Once, in eighth grade, my teacher had us write a short story. I don’t remember the details of the assignment, but I remember the story I wrote. It was about a bear and a trout, and as soon as I put my pencil to paper the floodgates opened and I had to get the entire story out of my head and onto the paper RIGHT THEN AND THERE. Unfortunately, I had language arts for second period (or maybe it was fourth period. I can’t remember), so I had to secretly scribble my story onto paper when my other teachers weren’t looking. It was very frustrating. I was finally able to finish my story on the hour-long bus ride home that afternoon. Between the bumps and my haste, it was nearly impossible to read the climax and the resolution.
I’ve always been a confident writer. I read a lot as a kid (like, a LOT), so writing has always come naturally to me. I could never tell you why a sentence was well written or how to fix one that wasn’t, but I consistently composed strong sentences and focused paragraphs.
Here are some secrets for you…
…I didn’t know the difference between a compound sentence and complex sentence until I had to teach it to my seventh graders three years ago.
…I didn’t know what an Oxford comma was until one of my friends posted an Oxford Comma meme to Facebook when I was in college.
…I didn’t know what an adverb was until I looked at a grammar worksheet two years ago and thought, “Oh! Well why didn’t anyone explain it like that before?”
…I didn’t know what a subjunctive conjunction was until I picked up It was the bestof sentences, it was the worst of sentences by June Casagrande and quickly read a chapter while walking to my car in the parking lot three weeks ago (don’t judge me. I survived).
Why was I able to write well without “knowing” the rules?
Because I read…a LOT…as a kid!
And by reading, I learned the rules. I just didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate those rules.
I believe that reading and writing is like learning a language. Think about it: language is completely arbitrary. You call something a chair because every English speaker agrees that the thing with four legs and a flat surface for your bum is called a chair. It’s completely arbitrary. The word sound “chair” won’t mean anything until it is learned.
Momentary aside: Perhaps the only words that are not arbitrary are onomatopoeias, but that’s only because we are imitating the sound they make and calling it a word.
When learning how to speak a language, whether it is your first language or your second, you learn best by constant exposure to that new language. Babies are constantly exposed to language from the moment their little ears develop in their mother’s womb. Second language learners greatly benefit by being immersed in the new language, and it is frequently said that the best way to learn a new language is to live in a foreign country for a year.
Writing works in the same way. Once you have the foundation, the basic skill of decoding the arbitrary symbols on the page, you can immerse yourself in written language by reading.
Why was I such a confident writer in middle school, high school, and college when I didn’t even know the difference between a compound and a complex sentence? Because I had already been exposed to strong writing through reading, much like the person who learns a new language by living in a foreign country for a year. Does that mean that I didn’t really need to learn the difference between compound and complex sentences in order to be a good writer? Well, yes and no. While I was a good writer before, I believe that learning those specific rules helped me to become an even better writer today.
Yet another thing to consider, however, is that most kids today don’t enjoy reading!
Typing that hurt my soul a little bit.
What does that mean? Well, most students haven’t been exposed to as much strong writing as their literate peers, which means that they require much more explicit instruction in both writing and reading. Sentence structure doesn’t come naturally to them because they haven’t learned what strong sentences are supposed to look like. Their diction is weak because they don’t have the vocabulary to articulate their complex thoughts and ideas. Their papers are poorly organized because they haven’t had as much experience with how organization impacts the reader’s comprehension.
So, what should you take away from this crazy English teacher ramble?
Read. Read a lot. Read what you enjoy reading.
Read books, read magazines, read newspapers, read the articles on Facebook, read short stories, read instruction manuals, read letters, read signs, read poetry, read drama, read textbooks, read EVERYTHING. Read to your little brothers and sisters.
The best way to improve your writing is to read a lot of strong writing.
And when you have children of your own in ten years or so, read to them every night.
And I know I always tell you not to start a sentence with and, but I’m the teacher and I can do what I want.
Not sure where to start? Just ask a crazy English teacher!
Oh, and my teacher submitted that story about the bear and the trout to the literature magazine.
It wasn’t chosen. Darn.