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Richard Nordquist

John Holt's "Private Papers": Learning to Write by Writing

By February 4, 2013

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Educational reformer John Holt (author of How Children Fail, Teach Your Own, and eight other ruckus-raising books) was an ardent advocate of "unschooling"--the belief that most people learn best on their own, not in conventional classrooms.

Over the years, at least one of Holt's ideas--the concept of "private papers" or ungraded writing projects--has made its way into many composition classes. Here's how Holt described the practice in his article "How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading."

The private paper has proved very useful. In the first place, in any English class--certainly any large English class--if the amount the students write is limited by what the teacher can find time to correct, or even to read, the students will not write nearly enough. The remedy is to have them write a great deal that the teacher does not read. In the second place, students writing for themselves will write about many things that they would never write on a paper to be handed in, once they have learned (sometimes it takes a while) that the teacher means what he says about the papers' being private. This is important, not just because it enables them to get things off their chest, but also because they are most likely to write well, and to pay attention to how they write, when they are writing about something important to them.

Some English teachers, when they first hear about private papers, object that students do not benefit from writing papers unless the papers are corrected. I disagree for several reasons. First, most students, particularly poor students, do not read the corrections on their papers; it is boring, even painful. Second, even when they do read these corrections, they do not get much help from them, do not build the teacher's suggestions into their writing. This is true even when they really believe the teacher knows what he is talking about.

Third, and most important, we learn to write by writing, not by reading other people's ideas about writing. What most students need above all else is practice in writing, and particularly in writing about things that matter to them, so that they will begin to feel the satisfaction that comes from getting important thoughts down in words and will care about stating these thoughts forcefully and clearly.
(John Holt, "How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading." Redbook, November 1967; reprinted in The Underachieving School, 1969)

Whether you're a teacher or a student, do you think the private paper is a worthwhile exercise? Can writing be learned without feedback from teachers? Tell us your thoughts by clicking on "comments" below.

More About the Teaching and Learning of Writing

More About John Holt From the About.com Guide to Homeschooling

Image: The Underachieving School by John Holt (1969; rpt. by Sentient Publications, 2005)


February 10, 2013 at 10:06 am
(1) Chris Vaughan says:

I’m reminded here of Mortimer J. Adler’s observation, ” The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it, usually does not know what he thinks”. The first step to any dialogue is the dialogue with oneself.

February 11, 2013 at 3:24 pm
(2) Chickaddd says:

I believe reading and writing teaches oneself to learn. When I write something I go over it by reading it aloud forwards and backwards, symbols included, to make sure that I do not make mistakes.
I am catching errors when I read others work and I am completing sentences when there are words skipped, wrong words, misspellings, etc. Of course, that is between me, myself and I, but it helps me learn for when I write my own work.
I am constantly reading, writing, using dictionaries, and more.

February 11, 2013 at 3:41 pm
(3) Pat Barrett says:

This fits with Krashen’s hypotheses about how we learn other languages: error correction does not work, only more input. If you want output i.e. writing, the writer has to have an internal model of the language. That’s where input from reading comes in: no amount of correction goes beyond abstract principles (which can be use in the mode Krashen calls the monitor: conscious application of rules). It is the internalized model of good writing (and speaking) that forms the basis for the writer’s output.
BTW, despite being highly controversial in the world of foreign language teaching, Krashen has had an out-sized influence on the field.

February 11, 2013 at 4:48 pm
(4) Pat Barrett says:

An article outlining Krashen’s arguments:


February 12, 2013 at 4:41 am
(5) kuukuwa Mensah says:

i think sometimes reading people’s work gives you ideas for your own work but reading your own work gives you pleasure and helps you improve upon what you have done

February 12, 2013 at 9:56 am
(6) Kevin McCann says:

It’s an interesting idea – when I was a teacher I experimented with the notion of nver grading creative work but putting on a brief comment (in pencil) at the end of the piece – I would ask kids if they wanted me to undeline spelling mistakes (again in pencil) and if they said no, didn’t. I found the standard was going up both in terms of content and technical accuracy – and that’s as far as I got. My heresy was discovered by my Head of Dept. and I was forbiden to carry on – when I persisted with my approach (from a diffrent angle) I was again disciplined – or rather bullied – in the end I had a breakdown and ultimately left teaching.

February 13, 2013 at 1:41 am
(7) Md Sajid says:

Learning through writing is the best way to come to know your original ideas that come across your sub conscious mind. they are purely divine. one has to pen it down for they reflect and vanish. you might not get even a second chance to get the very same idea again.

It is as if some body i.e. a perfect guide is teaching you . The originality of those ideas is just amazing.

Those ideas might have nothing to do with your conscious learning. The power of your sub conscious mind generates all that . They are purely effortless.
By writing we actually come to know as to what goes on our sub conscious mind and we come to know about ourselves too.

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