Category Archives: Teaching writing

Best practices in teaching writing, #2

Quote: Make every writing assignment do double or triple duty.

Time is too valuable to squander on writing with just one purpose.

To make wise use of your time — and your students’ time — craft writing prompts that do more than make students write.

Prepare writing prompts that teach students something about how to write rather than just directing them to write.

Have students write about course content or about topics related to course content.

(Please, if you teach English, don’t limit yourself to literary topics. Many students find language topics more relevant.)

If you’re really a creative teacher, you can not only make your prompts

  • teach something about writing, and
  • teach or apply some non-writing course content,

but also politely force students to seek connections between the writing topic and something that matters to them.

I strongly recommend developing writing prompts that are, in effect, self-contained writing lessons complete with help getting started on the assignment and resources to consult if students get stuck.

It’s much more efficient for students to use their own material as they learn how to do a writing task than to do exercises isolated from their own writing.

To learn more about crafting formal writing prompts, visit the formal writing prompts section of my new website, PenPrompts.com.  If you sign up for the PenPrompts newsletter, you get a copy of my formal writing prompts template free.

© 2017 Linda G. Aragoni

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Best practices for teaching writing: #1

Quote: Teach one lesson multiple times in mutliple ways.

Best practices work for students and their teachers.

 

The best practices for teaching writing focus on teaching essentials thoroughly.

If your lesson content isn’t essential, why are you wasting time on it?

Teaching the essentials thoroughly usually  means teaching a few lessons multiple times in multiple ways over a period of months.

When your goal is developing writing skill, you must teach the essential concepts, patterns, and skills until students write competently.

Competence takes time.

Students need time to try out what they understood you to say to see how it works in their writing—which is vastly different from seeing how a concept works on publisher-created materials.

If students don’t learn to write competently, you may have presented but you didn’t teach.

© 2017 Linda G. Aragoni

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Profound yet simple: The key to good writing

Images of activities in which practice is essential for progress.

Practice is as essential in writing as in any other hands-on activity.

Practice is as vital to a writer as to a sports player or craftsman.

Teach students to practice the craft of writing.

Coach them during their practice.

Let them see you practicing the craft yourself.

Praise disciplined effort.

Practice makes progress.

And ultimately, practice makes skill permanent.

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More than sentences needed for a writing revolution

Title and subtitle from cover of The Writing Revolution

I nodded in agreement when I read a quote from Judith M. Hockman in an edweek.org Q&A about the forthcoming book The Writing Revolution she co-authored with Natalie Wexler.

“We’re very good at assigning writing,” [Hockman] explains. “We’re not very good at teaching kids how to write.”

The Q&A author’s, Liana Loewus, goes on to ask Hockman about the problems with the way we teach writing.

Hockman’s short answer is that we don’t teach writing: We give self-centered writing assignments and teach grammar in isolation from writing.

All of that aligned with what I’ve observed and what researchers like Steve Graham have documented.

What struck me as odd about Loewus’s piece was that there was nothing about writing beyond the sentence level.

I did a 10-second search to learn more about  Hockman’s method. On the Hockman method website I read that her process uses:

  • Sentence strategies to build complexity and clarity
  • Outlines to develop well-structured summaries, paragraphs, expository and argumentative essays, and research papers
  • Revisions to enhance unity and coherence

I can’t help wondering why Loewus omitted anything about structuring and revising writing, unless the two questions about Hockman’s methods being criticized for stifling students’ curiosity and love of writing were meant to cover that area.

Maybe I’ve just been seeing too much about fake news, but the skewed perspective gave me pause.

I suspect I would disagree in some particulars with Hockman. ( I teach just one flexible outline for all types of nonfiction, and I teach students to avoid revisions for unity and coherence by careful planning.)

However, I am thoroughly in agreement with aspects of Hockman’s program that Loewus never mentioned:

  • teaching and using writing in all subjects, and
  • advancing thinking through writing.

The Writing Revolution is now on preorder at 1/3 off the list price. It will be available in early August. I’m putting it on my wish list for late summer reading in spite of — or perhaps because of — those elements overlooked in the EducationWeek blog post.

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3 articles worth reading and debating

These three articles captured in my RSS feed reader caught my eye today. Perhaps they’ll interest you as well.

1. Is the Internet Changing Kids’ Minds?

In this excerpt from his book The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads, Daniel T. Willingham argues that the brain is always changing; there’s no reason to assume the Internet is damaging kids’ brains so they can’t concentrate.

What is problematic, Willingham says, is that using digital technologies of all types change users’ expectations: Users are impatient with boredom. They expect instant success with minimal effort.

That sounds like an education problem to me. What do you think?

2. In a Changing Rural America, What Can Charter Schools Offer?

I’ve seen many articles about how school choice championed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos won’t help — and may hurt — rural areas. This article by Terry Ryan and Paul Hill at Education Next suggests that charters, properly done, could be an alternative to school consolidations in sparsely populated areas.

If you live in a rural area, you ought to read their short piece.

3. Why do college students have 6th-grade writing skills?

That question was the headline over an e-Campus News report on a research study by peer-to-peer learning markeplace StudySoup. StudySoup’s own headline was “At Which U.S. Colleges do Students Write at a Middle School Level?”

Educators need to take a look at the StudySoup data: It’s the sort of “research” that will grab media attention and get discussed over coffee at the local diner.

A team from the business used the Hemingway app to analyze hundreds of written documents submitted to the StudySoup . The app evaluated the samples for clarity, readability, and calculated the reading level of the writing. The average reading level score was 12th-grade level. Student work was also given a second score based on how difficult individual sentences were to read. Of the 20 schools from which writing samples were analyzed, 12 were graded “poor.”

The app doesn’t look to see whether writers have anything to say; it looks just at their individual sentences.

Notice that StudySoup assumes that the higher the reading level score the better the writing is. Actually, the higher the reading level, the smaller the audience that will be able to understand it: Here’s StudySoup’s own explanation of Hemingway which supports that interpretation:

Hemingway provides two “readability” scores for each document. The first is the “grade level” of the content, which is determined using a readability algorithm. According to Hemingway, this score determines “the lowest education needed to understand your prose”.

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Individual mastery plans: my best weird idea

As many people have pointed out, I do a lot of really weird stuff when I teach writing.

Sometimes the stuff I do becomes mainstream after a few decades: I began flipping my classroom during my first college teaching job back in 1970; I began doing backward design six years later as I wrote instructional materials General Electric’s Field Engineering School.

My best weird idea

One of my best ideas is a method of attacking the written errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling that are harder to get rid of than Lady MacBeth’s spots.

You know the ones I mean. They are intransigent errors such as:

  • Using it’s when its is called for.
  • Failing to put a comma after an introductory element in a sentence.
  • Writing unintentional fragments.
  • Using commas to splice sentences together.

They are often errors that happen because the writer was concentrating on getting ideas down, not thinking about the appearance of the text.

Or they may happen because the writer’s brain makes his fingers write the most familiar spelling of a homonym set rather than the less common spelling.

Such things are mistakes.

Let’s stop treating them as if they were tragic flaws.

Teach students to deal with them as editing issuesmistakes they can correct before anybody else sees them.

Individual Mastery Plans defined

I call my method Individual Mastery Plans. They are a bit like special education IEPs.

The IMPs identify each individual student’s habitual and serious errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling (GPS) — including homonym errors—and lay out a plan so the individual student can focus on his or her most serious habitual errors.

The goal of an IMP is for students to produce  clean first drafts, rather than error-free final drafts, because a large proportion of writing today is done with only one draft. Clean first draft is a journalist’s term for writing that’s been edited to contain very few serious GPS errors.

My procedure is to identify for each student a list of their most frequent serious errors and then turn responsibility for editing their own work for those errors over to the students. For courses of less than 12 weeks, I usually have students work on eliminating three errors. For year-long courses, I raise the number to five.

How I set up IMPs

I use Connors and Lunsford’s 1988 list of the 20 most common errors in student writing as a tool for establishing students’ baseline performance. Early in a course, as students submit written work, every time I see an occurrence of only those 20 conveniently numbered errors  I put its number in brackets after the error.

I don’t correct errors or identify them other than by the bracketed number.

I use word processing software to tell me the word count, and I use find and replace to put each bracketed number into blue type. That process tells me how many errors of a particular type were in the document.

I make sure each student has access to the Connors and Lunsford list in multiple places;  I also provide highly-specific resources  so students can turn in their text or go online directly to the exact paragraph(s) where the rule governing error [13] is discussed.

When I return written work anytime throughout the course, I require each student to graph the type and frequency of their errors. Some students really like graphing their progress.

After students have written enough to give us a picture of their most frequent errors at course entry, I negotiate an IMP with each student based on that student’s graph.

Examples of IMPs

Here’s a sample IMP for Josh who has a real problem with commas:

By Dec. 20 in your in-class writing you will have no more than two errors total of these three types per 500 words:

  • Missing comma in a series
  • Missing comma(s) with nonessential (nonrestrictive) element
  • Unnecessary comma(s) with restrictive element

Here’s a sample IMP for Caitlin who has a problem with sentence boundaries and distinguishing its from it’s.

By Dec. 20 in your in-class writing you will have no more than two errors total of these three types per 500 words:

  • Comma splice
  • Run-together sentences
  • It’s/its confusion

You’ll notice the IMPs specify a numerical error limit.  Depending on how long the course is, I set my error limit at no more than 1 or 2 IMP errors per 500 words written in class in an hour on a writing prompt the students did not know in advance.

IMPs and the grade cap

If students exceed the error limit set in their IMP, I impose a grade cap. Typically a student who exceeds the limit cannot get a grade higher than C, regardless of the quality of the writing. The grade cap policy eliminates a lot of sloppy papers.

Once the baseline is established, when I grade papers I flag only errors on a student’s IMP plan, and stop flagging when the error limit is reached.

Having fewer errors to flag when I grade papers saves me a lot of time over the course of a year. It makes no difference to Caitlin’s grade if she had 3 or 30 comma splices in 500 words, but seeing 30 comma splices flagged might well make Caitlin give up trying to master comma splices.

Value of IMPs

Setting up a system for establishing and using IMPs take a bit  of work, but it is a good investment.

IMPs make students responsible for applying their learning to their writing.

Students who historically have not been successful in a writing classroom find reassurance in having an aspect of writing that they can measure and control. Having the same number of errors to work on as the class genius has is good for a weaker students’ self-images, and mastering their IMP items is wonderful for their self-esteem.

An IMP is the only method I’ve found that works for such things as eliminating homonym errors and getting students not to use possessive apostrophes when the context requires only a plural. Those are errors that publisher-created exercises can’t touch.


Other blog posts about IMPs are here and here.

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Thinking about proficiency in writing

Seth Godin posted thoughts about quality on his blog today. He says that at the workplace there are at least three different ways to define quality:

  • The outcome satisfies the requirement.
  • The outcome goes far beyond what’s required.
  • The outcome shows the worker put in a lot of effort.

In New York State education regulations, students who do passing work are deemed proficient. In my dictionaries, proficient means expert. An expert is not just satisfying the requirement; he’s going beyond.

That’s why it bugs me when I see a rubric that labels the middle of the scale proficient.

On my mental rubric, the mid-point of the Writing Quality Scale isn’t proficient but competent.

Competent writing satisfies the requirement.

Writing that goes way beyond what’s required is proficient.

Writing that shows the writer put in a lot of effort is not yet competent.

I can teach not-yet-competent writers to be competent writers.

I can give competent writers time and encouragement to become proficient writers.

But I can’t turn out proficient writers.

Proficiency requires a discipline and dedication that the writer has to provide. If someone has a bit of talent, achieving proficiency may be a little bit easier than for someone without talent.

But in the end, proficiency is up to the individual.

 

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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.

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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’?

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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

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