38. The Printed Word

There’s something about the printed word that impresses people. When something is written well, and people read it, it’s a little harder to disagree with it than when it is spoken well. When a person speaks, you can watch facial expressions and body language. You can listen to the tone of voice. All your senses work together to make it a multi-media experience, and you rarely forget that the message is from a regular human being like yourself.
Not so with the printed word. All you see is the word. Whether or not you believe that the Bible, the Koran, or other sacred documents were written by deities, it’s not hard to imagine why other people believe it. There’s nothing to distract you – no tell-tale signs of regular human presence. If these books were indeed written by humans, they were written by a special breed of humans called “writers.”
As we work to help children become literate, we’re ambivalent. We want them to know about the sanctity of the written word, and we also want them to be critical readers. It’s not hard to do both, but children ought to learn that both are important elements of literacy. We want children to be fascinated with books, and we want them to think about what they read, questioning whatever is questionable.
As I write this column, and read back what I write, I’m impressed. When I speak, people watch me, listen to me, experience me with all my human foibles. My humor has to be carefully monitored; it matters whether I smile at the wrong time. If I’m having a bad voice day, I may not get my points across as well. But when I write, it’s just me and my friend, the English language. I can be my own audience as long as I want to. I can try out my poetry or prose in several moods, and then, if it makes it through all the tests, I reward it by letting it be read by other people.
One of the children I work with, a first-grader, keeps reading what she writes. She writes a few words, then goes back to the beginning and reads the whole story aloud. She is very serious about this writing-reading process, and I respect her for it. For her, writing is indeed a craft. She also reads books avidly, and knows how important words are to her.
One of a teacher’s tasks is to somehow help a child balance critical reading and respect for the writer. We can model this balance by occasionally letting children see us respond in writing to what we read.

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