Teaching Expressive Writing. ERIC Digest.
by Cobine, Gary R.
This Digest discusses the personal essay form, an exemplar of what James
Britton calls "expressive writing."
WHEN TO TEACH EXPRESSIVE WRITING
Controversy has arisen about the age at which the expressive mode originates
and, therefore, about the age at which it should be taught in school. According
to Britton (1970) the expressive mode precedes the persuasive and informative
modes in a writer's linguistic development. The implication is that expressive
writing be taught first, in elementary school. According to another theory,
however, the persuasive mode, growing out of the "regulative language"
that children learn from their environment, precedes the expressive mode
in children's linguistic development (Newkirk, 1984).
Neither theory seems entirely accurate. Authors of great literature,
for example, who are obviously consummating, not beginning, their linguistic
development, write through a powerful expressive mode. At the same time,
authors of dynamic journalistic and scholarly reports, who are also consummating
their linguistic development, write through powerful critical, persuasive,
and informative modes. The apparent contradiction between theories is resolved
if the various modes of writing are seen to be equally available to all
writers at all ages rather than hierarchically arranged in tiers by age
and talent. In other words, journalists and scholars use the expressive
mode as much as literary artists, even though they de-emphasize expressiveness
in their product. In this view, the expressive mode is seen to be related
not so much to a linguistic stage in a writer's development as to a recurring
stage in a writer's process of writing.
The EXPRESSIVE MODE IN THE WRITING PROCESS
The expressive mode fits not only into the expression stage of a writer's
process, but also into almost every other stage. As a writer confronts
a topic, collects and recollects material, puts material into incipient
forms, recognizes patterns of ideas and details, and reworks the material
in various ways, the writer's expository modes are complemented and invigorated
by the expressive mode, like a linguistic ebb and flow of creative power.
Gordon Pradl (1990) wrote of James Britton's championing of expressive
writing in education: "Making knowledge personal requires language that
is infused with one's own attitudes, connections, revelations. Thus "expressive"
is not a melody of idiosyncrasy, but a harmony of connection." By structuring
expressive writing activities and correlating them with particular stages
of the writing process, a teacher can draw this natural linguistic activity
out of a student writer.
Walshe (1987) characterizes recursive stages in the writer's creative
process as: problem, investigation, expression, insight, announcement,
reaction, and refinement.
Journal writing can be used as a stimulus for various stages of the
creative process; it can be used especially well for the problem stage,
when students explore through private, exploratory, unedited writing, their
thoughts, feelings, and experiences (Connors, 1988). In these journals,
sometimes called "think books," they contemplate, make connections, and
ask questions. As they do so, the teacher helps them to satisfy 3 purposes:
to explore potential topics, to write expressively about these topics,
and to recognize potential material about these topics. First, by keeping
an ongoing record of their thoughts, students gather the seeds for topics
of special interest. Second, by writing expressively, they nourish the
seeds--their language becomes more lyrical and metaphorical (Craig, 1983).
Third, by perusing their journals periodically, they harvest: Not only
among their thoughts do potential topics emerge, but also in their metaphors
hidden knowledge emerges, like a surprising revelation in a dream.
Journal use can be structured into a cohesive series of activities (Connors,
1988). In an assignment activity, to evoke expressive writing among students
who may be leery about "self expression" and to set boundaries to the wide
range of expressive-writing possibilities (Collins, 1985), the teacher
makes a specific journal-writing assignment. The teacher suggests an exploratory
topic for the day via a "focus question" (Craig, 1983). For example, the
teacher could start the students on an exploration of a personally significant
aspect of their own life or a friend or relative's life. Or, the teacher
could start the students on an imaginary dialogue with a personally significant
figure, real or fictitious, such as someone they consider wise, heroic,
admirable, or enviable. Then the students write a journal entry in class,
and, if inspired, add to the entry outside of class. At this point, the
teacher neither reads nor marks the entries, staying with the purpose of
eliciting, not evaluating, expressive writing. Furthermore, the teacher
stresses to the students that they, too, withhold judgment in order to
write spontaneously and open-mindedly.
In a "selection activity," in which students enter an investigation
stage of the creative process after accumulating numerous journal entries,
the teacher calls for a selection of one entry for public uses. The students
read their selection aloud while their classmates listen silently. Then,
in a "revision activity," in which students enter expression and insight
stages, the teacher calls for a revision of the selection with regard to
audience and purpose so that the students begin to shift from an expressive
mode towards an expository mode (Connors, 1988). The students write a characterization
of their audience--age range, principal occupation, political affiliation,
religious orientation, social memberships, etc.--and a definition of their
purpose--to persuade, to explain, to evaluate, etc.--with respect to their
audience. Then they revise and rewrite their selection with their audience
and purpose in mind.
In a "scrutiny activity," in which students enter announcement and reaction
stages, they distribute copies of their formal drafts to classmates, having
established their purpose for writing. The teacher collects and marks the
formal paper, especially noting how identifiable the student-writer's audience
is, and how consistent and effective his or her purpose is with respect
to the audience.
Other activities can be used to reinforce the 4-part journal writing
activity. Brainstorming, for example can be used as an additional stimulus
for the investigation stage of writing. Freewriting can be used as a stimulus
for the expression form of writing. "Focused freewriting" is an especially
adaptable activity because the teacher can use it on a case-by-case, moment-to-moment
basis, whenever students seem directionless, whether at the beginning,
in the middle, or towards the end of their work on an assignment (Tompkins
and Camp, 1988). The students write continuously, pen-to-paper, for 5 to
10 minutes, starting with their topic, but associating freely in all directions.
If tempted to backtrack, pause, or stop, they rewrite a personal code-word
over and over until a new direction comes to them spontaneously.
Heilker (1996) uses a modified freewriting exercise with his college
students in an essay-writing class--after the students have decided on
their topics, he has them do some initial, "baseline," directed freewriting
in class. He asks them to freewrite for 5 minutes in response to a prompt:
"At this point, what do you know about your issue? How do you feel about
it? What do you want to know about it?"
When making an assignment, the teacher who guides students through the
recursive stages of the writing process with the use of expressive-writing
activities (whether it be in journal writing or in essay writing) should
remember 3 general principles; (1) allow students a choice of topic, at
least within certain parameters; (2) require students to articulate their
rhetorical purpose at some point; and (3) establish an "expressive relationship"
with students so that they come to use the expressive mode naturally to
enhance their writing ability. Students can gain clarity by writing statements
of belief and meaning; they can develop their linguistic ability by writing
expressively; and in using language purposefully, they can come to use
language respectfully. As one instructor has written: "When we encounter
traces of egocentric language in speech or in writing we may view those
traces as the most powerful sources for knowledge-making in our classes
and in our students' writing" (Grunst, 1991).
Britton, James N. (1970). Language and Learning. Coral Gables, FL: University
of Miami Press. [ED 052 217]
Collins, Carmen (1985). "The Power of Expressive Writing in Reading
Comprehension." Language Arts, 2(1), 48-54. [EJ 309 764]
Connors, Patricia (1988). "Making Private Writing Public: Teaching Expressive
Writing in Composition Class." Teaching English in the Two-Year College,
15(1), 25-27. [EJ 373 305]
Craig, Sr. Therese (1983). "Self-Discovery through Writing Personal
Journals" (Interview with David Dillon). Language Arts, 60(3), 373-79.
[EJ 277 938]
Grunst, Robert C. (1991). "Situating Egocentric Language in the Teaching
of Composition." Paper presented at the Conference on College Composition
and Communication (Boston). [ED 331 051]
Heilker, Paul (1996). The Essay: Theory and Pedagogy for an Active Form.
Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English. [CS 215 284]
Newkirk, Thomas (1984). "Archimedes' Dream." Language Arts, 61(4), 341-50.
[EJ 296 698]
Pradl, Gordon M. (1990). In "Re-Presenting James Britton: A Symposium."
College Composition and Communication, 41(2), 166-86. [EJ 414 689]
Tompkins, Gail, and Donna Camp (1988). "Rx for Writer's Block." Childhood
Education, 64(4), 209-14. [EJ 370 908]
Walshe, R. D. "The Learning Power of Writing." English Journal, 76(6),
22-27. [EJ 359 150]