In the first few chapters of The Book of Learning and Forgetting, Frank Smith offers a provocative discussion of the very nature learning. Why is it that infants, toddlers, and even high school students are able to acquire and retain new information effortlessly? It may not come as a surprise that very young children increase their vocabularies by leaps and bounds, but according to research conducted at the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois, “teenagers still learn new words at an average rate of 3,400 words per year” (Smith, 23). He goes on to underscore that the figure is an average, noting that some learn 1,500 words while others learn up to 8,500. Not only are these staggering numbers, but their range is also noteworthy. He notes, “What made the difference was reading, keeping the company of books,” an explanation that is neither puzzling nor surprising (23). Students who read a lot end up learning more words. No shock there. It bears repeating, though, that this learning takes place “inconspicuously,” as Smith refers to it. There is no memorization, completion of lessons, or strict drilling; it all happens naturally with minimal effort.
That natural, effortless learning is what Smith calls “classic learning,” standing in stark contrast with the “official learning” that takes place in classrooms and is characterized by effort, struggle, failure, and frustration. It is fairly easy to understand how students can achieve higher reading skills and vocabulary acquisition through this sort of epistemological absorption, but learning on the other half of the “Literacy Club” appears somewhat more nebulous (25). What does classic learning look like when it comes to writing?
The image of the small child on a parent’s lap enjoying a bedtime story is familiar to everyone. We clearly see how such an activity would provide a solid foundation for reading skills in children. Is it enough, however, to rely on those good parenting habits to lead to writing skills as well? Is there something analogous that can be done in terms of writing? Ought parents to start writing with their children in the same way that they read to them? How can teachers apply this “classic” model of learning when it comes to writing at school?
Smith does not offer an explicit answer in the first four chapters, but his distinction between reading to/for a child and reading with a child seems to shed some light on the matter. Once children reach an age where writing becomes possible, it is logical that encouraging them to do so while offering help along the way would be immensely beneficial to their writing futures. It strikes me that such is the case through perhaps fifth grade, when writing is still closely tied to the realm of stories and is something children feel they can do freely and without fear of being incorrect. Perhaps if teachers beyond elementary school devoted more time to writing with their students in a context focused not on rules but expression, not on correctness but creativity, then kids might not enter their teenage years viewing writing as a thankless endeavor that yields nothing but frustration and failure. That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for grammar and structure in writing instruction, but current methods tend to approach the extreme in that regard. Smith reminds us that students become better readers by reading a lot. Maybe making space for free, expressive writing in the curriculum would make students willing to write a lot, thus creating better writers.