Seeing distinctions, developing habits

This morning while reading Ben Sasse’s book The Vanishing American Adult, about which I’ll no doubt say more after I finish it, I stopped short when I read, “Seeing distinctions is a learned habit.”

All of us writing teachers know our students must learn to distinguish between, for example:

  • a complete sentence and a fragment of a sentence,
  • a word that must be capitalized and one that need not be capitalized,
  • words that must be put in quotation marks and words that need not be in quotation marks.

Until this morning, however, I’d never applied the term building habits to the teaching of writing, but that’s what teaching writing amounts to. I feel quite like Moliere’s Monsieur Jourdain who discovered he’d been speaking prose for 40 years. There is something freeing about thinking of teaching writing as a matter of guiding students to develop habits.

We not only need to teach right from wrong in matters of writing mechanics, but make sure students habitually choose the right punctuation, spelling, and capitalization by giving them daily or near-daily opportunities to make those choices.

We need not only to teach procedures that produce coherent documents but give students enough practice that producing coherent documents is a habit. That will require us to have students write full documents at least weekly.

We need not only to teach students to recognize a message that’s worth sharing but also to give them enough practice choosing writing topics that they habitually write about topics that matter. Some students may be mature enough to do that in sixth grade; others may not be mature enough to do it as college sophomores.

© 2021 Linda G. Aragoni