Course 5: Why is Writing so Difficult?

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Is writing the most difficult skill for students to learn?

While researching for my COETAIL final project, I came across a blog post by Erin Sturm. She explained three reasons why writing is so difficult, (1.) trying to be perfect, (2.) being out of practice, and (3.) fear of failure. As I was reading her post, I made a connection between how writing is as difficult for students as how completing COETAIL projects are difficult for me.

According to Erin, we have similar issues. First of all, I want my projects to be perfect; however, the idea “done is better than perfect” is a difficult concept to accept. I realized I tell students often to just start writing and not to worry about it being perfect. Usually, this is not helpful advice as they just do not listen to me. But I understand because I rarely take my own advice and still want to be perfect. This reminds me of how crippling it can be to initiate a task. Getting started is a difficult first step into the writing swimming pool when you are worried about getting the writing right. If we would just jump in and get started writing anything without first worrying about the quality, we would find we are able to swim through the writing process-one stroke at a time. Second, Erin advised we need to have a consistent writing routine. We should work on our writing every day for a few minutes to improve our productivity. Third, she described how a fear of failure can hold us back from being writers.

According to El-Koumy  (2020), many students struggle with expressing themselves through writing with complete, organized, and logical ideas. They get lost in the process and end up with a jumble of words on their paper that may not have characters or a clear goal for their story. Many of these students focus on their handwriting and spelling instead of their ideas. These microstructural elements of writing are not as important as being able to express ideas.

Teaching writing might be as complex as English grammar but it is also one the most important skills we teach. Students will need writing to be successful in the academic and professional worlds. Students who are good writers independently follow the writing processes:  plan, draft, revise, and edit. Students with poor writing skills need to be taught strategies for every step of the writing process to help them learn how to be efficient writers (El-Koumy, 2020).

Teaching the writing process is made up of several distinct skills and it is not easy to learn to put them all together. Research supports teaching writing with a focus on the writing process, instead of focusing on writing conventions, which establishes students who will enjoy writing, write more, and write better (El-Koumy, 2020).

Writing Strategies

El-Koumy (2020) outlined four strategies teachers should practice across all genres when teaching the writing process. First and foremost, teachers should model writing. This helps students to visualize what and how they should be writing. Teachers should verbally and visually model the four substages of the writing process – planning, drafting, revising, and editing. When verbalizing what the teacher is doing, she helps students better visualize the process. After the modeling stage, students should practice the writing strategies with a partner or small group before moving on to practicing the strategies independently.

Infographic made with Canva by Holly
Writing with technology can be motivational

Students have areas they need to improve in as well as their individual gifts. In my lived experience, using technology is one of the areas many students excel in. An eight-year-old student with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) taught me how to use the tools in iMovie. Another student who was an English learner taught me how to maneuver around Google Classroom. My own children taught me how to play World of Warcraft and that game is complicated! Students do not seem timid to try new games, software, or new ways of completing their classwork. I am surrounded by dozens of change agents!

Holly’s new WOW mount-Hogrus, Swine of Good Fortune

The use of technology or access to the internet does not mean a student definitely will learn more or better. However, technology can provide students opportunities to try different ways to complete assignments. For example, in one study; English learning graduate students were judged with a pre and post-writing test. The experimental group blogged their essays, while the control group used pencil and paper. The experimental group was more motivated and found the writing more interesting (Kashani,  Mahmud, & Kalajahi, 2013). Had I been in this experimental group, I would have agreed with the others since I have had the experience with our COETAIL blogging. It is more interesting.

Can technology lighten the cognitive load when writing?

Sometimes having reluctant writers use assistive technology can ease the cognitive load so they are able to produce their ideas easier, quicker, and maybe with more fun. For example, students can narrate their learning as an alternative. I discovered during this unit sometimes it is necessary to differentiate the writing in order for the student to have enough time to show their learning in ways other than the written word. Students learning English and/or with learning disabilities need differentiated activities. They have the same high expectations for learning; however, they cannot be expected to always perform exactly like their peers. Alternative formative assessments can include the student speaking instead of writing with voice-to-text, using predictive text, spell check, online dictionaries, and thesauruses.

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In Nawal’s (2018) research, they found, “writing performance was improved by the reduction of unnecessary cognitive load, in this case by removing the use of dictionaries while writing.” Cognitive load theory explains there is only so much our brains can hang on to at one time so for students to achieve mastery, they need to learn one chunk at a time. Heick (n.d.) explained, “since the brain can only do so many things at once, we should be intentional about what we ask it to do.” If a teacher wants a student to show their spelling and handwriting skills then assistive technology (AT) is not the way but if she wants a student to show the writing process then it might not be a bad idea to allow for AT.

In conclusion

The writing process is a complicated system that is much more than spelling words correctly and having pretty handwriting. Students need to be taught explicitly the various steps and given grace for not being an expert right away. There should be many opportunities for practice and feedback plus students need to come away with positive feelings and a sense of being a successful writer. Writing may not be the most difficult skill a student learns in her educational career but it is towards the top of the list.