The arts of language really are composed of four actions: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Everything in the Big Five of Literacy, indeed in all English classes on the planet, are some subtopic of one or more of these four overarching headings. If you have ever read the Common Core State Standards, you see these four items broken down in more and more minute sections.
When I say the word “writing,” I might sometimes mean handwriting, or penmanship, but usually I mean composition, or the free exchange of ideas through written communication. Writing is most definitely a true art of language, in fact, I’d say it is the culmination of all the strands together, because we can’t talk to everyone on the planet! I love Dr. Jay Wile’s definition of science because it includes this aspect of communication. As someone who teaches writing on many levels, I can tell you that there is also a certain level of subjectivity to it. I think that Andrew Pudewa is on to something when he likens writing (meaning, composition) to playing a musical instrument. Nobody picks up an instrument for the very first time and is a virtuoso, just like nobody picks up a pen for the very first time and turns out the Great American Novel! We practice and eventually we get better. Some of us may get better faster than others, but that’s fine. After all, writing is not a race!
Writing as a subject area is tough to teach because it can be very subjective. It also can be difficult because one cannot write (compose) without being able to write (handwrite) unless someone writes (scribes) for him—typing and keyboarding notwithstanding. Just like when we teach the beginning stages of reading, there are certain things that can be done at the beginning stage of teaching writing (handwriting) that will make writing (communication) better, or at the very least, easier.
First of all, seriously consider teaching cursive first. These are so many good reasons to do so that it really makes a lot of sense. (Did I do this? No, but I learned those reasons much later in life.) One reason why cursive makes so much sense is that it’s virtually impossible to create reversals of the letters. Yes, kids can still form the letters the “wrong” way, meaning with incorrect strokes or faulty directionality, but for the most part, you eliminate the b/d/p/q confusion that is so prevalent in little ones, especially those who struggle with language. (BTW, reversals can be left to right and/or up and down. Remember, struggles with directionality are a dyslexia marker.) Another reason why cursive works well is that it is faster to write, which means that school time doesn’t take as long, which is always a plus! Do a bit of research to learn all the reasons why cursive is such a good idea. You won’t be sorry.
Another thing to talk about when discussing handwriting (penmanship) is the idea of the pen. I know, most kids and moms balk at pen—although for different reasons. Kids balk because they know that when they make a mistake in pen they have to start all over again on a new sheet of paper. Moms balk because pen gets on things and isn’t always easy to wash out of the laundry. While these are valid reasons for sticking with pencil, there is just something about the scratch and drag of the pencil on the paper that using a pen just smooths away. Then too, using pen gets rid of the annoyance of kids always sharpening pencils. You’d be surprised how many people press too hard with a pencil. Using pen also inculcates children to the idea that there is no such thing as a first and only draft to anything. Perfectionism is a difficult flaw to overcome, but the idea of using the writing process is one sure way to help it along. Pen is the way to go! However, keep in mind that when your child gets older and ready to take an SAT or ACT and they need to do one of those essays, they will need to practice with pencil on a piece of paper to get the feel down again!
One aspect of handwriting that has to be discussed is that it can indeed be considered an art. There is something about beautiful handwriting that is definitely artistic. In fact, people who practice calligraphy consider what they do to be an art. Manuscript writing, back in George Washington’s day, was considered to be necessary for surveying, map making, and architectural drawing. It still is today. You can see this in the printing styles on any blueprints, although there too, handwriting is a dying art. When related to plain old everyday cursive, though, the size of the letters is what makes the difference in our minds as to whether it is handwriting or art. The larger you go, the more you feel like you are drawing. At least, that’s how it feels to me.
At the other end of the writing spectrum, we have the art of composition. Composition entails many things. The very best definition of this that I’ve ever read is that of Carole Adams of the Foundation for American Christian Education and Stonebridge School in Virginia in her English Language Curriculum Guide, “Composition equips students to clothe ideas with words for communicating truth and ideals in writing and speaking.” Composition can truly entwine all the English strands into one strong rope. Writing goes hand in hand with reading because writing is the other side of reading. Whereas one side is expressive and active, the other is passive and receptive. The reader receives what the writer has communicated. Writing helps students define their understanding of what they are learning. The act of composing—fitting thoughts into words, phrases, clauses, and paragraphs—settles things in a person’s mind. Writing must be an active part of any student’s learning.
How is the art of composition developed? As mentioned previously, we can’t expect children to pick up a pen and write the Great American Novel right off the bat! How does writing happen? How is it best taught? Certainly, it must begin with the concept of forming letters, then syllables and words. Where does it go from there? Sentences and paragraphs are the building blocks of all thoughts. Connected thoughts can be combined into unified paragraphs, but before we connect our thoughts together, we need to be able to compose good sentences. This can begin in the lowest grades by composing original sentences with spelling words. These sentences will start out being very elementary, in their simplest forms and types. You remember these. Statements are called declarative sentences. Questions use question marks and are called interrogative sentences. Commands are called imperative sentences, and like declarative statements, use a period at the end. Finally, sentences with exclamation points are called exclamatory sentences. These are all simple sentence forms. Beyond those, we can combine all sorts of things to greater and great complexity building sentences with compound subjects and/or verbs to two independent clauses joined to create a compound sentence. From there, we can further expand to include a whole slew of options with dependent clauses and independent clauses that can combine to create very detailed sentences. Sentences can range in length from one single command shouted, as in “Fire!” to something with well over 100 words. You will be surprised to learn that the longest sentences far surpass that already large number. Wikipedia states:
One of the longest sentences in literature is contained in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936). The sentence is composed of 1,288 words (In the 1951 Random House version). Another sentence that is often claimed to be the longest sentence ever written is Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in the James Joyce novel Ulysses (1922), which contains a sentence of 3,687 words. However, this sentence is simply many sentences without punctuation. Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club appears to hold the record at 13,955 words. It was inspired by Bohumil Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age: a Czech language novel written in one long sentence.
I’m not a fan of sentences with quite than many words, but who am I to question Faulkner, Joyce, or Coe on the matter?! For my students, I tell that that as long as the sentences they are creating are “legal”—meaning there are no errors in grammar, usage, or mechanics (including spelling)—and the sentence makes sense, they are fine. In my high school composition classes, sentence length averages around 20 words, but students don’t start out there!
Very often children start their journey into the world of composition with simple sentences pulled from their everyday life, such as, “I like ice cream” or “I went fishing with my dad.” Little children tend to use a lot of pronouns, especially “I,” but they can be reminded to use common nouns as well—especially ones that are easy to spell! Slowly but surely, introduce them to the concept of adding more layers of detail to the sentences they craft. Soon after that, they can be encouraged to make better word choices. Children love collecting words! Go ahead and “ban” weak verbs or adjectives, which is part of the Excellence in Writing philosophy that I speak so highly about throughout my website’s pages. Good writing is a craft that is honed over time. It does not happen overnight.