Category Archives: Teaching writing

How to start writing

According to Google search, there are about 769,000,000 places on the Internet that discuss how to start writing.

Despite having all those resources, most of the teens and adults who wind up in my first year college composition courses don’t know how to start writing.

One student stands out in my memory as the poster child for the how-to-start problem. He was a computer programmer in the years when many programmers were self taught rather than college educated.

computers in use at NASA.

Flight Director Robert Castle uses laptop while monitoring space walk

The student contacted me privately by email the first day of class. He said that he was taking ENG101 for the third time.

Once he failed the course because he spent so long trying to decide what to write about that he never turned in any work.

His second time through the course, he came up with a topic in time to write a paper, but not with enough time to correct his work. That time he failed the course because of mechanical errors.

He was attempting the course a third time only because his daughter was getting her bachelor’s degree in communications and he was embarrassed to tell her he couldn’t pass ENG101.

The guy’s email made perfectly good sense. There were no serious mechanical errors. I could see no reason for his failing English except that he didn’t know how to start writing.

So I told him what he needed to know. My response went something like this:

This is a writing course. The object is for you to learn the process of writing.

It doesn’t matter what you write about. You don’t have to write about an important topic. You don’t have to write about something that matters to you personally; in fact, its often easier to write on a topic about which you don’t care at all.

Instead of looking for the perfect topic, pick the first topic that comes to mind about which you think you could reasonably write 500-750 words.

Work with that topic.

The writing process is no different for a so-so topic than for the perfect topic.

The topic might not work, but you’ll find that out right away, and you can pick a different topic.  You’ll have spent less time working on the so-so topic that didn’t pan out than you spent trying to discover the perfect topic.

Once you’ve learned the process of writing, then you can write about topics that actually matter to you because by then you will know enough about how to write that you can concentrate on what you’re writing.

That was all the NASA guy needed to know. He got an A without breaking a sweat.

If you are going to succeed in teaching all students who come through your classroom door to write competently, you, too, have to begin by teaching them how to start writing.

I suggest you have students think about how people start learning other skills, whether it be playing a musical instrument or a sport, keyboarding, cartooning, cooking, or simply brushing their teeth.

When students grasp the fact that writing is a skill that is learned much as other skills are, they are ready to start writing.

Above: NASA Photo ID: STS061(S)103 File Name: 10093034.jpg  Flight Director Robert E. Castle uses a laptop computer to aid his busy tasks during one of the five space walks performed to service the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) temporarily berthed in Endeavour’s cargo bay. STS-61 lead Flight Director Milt Heflin is at right edge of frame.


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If you can’t do this, don’t become a writing teacher

If you believe that writing is a talent granted to only a select few, you will tend to focus your attention on the students you think are talented while paying minimal attention to the rest.

That’s a poor choice.

There are far more people who can become good writers through persistent practice of the right skills than there are talented writers who will become great.


Slogan: Writing teachers need confidence in their students.

You must believe every student can learn to write competently.

If you can’t believe that every student who walks into your classroom can become a competent writer, you shouldn’t become a writing teacher.

Confidence in your students — not in them as they are, but in them as what can become — is an essential qualification for teaching writing.

I’d guess that at least three-quarters of students have no particular interest in writing and are willing to put out only a modest effort on most writing assignments.  If you are willing to focus your writing instruction on this large group of students, you have a very good chance of making all students competent writers.

While it may not be as good for your ego to produce 100 competent writers a year for 20 years as to teach Suzanne Collins for one year, it’s probably far better for those 2,000 students and their eventual employers.

This snippet is drawn from chapter 17 “Q is for Qualifications” of The Writing Teacher’s ABCs, my sixth book on teaching writing.

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My teaching writing program has new home.

At long last,  my old website you-can-teach-writing has been reborn as

YCTWriting home page header has pointing finger and message You Can Teach Writing.

This baby is smaller, more focused, and crafted specifically for experienced teachers who want a simple-to-learn, simple-too-teach method build to withstand changes in textbooks, technologies, and revised state standards.

I built to equip folks who feel inadequately prepared to teach writing to teens or adult students but have to do it anyway — folks like me my first time teaching writing (only smarter and better looking).

What’s at

a poster of the 8 sentences that comprise all expository writers must master.

All students must master these 8 writing strategies.

1. Simple procedures for teachers.  My detailed statement of everything you need to teach students so that they can write expository texts consists of 10 sentences. It’s fewer than 150 words total.

2. Simple procedures for students. Everything teens and adult students need to do to write expository nonfiction is distilled into eight sentences, totaling 35 words.

3. A recognition that simple doesn’t mean easy. My method of  teaching writing is simple, but it’s not easy.

As a teacher, you can’t teach writing and teach all the units and lessons you’re used to using. Before you can start teaching writing, you have to select what is essential for you to teach along with writing. That means you have to do the educational equivalent of clearing out the house Gramma lived in for 87 years.

Your students’ role isn’t easy either. Learning what to do — memorizing the eight sentences and learning what they mean — is just the beginning. Just like the basketball players who learn, “Put the ball in the basket,”  the writers who learn, “Make a thesis statement” still have a lot to learn before they can implement that procedure.

What’s not at

I’ve omitted pages on grammar, punctuation, usage, syntax, and style, which were part of my first site. Isn’t necessary to teach classes in those topics as part of teaching writing. In fact, those topics can actually hold students back from learning the bigger issues of writing.

I’ve also moved most of the discussion of writing prompts to a dedicated site, That is not useful to  teachers until they’ve mastered the instructional strategies and writing strategies I teach at, and teachers who don’t teach writing per se can use writing prompts for teaching.

How YCTWriting will affect this blog’s readers

Sooner or later, I will be move back issues of this blog to  YCTWriting.

My new site host presently allows for people to subscribe to blogs via RSS but not via email. I have to see if I can’t figure out a work-around for subscribers who get the blog posts by email.

I’ll let you know what’s happening before I move the blog posts and do my best to make it easy for you to sign up again if that’s required.


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Parallel structure repair needed

I read the help wanted ads in the local free distribution newspaper every week.

I’m not looking for a job.

I’m looking for a laugh that I can turn into an informal writing prompt.

Here’s an ad that, alas, is not laugh-out-loud funny, but it does contain a sentence that will make a good writing prompt about parallel structure. The sentence is marked with a blue box.

Help-wanted ad includes paragraph with parallel structure problems.

Read the paragraph within the blue box.

To help students sort that out, have them rewrite the paragraph with the qualifications as a bulleted list, like this:

The right candidate must have:

  • proven track record of sales performance
  • solid work ethic
  • detail oriented
  • know how to handle a customer in a fast paced environment

Once the sentence is laid out in visual list format, students will see the structural problems that previously may just have “sounded funny” to them.

The first two items in the sentence/list are noun phrases, but detail oriented is not a noun phrase nor is know how to handle a customer in a fast paced environment.

Inserting an article at the beginning of each item in the list may suggest a way to make the items structurally parallel.

The right candidate must have:

  • a proven track record of sales performance
  • a solid work ethic
  • a detail oriented
  • a know how to handle a customer in a fast paced environment

The item might be corrected by (a) revising the third element in the list and (b) putting a hyphen between know and how, thus turning it into a noun, like this.

The right candidate must have:

  • a proven track record of sales performance
  • a solid work ethic
  • an orientation to detail
  • know-how for  delivering customer service in a fast paced environment.

That’s not too bad, but a correction that shortens the last element might be better.

The right candidate must have:

  • a proven track record of sales performance
  • a solid work ethic
  • an orientation to detail
  • customer service know-how for a fast paced environment.

With the items arranged so they are structurally parallel, it’s easier to see if the individual items convey idea the writer intended.

For example, is the company looking for someone who knows how to provide customer service in a fast-paced environment or someone who has experience delivering customer service?

Converting a sentence containing a list of items to a bulleted  list is a simple trick for a spotting a parallelism problem and figuring out a solution.

Try it yourself.

If it works for you,  teach it to your students.

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Filed under Language & literacy, Teaching writing

Misplaced modifier: Can you keep up?

Cover shows potter hand-shaping a bowl.

The 2011 edition of the book.

I’m getting ready to update my 2011 book Shape Learning, Reshape Teaching, and I’ve been gathering some fresh errors to use in the new edition.

Shape Learning, Reshape Teaching shows teachers how to use informal writing to teach students to spot, correct, and perhaps even avoid writing mechanics errors lumped under the heading grammar.

Such errors are notoriously difficult to cure.

Cover shows potter reshaping clay.

2nd ed. cover for Shape Learning, Reshape Teaching.

Having students wrestle with sentences that appeared in general-circulation publications—figuring out what the writer intended to say, what the writer got wrong, and how to repair the damage—works better than anything else I’ve tried.

My students have two favorite types of real-life errors: Those errors that are:

  •  laugh-out-loud funny
  • made by professional educators

I found an advertisement this week that I think my students will enjoy:

CAREER/EDUCATION Advancement. Looking for a job? Or, more information on higher education? Want to know what local businesses are looking for when hiring? Commerce Chenango and Morrisville State College, presents a “College & Community Job Fair” on November 8, 2017 at Morrisville State College-Norwich Campus- 20 Conkey Ave. Running from 9:00 a.m.- 3:00 p.m., attendees will be able to talk one on one with representatives from corporate, small business, government and nonprofit organizations as well as College & University recruiters. Visit for more info.

I don’t think I’ll be attending the College & Community Job Fair.  I’m really not up to six hours of running, and I’ll probably be too busy turning the advertisement into an informal writing prompt for teaching grammar topics.

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Gleanings from my summer nonfiction reading list

After last week’s post in I asked why writing teachers should read, a reader of this blog asked if I would post a list of the nonfiction I read over the summer.

I have a blog about 20th century bestselling fiction, but I don’t often get to talk about my nonfiction reading outside of education. I appreciate me this opportunity to share some of my enthusiasms.

Since this is my education blog, I’ve drawn out some of the elements of each book that have relevance to teaching writing or more broadly to education. I often find I learn more about how to teach from books totally unrelated to teaching than from education books simply because I encounter the ideas in a new context.

I’ll skip over  Hochman and Wexler’s August release The Writing Revolution; I wrote about it  here and here.

FYI, I purchased each of the nine books profiled below from my preferred online book source

Happiness for All

foreclosed home in poor condition

Residents lost house, hope.

by Carol Graham (2017, Princeton University Press)

The pursuit of happiness in an unalienable right according to the U.S. Constitution, but it happiness equally available to all today? Graham writes about America as a county divided not only in terms of income distribution and opportunities, but also in terms of hopes and dreams.

Graham’s book isn’t easy reading— I’d had to take her statistical analyses on faith; they’re beyond my comprehension—but when she steps back from her data to look at the people, she writes engagingly about why her findings matter.

Many of the correlations she pulls out, such as the strong correlation for lower socioeconomic status kids between “soft skills”  and their success in life, raise questions that any teacher or administrator ought to consider.

This is a book I’ll dip into again to reread those sections with particular relevance for educators.

Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town

Lancaster, Ohio, seen through shattered glass

A company’s demise is killing its town.

by Brian Alexander (2017, St. Martins Press)

This book’s subtitle, The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town, sounds even more formidable than Graham’s book, but Glass House reads like fiction.

Alexander went back home to Lancaster, Ohio,  a town celebrated in a 1947 Forbes article as the quintessential American town, a model of “the American free enterprise system” before the 2016 election brought southern Ohio to the national spotlight.

He weaves together the story of the town, once home to the headquarters of Anchor Hocking glass, with the stories of the town’s residents, whose good, no-higher-education-required jobs disappeared though mismanagement and private equity slight-of-hand, leaving in its wake a trail  of shattered hopes and heroin addicts. Anyone who reads a national newspaper will
recognize names of some of the culprits. (One of the firms that helped dig Anchor Hocking’s grave had a part in the bloodletting at one of the major employers in my area.)

Alexander is a superb writer. He cares deeply about his hometown and makes readers care.

I found myself turning pages hoping everything would turn out all right in the end, but, alas, Alexander has given cold, hard truth instead of heartwarming fiction.

This is a book I will read again because I got carried away by the people story and missed significant parts of the business story.

Highly recommended reading.

The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade

Soldier among crosses on WWI battlefield

Red, white and black: the colors of the war.

by Philip Jenkins (2014, Harper One)

In this century, World War I is often described as the war that “marked the end of illusions, and of faith itself.” Philip Jenkins argues that “The First World War was a thoroughly religious event, in the sense that overwhelmingly Christian nations fought each other in what many viewed as a holy war, a spiritual conflict.” Without acknowledging the war’s religious dimensions, he says, we fail to see how it redrew the religious map and gave rise to the religious conflicts we see on every day’s newscasts.

The emotion and passion that marks Alexander’s book is missing from Jenkins’ text. Because he’s presenting an argument, he’s focused on presenting his case clearly without bringing emotion into it.

That doesn’t mean the text is dry.

Jenkins writes a scholarly text that’s easier to read than most daily newspapers.  He’s not writing down to readers: He’s writing simply enough that readers can come up to the level of his analysis.  For example, he often includes that chapter’s thesis in some form in each paragraph of the chapter’s introduction. It’s subtly done; unless you stop to analyze the text, you’d probably not spot it.

This is a book I will read again, probably more than once. I’ve already made a list of fiction Jenkins mentions that I want to read.

Great War Britain: The First World War at Home

canteen waitress serves soldiers

Happy side of home front war

by Lucinda Gosling (2014, The History Press)

This book takes a look at World War I as it was experienced by the upper class, female readers of the popular magazines of the era.

When the war wasn’t over by Christmas, the magazines switched their focus from balls and Paris fashions to photo stories about duchesses’ fundraising efforts and dowagers turning their stately homes into convalescent hospitals.

Lucinda Gosling studied history and worked in the picture library industry. She backs up her text with illustrations—there are many—without which it would be rather dull. Gosling is not a great writer.

Also many of the people mentioned in the text, whose names  would be familiar even today in Britain, wouldn’t draw a yawn on this side of the pond.

Photos aside, for American readers, I think the novels of the WWI decade provide as much insight into WWI Britain as Gosling’s text.

I’m not likely to read this again, but I may look at the pictures again.

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

title printed over duct tape

Duct tape is sticky stuff

by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, (2008, Random House)

Made to Stick is a book about communication. Its premise is that if you can understand why some ideas persist—even fake, screwball, and totally repulsive ideas—then you can use your knowledge to make your own communications sticky.

The Heath brothers are each involved in a different aspect of education, and, although the book is far more widely applicable than education, they frequently use education related illustrations and applications. Their discussion about the need for relentless prioritizing struck a chord with me because I’ve been trying to figure out how to explain to teachers why they have to jettison vast stacks of lessons if they expect students to learn.

The Heaths write well, with a friendly tone and humor. Having discussed how the military makes plans as a way of thinking about situations rather than expecting the plans to work, the Heaths provide a education riff on the military truism no plan survives contact with the enemy: “No lesson plan survives contact with teenagers.”

Every teacher on the planet needs to read this book.

Most of us ought to read it every year.

The Laws of Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life

two ball shapes and metallic bar

Lots of detail in simple design.

by John Maeda (MIT Press, 2006)

John Maeda is a visual designer, graphic artist, and computer scientist working at MIT.  His book takes some of the same ideas of Made to Stick and applies them to visual communication, product design, and how we can have a better quality of life in a fast-paced, quickly changing world.

Maeda is a smart guy and his writing reveals that. He’s not pedantic, but he’s far from engaging. Also, perhaps because he set out to say all he wanted to say in 100 pages, some of the text that summarizes essential points ended up in go-get-the-magnifier size type.

If you read this book, take its chapters like multivitamins, one a day.

If you teach writing, you might read the Heaths’ book first and compare their six principles to Maeda’s 10 laws, not only in what they say but how they are presented.  It would be an instructive exercise.

Grouped: How Small Groups of Friends Are the Key to Influence on the Social Web.

Groups of eight figures loosely linked by small thread

Eight-member groups are loosely linked.

by Paul Adams (New Riders, 2012)

Paul Adams knows a thing or two about the social behavior on the web. He worked for Facebook as Global Brands Experience Manager and for Google where he worked on Gmail, YouTube and Mobile.

He also knows a thing or two about writing off the web. Adams writes well. His prose has the directness and simplicity that comes from years of disciplined writing.

Instead of having consecutive chapters (old fashioned!) Grouped is a series of sections: Pick and choose at will, just as if you were visiting a website. The sections include quick tips that zero in on some super-important point in the already brief chapters and a summary—think: short, shorter, shortest—and resources for further reading.

The diagrams in the book have a hand-drawn appearance that underscores the idea of the importance of small, informal groups.

Grouped is a book about social behavior and, although the main audiences is businesses with products to sell, is relevant to teachers with lessons to pitch and administrators with budgets to pass.

Highly recommended.

Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers

angry emojii within heart symbol

PR aid for schools?

by Jay Baer (Portfolio/Penguin, 2016)

Jay Baer is a marketing guy,  but not the sort who try to push products on customers. His approach a public relations approach. He responds to customers, particularly if the customers are complaining, in order to keep that person as a customer.

Baer shows why ignoring criticism is bad for  business (even if the business is a not-for-profit organization or government entity). He distinguishes between complainers who want a solution to their problem and those who were disappointed by how the business  treated them and are seeking an audience to share their indignation.  Baer shows how to deal with both groups.

Baer writes well, and includes a lot of material that’s funny. He won’t let you get bored.

There’s plenty in this book that is useful to teachers, administrators, and school board members. For example, Baer points out how today’s best businesses are shaping how parents and community members on whom the school depends expect to be treated by the school.  If your school experiences a problem and delivers an Equifax response, you can bet your bottom dollar, its community stock will have an abrupt drop.

Highly recommended.


logotype in white on magenta background

It’s easy to spot the logotype book.

by Machael Evamy (Lawrence King Publishing, 2016)

A logotype is a brand identifier made from type—letters, usually—and designed not to be read the way words are read, but to be read as a symbol.  For example, if you see a certain fat F shape, you identify that logotype as meaning Facebook.

This is an entire 336-page book  of such logotypes with short blurbs about the business or organization that owns it and a sentence or two about how the logotype reflects its owner.

This is a fascinating book for people fascinated by such things. If you happen not to be one of them, you won’t like this book at all.


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What’s your goal in teaching writing?

Since I missed Tuesday’s #TeachWriting chat on Twitter, I founnd the transcript, which I thought might interest you, too.

Below, compiled and edited for brevity, is the chat’s first question and responses to it.

The chat’s first question

Responses to the first question

If someone had more than one response to Q1, I’ve included only one, usually the first.

As you read, please bear in mind that respondents are a diverse group that, depending on the chat, may include K-12 teachers, college faculty, school administrators, and a variety of support staff. In some respects, their perspectives vary with their positions.

Quantity a top-of-mind goal

Perhaps it was the way the question was worded that prompted so many teachers to respond by framing their goals in terms of quantity.  Researchers certainly have criticized teachers for not having students write enough; however, one might almost conclude from these responses that the teachers believe students learn to write well by doing a lot of writing without the benefit of teaching or coached practice.

I noticed no one mentioned a specific genre of writing. The closest anyone came was a reference to writing across the curriculum, which would suggest expository writing.

A couple of people phrased their goal in terms of how they wanted their students to feel about writing. Affective goals are important, but they respond indifferently to teaching and are nearly impossible to measure. If, like Ben Kuhlman, a teacher wants a student to feel successful at writing, the best way to achieve that goal is to teach the student to write.

A1: My goal never changes

Here’s what I would have given as my response to Q1:


Goal: every student writes competently.

For over 40 years, my goal in teaching writing has been to turn out competent writers. I aim for every student who enters my classroom (a physical one or a digital one) to leave being able to write expository nonfiction competently in the situations in which that student has to write.  Depending on the student, that can mean writing in their college classes or at work.

In either case, students expect a quick payout.

To accomplish my goal—all-class competence—I have every student write every day in response to prompts I give them.  Most days we do informal writing about course content other than writing or about some aspects of the expository writing process.  One day a week is used for drafting that week’s formal document.

My students don’t leave my classes on an emotional high: They’re too exhausted for that.

But a significant number leave writing competently, even when the course is as little as five weeks.

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The Writing Revolution gets a lot right

Earlier this summer, I read and blogged about a pre-publication  Q&A with Judith M. Hockman  about The Writing Revolution, a book she coauthored with Natalie Wexler.  The article piqued my curiosity enough to order the book sight unseen.

book: The Writing Revolution

My copy of The Writing Revolution bristles with sticky notes.

I started reading it the evening it arrived.

Hockman comes with the perspective of a K-12 educator who enjoys the hope, if not the actuality, that all teachers in the school help teach writing to every student every year. Wexler is an educational journalist with a law background and experience tutoring reading and writing  in high-poverty Washington, DC schools.

By contrast, I come with the perspective of  a college instructor expected to take students with no training in writing, remediate their deficiencies, as have doing writing college-level writing within five, eight or 15 weeks, depending on the college.  Despite those different perspectives, we are in substantial agreement on how to teach writing.

Writing Revolution‘s Six Principles

The method taught in the The Writing Revolution rests on six principles.

Principle 1: Students need explicit instruction in writing, beginning in the early elementary grades.

It might be well to add, “and continuing throughout high school.”

Principle 2: Sentences are building blocks of all writing.

Very true. When students reach me without having explicit instruction at the sentence level, I have about as much chance of teaching them to do college level writing as James Mattis has of getting Donald Trump to stop tweeting.

Principle 3: When embedded in the content of the curriculum, writing instruction is a powerful teaching tool.

Embedded writing instruction doubles the value of the instruction by helping students master the non-writing content in which it is embedded. When students have to write about their course content, they may not like the tasks, but they don’t regard them as bogus.

Principle 4: The content of the curriculum drives the rigor of the writing.

Writers must have something to write about:  Having students write about their course content gives them something that’s worthwhile to write about.

The authors believe, as I do, that having students do expository writing on topics that draw only on their personal opinions and experiences is a wasted opportunity to boost students’ learning of both writing and the subjects they are studying.

Principle 5: Grammar is best taught in the context of student writing.

Grammar exercises and worksheets pulled from the Internet don’t cut it. If we want students to write grammatically, they have to be taught grammar as they write their own sentences.

Principle 6: The two most important phases of the writing process are planning and revising.

Planning is the part of the writing process the poorest writers tend to skip, but it’s the part of the writing process that pays the greatest dividends. The better the planning, the less need there is for students to revise at the macro level. Revising at the sentence level is far less strenuous.

The devil’s in the implementation

On the whole, I found The Writing Revolution‘s procedures workable; a couple of the sentence-level activities made such good sense, I wished I’d thought of them.  (Since I didn’t, I’ll borrow the ideas.)

Based on my interaction with teachers looking for a way to enable students to write better, I think getting people to read the book and follow the program is going to be a tough slog. The authors’ comments in final chapter “Putting the Revolution into Practice” suggest that they’re aware of this.

The problem with a method of teaching writing that doesn’t follow a script is that it puts the onus on teachers to make the thing work.

There’s the rub.

There is always a risk that the teacher will not be able to pull it off.

Teaching writing without a script isn’t a safe activity—at least it doesn’t feel safe the first time  a teacher tries.

Teachers not only have to know how to fit their content to the pattern, but they also need to feel confident they can do so.  Without experience of successfully attempting similar challenges, many teachers will be reluctant to commit to a program that requires serious effort without a guarantee of success.

It’s easier to teach students to write than it is to convince teachers that they can  teach students to write.

If Hockman and Wexler can convince teachers to put in the effort to use their program, that would be a revolution.




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Best practices in teaching writing, #7

Quote: hold students responsible for correcting their own work.

Teach students how to edit and what to edit. Make them edit.

Don’t correct students’ writing

As a teacher, you cannot possibly do everything you think you ought to do.

One area you can skip without any qualms is correcting students’ responses to your formal writing prompts.

You know the kinds of things I mean:

  • Correcting spelling.
  • Fixing verb tenses.
  • Putting the missing comma after an introductory element.

Making those corrections may make you feel you’re accomplishing something, but they won’t make a tad of difference in students’ writing.

As long as someone else —like you—will identify their errors for them, most students will not take responsibility for correcting even their most serious, habitual errors.

So take the easy way out.

Set up Individual Mastery Plans. Establish caps on the number of errors you’ll accept without limiting the top grade students can achieve. Then IMP flag errors until you reach the cap.

It won’t take long for students to see the relationship between the number of flags and their grades.

Spend time you might have wasted changing it’s to its in teaching students how to edit their work for their own most serious, habitual errors.

There’s more to editing than correcting typos and grammar errors, but if you get students to do the simple corrections without prompting,  you qualify for a Lifetime Achievement Award.


© 2017 Linda Aragoni

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Best practices in teaching writing #6

Quote: teach students to use written aids to monitor their own behavior.

The best written aids are the ones writers make for themselves.


Having students develop checklists and similar easy to prepare, easy to follow aids for monitoring and improving their own writing behavior works far better than giving them rubrics, charts, matrices, and posters that I, or some other teacher made.

For a student who hasn’t gotten past D-level writing, a rubric that distinguishes between A-level and B-level writing might as well be in Greek for all the meaning it conveys to that student.

The student whose writing is D-level needs something that will help him or her write C-level work.  For a student used to getting Ds, a C is a stretch, but it’s not so far from a D that it feels totally out of reach.

Writers’ own lists of action statements

The best way to get students to systematically work toward the higher grade, is for each student to make his or her own short checklist of items:

  • the student understands how to do
  • can do without assistance
  • will help raise the student’s writing up to the next higher grade level.

The checklist becomes useful only if each student phrases the checklist items in his/her own words as action statements telling what the student does, not what the student hopes the outcome will be.

If you’re teaching writing strategically, some items can be derived from strategies. For example, if you teach students to prepare a writing skeleton™, the D-writing student’s checklist might say:

  • I wrote a working thesis statement.
  • I made a writing skeleton from my working thesis statement.

Other items on the checklist might be pulled from the student’s own Individual Mastery Plan. For example, a student whose work is usually riddled with comma splices, might want to get rid of those comma splices. To accomplish that, the student might set out his action statement:

  • I checked every comma to make sure it wasn’t being used to splice together two separate sentences.

Teachers have to monitor students’ preparation of written aids to make sure students target actions that will prove useful and to make sure their plans aren’t overly ambitious. Beyond that, however, it’s useful to let students manage their own improvement. That’s what they’ll have to do once they leave school.

Individualized learning isn’t the next best thing.

It has always been the best thing.

© 2017 Linda Aragoni

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