9 Misconceptions About Student-Centered Writing Instruction

Lots of teachers (and students) love writing workshop. Sometimes, however, you might hear some well-worn myths about it. Turns out that Don Graves, founding father of writing workshop, heard the same things 30 years ago. Here are 9 misconceptions he identified in a 1984 essay titled “The Enemy Is Orthodoxy.” While Graves was talking about younger children, these myths and solutions apply in any grade.

  1. Children ought to revise everything they compose.

There are many reasons why a writer might not revise a piece: It was a quick write for topic generation, not a first draft; the topic didn’t work out; the piece was an extension or revision of a prior piece anyway.

2. Children should only write in personal narrative; imaginative writing ought to be discouraged.

Personal narrative may be simplest, but if they choose we should encourage kids to explore fiction or poetry. As students get older, we need to give them experience with the many genres they will encounter in their lives.

3. Children should have several conferences for each piece of writing.

This myth comes from the old practice of correcting students’ writing. Conferences are focused bursts of one-to-one teaching on high-level concepts of drafting and revising. The time to fix conventions, style, spelling, and other miscues comes later.

4. Children should publish each piece of writing.

Whether book or blog, children need to publish — but not as much as they need feedback. Be sensible. Don’t delay letting them publish but don’t just publish something that needs more work.

5. Children should make each piece of writing last four days.

Writing is a process, but it isn’t always systematic. Each piece of writing doesn’t follow a set timeline, just as no two writers work at exactly the same pace.

6. Children should share each piece with the entire class.

Oversharing doesn’t help writers grow and shouldn’t be compulsory. Share time is for writers to see the effect of their text on others, receive feedback on an in-process writing, or celebrate a completed piece. Some issues that writers run into can be addressed through teacher-to-student conferences or student-to-student conferences, so share time should be carefully chosen for maximum instructional impact.

7. Children should own their own writing and never be directed to do anything with their writing.

A golden rule: Support don’t meddle.

8. Children should choose all their topics.

Graves suggested that about 20% of student writing should be teacher assigned and ideally involve cross-curricular connections that help students transfer writing skills.

9. Spelling, grammar, and punctuation are unimportant.

Content is king, and the core information of a story comes first. The time for working on important surface-level items such as conventions is best done when a student is working on a final draft. That is, at the time of need.

To read Don Graves’ “The Enemy Is Orthodoxy” as well as many other important essays on the teaching of writing, pick up Children Want to Write (Heinemann, 2013).