Category Archives: Teaching writing

Writing is a foreign language

It’s time American teachers face the fact that for our students, written English is a foreign language.

Our students can decode writing if it’s not too complicated. They can pass tests of grammar knowledge. They can put together collections of sentences in written English.

What they can’t do is write English language paragraphs for the purposes for which they need or want to write English language paragraphs.

In brief, our students haven’t learned to use written language in real life as a tool for communication.

The way we teach writing (or don’t teach writing) is the major culprit.

We don’t teach writing right.

We don’t give young children enough opportunities to use writing to do things that are both interesting and useful to them.  And we need to give even grade school students opportunities to write both fiction and nonfiction.

We regularly encourage elementary school students to invent stories, which may be interesting to them, but rarely encourage them to do writing that’s useful. Because of that, we turn off many youngsters who are creative but not imaginative, the ones who see how to make something better rather than envisioning an entirely new thing.

There’s no reason that writing cannot be both interesting and useful to youngsters. Even invented stories can be turned to practical uses, which is a fact teachers at all levels routinely ignore.

While we’re having students invent stories, we’re also having them learn grammar and related writing mechanics in isolation from their own writing. The writing mechanics exercises we give students don’t sound like they were written by elementary school students because they weren’t.

Students do exercises (many of them are disguised as games these days) but success with the exercises doesn’t translate into ability to write good sentences of their own. To be able to write good sentences, students need to practice with their own material.

We expose without teaching.

After messing up the teaching of writing in K-6, we mess up from grade 7 through college by failing to give students either procedures or practice in writing the kinds of things adults must write in the kinds of situations in which adults must write: short, nonfiction texts written with an eye on the clock.

In grades 7-12, we expose students to various kinds of writing—perhaps one narrative essay, one comparison essay, one argument essay—but we don’t actually teach students to write any of those things.

It’s hardly any wonder students don’t learn to write: They graduate high school with just enough exposure to writing to build up an immunity.

By the time they reach my first year college course, teens and adults don’t need or want any more exposure to writing. They have enough information about writing, but nobody has taught them to do it.

Most first year college students  would be happy to have help to improve their writing providing the help focuses on a limited number of procedures which are

  • easy to understand
  • easy to learn
  • easy to adapt
  • widely applicable to their own writing situations.

For my students, I’ve identified 10 procedures, each of which can be stated in one sentence, which work in probably 95 percent of the writing situations adults encounter. Unfortunately, teens and adults aren’t able to write just because they have a set of procedures to follow.

Teach and then supervise practice.

In my experience, to become competent at writing most teens and adults need 100 hours of practice—supervised practice—applying the strategies in authentic writing situations. Typically, for first year college students, 20 times through the entire writing process is about 100 hours practice.

That may sound like a lot, but 100 hours of practice between seventh grade and high school graduation shouldn’t be a big deal.

In those 100 hours, we need to do some honest-to-goodness teaching of writing, being physically present while students practice, interacting with them, helping them apply their developing skills to their own writing situations.

And we need to do it now before young people lose the ability to communicate without pictures.

Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching writing

Learn to write in eight weeks.

No reason it should take more than eight weeks.

I mean, writin’ is like just sayin’ stuff only, you know, with a pencil or computer or somethin’.

I’ll bet if you worked hard, you could ace it in six.

Five maybe.

After all, writin’s just like, well, it’s just like sayin’ stuff.

Ya know what I’m sayin’?

Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching writing

Create no-bore writing classrooms

Good teaching occurs halfway between being an entertainer

 

juggler keeps balls in air
 

and being a wet blanket.

 

money wet with snow looks depressed

 

Examine the most boring parts of your curriculum for opportunities to introduce something unexpected.

 

woman walks quickly carrying mannequin leg

 

Just because you cannot make learning to write fun doesn’t mean you have to make it boring.

 

woman looks up from computer in pleasant surprise

Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching methods, Teaching writing

Teaching writing is like writing

Teaching writing is a lot like learning to write.

You don’t need to know much at the start, but you must be willing to learn.

small boy spray-painting MOM on wall
You must work consistently to improve and tolerate failures as you learn.

young woman sits despondently on bench
Above all, you have to accept the fact that everyone thinks what you do is easy except the people who do it every day.

man sweeping big parking lot with broom


Photos by Ryan McGuire of gratisography.com

Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching writing

Social media as a research tool

When I teach writing, one of the strategies I teach students is a procedure for identifying experts on a topic.

I call it ripple strategy. It is basically the process journalists use when they start to investigate a topic about which they have no real starting information.

Ripples spread out from a drop of water falling into a puddle.

Ripples on water help students visualize the process of finding experts.

I tell students to begin by seeing if they have personal expertise on the topic. They may not be an expert, but specifying what they know can help them in the search for expertise.

If they can’t think of anything they know from personal experience, they move a bit beyond themselves to people they know personally: family, friends, teachers, co-workers, the owner of the pizza place they patronize. Do any of those folks have expertise on the writing topic?

If no one comes to mind, they move to the next farthest ripple: People they don’t know personally but who are known by people they know personally. These are folks like Mom’s boss’s son or the mail carrier’s brother.

Finally, they come to the people they know about but to whom they don’t have any third party link.

Let’s say a student’s rippling has led him to think a good source on his topic would be someone who  manages a nursing home.

The student can ask people in his closest “ripples” if they know someone who manages a nursing home.

If they don’t have any luck, they can use social media as a research tool.

Each of the major social media networks has its own search functionality.

Written for business people seeking customers, this article from the Business 2 Community website, gives a pretty good introduction to using Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube, and Google+ to find people with interest or expertise in a given topic. Although the list doesn’t include LinkedIn, the six options it does discuss are probably more familiar to students grades 7 to 14.

The article isn’t a perfect answer to students’ find-an-expert questions, but it’s a good start.

Leave a comment

Filed under Lifelong learning, Teaching writing

Getting students to write well without writing at length

Photo of students writing In mid-January, Marc Tucker wrote a piece  for Education Week‘s Top Performers blog, “Our Students Can’t Write Very Well—It’s No Mystery Why.”

Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, is noted for his research and writing on the policies and practices of the countries with the world’s best education systems.

His EdWeek article is blunt. After noting that American high school students rarely are required to read entire novels, let alone read entire nonfiction books, Tucker says:

High school students are hardly ever asked to write anything of significant length.  Why not?  Because in this age of accountability, they are not tested on their writing ability.  By which I mean that they are not asked to submit to the testing authorities 10- or 15- or 20-page papers in which they are expected to present a thesis and defend it, analyze something complicated from multiple points of view and draw a reasoned conclusion, or put together a short story in which characters are developed in some depth and insights are revealed. [boldface added]

I empathize with Tucker. I’ve not had notable success finding qualified applicants either.)

As my regular readers know, for decades I’ve toggled together a living as a writer-editor (books, magazines, newspapers, an academic journal, marketing materials) and a college writing teacher, thanks in no small part to temporary and part-time jobs in places such as a hospital, the IRS National Computer Lab, and a resort hotel.

I’ve learned far more about writing from the places at which I’ve worked than I ever learned from my academic studies.

I believe deliberate practice is the key to learning to write.

I’m not, however, convinced that reading widely produces good writers: I see a reciprocal rather than a causal relationship.

I agree with Tucker that too many students are getting through school without learning to write.  As Steve Graham‘s research has shown, most teachers either don’t teach writing or don’t know how to teach writing, or both.

Besides that, teachers often have very little idea of what people in jobs outside education must write, the conditions under which they write, or the standards to which writers are held in jobs outside education. The typically English teacher is a person (usually a woman) whose out-of-education employment consisted of summer jobs waiting tables or working as a retail clerk — jobs that don’t entail writing complex documents or writing semi-technical documents such as are needed for the job Tucker was trying to fill.

If we want students to write on the job, they need to be taught to write, not just given writing assignments. In my experience, short papers on topics related to their courses are the best vehicles for teaching writing.

Students in an English class may not be interested in writing about why word choices matter or why English spelling is so difficult, but they can at least see it has some connection to English class. Similarly, students in science classes may not care about chemistry, but they can at least see that an assignment to compare the tone of an article in USA Today about a newly discovered use for tomato peels with the tone of an article in Scientific American on the same topic has some relationship to chemistry.

When I’m lucky enough to have students for an academic year,  I teach students a set of strategies I use in my own writing and stick to just what Common Core calls informative/explanatory writing. My students write in class every period for at least half the year so I can give them feedback orally as they write.

Whenever I can get away with it, I guarantee students that as soon as they demonstrate on two papers in a row that they have met my standard for competent writing, I will drop every writing grade up to that point. If they are happy with a C, they don’t have to do anything else the rest of the term.

I’ve done this when I’ve had three preps: five, 20-student, composition classes, one ed psych class, and one magazine journalism class. I thought I’d die before that year was over, but no student earned less than a B.

When students are competent at I/E writing — I estimate that they’ll need to write at least 20 complete, short papers to become competent — they will be able to start paying real attention to what they have to say.

That’s when they can profit from an across-the-curriculum expository writing program in which they get experience writing the kinds of longer papers Tucker expects from applicants for jobs at his organization.

2 Comments

Filed under Teaching writing

Let’s get strategic about writing strategies

Last week a publisher sent me an ad for a new book for teachers which is now on pre-order:

The Reading Strategies Book made the New York Times Best Seller List by making it simpler to match students’ needs to high-quality instruction. Now, in The Writing Strategies Book, Jen Serravallo does the same, collecting 300 of the most effective strategies to share with writers, and grouping them beneath 10 crucial writing goals.

In her introduction, Serravallo explains her purpose:

My aim in this book is to offer my favorite, most useful collection of strategies that span all aspects of the writing process, all genres and modes of writing, and that will work well with students in grades K–8.

advertisement for book 300 Writing Strategies

Appealing and practical

I just dipped into The Writing Strategies Book, but I found it pretty impressive.

I can see why the book would appeal to teachers.

Serravallo writes well: There are no long-winded, polysyllabic sentences. She has an authentic voice that sounds like person-to-person communication.

The book’s page layout makes it easy to find information and apply it quickly.

What Serravallo says is practical. She knows her audience and gives them what they need.

But 300 strategies is excessive

I have reservations, however, about needing 300 strategies.

My career blended writing nonfiction for adult readers with teaching nonfiction writing to post-secondary writers, which I realize is a far cry from teaching K-8.

However, I’ve found both as a writer and as a writing teacher, the fewer the strategies, the better the writing outcomes.

definition printed on photo of block wall: Strategies are ways of systematically implementing a process designed to achieve carefully defined goals.

One of my gripes about K-12 English programs is that they are not strategic: Strategies are ways of systematically implementing a process designed to achieve carefully defined goals. Does that sound like anything that happens in K-12 education?

Students come to first year college composition with no strategies for tackling routine writing situations. They treat every writing situation as if it were unique when, in fact, they, and most other people, regularly encounter perhaps a half dozen different writing situations.

10 strategies instead of 300

Instead of 300 writing strategies, I have just 10—and three of them are actually research strategies.

Ten are all I need to write nonfiction on a daily basis.

Ten are all I need to teach nonfiction writing.

Ten are all my students require to learn to write nonfiction competently.

To make the writing process efficient, I need to make sure each individual:

  • Understands the strategy.
  • Memorizes the strategy.
  • Uses the strategy repeatedly in disciplined practice.

Something that’s done once is not a strategy.

A strategy is only strategic after it’s an automatic response to a set of stimuli.

A real strategy enables the user to recognize almost at a glance when conditions require something other than the strategy — something innovative, something creative.

Real strategies scale.

Real strategies can be deployed in situations far different from that in which they were learned and on tasks far more complex than the tasks on which they were practiced.

I’d call them feedback

What Serravallo calls strategies, I’d call feedback.

In a writing class, feedback is talking to an individual student about what he’s doing, finding out what the student is having difficulty with, and and helping the student find ways to overcome the problem.

Strategies enable the writing student to get along without the teacher present.

Feedback shows the writing student how to understand and use the strategies.

I’ll continue to advocate for a few good strategies for writing teachers: I think my system beats Serravallo’s.

But regardless of what age your writing students are, if you’re looking for good suggestion on how to provide students with feedback on their writing while they’re writing (when it can do some good),  you ought to take a look at Serravallo’s Writing Strategies Book.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching writing

Writing for work-readiness

If you’ve been out of the universe for a while, you may have missed the cries for students to be “college and career ready.”

Since writing and teaching writing are particular interests of mine, I’ve been checking out a few scholarly reports about where writing fits into getting students ready for life beyond high school.

Two themes stood out to me: The reports assume that (1) college attendance is required for entrance into the world of work and (2) the world of work means offices occupied by salaried professionals.

College is an assumed prerequisite

Here are four excerpts from the opening pages of reports issued between 2003 and 2013.

The Neglected “R” (subtitled The Need for a Writing Revolution), published by the College Board in April 2003, says:

More than 90 percent of midcareer professionals recently cited the “need to write effectively” as a skill “of great importance” in their day-to-day
work.  The world in general, and advanced societies in particular, now demonstrates a nearly voracious appetite for highly educated people. (Underscores added.)

Writing: A Ticket to Work…Or a Ticket Out published by the College Board in September 2004, had these observations:

A survey of 120 major American corporations employing nearly 8 million people concludes that in today’s workplace writing is a “threshold skill” for hiring and promotion among salaried (i.e., professional) employees. Survey results indicate that writing is a ticket to professional opportunity, while poorly written job applications are a figurative kiss of death.

Writing is a “threshold skill” for both employment and promotion, particularly for salaried employees. Half the responding companies report that they take writing into consideration when hiring professional employees. (Underscores added.)

The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing developed by Council of Writing Program Administrators, National Council of Teachers of English and the National Writing Project, published January 2011, says:

This Framework describes the rhetorical and twenty-first-century skills as well as habits of mind and experiences that are critical for college success. (Underscore added.)

What Does It Really Mean to be College and Work Ready? an NCEE English report, published in May 2013:

… addresses a simple question: what kind and level of literacy is required of a high school graduate if that student is going to have a good chance of succeeding in the first year of a typical community college program? (Underscores added.)

Suppose the assumptions are wrong?

Suppose college isn’t the only gateway into the workplace.

Suppose there are good-paying jobs outside of offices.

Suppose high schools turned out graduates with skills necessary for entry-level jobs in businesses in their areas.

Suppose MOOCs and coding academies and apprenticeships allow students to go from high school to good-paying jobs.

Suppose Makerspaces allow inventive, entrepreneurial students places to become business owners.

If those and other alternatives to college-going (other than unemployment) were widely available, what then?

Would how we teach writing change?

When I realized the majority of my college students either didn’t want to be in college or shouldn’t have been there, I changed how I taught freshman composition.

What’s been your experience?

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching writing

Getting back in the saddle

When I closed my “you can teach writing” website, I thought I would take some time off before picking up the pieces and trying again.

I didn’t think it would take this long.

Once I got away from working on the site every day, I didn’t have a reason to keep up with the technology needed for website work.

But the tech world didn’t wait for me.

When I was ready to get back in the saddle, I couldn’t reach the stirrups any more.

The software problem: directions

I’m struggling to learn new software and encountering the usual difficulty that accompanies technology: its directions.

Sometimes the directions are vague.

Sometimes they’re so detailed they make the head spin.

Sometimes they don’t exist at all.

The student problem: teachers

The wonderful thing about bad directions is that they force teachers to recognize that someone who isn’t learning is not necessarily lazy, stupid, or unmotivated.

That’s not an earth-shaking revelation, but it’s a fact every teacher needs to remember.

The problem of the kid in the fourth seat in the third row just might be the teacher at the front of the room.


New websites in development

I’m going to split content from my old website into three smaller sites.

Currently, I’m working on a slimmed down version of my original  you-can-teach-writing site. I’ve even slimmed down its URL to yctwriting.com. It will focus on the least teachers need to know to teach nonfiction writing, and the 10 strategies teens and adult students need to know to write nonfiction texts competently.

grampuss.com will be a site about how to help students master essential writing mechanics (grammar, punctuation, usage, spelling, and style) without worksheets and drills.

penprompts.com will focus use of formal and informal writing prompts as teaching materials, not just as “writing tests.”

Keep an eye on this blog for details about when yctwriting.com launches. You can get posts by email or RSS if you sign up below the search box in the right hand column.

Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching writing

Writers require hands-on learning

I read a short post this morning at Mindshift about visual learning. It’s gist is that, although people may prefer visual presentations, having information presented in multiple ways is best for learning, especially if one of the multiple ways is visual.

For teachers of writing, keeping that fact in mind is important.

To develop a skill,  people have to do more than see someone else use the skill.  Knowing what to do is just the beginning.

To acquire a skill, people need to actually use it.   (If people could learn skills by watching experts, there would be thousands of NFL fans who developed skills to rival Tom Brady or Johnny Unitas just by watching television.)

Ideally, people make their initial attempts to learn a skill under controlled settings where mistakes aren’t catastrophic.

Once they have enough skill not to be dangerous, they need to practice in situations that mimic the actual setting in which they will use the skill.

As writing teachers, it’s well worth remembering that writing  is only learned hands-on and it’s learned best in practice settings that mimic real settings.

Writing teachers, unfortunately, often overlook the need for practice in simulated writing situation.

Writing nearly always involves both visual and kinesthetic activities. Sometimes writers use auditory or oral activities as well, reciting a mnemonic to themselves, for example, or discussing a planned piece of writing with a peer.

Most people, including English teachers, do the bulk of their writing in what journalists call “clean first draft” situations. That means that while we run spell check and try to allow at least a few hours between drafting and editing our draft, most of our writing is not rewritten even once: The edited first draft is the final draft.

I know that makes teachers of the process approach to writing shudder, but it makes typical students happy: They just want to get the assignment done.

The more times students get the assignment done—assuming they practice writing correctly—the sooner they develop skill at writing.

Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching writing