Wednesday, November 27, 2013

How Should We Teach Writing?

Today has turned into a snow day, so I have the time to address some other issues raised by yesterday's post about writing.

My classroom instruction regarding writing starts with a few assumptions:

1) Writing is a craft.

It's not an "art." You don't sit around and squint your brain and think writerly thoughts while waiting for lightning to strike. If you can only write when you are Struck By Inspiration, you're doing it wrong. (And I'll note that actual art is not an "art" either, at least not "art" as conceived by people who don't do it).

It's not a "science." I can't hand you a set of steps to follow that will automatically result in an awesome essay every time. I can't show you a structural framework that always leads to excellence.

It's a craft. You need ideas. You need technique, and the technique has to be used well. I often compare writing to cabinet-making. You need some vision and a good eye, but you can't just flail around with your tools while thinking deep, cabinetty thoughts.

2) There are no child prodigies in writing.

Mozart was composing and playing as a child. There are kids doing amazing things with math at an early age. But there are no great works of writing produced by toddlers. And from that we can deduce one important thing-- every writer must have started from the same place of not-so-great-ness. Every writer stinks at the beginning.

Sure, some show more natural aptitude than others. And some are way more interested than others. But the writer's life is a journey of growth and improvement, and that road, however long, starts in downtown Suckville. The fact that a writer is not-so-awesome today doesn't mean she won't be awesome some day in the future, and it definitely doesn't mean that she can't grow and get better.

I assess writing backwards.

Students are used to "losing points" on assignments.

If they take a regular 100-point test, they figure they've been spotted 100 points and they "lose" one every time they make a mistake. This is not how I grade writing assignments.

I'm looking for what the students did well. I tell them, "Don't ask me why you lost ten points on the last essay. You never had them. You didn't get them because I didn't see anything in the essay to earn them."

That doesn't mean we don't talk about mistakes. I am not, and never have been, from the hang loose and don't stifle creativity with all that spelling and punctuation stuff. When you mess up the mechnicals, you distract the reader from what you have to say. When you mess up the grammar and usage, you make it harder for the reader to understand what you have to say. An effective writer has those elements under control.

But good writing is not the same thing as writing without mistakes. My students have heard all of the following analogies:

A musician can appear on stage and get every note, every rhythm, every word absolutely correct, and it can still be the most boring, mediocre performance ever.

An athlete can go through a competition without doing a single thing wrong, and still be beaten.

If the best thing you can say about your boy/girl-friend is that s/he never does anything wrong, are you in a relationship that you're really excited about?

We do not get to awesome by avoiding mistakes. We do not achieve excellence by doing nothing wrong. To get to awesome, we have to do something right. When I assess, I am looking for what they do right.

Ask the right questions

Many of what we call writing problems are really thinking problems. All the technique in the world won't help you if you don't know and understand what you want to say.

Most thinking problems start with asking the wrong question. After being presented with a prompt or a writing problem, students often go to these sorts of questions:

What am I supposed to say? What can I write to get this assignment done? What are some words I can use to fill up these five paragraph-shaped blanks?

Those are the wrong questions. The write questions look like these:

What do I think about this? What do I want to say?

Writing is about creating a relationship, a connection, between the writer, the reader, and some ideas. As with any relationship in life, the most important first important step is showing up (take it from a divorced guy). Too many student writers don't show up. They don't think about the prompt. They don't look into their own brain. They don't approach writing as an opportunity to express their own ideas, but as a slightly-more-complex fill-in-the-blank quiz.

They don't support their ideas because they are just trying to fill up a paragraph's worth of page. They don't present ideas that make sense because they haven't thought about them. They don't fully develop the connections between their ideas because they're too busy trying to fill in the five paragraphs.

If they start with the right questions, everything else follows. They can choose structure based on what best fits what they want to say. They can support ideas with support that fits and makes sense, and they can give it whatever space it needs to breathe. They can stop self-evaluating by asking "Did I fill up enough paper" and start asking "Did I make myself clear?"

It's an ATV, not a train.

I do not know at the beginning of the year where writing instruction will lead me, because I don't yet know where my students' needs will lie. It takes me the first several weeks to do a needs assessment, and that process never stops. And here's a radical thought-- I figure out what their writing issues are by having them write. I read what they write. We talk about how they write. They write some more. There isn't a standardized test on the planet that would provide me with a better diagnostic tool.

Current reform-- I don't know. I guess I'm supposed to wait until the results come back from last year's poorly-constructed standardized tests, and based on that one day's worth of work loosely related to the act of writing, I'm supposed to... heck, I don't think anybody can straight-facedly propose that this is an effective way to design and steer instruction.

So my writing program unrolls a little bit differently every year. I'm not going to talk about pre-writing, organization, development, whatever exactly the same way every year just because that's what I say every single year. That would make me like a doctor who treats every patient with the same drug regardless of the patient's needs.

Writing instruction, more than any other part of the English curriculum, MUST be flexible. It MUST be able to range all over the territory and respond to whatever the students most need. While there are certain signposts one can expect to pass, every writer's journey is different, and not necessarily linear. Instruction must reflect that.

Rinse and repeat

Writing is a skill, like shooting foul shots. Basketball coaches do not set a single day aside during the season to work foul shots and then ignore the skill the rest of the year.

Writing needs to go on all year. At least once a week. Even if you have to do free-writing or short simple essays that you barely look at to grade, keep the students writing. The more they write, the better they write. Skills are only improved and retained with practice. The old model of a few-weeks-long stand alone writing unit in the middle of the year-- that model must die.


Have some and make them clear. Every teacher in the world brings a set of biases to writing evaluation. Make yours clear.

You don't have to use the same ones all the time. For some essays, I use a modified version of the six traits rubric. For others, I don't. I give my students a clear idea of which expectations they are writing to on a particular assignment. In effect, I'm behaving as two or three slightly different audiences for them. I'm comfortable with that-- being able to shift their writing behavior to suit a different situation or audience is a useful tool to have in their writer's kit.

You can't surprise them or suddenly pounce on them for giving the "wrong" answer to a prompt. That will force them right back into asking wrong questions like "What does the teacher want me to say."

Share strategies, writer to writer

One of the challenges of teaching writing is that process is so personal.

I'm a child of the seventies, and in my classes, we were all taught to write with an outline. Every big paper had to be handed in with the outline attached. And how did we handle that? Of course, we wrote the paper first and then created an outline to match it. Outlining was supposed to help us write, but in practice it was, for most of us, pointless busy work.

The pre-writing process doesn't look like any one thing. Some people need to sit quietly. Some people need to be awash in sound. Some people need to have their body occupied with something physical while their brain chews on the problem. Some people can't crystallize an idea until they start writing about it. Some people need to talk about it.

Give your students permission to find their own best techniques. Talk to them about options they can try. Don't get them stuck in the straight jacket of what is "supposed" to help them write. That's just as bad as telling someone how they're supposed to fall in love. Help them stop lying to themselves about what works for them (some people really do write their best work under pressure at the last minute, but not nearly as think they do). Help them trust their own knowledge of what is working and what is not.

Once they know what their strengths are, they have a foundation to build on and a basis to adapt to other writing situations.


Otherwise you're trying to guide students through a foreign land that you don't visit yourself.

I haven't really touched on how exactly to assess or what factors make the difference between writing that sucks and writing that is awesome, but this is already long and rambly, and I have a car to shovel out and a dog to walk. Comments and discussion are welcome.


  1. Given such a thorough and concientious approach to the teaching of writing, why do you feel that your students are somehow unprepared to respond to a large-scale assessment prompt? Why spend any time teaching students mindless trick that allow them "to beat the old state writing test"?

    I could not find a sample item for the PA high school exam (Keystone Exam)
    But found one of the released 8th grade prompts (PSSA):

    "Select a job you can do and write an essay that persuades an adult to hire you."

    Training students to approach this prompt by having them ask themselves,
    "What do I think about this? What do I want to say?" will not steer them wrong,
    and will allow them to score well on the test.

    Additionally, why do you think this kind of prompt is an "unreal only-in-a-test activity"?
    Would you really have much respect for a student -- as a writer-- who couldn't answer this question?


  2. I'm beginning to think you didn't actually read the whole post.

    While It's possible to start with the right questions and end up with an acceptable standardized test essay, realistically that is only going to happen for your most controlled writers, the ones who understand how to turn off certain aspects of their writing in order to do less than their best.

    The standardized essay must include a piece of the prompt. It must include some big words (they do not need to be used correctly). It must be four or five paragraphs exactly. It must fill up lots and lots of paper, even if that involves using filler and redundancy. It must be written neatly.

    Those are the characteristics the test wants. The test does not care whether your ideas are developed well or not. The test does not care if you have used the best structure and support to suit your ideas.

    In short, writing successfully for a standardized test is not the same thing as writing well. Additionally, the ability to write a successful standardized test essay is not proof that the student is actually a proficient writer.