When we think of literacy, we tend to think of reading. Schools, literary nonprofits and philanthropists often focus on encouraging students to be strong readers with solid comprehension skills.
While those skills are crucial, many experts say critical and creative writing skills are equally important, and are too often overlooked.
Compared to reading, writing is more active, encouraging students to be independent thinkers, take ownership over their own stories and ideas, and communicate them clearly to others, says Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, executive director of the National Writing Project, which offers resources for teachers who want to encourage students to write.
“Unless we want an education system just focused on making people consumers and not focused on helping them be producers, this emphasis on reading only, which does happen in so many places, is very short-sighted,” she says.
Even when students are given writing assignments, she explains, the work tends to focus on assessing a text, rather than on presenting a new idea. Writing, she says, should be “the central thing you’re learning. Not writing on a test, not writing to demonstrate you’re learning what someone has taught you, but also really writing as an author writes.”
Reading, of course, contributes immensely to one’s personal growth. But teaching it together with writing nurtures both, says Rebecca Wallace-Segall, executive director of a New York City writing center, Writopia Lab.
“Writing impacts your ability to read,” she says. “Over 90% of our kids who come in as reluctant writers, parents have reported they become more engaged readers as they’ve fallen in love with the writing process.”
From a practical standpoint, writing is more important than ever; we depend on it for personal and professional communication.
“We see this from employers all the time. They’re looking for folks who can write,” says Eidman-Aadahl. “Certainly with digital tools right now, think of what we’re all doing all day. We’re probably interacting with the internet through writing.”
Kids are already writing all the time, in texts, emails and social media posts.
“Whether they’re actually being provided with the opportunity to learn to write, whether schools are addressing it or not, they’re already writing and publishing,” Eidman-Aadahl says. “Every young person is an author today if he or she is connected to the Internet. So we have to help them do it in the best, most responsible, critical, prosocial way.”
Advocates of teaching writing say it is empowering.
“When students own their voices and tell their stories, they become not only stronger and more confident writers, but also stronger and more confident individuals,” says Ali Haider, executive director of the Austin, Texas-based creative writing center, the Austin Bat Cave.
Wallace-Segall says writing also helps students work through difficulties.
“Creative writing, it’s a lifeline for us,” she says. “We’re watching kids work through their greatest challenges, subconsciously. They’re not writing a story about a difficult father or directly about a bully in class, but they are creating a fictional scenario that might feel distant enough for them to go deep into it.”
And teaching students to write can have an impact on the larger world, notes Dare Dukes, executive director of Deep Center, an organization in Savannah, Georgia, that works with young writers to share their stories with policy makers, judges, politicians, police officers and the like.
“So those adults can see that the stories they’re telling themselves about those young people are often wrong and doing a lot of harm in the world,” says Dukes.