One way to find out whether someone can read is to give them a text they haven’t seen before and ask them to read it out loud. Depending on the difficulty of the text and the quality of the performance, we can also get a good sense of their reading level. Does the reader recognize the words? Do they read with an intonation that suggests understanding? This will give us insight into their grammar and vocabulary. And this is all very useful to a teacher who is trying to help them improve.
I call it a “performance” and I wonder if something similar is possible with writing ability. Can a teacher ask someone to perform their ability to write — “live”, as it were? Now, I don’t just mean typing, of course. I mean the act of putting one’s thoughts down on paper. Is that something that a writer — someone who claims to be able to write — should be able to perform in “real time”, in front of a teacher. Should we be able to do this in front of a larger audience even? Consider, for example, the student in a music class who is asked by the teacher to play something while everyone else listens. Is writing something we can watch people do well or less well before our very eyes, or is skill here mainly something that is apparent in the finished product — in “polished prose”?
Does watching me write this paragraph, for example, reveal with any greater clarity how good a writer I am? Could our opinion of a writer change on the basis of first-hand observation of the word-for-word, letter-for-letter, process by which their text was made? Obviously, the video only captures a part of the writing process. Many writers engage in a great deal of revision before they are satisfied with their work. Perhaps we could look at that process too? Indeed, when we see an marked-up manuscript by a famous writer, we imagine that the draft was produced in a sort of flow, right? We think that it was somehow “given” to the author and that the editorial decisions revealed by the red or blue pencil are where the distinct quality of the text was produced. And yet, surely, the video version of this paragraph is not uninformative about how my post was written?
Does it prove more convincingly that I can write? Does is undermine any part of the illusion I’ve otherwise created, here and elsewhere, that I am able to commit my thoughts to the page? Does the difference between what the video shows and what the “printed” paragraph below says reveal my insincerity, my vanity, even my incompetence? Of course not. We know full well that our favorite musicians produce the recordings we love through many takes and, often, splices. And yet, if we could not sit them down in front of the piano and hear them bring off a plausible performance of their music, we’d be a little disappointed. Most importantly, again, from the point view of their teachers, too great a difference between what our students can do in front of us and what they finally hand in makes it impossible to know what to tell them if they want to improve. The part of the process that makes their text as good as it is is shrouded in too much mystery.
Anyway…this post isn’t a finished thought. Just an experiment. I have a hunch that we need to work more directly with the activity of writing. Writing is essentially a matter of covering your tracks and that’s what makes it so hard to teach. Good writing, by its very nature, conceals the difficulty of producing it. And yet I think we should try looking at our students while they write. We should see what they actually do. But let me stress I don’t mean some sort of video capture experiment for the purpose of doing research in writing pedagogy. I don’t mean we need to learn something in general about how students actually write. (I can imagine.) I mean we need to look at particular students as they write and suggest particular improvements to the way they do it. Therein, perhaps, we’ll get access to their style.