By Andrew Pudewa
- a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon.
- a widely held but false belief or idea.
It is the second definition we refer to here, of course. So here they are:
Myth #2: Good readers will naturally or automatically become good writers.
Myth #3: Writing is about “expressing one’s self.”
Myth #4: You learn writing by doing it; therefore if you just do it a lot, you’ll get good at it.
For any myth to be a good story, for any idea to be popularized, it must have elements of truth embedded in it. But when the truth is eclipsed by misunderstanding or misapplication, the myth becomes problematic. This is my concern.
While some people more-or-less accept all four of these faulty ideas, most cling to only one or two, and although many of us have tried to disabuse ourselves of this thinking, it is deep in us, programmed and reinforced by a decade or more of modern education philosophy and methods. So let’s unpack them a bit, separating truth from error.
#1 Writing is an inborn talent.
Well, to the degree that everything we learn to do is affected by our neurology, it’s true. As individuals, we vary in our gifts and challenges, so writing may come more naturally to some and less easily to others. Agreed.
However, that doesn’t mean that writing is a skill that can’t be developed by anyone. My teacher, Dr. Shinichi Suzuki (founder of Suzuki MethodTM), proved to the world that any child can learn to play a musical instrument, regardless of natural talent. He called his method “Talent Education,” thereby underscoring the fact that talent is not exclusively inborn but can actually be nurtured. He then trained thousands of teachers to train hundreds of thousands of average children around the world to play the violin or piano or cello surprisingly well.
Likewise, every child can learn to write well, even if it’s difficult. In fact, when a child succeeds in learning something hard, he is twice blessed; he learns the skill, and he also learns how to persevere and accomplish hard things.
So while our children may demonstrate different writing “aptitudes,” the truth is that every child can learn. Much, of course, depends on the teaching method, the environment, and the motivation of the student. But competence is achievable by all.
#2 Good readers will naturally become good writers.
While it is often true that good writers are also strong readers, it is not a causal relationship. Unfortunately, schools have made reading their new god. Having kicked out the real God, they replaced Him with the god of creativity, only to discover that the worship of creativity has failed, and basic skills have continued to decline . . . . Now many blindly believe that reading will solve all their academic problems, especially the problem of writing.
We now see, of course, that reading is not the magic bullet that will solve all educational problems. Actually, there is little correlation between early reading and academic success, and there are many cases of brilliant people who did not or could not read until their teenage years, Thomas Edison and Frederick Douglass among them. My sixteen-year-old son, even though he didn’t read a book until he was twelve, now has a knack for writing that exceeds all my other children at his age. Likewise, I’ve met many parents with a child who reads all the time, anything, with perfect comprehension, but doesn’t seem to write in a way one might expect from such a literate person.
Therefore, while reading is an important skill that should be nurtured, it is not the solution to the deficit, nor is it likely the cause of writing competence. If we put all our metaphorical writing eggs in the metaphorical reading basket, we may be sorely disappointed with our students’ writing abilities down the road. Modern academia has yet to understand this, but we can more easily see through this faulty idea by closely observing our own children.
#3 Writing is all about self-expression.
Nope. Sorry. Afraid not. Writing has almost nothing to do with expressing one’s self, and almost everything to do with expressing ideas. This is probably the most pernicious and wrong-headed idea of the four, yet it is ubiquitous in education. Even homeschool moms come to me and say things like, “I just want him to be able to express himself . . .” Typically teachers harp on this point. “Develop your own voice,” they say, “don’t copy anyone—be yourself.”
This, of course, is nigh impossible for children who not only don’t yet know much about themselves, but also lack a repertoire of techniques—things to do with words—that might enable them to develop a more individualized style.
Imitation is the only way we can learn any art, and those who have gone before have usually discovered things that can be learned and practiced in order to improve ability. There are tried, effective methods for developing musical skill, drawing skill, dancing skill, and likewise, writing skill. Techniques can be imitated and internalized; mastery can be acquired.
And then possibly (although I am still waiting for it to happen to me), someone might have an original idea that merits expressing. If that student has developed the tools of organizing and expressing other people’s ideas, he or she will be equipped to express his or her own idea (“themselves’’) effectively. But until that time, we must gain our skills by practicing the articulation of ideas, most of which are definitely not unique to us.
#4 If you just write a lot, you’ll get good at it.
Well, we might agree that if you just write a lot you will probably get better at it than someone who doesn’t write at all, but it’s a faulty comparison. If you just write a lot, but don’t attend to the details of organization and locution, you won’t write as well as someone who has practiced structure and style. Sadly, however, this idea of “freewriting”—“Just write, and whatever you write is great!” has failed miserably. It is the offspring of the god of Creativity, and its fruits are blatantly lacking. In fact, the writing ability of high school graduates has been in steady decline for more than 30 years, beginning right about the same time as the new god was universally enshrined.
But common sense proves otherwise. The best analogy is music. If you just sit down at a piano and fool around at it for 30 minutes a day for five years, you will get better; i.e., you will play better than someone who has never touched a piano. However, if you want to become truly good at it, you’ll find a teacher—a coach—who will lead you on the path of developing technical skill, going so far as to dictate which pieces to play, in which order, for how long, and even the precise way to play them.
Fortunately, we can do this with all the arts, even English composition. There is a pathway to excellence. Anyone can walk it. And although it requires discipline and diligence, those are good things.
We are all tainted to some degree by these myths—widely held but false beliefs—that may affect our teaching of writing to our children. I would be the first to admit that my greatest handicap in teaching my (and other people’s) children is my own education. It is very difficult not to do to your kids what was done to you. We have been molded by our experience, and unless we try to break the mold, we can inadvertently hinder our homeschooling students.
Andrew Pudewa is the founder, principal speaker, and director of the Institute for Excellence in Writing. Presenting throughout North America, he addresses issues relating to teaching, writing, thinking, spelling, and music with clarity, insight, practical experience, and humor. His seminars for parents, students, and teachers have helped transform many a reluctant writer and have equipped educators with powerful tools to dramatically improve students’ skills.
Although he is a graduate of the Talent Education Institute in Japan (Suzuki Method) and holds a Certificate of Child Brain Development, his best endorsement is from a young Alaskan boy who called him “the funny man with the wonderful words.” He and his wife Robin are parents of seven, grandparents of five, and educators of their two youngest children at home in Oklahoma’s Green Country.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2014 issue of the California Parent Educator magazine. Andrew Pudewa was a Featured Speaker at the Convention that year.