Teachers Don’t Have Time to Teach Writing was a provocative post that caught my eye yesterday (01.26.14) on Twitter. The author, Ashley Hurley, claims to have heard teachers say that they just don’t have time to teach writing more times than she can count. (It is shocking but I have also heard that statement.) Her impassioned post includes numerous quotes from the National Commission on Writing, National Writing Project Newsletter, and Writing Next. However, beyond those quotes is a universal need for students to become literate citizens who can fully participate in a democratic society. Evidence of this would be found in letters to the editor for a local paper, blog posts, or even conversations in the local coffee shop.
The College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing define what students should understand and be able to do by the end of every grade in each of the ten writing standards. Further support for writing is found in the sidebar:
” . . . students need to use writing as a tool for learning and communicating to offer and support opinions, demonstrate understanding of the subjects they are studying, and convey real and imagined experiences and events.” . . . “To meet these goals, students must devote significant time and effort to writing, producing numerous pieces over short and extended time frames throughout the year.” (p. 16, CCSS, English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects)
Is teaching writing optional?
No! Beyond the Iowa Core/Common Core, consider your own state’s definition of “language arts” as it relates to state code and educational requirements. A quick google search combining “state name” “educational code” and “writing” will provide a look at current and previous expectations for writing. I quickly searched Nebraska, Minnesota, Illinois and Missouri to collect information for four states that border Iowa. I was intrigued by the fact that Nebraska does have a state writing test (I wonder what kind of orchestration is necessary for a state-wide writing test?) and that all five states (including Iowa) have long had writing expectations in state educational code. What may be new for teachers and students is the fact that writing is important in all content areas K-12.
What does writing instruction look like?
It was difficult to use the information garnered from searches to get a clear picture of writing instruction from the five states I was reviewing. Due to the state writing assessment, Nebraska had more information than the other four. Current beliefs and pedagogy would certainly predict that instruction might include some measure of gradual release or “I Do, We Do, You Do” that is prevalent in the literature and widely supported by the likes of Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey, Kelly Gallagher and Jim Burke.
Many teachers, at a variety of grade levels and content areas, provide free-writing or “journaling” writing time where students are permitted to write on a topic of their own to show what they know. George Hillocks, Jr. reported on the results of six types of writing instruction in 1987. He summarized the free writing research as:
“Free writing. This approach asks students to write freely about whatever concerns them. As a major instructional technique, free writing is more effective than teaching grammar in raising the quality of student writing. (Effect size = .16) However, it is less effective than focuses of other instruction examined.”
If free writing is an opportunity for students to write while the teacher does “other work” and is not connected to writing instruction, modeling or practice, then it may not be the best use of the available instructional time. Furthermore, if “free writing” is the ONLY writing time allocated daily, students will probably not make much growth in writing because of the low effect size.
What writing instruction is needed?
Writing instruction must include clear models of the criteria and expectations for writing. Sources for student writing include #tcrwp, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, National Writing Project and Appendix C of the Common Core. Writing also needs to include choices for students. Students should NOT always be handed a topic to write about; nor would students necessarily be allowed to ALWAYS write on a topic of their own choice. Sometimes, especially with an on-demand prompt, the student may be required to write on a topic that the teacher has specified. Students who have not had a lot of writing practice or who do perceive themselves as successful writers will struggle with choosing topics and staying with a topic when writing. Teachers will need to explicitly teach the steps of the writing process as students engage in drafting, conferencing, revising, and editing their work.
But one constant for writing instruction is that there will be INSTRUCTION! Merely writing “more” will not help create better, stronger and longer writers! In fact, it may be possible that students could write “more” without ever improving the “quality” of their own work! Improvement would result from writing that incorporated the thinking from a demonstration or mini-lesson coupled with collaborative “we try it” work that provides students with a safety net as they practice new learning / skills!
How do we provide enough writing opportunities for writing across the day?
First, we begin with writing in all content areas every day. We add writing to reading as a measure of student understanding, not as a worksheet to be filled out. “Two Writing Teachers” is hosting “Writing About Reading Blog Series” this week. A new blog will be posted every day with possible options for writing about thinking while reading. Today’s blog (linked above) by Dana Murphy features three different approaches:
- Lifting a Line
- Character Web
- Visual Note Taking
Check them out. All three approaches include a picture of student work as another model. A twitter chat is planned for Monday, February 3rd using the hashtag #TWTBlog and more information is available in the link in this sentence. While you are reading about those approaches, consider whether some of them would be appropriate across a wide range of content reading across the day. (Summarizing is not the only skill that students need to work on!).
Second, there must be common language about writing in all content areas (K-12). A focus on common language is present in the Common Core and it may be a unifying factor for students, parents, and teachers. Teachers need to work collaboratively across all content areas and grades to increase their comfort level and knowledge through the use of peer to peer conversations focused on improving the quality of student writing and writing instruction.
Third, there must be models of the expected level of writing at the end of the grade level. Annotated models with specific feedback about the use of writing techniques is very beneficial to students and writing models are on the list of research-based practices in Writing Next. Also plan to include scaffolds where needed to connect speaking and listening, reading, and writing skills. Some students may need more auditory models prior to working to accelerate their writing skills. Begin collecting student examples to use as models. Garner permission from the student authors to use them in demonstrations. These models need to be collected across all content areas as writing expectations should not be different by content areas.
Fourth, teachers must write as well. Teachers need to know and understand the struggle embraced by our students on a regular basis. That knowledge and understanding comes from writing alongside the students. Teachers cannot continue to “tell” students to write or to write like “Author X.” Teachers must also provide models of high-quality writing. Students need to see quality science writing from the science teachers and historically accurate writing from the social sciences teachers as just a few examples.