The Reading Matrix
Vol. 5, No. 1, April 2005
How Writing Works: Imposing Organizational Structure within the Writing Process
Pearson, Boston, USA
ISBN 0 205 36676-7 (Paperback)
Reviewed by Juan Carlos Palmer
Universitat Jaume I (Spain)
The arrival of the new millennium has offered new ways of sharing knowledge with friends and colleagues from all over the world, thanks to the continuous implementation of new technologies for global communication purposes. Furthermore, technology has become one of the most important excuses that many students use when asked about their writing ability. When we observe the importance that academic authorities offer to the writing process in primary and secondary education, we understand that it is necessary to pay attention to all the fine nuances it implies. Thus, students must learn to write well in order to function in the contemporary world, and this is a fact that Houston states in this volume.
In order to introduce her text, the author points out the importance of writing as a whole. In fact, teachers often complain that most programs tend to emphasize only one element of writing, such as the process, the instructional method, or the environment. Houston seems interested in going further, assuming that writing implies all these aspects together with something which is also basic for its purpose: to have something to write about. Thus, the importance of the writer becomes a key feature of Houston's approach to writing, where the human visual memory can take an integral part in all the different steps to be taken into account (prewriting, drafting, revising, editing and publishing). On the other hand, skills such as spelling and punctuation are not so important.
Houston divides her book in fourteen chapters. In her initial unit she pays attention to all the elements of a writing classroom, providing an overview of different concepts and issues that will recur in subsequent chapters (the student's role and different types of writing). Similarly, she analyzes some elements of both direct and indirect writing instruction (the teacher's role, the classroom atmosphere, and physical arrangements). In turn, the author stresses the importance of thinking globally about the successful writing classroom, as this will offer the teacher the possibility of also considering all the different roles that s/he could play in the teaching process. This would guide learners through indirect instruction in the writing process, helping them to improve the overall quality of the texts in their final drafts.
Chapter 2 deals with the role of the student as a writer. There are many recent books emphasizing the role of the learner in the writing process from different variables (the learner as an individual, multiculturalism in the classroom, or different registers), and Houston tries to focus on all these aspects in a fairly concise way. The overall idea that the author seems to suggest is that most lecturers should guide students by starting with what they already know, leading them from the known to the unknown. This chapter is relevant for those readers interested in the registers of usage, though Houston does not pay great attention to register switching, something often observed in the writing classroom.
Chapter 3 is devoted to the study of the role of direct instruction in the writing process, following the approach implemented in Swedish schools by Marie Danielsson. Based on this approach, Houston notices how the process analysis works when structuring the writing process on the use of a singing game. The author also pays attention to other applications of the process analysis organizational structure across the curriculum, as well as to other possibilities for learning through the development of a process analysis.
Based on this general framework already established by Houston, chapters 4, 5, 6 and 7 focus on some general structures of writing and their application in the classroom. The author analyses the narrative, descriptive, expository and persuasive structures of a given piece of written discourse, developing some lesson plans that could be of great interest for any reader. These four chapters offer a good amount of ideas for any lecturer interested in the development of units based on the teaching of writing through these four types of structure.
I consider that the most important part of the book starts in chapter 8, as Houston focuses on some of the elements that will later help a student to enhance his/her written discourse. In order to introduce some of the elements that have to be considered, Houston coins the acronym TPSAP (task, purpose, structure, audience and point of view). In her opinion, students should analyze all these components to understand what a text is about and how can be implemented. The author recommends the use of newspapers and periodicals, because of their excellent quality, although she also points out a fact that can be quite shocking: though being often required to write essays, students rarely read this type of texts outside the classroom. The understanding of how these five components affect writing will enhance the students' ability to revise texts by making changes, as chapter 9 exemplifies.
Chapter 10 is devoted to the analysis of the importance that class journals may have for learners. Writing a learning journal allows students to review, reflect on, and organize all the different aspects they have learned in the classroom. By doing so learners improve their ability as readers and writers, taking an active part in the writing process. In turn, this is what Houston states in chapter 11, when she pays attention to some ways to guide learners through the writing process, in order to improve the overall quality of the texts delivered. Additionally, and also trying to enhance the quality of the students' texts, chapter 12 analyses aspects such as standard punctuation, or spelling, though making it clear that these are minor flaws that can always be learned. As Houston points out, most students show a negative attitude toward writing due to the traditional approach which rated these cosmetic aspects as a key feature of good writing.
Finally, chapters 13 and 14 deal with those aspects to be considered once the text is finished. As Houston points out, grading a text is by far the most unpleasant part of teaching writing, so she recommends the design of personal portfolios where students include all the different drafts of their writing assignment.
How Writing Works is presented in an easy-to-read format, very accessible for both lecturers and students, and can be implemented in different settings (L1 writing, L2 writing, multicultural classes). Her approach is both fresh and innovative, something that the audience will surely appreciate, though most readers will notice that the framework she introduces is based on her teaching experience (for over twenty years), as well as in her activity as a writer and teacher educator. The quality of the book clearly benefits from the author's background, having helped her to create a text that is fairly different from others we have read and taught.
As a summary, I recommend this book to those lecturers interested in teaching writing in the classroom. The text focuses on learning to write in the real world by using content materials from the entire curriculum. Houston includes different model lesson plans that can be interesting for the writing practitioner, emphasizing the organizational patterns of the writing process. In short, How Writing Works offers an interesting approach to the topic, in such a way that anyone will be able to understand why the old art of writing should not disappear.
The focus of my research is on reading and writing in the EFL classroom. I am particularly interested in the use of summarizing techniques as a way to improve my students' ability to both understand a text and being able to create a new version of a given piece of discourse. My PhD dissertation (1996) dealt with this specific field of study.