Unteaching

I chat frequently with many young folks, sometimes over a span of several years. I do almost nothing to “improve” their writing; I just write as well as I can, for that format and that audience. When a “creative” spelling appears, I will simply use the same word with the correct spelling, in a natural way. When their grammar is terrible, my response will incorporate an example with proper grammar – as an inherent part of the conversation, not as a “correction.”

When I look back, their improvement is quite substantial. This is true even when English is not their native language. One fellow, for whom English was the first language, wrote so badly that I thought he might be incapable of improvement. A few years later, his writing is of decent quality.

I am reminded of Paolo Friere’s method of teaching reading to illiterate peasants. He didn’t teach at all, as we normally understand the concept. He simply engaged them in discussion about something which interested them, and as interesting words arose in the conversation, he’d write them on a chalkboard, reading the word once and continuing the conversation. His audience, being untutored but not stupid, absorbed and assimilated the information.

Within about thirty hours, these illiterate peasants incorporated the written words into their own practice, and would scratch them into the dirt as they engaged in conversations with each other. They became, in effect, “bilingual” – able to express themselves both verbally and in writing. Friere was then able to distribute pamphlets, which his audience could read.

We should perhaps call this method “unteaching.”

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