Tag Archives: competence

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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Filed under Teachers, Teaching writing

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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Filed under Assessment of students, Teaching writing

Positive Thinking, Pollyanna, and Play

Learning is not just a cognitive activity.

How well we learn — and if we learn — is influenced by other factors, including whether we feel some kinship with the instructor, when we ate  last, and how long it’s been since we were able to get out of our seats to move around.

I read a blog post yesterday that listed phrases that students could use as self-talk messages. Positive self-talk creates a self-fulfilling prophesy. Such messages can be very useful in helping people modify their behavior in positive ways.

As I read, I started to wonder when it became necessary to give students scripts to encourage themselves to take on challenges.

Restroom signs

I was mulling that over as I went to the store for milk. A woman and three teenage girls were in the store.

One of the girls was standing in the back aisle by the stockroom door. As she caught sight of her mother, she called, “Is this where I go?”

Small towns like mine don’t have public restrooms, but neither do they make local folks wet their pants in public. Since nobody comes to the local stores except local people, if you’re desperate, the clerk will let you use the employee restroom.

Not finding a door marked restroom, the girl didn’t know what to do.

The woman said to me, “Wouldn’t you think she’d know to open the door?”

I doubt that the girl’s problem is lack of knowledge about door opening.

I suspect its something more basic, like attitude, expectations, and experience.

Just about 100 years ago — in 1913 to be precise — Eleanor H. Porter scored a big hit with her novel Pollyanna. It is the story of an orphan whose father taught her to look for something to be glad about in every situation.

Even though the world Pollyanna lived in was a tough place, people generally believed the world wasn’t a bad place: You could always find things to be happy about.

People believed the bad parts could be made better:

And they believed they were competent to help bring about those improvements.

I can’t put a date on when that attitude changed, but I’m pretty sure was the same period when playing was replaced by play dates and supervised after-school activities.

As a kid, I had chores, but they were adult-directed.  I’d as soon have thought myself competent because I brushed my teeth than because I’d mucked out the horse stall, which was one of my daily chores. Doing as you’re told does not generate a sense of personal competence.

I got my  initial sense of competence from play.

playground sign: Play at your own risk

Nobody had to tell me to say “I can problem solve” because I was an experienced problem solver. My play consisted mostly of damming the creek and building stuff out of junk salvaged from the neighbor’s dump. It was dirty, and slightly dangerous, and totally engrossing.

Going back to a world where children find their play things on the dump is probably not desirable, except perhaps to children.

But living in a world in which kids can make stuff from found stuff is desirable.

The maker movement is a step in the right direction.

Kids who have had the experience of taking risks, trying different approaches, working within the constraints of what’s available won’t need to be given a list of positive thinking phrases to memorize.

Hands-on experience will make them feel competent to open a door to find the restroom.


Photo credits: Bathroom Signs by clambert; fun and games until… by nosheep

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Filed under Lifelong learning

Set your objectives at C-level

Don’t set your writing course objectives equal to a grade of A. Set them equal to a C.

You want everyone to achieve writing competence, even the even the dullards, the unmotivated, and the lazy students. You have a fighting chance of getting the back-of-the-room, bottom-of-the-class group to try for a C.

Competent expository writing is:

  • Unified to make one clear point (its thesis).
  • Organized clearly in support of that thesis.
  • Developed with adequate detail to make readers think the thesis is plausible.
  • Presented clearly so readers never have to guess at the writer’s meaning. Correct grammar, punctuation, and usage contribute to the writer’s presentation.

When student are competent expository writers, I can stop teaching them about expository writing. They will improve just by practicing what they already know. If I change the genre or raise my standards, then I may have to do more teaching.

If C is the grade you award for competence, you should have a big group who earn A’s and B’s. (One year I taught five sections of English composition in which no student earned less than a B.)

In writing, as with many skills, the step from no skill  to competence is enormous, but the step from competence to proficiency is small. Once students get to C-level, they’ll get to B-level just by having more opportunities to practice.

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Filed under Teaching writing