5 Reasons to Teach Revision

Even Jack Kerouac Revised

As a writer, I can say that most of writing is actually revising. As a teacher, I can say that this idea isn’t how most children think about writing. As both a writer and a teacher, I want to argue that we should teach revision as an integral part of writing. I do this in my classroom. Here’s why:

  1. Revision Separates Expression and Mechanics: Children’s writing shouldn’t be confined by what they can spell, or which thoughts they can easily organize on the page. At the same time, they need to learn spelling, organization and all that critical stuff. Revision allows there to be space for a creative draft where they can focus on ideas and a solid finished product.
  2. Revision Separates Creation from Perfection: Having a second chance takes the pressure off without asking kids to lower their standards. This can really help kids, especially perfectionistic ones, move past writer’s block.
  3. Revision Makes Space for More Learning: Revising is a chance to focus on a second set of skills, which makes each writing project serve double educational duty. For instance, students can write a poem playing with alliteration, then revise it to practice spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. Or students can write an essay in which they practice having a thesis and supporting arguments, then revise it to practice using transitional phrases. If this makes writing sound dull, think about it this way — kids can write really fun, creative things, and through revision they can still learn all the mechanics they need to be articulate writers.
  4. Revision Reflects How Writing Really Works: In most real world writing situations, revision is an important part of the writing process. Real world revising might mean giving  incorporating coworkers’ input on a grant, polishing a poem for publication, or giving an online dating profile a good proofread. We can prepare students for this process by using it throughout their whole writing education.
  5. Revision Destroys the Myth that Writing Happens Through Thunderbolts of Genius: Yes, sometimes pieces spring forth as whole as Athena from our foreheads. But more often, writing is more like forging, quilting, chiseling, or extracting teeth. Even Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, famously written in three weeks on one continuous scroll of paper, went through several years of subsequent revisions. So revise: even the Beats did it.
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Writing as Witnessing: writing about the Snoqualmie River salmon run

All writing is about something. When you teach writing, the world just pours in. And in return, writing can influence the world. Experiencing the power of writing as a way of witnessing is very exciting to most of my students. Children are small but feel justice deeply, and writing gives them a powerful way to articulate things.

We just got a chance to experience that in my Carnation class. The Salmon are running in the Snoqualmie River right now, so we went down to look at them. We saw pools of water churning with spawning salmon, huge fish swimming up shallow riffles, and dead and dying salmon on the beach.

What we saw looked a lot like this.

Afterwards, I read them an account of a pre-decline salmon run, where the whole river roiled with thousands of fish. I explained that we only know what those runs were like because people who saw them wrote down what they saw. I told them that these accounts give us a vision of what to work towards as we protect and restore salmon runs today. I said that many people in the Northwest have never seen salmon spawning, but that through our writing we could share that experience with them. I asked them to write about seeing the salmon and to bring their writing home and share it with someone who hadn’t seen salmon running before. Meanwhile, I went around and collected one description from each person to share with you. Please feel free to share this with any salmon-loving, salmon-curious or salmon-deficient people in your lives.

Here goes:

I didn’t know how many fish die on the riverbed.

I like all the colors on their bodies, how there are light and dark, the opposites.

I thought I saw a salmon moving up because I saw the waves and then it stopped and it made me amazed because I thought of how the salmon are so strong.

I was straight by how beautiful salmon are. Even when they are mangled they’re cool.

I liked how all the fins, you couldn’t see them and then they came up. I liked how the water would go around them and they would jump, kind of.

I liked when the salmon splashed and you could just see their backs.

I liked how the salmon was still moving its out even though its eye was popped out, like it was trying to eat some food to live and protect its spawn.

I remember seeing live salmon swimming and it was cool.

I saw a salmon that was dead and was showing its tummy. It was really cool to see because it was showing its fins. There were four of them, and it was all white. I thought there would be black because dead salmon are usually moldy, but it wasn’t and it was cool.

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Word Families and Spelling

In my last post, I wrote about some of the reasons English spelling is so weird. Interesting, sure, but what do we actually do to help children learn to spell?

People learn things that are relevant to them. You’ve all watched your children’s amazing capacity to retain information about Legos or horse breeds or ancient Babylonian weaponry, or whatever their fascinations happen to be. To help them apply that capacity towards spelling, their spelling words should be meaningful to them.

Pulling spelling words out of their own writing is one great way to do this. In my classes, I encourage students not to worry about spelling in their first draft. Then we do a revision and look at the spelling issues they are having. By then, the words they don’t know have become interesting to them, because they are problems that they have already tried to solve. This doesn’t mean they instantly can spell them, but their brains are primed to learn.

Word families are another way to make spelling meaningful. By looking at words in groups, they start to be a part of a pattern instead of random pieces of information.

In my class, we do two kinds of word families: spelling families and word roots. We might look at words that have “tion” or silent e’s in them or when to double the consonant when adding an “ing.” We might look at all the words with “tele” in them — teleport, telephone, telekinesis etc. — or the Latin root fluctus/fluere, or how most “sk” words came from Scandinavian languages (Vikings!).

People usually think of word roots as a way to build vocabulary, which they are, but they can also help with spelling. Many of the weird things about English spelling make much more sense when you know the root words, partly because there was a fad around when spelling was homogenizing to spell English words in ways that reflected their origins rather than following English spelling rules.

For instance, it doesn’t make any sense phonetically for “sign” to be spelled with that g instead of a silent e like “mine” and “fine” and all the rest of them. But it makes a lot of sense for “sign” to be spelled like “signal” and “signature,” two words from the same root that have pronounced g’s. Similarly, the spelling of “special” is pretty absurd unless you know it’s connected to “species.”

Spelling also takes a lot of practice. Repetition, both writing and reading the words, is essential. But practicing spelling words in groups that make sense together helps too.

David Crystal, whose work on spelling I’ve been reading, says that one grouping that does not make sense is trying to learn homophones together. He suggests teaching the more common word first, and bringing in the other words later. I had never thought about this, but I’m struck by how, while I have to think to get “its” and “it’s” right, I never mix up “carrot” and “karat” or “sign” and “sine.” I think he’s onto something.

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Why Is English Spelling So Weird?

English spelling is undeniably chaotic. There is an exception to pretty much every rule. However, while it doesn’t follow orderly rules, English spelling does have patterns. I think that learning a little background about how English spelling came to be is both fascinating and helpful.*

There are about 44 phonemes (distinct sounds) in English, depending on the accent. There are only 26 letters. We’ve dealt with this in a few ways:

Sometimes we make a letter do double duty, the way the e in me and in get make different sounds.

Sometimes we combine two letters to make a sound — “sh” or “ou” for example.

Sometimes we spelled two sounds in the same way and figured people could guess by context, the way we do with present and past tense “read.”

Sometimes we wrote down the prettiest spelling.

Mostly, we just got creative, like young spellers still do, and over time conventions arose from repetition.

This would all have been simple enough if everyone spelling had been working together, but early English scribes and printers working in isolation with no standards and varying influences.

Because many different combinations of letters could be combined to make certain sounds, there were lots of choices about how to spell different words (at least 60 ways to spell “night” have been recorded in Medieval manuscripts), and in each case, different factors prevailed in the conventional spelling that emerged.

French and Latin spelling influenced English words, often against the spelling trends of Anglo-Saxon words. Other times Anglo-Saxon spelling changed the imported French or Latin words. So while we write Old English “pepper” with two p’s to show that it has a short vowel sound (same reason why “hop” becomes “hopped” instead of “hoped”), we don’t double the consonant in the French-import short-voweled words “leper” or “proper.”

Other times, the Anglo-Saxon sense prevailed, giving us doubled consonants in short-voweled French-rooted words like “jolly” and “cabbage” and lots more.

Then there are all the shifts in pronunciation to deal with, not to mention different accents which all use the same spelling. At some point “boot” and “foot,” “blood” and “good,” all had long vowels. They way they are said has changed, but their spelling hasn’t.

And sometimes spellings change to match each other, even when it makes their pronunciation more illogical. We used to say the silent b “dumb.” “Thumb” never had a b sound, but we decided it (and a lot of other words) should look like “dumb” so we stuck one on.

Weird as it is, there is a logic to the spelling of most English words, and most words are spelled like at least a few other words, as they follow incomplete and often conflicting principles. This is one reason that learning spelling words in word families is useful. (More about this in a later post.)

*This post is my synthesis of some of what I learned reading David Crystal’s book about the history of English spelling Spell It Out. I recommend it to any word-nerds out there.

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