I recently came across an interesting article in Wired magazine about student writing: “The New Literacy” by Clive Thompson. The beginning posits that the new school year brings the usual fretting about how students’ writing is getting worse and worse. But Thompson then presents the most convincing counter argument I’ve seen yet.
Research conducted at Stanford University suggests that students (and people in general) are writing more than ever. All those text messages, Facebook updates, blog posts, and even classroom essays really add up. In fact, professor Andrea Lunsford is quoted as saying, “I think we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization.” A generation ago, after leaving high school or college, how many people wrote more than a paragraph? Sure, there were some who were letter-writers, but we’re all emailers now.
The study also found that students are acutely aware of their audience and, in particular, adapting their writing to get their point across. Interestingly, students judge writing to be good if it has an effect on the world — if there is debate and interaction. Essays are given less attention because the only audience for whom students are writing is the professor.
I don’t agree with all of the findings reported in the article (you may not either if you’ve ever received an email from a student that was startlingly informal — where is the audience awareness there?) but it does point us down an interesting path.
How much more attention do students pay to their assignments when their writing can be viewed by the whole class? Or the whole world? Collaborating on a blog or wiki for writing assignments makes this process relatively easy and straightforward. What kind of feedback can they provide each other? If the teacher adjusts her role to coach and helps guide this process, some feedback can be crowdsourced, giving students more responses. Of course, student feedback would not be the same as teacher feedback, but both could be valuable.
Having students use new technology to share their writing is not a cutting edge idea, but this shift in perspective gives some insight into how blogs, wikis, and the like can increase production and, possibly, motivation. Instead of lamenting students’ sloppy penmanship, maybe we should be embracing this revolution in writing and getting our students to write even more.