What is writing? Is writing dead? Should we call people writers who cannot hold a pen or type? What kinds of writing should we teach?

Hello writing colleagues,

Paul Jurmo called to my attention this New York Times article, "From Clay Tablets to Smartphones: 5,000 Years of Writing" and I thought it might interest you. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/02/arts/design/writing-exhibition-british-library.html

Is writing dead? Author Cody Delistraty writes that it is not. "The writing’s on the wall, we’re told. Whether it was Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century, the invention of the typewriter 300 years later, or the emoji of today’s smartphones, the act of writing seems to be forever on the precipice of extinction, without quite falling off."

What does it mean to write?  "For one, writing is fundamentally an act of thinking. It would be wrong to define writing exclusively as the act of putting words onto a page, because it is ultimately about the conception and transmission of thought."  Delistraty points out that John Milton, who wrote “Paradise Lost” after going blind, dictated it to his daughters and Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered from locked-in syndrome, "managed to write 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' by blinking when an assistant read out letters from the alphabet."

Those who have read the discussion here earlier about a broader definition of reading that includes "auding," getting information from text by having it read out loud by a human or by a technology device, will notice that I am also interested in broadening the definition of writing. I love Delistraty's definition: (recorded or transmitted) thinking, That isn't new, of course; for many years we have accepted dictated speech as writing, and now that speech-to-text software has greatly improved, it's often hard to know when reading someone's writing if fingers have touched a pen or keyboard. I know at least one contributor to the LINCS CoP, for example, whose posts are often dictated using computer or smartphone software. Are your posts here dictated?

For those who value calligraphy and other kinds of beautiful handwriting, or magnificant digital fonts, and for many who teach writing this broadened definition may not be welcome.

Perhaps one solution is to distinguish the many kinds of writing, for example: quick notes, instant messaging, emojis, graffiti, magazine or newspaper writing, school or academic writing, journal writing,  plain language writing, literary writing, and many more kinds and sub-kinds of writing. Of course some kinds of writing are of a higher quality, and if  we accept that writing is "recorded or transmitted  thinking" there may be better and worse thinking.

I am interested to hear what Reading and Writing group members think of a broadened definition of writing -- recorded or transmitted thinking -- and what kind(s) of writing you believe adult basic skills instructors should be teaching, and why.

David J. Rosen, Moderator

LINCS CoP Integrating Technology group





In response to David's question about what types of writing adult basic skills programs might teach, I'd say "It depends."  It depends on why and for whom learners want/need  to develop writing skills and the purposes and strengths of our programs.  For example, learners might want to learn how to accurately (and with correct word usage, spelling, vocabulary) record information (e.g., patient-care notes, incident reports) for their jobs . . .  prepare a letter and resume for an employer . . .  take notes in a meeting of their labor union, community group, or PTA . . . help their children with their writing homework . . .  record information for a family history . . .  write a song, poem, or remembrance . . .  keep "To Do" lists for work or personal tasks . . .   take notes for a GED or college prep class . . .  be part of a community group that is recording information about a local health or environmental problem . . .  keep a personal or work journal . . . write a letter to a public official or newspaper . . .  prepare a PowerPoint about one's family, home country, or job goal to show in their ESOL class . . .  or write a note of thanks, congratulations, or love to a friend, family member, or teacher.  Each of these types of writing requires different writing sub-skills (See Equipped for the Future's work in this area at https://eff.clee.utk.edu/fundamentals/standard_convey.htm ), other basic skills (e.g., research, problem-solving, teamwork, digital literacy), background knowledge about the topic, writing tools (pen/pencil, paper, digital devices), and instructional strategies.  

"Student-generated writing" was formerly (and perhaps still is in some programs!) a focal point for innovative, creative writing-related work in our field and writing might be revisited as both an important "thing" to learn and "way" to learn. Adult educators might review the good work previously done in this area (e.g., various guides about adult student writing, collections of learner writing) and such current work as the "Literacy Review" project run by faculty and undergraduates at NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study (which includes an annual anthology of writing by NY City adult learners, a celebratory reading event at the University in which the writers read their works,  and a day-long learner writing conference for adult educators and learners (https://gallatin.nyu.edu/academics/undergraduate/writing/literacyproject.html ).      Paul Jurmo (www.pauljurmo.info) 

Fascinating article.. Other questions to add to the discussion: What is the difference between writing for oneself (dairy) and writing for an external audience.? Writing for oneself helps clarify one's own thoughts..It can also records ones thoughts and activities for a future self.  To what degree do external writers write for themselves versus an external audience?


Is writing dead, David? I know that many of our students wish that were true! :) Of course, not only is writing alive, but it is living in many more environments than ever before! 

Our skill/talent as ABE/ASE/ESL professionals serving adult learners, as we probably recognize by now, lies in delivering writing assignments that most engage students, no matter what the environment: college, workplace, life-skills, on and on.  

Writing is a skill, and as such, it is developed through practice. The more we do it, the better we get at it! And the more we like doing it, the more we practice it! Students will write if they like putting thoughts on "paper" or on anything else that engages them or relates to them in some way, well, their way!

What does it mean to write? In my view, good academic-type writing occurs first through good thinking. How does good thinking develop? My view? It develops through reflection (rarely allowed!), openness to giving up old beliefs, and the ability to organize thoughts.

A geology (!) colleague of mine had students yell out words, any words, for one or two minutes during their first class meeting as he wrote the words on the board. (Remember blackboards?) He would then instruct them to organize the words in any way they wanted. Beautiful! The activity, as per my experience, works just as well in any discipline as a way to open minds and to organizing concepts in different ways. 

I would love to hear more views on David's initial questions and around the comments added by Paul and Steve! Let's talk more! Leecy