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Confronting the Literacy Stampede

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As part of a new partnership, teachermagazine.org is publishing this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

What I love about teaching writing is there's always something new to learn. So whether you're relatively new to the classroom or an experienced teacher who loves crafting ever better lessons, Kelly Gallagher's new book speaks to you. In Teaching Adolescent Writers (Stenhouse Publishers), Gallagher, an English teacher and co-director of the South Basin Writing Project at California State University–Long Beach, builds on two earlier popular works, Reading Reasons and Deeper Reading. It's an easy book to read, sprinkled with humor, yet chocked full of pertinent research and theory and infused with practical mini-lessons that can improve students' ability to write.

Gallagher begins with an analogy that likens students without writing proficiency to people facing a herd of stampeding bulls. What can students do about what he terms the "Literacy Stampede" in this age of information? The answer is they can either try (as many do) to avoid or deny it—and ultimately be trampled—or they can improve their reading and writing skills so they can keep up.

Gallagher backs up his literacy concerns with some interesting statistics, culled from a variety of sources:

Ninety-seven percent of elementary students write less than three hours a week.

Compositions of a paragraph or more are infrequent even at the high school level, and 40 percent of 12th graders report they never or hardly ever are assigned a composition of three or more pages in length.

In a writing survey by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 31 percent of eighth graders and 24 percent of twelfth graders scored at proficient or above.

On California's high school exit exam, two-thirds of students scored a two or lower on a scale of four.

The SAT has eliminated the analogy section, and in its place requires on-demand writing.

Employers increasingly demand writing competency from their workers.

In the last 30 years more information was produced than in the preceding 5,000 years, and information is doubling every four years!

If, as Gallagher asserts, "Today, writing is foundational for success," what's an English teacher to do? Acknowledging that many secondary students struggle with writing, Gallagher offers several recommendations, including providing students with an understanding of real purposes for writing and avoiding "fake" school writing assignments. By creating authentic writing activities, he says, teachers can help students to develop the intrinsic motivation to learn to write well.

Gallagher also addresses our difficulties with unmotivated, anxious, negative, or reluctant writers and their learned helplessness. He recommends "intensive hands-on writing instruction," which he delineates in his “Six Pillars of Writing Success”:

1. Students need a lot more writing practice. (In fact, Gallagher supports the National Commission on Writing's declaration that students must double their current amount of writing.)

2. Students need teachers who model good writing.

3. Students need the opportunity to read and study other authors.

4. Students need choice when it comes to writing topics. (Teachers can work students into the desired discourses and genres slowly, Gallagher says, by designing writing assignments that allow for partial student choice.)

5. Students need to write for authentic purposes and for authentic audiences. (As a strong proponent of service learning in language arts classrooms, I particularly valued Gallagher's arguments on this topic.)

6. Students need meaningful feedback from both the teacher and their peers.

Once he's made his case for the Six Pillars, Gallagher addresses the practical means of instruction by which we can achieve these objectives. He offers a wide variety of mini-lessons appropriate for middle and high school students and their teachers. The strategies incorporate both daily and weekly writing, on-demand assessments of writing, a focus on the writer's craft, and the use of assessment to drive improvement. I especially appreciated the section in Chapter 3 on both teacher and peer revision strategies—a tough issue for many English teachers. He finishes up with a very strong appendix of great practical use.

Teaching Adolescent Writers ends as it began, with a return to the Literacy Stampede. "The stampede is now upon our students," he writes, "and there is no time to waste." With Gallagher's book in hand, teachers of writing—in English classes and across the curriculum—have a great new tool for helping students speed up their progress toward writing proficiency before they get trampled.

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