard three-to-five paragraph form."

But, she adds, "This was a way of teaching writing based on something that was easy to teach. It had nothing to do with what writers do, or with what readers read or want."

Steadfast rules are a target, too: "When I say to Catherine, 'Start that sentence with "and" to really punch it up and get a rhythm going,' and she says, 'I'm not supposed to do that,' we know that's the kind of rule a teacher gives you who isn't a writer."

Teachers who don't write are precisely the problem, says Donald Graves, professor emeritus at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

Dr. Graves helped pioneer the "process" method on which Atwell and others partly base their teaching. The goal was to mirror the process actual writers follow, and to give students feedback.

"Most of us going through school never saw the person write who was telling us to write," he says. "We just heard, 'Make it better,'" and had little idea what that meant, Graves says. By being writers, teachers can better guide students. One effective way to do this, he says, is for teachers to compose in front of the class on overhead projectors.

Not so fast

But far away from the Maine woods, amid the chaos of a 3,000-student New York City public high school, English teacher Ted Nellen isn't so ready to give up the five-paragraph essay. In fact, he clings to it.

For teaching his ninth-graders, he says, his devotion to the form is "religious."

Whether it's getting a point across to the boss or persuading their parents to give them more allowance, Mr. Nellen says, students are going to have to be clear and direct - and the five-paragraph essay forces them to be just that.

But, he says, "The five-paragraph is like training wheels." His 11th-graders are starting to move away from it. "It's like jazz," he says. "They've eventually got to break away from the original form."

Nellen hasn't switched to Graves's "process" approach partly because he can't afford the time it takes. Indeed, that is one of its biggest criticisms. With overcrowded classrooms and often short class periods, teachers are hard-pressed to find the requisite one-on-one time that can make the approach effective.

"When you get to the revisions, it slows the process down tremendously," says Nancy Shapiro, director of the New York-based Teachers and Writers Collaborative. "It's very easy for the teacher to say to the student, 'Why don't you just put "second draft" on that.' "

But back in Maine, Atwell says that although small classes are ideal, her approach can still be replicated with big groups. She says in those cases, more emphasis needs to be put on "mini-lessons" where the teacher discusses writing tools in front of the whole class.

With a mini-lesson each day, she covers a multitude of topics: everything from comma splices to proofreading to Emily Dickinson, even literary allusions to Arthurian legend.

With today's 15-minute mini-lesson on the thesaurus over, Atwell asks each student what they will work on for the hour that is left in the class. With hardly a hesitation, they each announce their projects.

Tom, for instance, says he'll work on his opinion piece for the local newspaper about the nearby nuclear power plant. Sarah will choose her entries for a poetry contest.

Then they scramble away from the circle, bumping and jostling. Some settle in at a row of computers that lines the back of the classroom.

This high-tech tool has transformed writing classes across the country. Just 12 percent of 11th graders said they used computers every day in 1984, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That jumped to 23 percent in 1994, the latest year available.

Computers have had a dramatic effect on kids' willingness to edit their pieces, says Courtney Cazden, a professor at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. "They've made revisions more easy - and therefore more likely."

In fact, "the use of computers is encouraging a new kind of literacy interaction," adds Richard Sterling, executive director of the National Writing Project, based in Berkeley, Calif.

But computers are a mixed blessing. Especially because of e-mail, "communication through text is on the increase, but a lot of us don't like what it looks like," says Dr. Sterling. But the scattershot, clipped medium is just one of the things that tends to work against skill building.

"Because our culture is choosing not to read and write in any but the most surface ways, more and more kids in the public school system are choosing not to read, and not to write," observes Hephzibah Roskelly, the head of the composition program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

An age of images

With images as the primary currency of our culture, "you lose the subtlety and intricacy of language that is necessary to critical thinking," Sterling observes.

Such thinking is crucial to success in the information age. (See box above.) If a person can read with a critical mind, Dr. Roskelly says, "they have access to moving up in the culture. But kids who can't really read are at a terrific disadvantage - and reading is intimately connected to writing."

In fact, the power of a clear, well-communicated idea is one thing that Atwell impresses on her students. "If my kids write well, they can have some say in how their society functions - they have the possibility to have some sway.

"We look to Thomas Paine," she says. "The American Revolution happened because his book sold 1 million copies!"

Parents and the Power of the Pen

'WRITING is crucial to a child's success,' cries the chorus of experts. Without communication skills, they proclaim, people will be relegated to insignificance in tomorrow's economy.

So what can parents to do to nurture writing skills?

Most of the people we talked to agreed on one thing: As Donald Graves, professor emeritus at the University of New Hampshire in Durham puts it, "If you want kids to write, then you've got to be writing yourself." Like other aspects of parenting, leading by example works well with writing.

As for what to encourage kids to write: "It's got to be more than thank-you notes," says Nancie Atwell, founder of the Center for Teaching and Learning in Edgecomb, Maine.

Some suggestions include:

*Letters to friends, relatives, or even parents.

*A "dialogue journal." One teacher keeps one with her daughter in which they write to each other.

*Excursion diaries. On outings - whether they be afternoon visits to the park or long journeys abroad - parents and kids can write poems or short essays about what they see or do.

Other tips to parents:

*Turn off the TV, computer, video games sometimes to make room for activities such as writing.

*Following her own approach to teaching, Ms. Atwell suggests that parents ask teachers if part of the curriculum can be opened up to allow students to write about things that interest them.

*Encourage children and show interest in their writing. As Martha Kolln, a longtime Penn State University writing professor says, "It's not a matter of having a red pencil as a mom or dad" - that's what teachers are for!

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