Monday, June 9, 2014

Only Humans Write

For years I taught secondary students who had difficulty reading on level. It killed me that they felt less of themselves because of their inability. I would test them at the beginning of the year, share my diagnosis with them, and promised them they would improve by the end of the year if they trusted me and gave me their all.

Halfway through my teaching career (all thirty-seven years of it), I added writing teacher to my résumé.  Besides a reading inventory, I required a writing sample from the students.  After careful study, I made lesson plans accordingly. Once I studied the power of writing, I realized writing ability was the real test of literacy.  Sure the students had to improve their reading, but it was in their ability to write well that demonstrated success.

Consider this:  When learning a new language, a human being first observes (watches and listens), then he/she attempts to speak or repeat the sounds.  It is then the learner associates or matches the sounds to their written symbol, thus they “read.” They continue to listen, read, and become more familiar or attempt to create oral sentences.  It is when they write a sentence that they demonstrate syntactical sophistication. They are able to take a concept and capture it onto a portable product separate from themselves that can be handed to someone else and when read miles from them or years from now will communicate his or her intentional thoughts.  

Let’s pretend I want to learn to play bridge (a totally foreign “language” to someone like me whose card sophistication maxes out at Uno). I watch and observe my husband and his family play a couple of games.  I try my hand at it (no pun intended), but fail miserably.  My family shows me how to correct my skill (or lack of it) and I try again.  I improve with each attempt until I get where I can read the game better and create my own plays. It is when I can hold my own against my husband and his parents (card sharks!) that I have learned the “language.”

But that is where the comparison ends. There is nothing else in this world similar to the skill of writing. Only humans write. We have this innate and desperate need to write. 

Starting from the cave paintings (and before that probably drawings in the dirt or sand), humans have had a need to communicate with pictures or words or both. We have “writings” that are thousands of years old – bones, rocks, pictographs, cuneiforms, tablets, bamboo slats, knotted cords, stone slabs,  leather and paper scripts. From these we developed the alphabets and other writing forms we use today.

We are the only creatures on earth who can communicate with writing.  We have studied how almost all living things on earth communicate with each other, but none can create text like we can. It demonstrates our intelligence.

To write well, the author must know what he wants to say and know how to say it best, but it is not as easy as it sounds. It demonstrates the highest of his intelligence – he must envision what he wants to communicate, choose the morphology, order its syntactical structure, and decide on the appropriate cultural nuance(s). By reading someone’s writing, the reader can ascertain the author’s facility with vocabulary, ability to decide on the length of sentence necessary to capture tone and mood, and his/her sophistication to communicate appropriately toward his/her audience.

(PS: This is applicable to any form or genre of writing, be it fiction or non-fiction, poetry or lyrics.)

I kept my promise to the students in my class; they improved their reading skills, but it was in their writing that I was able to ascertain true success. 

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