Helping Students Find Their Voices


by Bethany Johnsen

A great post in an EdWeek teacher blog, Developing Student Writers By Letting Them Talk…, reminded me of one of the toughest parts of teaching writing in my days as a college tutor: helping students find something to say. Good essays require clear expression, making form perhaps as important as content, but the problem that usually lay at the root of garbled prose was that the student didn’t have many ideas to communicate. Writing workshops in my English classes often focused on eliminating redundancies, but what went unaddressed was what to do with all that empty space left in the wake of the culling and tightening. Although using more words than necessary is somewhat natural, it can also be the resort of students who aren’t quite sure what their “point” is.

Two of the recommendations in the blog, which dispenses educator advice on preparing for the CCSS reading and writing standards, address this issue. The first is to give students more discussion time in which to explore and develop their ideas. The second is to offer more engaging prompts.

At first, class discussion appears to be an unlikely solution: Aren’t written and oral communication fundamentally different? Although it’s true that good speaking doesn’t amount to good writing, the fact remains that no one can write a strong informative piece when they lack knowledge of their subject or write a strong argumentative piece when they lack opinions. Knowledge and opinions are both cultivated in lively dialogue with others. Carving out regular class time for meaningful guided discussion can go a long way toward creating the kinds of thinkers, and writers, who will succeed in college and careers.