Don’t teach writing. Teach the joy of writing.

The objective of teaching students to write is not to ensure they create content that can be graded. It is to get them to engage with language and storytelling.

This is not a new story. Students learn arithmetic even though there are calculators and spreadsheets. They learn spelling even though there are spelling checkers. And they learn history even though there is an internet.

In a comment on a recent post I made, Keith Clements asked “What will need to be taught to young kids about writing to make them competent in a world where A.I. writing tools exist?” This is a different question from what to do with more advanced students.

Here’s my answer.

How to teach the joy of writing

Have you ever interacted with a child learning to speak? They love words. They love to play with words. (In one of my favorite memories of my son as a language learner, we identified all the words he had learned for body parts: head, nose, shoulder, belly, armpits. . . . and then he surprised me by pointing to the base of his fingers and saying, with brio, “Fingerpits!” I was delighted, because I could see that more was going on inside that little brain than just learning sounds — he was learning how words work.)

Children love stories. They love to hear stories. And then they make them up. “There once was a fireman who fell down. Happy ever after!” No, dear, that’s not really a story. So what makes a story? They are eager to learn. They draw pictures and explain the story — it’s so clear that they really want to know how stories work.

Children love to read. Books are magical — here’s a little object that somehow encodes words that tell a story. Children want to know how that works. Look, here’s the word “jump” on two different pages — it means the same thing, sounds the same way. Those letter shapes mean jump! Could I write that myself? If I did, would it sound the same way? Amazing!

Somewhere in the midst of all those writing assignments, this type of joy tends to get extinguished. Writing letter shapes is so much work — can’t I type on a keyboard like you? And why do I need to learn a thousand little spellings, some are right, some are wrong, some are right but wrong for that word when it means that. Why can’t I use emojis in my writing? Why can’t my story be half a page long, or 15 pages? Why do I have to do the assignment you asked me to do, the way you asked me to do it?

Because it’s easier to grade? What a dumb reason.

Imagine open-ended assignments that use whatever tools are at hand.

Think of five words that rhyme. Now find out how to write them. Are they spelled the same? If not, why not?

Write a story with a sad ending. Use any tools you want — voice dictation, spelling checkers, grammar checkers, ChatGPT. It can be about you or someone you know or someone you invented. But it has to be a story you want to tell.

Copy the first two paragraphs of the Wikipedia article about your one of your favorite TV shows, movies, books, or video games. Now write your own version, one that tells about what you think is important for someone to know. Include links to any pages online that you want, and pictures too, either ones you draw or ones you find (but include a link to give the original drawing creator credit).

Write a story in ten emojis. Now record yourself explaining in words the story that goes along with the emojis. Now use a dictation program to change your voice to text. Does the text say what you wanted it to say? How would you edit it to make it better?

The objective of teaching writing — at any level — should be to encourage students to engage with words and ideas, using any tools available. If they’re destined to become writers, this will stimulate their imaginations. And even if they’re not, this will tap into their natural interest in words and the tools we use to craft stories with them — including AI text generators, grammar checkers, online research, and linking.

Your school doesn’t do this (yet). But parents and caregivers, if you have children and you have a computer, you can. Cultivate joy in words and in the act of creation and your kids will be off and running.

And don’t stop with writing. You can teach anything this way. Spreadsheets for toddlers, anyone?

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  1. It’s Clemens, not Clements. But don’t worry. The number of written variations on my last name that I’ve seen is amazingly large.

    (And on my first name, which you got right, it’s pretty frequent that folks misspell it too. Everyone should know the basic spelling rule, I before E except after K.)

    As to your idea that kids should be taught the joy of writing, bravo.