Category Archives: 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.

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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.

 

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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?

 

 

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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.

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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.

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Thinking backwards

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about thinking.

More specifically, I’ve been thinking about how to think backward from a goal.

For the last three months, I’ve been working at building a new website with content from my old “You Can Teach Writing” site.

That has necessitated learning a new software program to replace my antique Dreamweaver (purchased in 2000!), learning how to create responsive sites that will display properly on mobile devices, and figuring out how to organize all the website elements—photographs, illustrations, icons, call-out boxes, text, headlines—so I can find information when I need it and format it consistently across the site.

Finding all the information I need to learn requires a lot of research. All too often something I’m sure I will need to have later is discussed at the point where it is deployed, rather than at the point at which I ought to start collecting it.

I’ve not reached any earth-shaking conclusions from these three projects, but I’ve made a few observations that I want to remember when I teach.

Goals hold emotions

Goals always have an emotional component, either actual or potential.

I’ve seen that emotional component several times in software user forums where company employees were annoyed by users’ desire for step-by-step directions.

Users felt successful when they could complete a simple task quickly with the software, while the employees felt unsuccessful if users only wanted to do simple tasks quickly.

As a teacher, I’m tempted (and often succumb) to set goals whose achievement I would find satisfying. I’ve learned that if I set writing goals at a level that students think they can achieve and that they would be satisfied to achieve (I call it “C-level” for competence level), students are much more likely do the assigned work and achieve that level or higher.

Save information for use

People doing an information task for the first time waste a great deal of time and endure a great deal of frustration because they don’t know how to record the information they gather.

By contrast, experienced knowledge workers doing an information task develop strategies and templates for gathering, sorting, labeling, and saving the information they gather.

As a teacher, I try to give my students the benefit of my experience by providing strategies and templates that I and colleagues have found helpful.

Even though the materials I provide might not be useful to every student or in every situation, it’s generally easier for them to modify a prepared structure than to develop one from scratch.

Sequencing precedes skill

To an uninformed observer, skills look like an automatic response to a particular type of stimuli. Actually, skills are sets of tasks performed in such rapid sequence that the tasks seem to melt into one fluid action.

Before people are skilled, they learn to go through component tasks in sequence. Because tasks have both mental and physical components, the learners must:

  1. Remember the next action required.
  2. Physically position themselves to perform the action.
  3. Perform the action.
  4. Verify that the action was performed successfully or backup to #2.
  5. Remember the next action required and go through steps 2-5.

When my writing students “get it” they will behave—and feel—as if they were born knowing how to write.

I need to remember that getting to that point will require many repetitions of the underlying process to get their eyes, brains, and bodies to perform the necessary actions automatically.

 

 

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Good enough writing is a good enough standard

Reading a blog post by George Couros about the role of writing in education recently made me get out my soapbox.

Couros began by referring to a teacher’s account of a student named Maddisyn who in her third grade class blogged about The Dot and got a response from the book’s author, Peter H. Reynolds.

Four years later, when the student came back to share her experience with her third grade teacher’s current class, Couros quotes the student telling her listeners, “It was a really big deal for me … because most creative writing you do in grade 2 and grade 4ish, doesn’t really get out there, doesn’t really make a difference.”

From there, Couros segues to wondering:

Do we teach students to write in compelling ways that someone would actually want to read what they write, or do we teach them to write in a way that we can say we have simply taught to the curriculum?

Is “good enough” our standard or are we reaching for something much deeper and much more profound?

I don’t know what the answers are in Canada where Couros works, but here in America the answer to his first question is that we scarcely teach writing at all.  If teachers spend any time on writing, they typically present what the curriculum says about writing.

Quote: An English teachers' classes generally consiste of students who don't want to write, or don't have the skills to write, or don't have the home environment to learn to write.

The Maddisyns who want to write and have the skills and home environment to learn to write by imitating professional writers come along perhaps once or twice in an English teacher’s career.

The rest of the time, an English teacher’s classes consist mainly of students who don’t want to write, or don’t have the skills to write, or don’t have the home environment to learn to write.

Those are the students the English teacher must teach to write because they aren’t going to learn to write on their own.

I believe that “good enough” is a sufficiently high writing goal for the general English classroom provided teachers teach so every student writes competently.

Quote: Good enough is a high writing standard when it is the standard every student is expected to meet.

Most English teachers don’t want to hear that. They want to think their job is to inspire the Maddisyns, the 1–3 percent of students who could get along without them.

But teachers who aim to get every student to write competently find that a surprising number of the students who don’t want to write, don’t have the skills to write, or don’t have the home environment to learn to write turn out to write far better than they or their teachers could ever have expected.

At least that’s been my happy experience.

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Above all, do no harm

Writing teachers who have worked with me over the years have heard me say many times that above all they should do no harm.

Reading a blog post by leadership and management expert Dan Rockwell recently inspired me to write about four ways writing teachers can do no harm.

#1. Don’t allow nagging issues to persist.

If Morgan and Mahil enter eighth grade unable to tell whether the sentence they wrote calls for its or it’s, that’s not your fault.

If Morgan and Mahil leave eighth grade still unable to tell whether the sentence they wrote calls for its or it’s, that is your fault.

Give students a list of three serious writing mechanics errors they habitually make in their writing in the first month of a school year.

Insist each student master each of those three, serious, habitual errors before the last month of the school year.

(The simple way to insist is to refuse to give a grade higher than a C to any paper that contains one of the student’s habitual errors.)

#2. Don’t  keep changing the objective.

Learning to write an informative/explanatory text is different from learning to write a narrative.

Don’t keep changing the writing objective just because you’re bored with the students’ writing.

#3. Don’t jump in to save the day.

Trial and error is a powerful teaching tool.

Let students make mistakes.

Then ask, “Where’s the first place in the writing process you could have done something different that would have prevented this from happening?”

#4. Don’t penalize mistakes during practice.

Learning to write is a bit like making pie dough: Even when they know the principles, it takes a long time for most folks to get a feel for the thing.

While students are getting a feel for writing, praise what they are doing right: turning in their work on time, not giving up, putting effort into planning, or reducing the number of their serious habitual errors.

What would you add to the list?

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Writing: The fortieth part of literacy?

Drawing of man and student is on cover of Literacy handbook for CTE teachersThe students who filled my English 101 classes over the years have been in the career and technical education arena.

Many of them are very smart folks, but they don’t know how to apply their smarts to writing.

While looking this week for resources for teaching such students, I discovered an teacher handbook called How Do You Expect Me To Teach Reading and Writing? which appears to be prepared for North Carolina CTE teachers.

Of the 82 pages in the handbook, only pages 15 and 16 are devoted exclusively to teaching writing.

Some of the literacy strategies discussed in section 4 of the handbook could be used in teaching topics related to writing; however, I didn’t see any strategies for actually teaching writing.

Is it just me, or does anyone else think it’s off balance to devote just 1/40 of a handbook about teaching reading and writing to teaching writing?

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Plan for outcomes, not activities

As I’ve been revamping my old you-can-teach-writing website after a nearly three-year hiatus, I’ve been looking for up-to-date resources for teaching writing in way(s) that produce entire classes in which every student age 13 and over writes competently.

I don’t mean AP classes, or dual-enrollment for college credit classes.

I mean ordinary classes for ordinary teens and adults, the ones in which most entering students have little or no interest in writing.

What I am finding is that most current resources for writing teachers are activity resources. They tell a teacher how to use a website of vocabulary activities, for example, or suggest a tool for digital publishing.

The resources support individual lessons or, occasionally, lesson units.

I’m not finding resources that enable teachers to do the kind of all-year teaching that enables students—all students—to meet the kinds of annual outcomes that make them “college and career ready” by the end of high school.

More upsetting, I’m not seeing much awareness among educators that the lesson and unit education model doesn’t work any more—if it ever did.

Some days it seems as if the only thing that’s changed since I was in high school is that digital devices have replaced glue and glitter.

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