Fluency First for Novice Writers

Lynn Knapp tells a story of personal empowerment brought about by research-based writing instruction that encourages meaningful self-expression. See Erin Knoche Laverick's Portal article "A Festive Writing Occasion: Writing for an Audience," Essential Teacher, March 2009.

We often think of fluency in terms of reading, but it is every bit as essential for beginning writers. At 52, Ana has just lost her job in the closing of a small factory. For more than 20 years, she has spoken only Spanish at work. She planned to retire in 10 years and is ill-prepared to begin a new life.

On the first day of my advanced ESL writing class, Ana's first day in college, she writes three short sentences. A week later her fear has turned to anger, and she and three others who have also lost their jobs express concern that they are not learning to write.

The students sit frozen, gripping their pens. They believe that perfectly formed sentences should immediately flow onto the paper. My first, and greatest, challenge is to help them write fluently, to remove the emotional wolf from the door of their writing. Without fluency, the unhindered freedom to write, they will never learn to write well. And to write fluently, they must be convinced that writing is a process, recursive and messy, jotting down random thoughts imperfectly as they occur.

These students are developmental adults who present a challenging mix of needs, desires, and frustrations. They range in age from 16 to 60; most were born in the United States, but many come from Mexico and some come from China, Russia, and the Philippines. All of them are struggling, either as second language learners, students with learning disabilities, students attempting to finish high school, or displaced workers preparing for college classes and new careers. Most have had difficulty in school, and many feel like imposters, doubting their ability as students and ready to accept failure as their lot. In most cases, they read very little and have done very little writing. These students are at risk not only due to poor preparation and weak study habits, but also because of interrupted education and distracting personal problems.

The students in my class, particularly those from other cultures, feel alienated; "poised on a social and psychological tightrope, they are neither here or there. They are a threshold people . . . separated from their mother tongue and its community" (Rodby, 1992, pp. 82–83). This characterization applies also to most of my students who were born in the United States, many of whom are adrift between jobs or attempting to transition from generational poverty.

Ana has lived in the United States for more than 30 years and has rarely written the English words that she speaks. She briefly attended first grade in Mexico and now has financial assistance for 5 months to take the General Educational Development (GED) tests and begin a 2-year vocational program. She juggles her family life, GED tests, and three classes, struggling to build a future from the trials that her life has consisted of so far.

Although most of the students in my class have the desire to write, they are crippled by silence and fear. For all of them, expressive personal writing becomes a developmental tool. James Britton describes writing as an opportunity to "explain the matter to oneself" (quoted in Young, 1994, p. 10). And so they do, first writing together and tentatively beginning to read to each other, "putting off concerns about correctness until they have writing worth fixing" (Kirby, Kirby, & Liner, 2004, p. 42).

Writing in the classroom is not always authentic, but the motivation to tell their own stories and those of their loved ones creates the fluency that makes learning possible. Ana writes about her sons, who years ago brought home handprint plaques made in elementary school and who have now both finished college.

Stephen Tchudi, professor of English at the University of Nevada, advocates "writing as often as possible in a wide range of forms. What's most important for . . . writers is fluency. Fluency is the ability of students to 'get out their pencils and write about whatever they want,' without getting stressed about spelling and punctuation" (quoted in Allen, 2003, p. 3). Students in my precollege and advanced ESL writing classes write every day: poems, freewrites, and journals outside of class. Because every class group is different, I work carefully to build a classroom community in which students feel they can share their writing. They begin by reading a single good sentence or phrase to a partner and later, as their confidence builds, read their work in small groups or to the whole class.

Ana is determined, focused; she freewrites, writes journal entries, constructs paragraphs, and even makes up her own assignments, writing letters to her son in the form of e-mail and copying stories from the newspaper.

In my classes, students begin writing simple chain poems and paragraphs together and freewrite individually at least two times per week. Elbow (1973) describes freewriting asnonediting; students learn to abandon self-criticism in favor of self-expression. In-class poetry writing, freewrites, and journal writing are all ungraded. As students' fluency increases through freewriting, they produce a flow of raw material to be used as a basis for more formal, graded paragraphs.

My courses follow a sequence of writing assignments that emphasize personal or expressive writing to help students transition developmentally "from self to world" (Moffett, 1981, p. 145). The first week, we write a paragraph together, beginning to unlock the mysteries of organization and transition. Grammar is applied with a light hand, the creative and the practical in tandem. I first help students become conscious of their natural knowledge of grammar, putting a scrambled sentence on the board for them to decode. I hold up a small crescent wrench and tell them they will become "language mechanics," leaving the class with the tools and confidence to write in other classes. As students learn to freewrite, I ask them to focus on ideas, to write as quickly as they can because the brain moves so much faster than the hand. I compare writing to water. I ask them to turn on the faucet, so to speak, and to let it run. First they have faith in me, and later they will have faith in themselves.

The second week, students write a paragraph about their plans for the future. The third week becomes even more personal as they write a paragraph about an important person in their lives, a person they admire. The fourth week, following a reading of "Querencia," from Writing Toward Home (Heard, 1995), I ask students to freewrite about a place where they feel safe and comfortable. Based on this freewrite, they create a paragraph titled "My Favorite Place."

By the third and fourth weeks, students begin to see that writing is an attainable goal. And with the development of their fledgling organizational skills, students begin to feel the power of their own voices as they write about themselves as well as people and places that are important in their lives. They begin to tell childhood stories and write about pivotal parts of their histories. From this point on, they are no longer imposters, no longer foreigners in a strange land; they are writers and students, discovering power and purpose, strong enough to make and voice their own meaning. As I have learned in my own writing, it is necessary "to touch the heart before you can reach the mind" (Nelson, Lott, & Glenn, 1993, p. 13).

Personal writing continues in the fifth week with a paragraph about a personal accomplishment or a moment of triumph. Students also freewrite a list of meaningful titles for the chapters of their lives, prompts that can be used later for journal writing or a final paragraph.

By the end of the quarter, students begin to take charge of their own education, capable of making deliberate, workmanlike choices in their writing, analyzing what they know and what they need to learn. And after working to tame irregular verbs, fragments, and run-on sentences, they become almost comfortable with the comma. In the last 2 weeks, firmly rooted in the narrative, they are ready to be introduced to research, to tentatively dip their toes into the waters of expository writing.

As concrete evidence of their progress, for their final exam, students write an answer to the same prompt that they chose for the original writing sample that qualified them for the class. After the exam, in a final conference, we lay the writing samples side by side and discuss the progress that has been made. It is a great moment, and most students can’t resist whipping out a pen to edit the original sample.

By the end of our 10-week term, Ana's increase in fluency is remarkable. She writes a two-page in-class essay about the importance of English, commenting that "English it is very difficult to learn. First, because, I born in diverent country and my language is Spanish and I never went to the school. Wen I was a little. I come from big family. Second, my parents thought womans not have to be in the school, because they going be merried."

Buffeted by unremitting stress and self-doubt, Ana's tenacity and growth are remarkable, but her progress comes at a price. Less than a year from the finish line, she lands in the emergency room with chest pains. Somehow she defies the odds and persists, and her success has a ripple effect among her family and friends. The profound change in Ana impresses everyone around her, especially her husband, who decides to follow her lead and enrolls in college himself. Nearly 3 years after she walked through the door of my classroom, Ana graduates with a certificate as a nursing assistant, a world away from Mexico and the factory assembly line, and an inspiration to all who know her.

As was true with Ana, all of my students have a long way to go. They will struggle, but like Ana they will have the opportunity to become authors of their own stories, to take charge of their education and their lives. The increase in their writing fluency and the strength of their newfound voices represent a giant step forward, opening the door to future growth and a job in their chosen fields. Moffett (1981) said it best: "The issue here is not only one of cognitive development but of psychological independence. We must give students an emotional mandate to play the symbolic scale, to find subjects and shape them, to invent ways to act upon others, and to discover their own voice" (p. 148).

References

Allen, R. (2003, Summer). Expanding writing's role in learning. Curriculum Update, 1–3, 7–8.

Elbow, P. (1973). Writing without teachers. New York: Oxford University Press.

Heard, G. (1995). Writing toward home. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Kirby, D., Kirby D. L., & Liner, T. (2004). Inside out (3rd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Moffett, J. (1981). Active voice: A writing program across the curriculum. Montclair, NJ: Boynton/Cook.

Nelson, J., Lott, L., & Glenn, H. S. (1993). Positive discipline in the classroom. Rocklin, CA: Prima.

Rodby, J. (1992). Appropriating literacy: Writing and reading in English as a second language. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Young, A. (1994). Writing across the curriculum. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Blair Press.

Lynn Knapp (lynn.knapp@wwcc.edu) is an English instructor at Walla Walla Community College, in Walla Walla, Washington, in the United States.