When Young Writers Get “Worse”

oopsIn most school subjects, the learning is linear and cumulative: Students learn a concept, and then they build on it. And then we add more complexity. But when it comes to acquiring literacy skills, especially in writing, things work differently. The path is not straight; it’s more like a slanted spiral. This means that sometimes young writers will get worse on the way to getting better.

Let’s consider a young writer we’ll call Ted. Ted isn’t cognitively ready to process thoughts that require much complexity, so he uses mostly simple sentences. He has no personal frame of reference for punctuating more complex sentences. His simple ideas require simple sentences, and simple sentences require simple punctuation. But as Ted’s thinking and ideas become more sophisticated, he needs more complex sentence constructions in his syntactic repertoire. If Ted didn’t grasp those sentence-formation rules when they were presented in class—because he wasn’t developmentally ready for them—his writing is likely to have some sentence-formation problems.

Ted had no sentence-formation errors when his thinking and writing were simple, but now that he’s operating on a higher level, he ironically has sentence-formation errors. Has Ted become a worse writer? If we simply count up his errors, Ted’s tally might look like he’s getting worse when in actuality he’s getting “worse” on the way to getting better. When the complexity of Ted’s ideas syncs up with his understanding of how to correctly form more complex sentences, he’ll be a stronger writer and thinker. And then this recursive process will resume from Ted’s new level of expertise.

The same dynamic is true of young writers with a growing vocabulary. The first time Rachel uses a new word, she might use it wrong, either grammatically or in terms of its context or connotations. After she learns the new word’s contours and correct usage, she’ll probably use it correctly for the rest of her life. But if we take a measure of Rachel’s writing while her acquisition of that word is still forming, we may see a stylistic or syntactic error that is actually the result of new growth. If Rachel’s vocabulary wasn’t growing, she wouldn’t be making that error. Paradoxically, her error is a result of an increasingly sophisticated vocabulary.

All of this is a long way of saying we must be very careful with summative assessments of writing. At any given point, each student is developing new abilities; trying new words, phrasings, ideas and constructions; and experimenting with every aspect of writing. Because writing is so multi-faceted, some aspects will be farther along than others, and some may appear to be going backwards as trial-and-error takes place. While some mistakes are simply mistakes, others are missteps resulting from important experimentation that will soon result in helping the writer become more versatile and articulate.

Just as every piece of writing benefits from going through a process, every young writer is also midstream in an on-going developmental process. Learning to write is the most dynamic, recursive academic process a student is likely to experience. Let’s be sure we see “errors” as a healthy, predictable part of that process and not allow stand-alone assessments relying on static measurements to characterize any student’s ability.

Assessing a student writer’s growth with accuracy and validity requires multiple check-points across a long period of time. Any other approach carries a high risk of catching a student in the act of getting worse on the way to getting better.

Thank you for reading this. Your comments are welcome and appreciated!

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8 Responses to When Young Writers Get “Worse”

  1. I found this article very interesting and realistic. This is exactly how I felt as I started writing more to the extent of self-doubt about my writing abilities. A few weeks later after that initial feeling of hopelessness, I feel comfortable and confident at using my new experiences and new words’ power.


  2. Spot on, Gary. Besides, real writing often involves ignoring your inner editor until the ideas gel on paper. Too many assessments look only at first drafts, and thus devalue the craft of writing, as if we took chisels and sandpaper away from woodworkers. And then, as you point out, we are critical of the product…


  3. steveshann says:



  4. Chris Kervina says:

    Thank you for putting into words what I hadn’t been able to articulate. I will likely share this with my department in our discussion of goals. Our goal statements are required to say 100% of students will… How is such a statement even close to realistic given the multiple facets of a single writing task?


  5. Janet says:

    This is exactly what happened in my classroom yesterday. Students were sharing paragraphs on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and I think he inspired them to stretch their vocabulary. They were trying out a lot of new words, and many of them got it wrong. But they won’t get it wrong the next time.
    Although this is a slightly different conversation, I always marvel how my students writing grows with their reading. Writers like Austen and Dickens never fail to push students to that next writing level.


  6. Tony Romano says:

    This is brilliant, Gary. There’s no substitute for one teacher poring over the paper of one student and the two of them having a genuine conversation. Phrases such as “summative assessment” and “formative assessment” should be banned when administrators ask us to evaluate a student’s writing. If administrators insist on data, we should ask them for heart monitors and video cameras and MRIs. A student can come to the front of class to read her essay. The rest of the class, hooked up on these machines, can be filmed and assessed on increased heart rate, brain activity, and the number of smiles per minute. (Market researchers and political pollsters actually use something akin to this. Seriously!)


  7. jsnj890 says:

    YES! As a young writer, I strongly agree with the way you describe what we are going through. A teacher that encourages development of trying new words, mechanics, and the like, while at the same time taking the time to checkpoint the process with the student, those are the teachers that students graciously remember. Not only that, but they also become the most influential to that student’s writing abilities (and their motivation to enjoy writing).
    I certainly have an English teacher that has influenced my writing and motivated me to keep working at it and refining it. Just one of the many reasons why you were my favorite English teacher.


  8. Karen Cribby says:

    Spot on. Thanks for articulating this!


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