This past week, I talked with several groups of teachers about writing. These discussions seemed to reinvigorate a number of the teachers who talked about how they wanted to share what they learned with other teachers at their site. I really love talking about writing and am always so excited by the ways that teachers welcome the opportunity to be reflective about their writing pedagogy.
One of the things I've been considering in connection with these presentations is the role of writing in learning another language. I hope that my friend Denine, who teaches English as a Second Language, will address this in either a comment or a post of her own--but here's what I've been thinking.
When I was studying French, Portuguese, and Spanish, writing seemed to be a way that the teacher could check my grammar and spelling. I remember taking many a French test in college which was returned to me with an abundance of red corrections. I learned to keep my sentences as simple as possible, to limit what I said to what I had the vocabulary to say. Instead of experimenting with sentence structures, trying out new patterns, and asking questions about how to communicate more fully, I stayed with the basics in order to get a good grade in class.
But I also remember one situation in which I was assigned to do an oral presentation on Pablo Neruda, a writer I cared about. There were specific ideas that I wanted to communicate because I'd already done a lot of research on Neruda and had thought deeply about his poetry.
Of course, there was a great deal that I didn't yet have the vocabulary to express, so I decided to write out what I wanted to say. My Colombian friend Paola looked at my transcript and helped me create more grammatical sentences. I read that transcript over and over until I'd internalized the ideas and the sentences enough to make my oral presentation.
So . . . what does this have to do with writing? Too often, we use writing only as a way to assess grammar and spelling. But in order to become fluent in a language, we actually have to learn to think in it. When a teacher's evaluation addresses only the grammatical quality of sentences, students will write the simplest sentence possible and limit their thinking as a result.
Writing is a tool we can use to help students learn to think in another language if we occasionally resist the urge to mark with red pen.