Promoting Fluency in Writing [Archives:2000/17/Focus]

April 24 2000

Dr. P.N. Ramani,
Associate Prof. of English,
Faculty of Education, Sana’a University, Sana’a

For the students, the most significant thing is that their success, or failure, in the educational system will rest, ultimately, on their ability to write Ñ to put it crudely, on their ability to do well in written exams. The most significant judgments about their careers are made based on their performance in written exams. So, if we help them to write better, actually we help them to succeed within the educational system as well as in life.
Teachers are often worried about the fact that a majority of their students do not write well Ð “If only they could write as well as they can talk”. Why do some children learn to write with comparative ease, while the others seem unable to? These are students, teachers of English insist, whose problems cannot be remedied. Ñ “We do our best, of course, but some pupils seem to be beyond help.”

One wonders what perception of their role as teachers they have that would make them so to admit their own incompetence, or indeed what equipment they had been given as English teachers that had left them so inadequately equipped to meet their students’ needs. But this attitude towards the quality of the pupil’s writing is not uncommon among teachers. In fact, many teachers even decide to look for a less demanding, if not more rewarding, job.
There is a disturbing fatalism about this, which has the effect of absolving teachers from their professional responsibility. We need to be very careful before writing off some pupils because, in effect, we say that we cannot teach them. No longer can we afford to say of any pupil, “he can’t ” or “she will never”.
The teachers should try to work out a trusting relationship with student-writers Ð students who dislike writing and the ones who are reluctant or even afraid to write, the quiet withdrawn learners who never participate and even the sullen ones. These student-writers expect an encouraging response and guidance from the teacher, not merely assessment.
In junior school, and throughout the years in secondary school, teachers persist with methods purporting to teach children how to learn to write despite the evidence in the writing of the pupils later on that the methods are not working. It is a curious feature of the educational system that, by the time children transfer from primary to secondary schools, the idea has become deeply ingrained that writing is an activity which requires you to dash down words on paper, and then forget about them. It is a misconception that underlies the failure of so many pupils to improve significantly their ability to write during their years at secondary school. Writing has become, for them, a series of one-offs, with little or no development between them.
Research in the last three decades into the process of writing suggests that writing is an act of discovery and of making meaning. The findings of these studies have shown that both first and second or foreign language learners go through a similar process of composing Ñ thinking, planning, organizing, writing, re-thinking, revising, and redrafting. These studies also suggest that writing is a non-linear, exploratory and generative process whereby writers discover and reformulate their ideas while they are actually writing.
This implies that students, rather than knowing from the outset what they will say, explore their ideas and thoughts on paper, discovering, in the act of doing so, not only what the ideas and thoughts are, but also the form in which it is best to express them.
Such an understanding of the composing process calls into question approaches that are prescriptive, directive, and overtly concerned with grammatical correctness and the mechanics of writing. It also emphasizes the importance of giving students direct experience with the composing process and allowing them enough time and latitude to think on a theme and develop their ideas.
It should be the major aim of the teacher to foster writing that reflects independent thinking. The ultimate value of writing is realized when it becomes a way of talking to oneself Ð reflecting on one’s experiences, seeing relationships, making connections, reshaping perceptions, clarifying confusing ideas, and trying to understand new concepts and issues.
Inexperienced writers, as most students are, tend not to reflect on their ideas. They do not question their thoughts and, as a result, their compositions are not fully elaborated. Writers who do not elaborate their ideas may be said to lack fluency. The term ‘fluency’ is more commonly applied to speaking, particularly to speaking a foreign / second language, than to writing. When it is applied to writing, it has less to do with correct and appropriate language per se and more to do with meaning, with having something to say, and with getting it down on paper with some sense of ease rather than of strain.
‘Fluency’ may thus be defined as the ability to write down one’s observations or thoughts or feelings, to think aloud on paper, as distinct from ‘organization’ and ‘correctness’ in writing. While there may be no absolute separation of fluency, organization and correctness, because the writing process is non-linear, fluency must be developed first. Until a writer has generated enough raw material, has recalled and/or gathered something to say, there is nothing to organize, nothing to correct.
A major difference between non-fluent and fluent writers lies in the amount of time they allow for invention and reflection throughout the writing process. Non-fluent writers write very little, as they really have nothing to say, while fluent writers give themselves plenty of time and space to generate raw material early in the writing process, and they remain open to further bright ideas that might occur later on. The compositions of non-fluent writers may often be full of errors, and teachers may feel tempted to tinker with these smaller, more immediately “fixable” problems instead of tackling the larger issue of meaning and ideas.
Besides, students generally come to their teachers asking for “help with grammar”, a catch-all phrase that students use to describe a number of problems, most of which are not grammatical. In fact, nearly all the students who worry about writing worry primarily about grammar and organization. Thus both students and teachers may wrongly assume that correctness is more important than meaning. But a writer must generate plenty of material to compose effectively. Hence fluency should take priority when teachers work with students who have not yet learnt to elaborate their ideas.
There are two kinds of non-fluent writers: reticent writers, who generate very little material, and self-censoring writers, who judge their initial ideas so severely that they have a lot of trouble getting started.
Most reticent writers have not received helpful writing instruction in school. Their lives are often rich in experiences about which they definitely do have something to say, but their ideas seem to dry up as soon as they start to write. They soon run out of time and produce only a few sentences. They usually have little fluency and little confidence in their ability to communicate. So they write very short, undeveloped compositions.

Self-censoring writers, on the other hand, are so tough on themselves that before they can even get started their inner voices begin criticizing the ideas. They typically sit for hours in front of blank paper, looking up at the ceiling waiting for inspiration, and wracking their brains for ideas that will be ‘interesting’ and ‘significant’ enough to please both themselves and the highly critical readers they imagine, namely their teachers. They also insist on perfecting each sentence before framing the next. They are thus given to premature and too much editing. They may eventually write their compositions, but at what cost?
I have found out from my own experience that as writers gain fluency, many of their problems with grammar and vocabulary do begin to clear up. Besides, by separating the process of creating or inventing ideas from that of editing, we encourage students to put aside temporarily concern about form, thus allowing them to concentrate on content. When students try to consider content and form at the same time, the result is often slow, painful, uninspired writing; or worse still, the ‘writer’s block’ sets in and nothing comes out.
To sum up, inexperienced student writers often lack fluency. They have trouble thinking of what to say and they do not reflect on their ideas. As a result, their compositions are not fully developed. Instead, they concern themselves prematurely with correctness. With these writers, work on fluency should precede attention to organization of ideas and correctness of language because these writers need to have some ideas before they can organize them and present them in correct language. Promoting fluency involves prolonging the period in which writers can engage themselves with the subject, can turn it around and explain it to themselves before explaining it to others.
This article, then, rests upon the conviction that it is possible to do more by way of teaching pupils to write effectively than it has been attempted so far. When students are encouraged to verbalize their thinking and the teacher responds with thoughtfully structured questions that require more thinking, in a friendly, helpful atmosphere, the students are encouraged to take risks and explore their own ideas. In this process, they work out what they think and what they want to say in their writings. We should, therefore, think of specific strategies and techniques for promoting fluency in the writing of our students.