The new “question-of-the-week” is:
What is the biggest mistake teachers make in writing instruction, and what should they do instead?
In Part One, Lisa Eickholdt, Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski, Mary Ann Zehr, Nancy Frey and Valentina Gonzalez share their commentaries. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with David and Jill on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.
In Part Two, Eugenia Mora-Flores, Julia G. Thompson, Karen Sher, Bret Gosselin, Dr. Vicky Giouroukakis, and Emily Geltz contribute their suggestions.
Today, it’s time for Tan Huynh, Dr. Lynell Powell, Dr. Rebecca Alber, Cheryl Mizerny, Mitchell Nobis, and Kai Marks to make their comments.
Response From Tan Huynh
Tan Huynh is a Teach For America alumnus and the head of the English Language Acquisition Department at Vientiane International School, an International Baccalaureate World School. He shares his classroom-tested, research-supported strategies on his blog:
Scraping by with Assembly-Line Instruction
Expecting students to join together predetermined parts of an essay as though writing is an assembly line is the biggest mistake of writing instruction you can make. It usually occurs when well-meaning teachers provide an outline - organized into sections which each have questions to guide students as they write. But how can we expect students to develop writing skills when we’ve done all the thinking?
We need to shift away from asking students to “Write about X topic” to asking “What do you want to write about?” Of course we have to have students write about particular topics, but we don’t have to dictate the particular question for them to answer. After all, writing should serve students’ need to communicate, not the teachers’ need to assign a grade.
Build a Body of Knowledge with Self-Directed Research
Even before engaging in writing, we can build students’ body of knowledge by having them view various texts ( aural, visual, and written). For example, if students are studying women’s rights, they might read an article about women’s fight for the right to vote and watch an interview of female Prime Ministers.
Once they have established at least a general understanding of the topic, they can now explore different aspects. One student might explore women’s rights in China, while others research about the pay disparity between men and women. Writing instruction is more fruitful when students have set a target, formed an opinion, or developed a realization themselves. Their personal choices become a strong motivation for writing.
Explore Concepts to Form Questions
Another approach is to guide students to identify concepts related to the text. For the women’s rights example above, the teacher could identify the concept of equality, and students could then add more concepts such as power, control, and values to the list. They would then come up questions such as “Why do most societies want to limit women’s rights?” or “How can values change?” as they explore the topic deeper. These questions will stimulate their writing and sustain their focus.
Abandon “Write like this!” , Adopt"How do authors write?”
Educators commit our second mistake by directing students to “Write like this.” We should, instead, invite students to ask “How do authors write?” Students become effective writers when they read like a writer. This means re-reading the texts for:
1.) Ways the authors use language to communicate ideas and
2.) How authors sequence and organize ideas
Returning to the women’s rights topic, I have students revisit to the resources we used to deconstruct how the author organizes the text. We re-read the first third of an article, stop, and discuss what they notice about the author’s writing choices.
Students usually respond: “The author started off with a story to describe the problem,” or “The author describes a story to give us a context - to make it real.” We continue this process for each section - stopping each time to discuss what students notice.
Now that we’ve deconstructed the text for the author’s writing decisions, I instruct them to brainstorm answers to one of their original questions. Then I have them sequence the answers from most convincing to least.
Notice how I returned the hard mental work of drafting and organizing ideas back to students. No more teacher-produced outlines neatly-packaged and fully-equipped with all the essential ideas.
Just imagine a book publisher giving J.K Rowling an outline of how to write the Harry Potter series. That’s not how writers write, so it’s not the way we should teach students to write.
The Result: Writing Preparation for the Real World
Even if incorporating process-based writing instruction does nothing but release students to write from their interests, this is still a significant improvement over supplying our students with an outline for everything . Moreover, if students learn to return to the texts and study how authors shape and model words into ideas, then they can actually learn to become masterful writers.
When writing instruction serves students’ desire to communicate, it ceases to resemble an assembly line where ideas are mindlessly piecemealed together and becomes authentic preparation for writing outside of the classroom.
Response From Dr. Lynell Powell
Dr. Lynell Powell is an elementary school administrator. She is passionate about bringing joy to learning and is the author of drjoyblog.com:
One of the biggest mistakes teachers make in writing usually occurs during the first week of school and sometimes even the first day. Teachers often collect a baseline writing sample from each student in order to determine the writing needs in the classroom. While a student’s skill level and prior knowledge can be obtained from this piece of data, one misconception that I have run into is that teachers need to have a baseline writing sample before they can engage in a conversation with students about who they are as writers.
Teachers can begin to build students’ self-awareness in writing prior to collecting a baseline sample by prompting conversations where students can do the following:
- Share how they feel when they are asked to write
- Talk about the steps involved in their writing process
- Express what they need and expect from a teacher in order to be successful in writing
- Provide examples of their writing strengths and weaknesses
- Discuss their passions and interests that could foster their motivation to write
- Share resources or tools they have used to be successful in writing
- Reflect on their favorite or least favorite piece of writing
If teachers hook students into sharing just a little about who they are as writers, it could make a difference in the way students engage in writing. Remember, students enter a classroom with their unique writing experiences and voice. When teachers set the stage for a more personal approach to writing instruction it makes processes such as goal-setting, self-assessment, progress monitoring and reflection more relevant to students. It provides them with context beyond a single writing piece when they are handed a writing rubric. Most importantly, when students have an opportunity to tap into who they are as writers, they begin to take control of the learning.
Response From Dr. Rebecca Alber
Dr. Rebecca Alber is an instructor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education where she teaches teachers. She is a literacy specialist, blogger and consulting editor at Edutopia, and a compulsive reader. She dips into the Pacific as often as she can get away with:
The biggest mistake we teachers make when instructing young writers? Either giving too much structure or not enough. As a writing instructor, there’s a sweet spot of approaching writing with your students as both an art and as a science. Teachers needs to provide just enough tools and examples to get young writers motivated and growing in their writing fluency, organization, and structure, but be not so controlling that there’s no room for choice or voice. For example, if we say, “Just write, and write on whatever you like” that will often produce little or students may write but will be stagnant in their growth as writers. And if I give tons of directions and have students fill in graphic organizers and then, finally, write, their attention and motivation at that point may be really low and affective filters really high because they know I am expecting a very specific product from them. I’ve seen this happen quite a lot.
So what I recommend most? Use the workshop model. That means begin with mentor text. Rather than give directions telling them what to do, start by showing them solid writing--and discussing why it’s good. I recommend teachers use writing samples from former students. Adults enjoy reading things written by their peers. Children are no different.
Next, just get them writing--low stakes prompts and drafting. Tell your students, “just get it down, and we will make it better later.” This gives kids a lot of relief (all writers, really, regardless of age!) We need to lighten up the writing workshop vibe so they can produce a solid draft and move on to the revision stage.
In the revision stage, look for patterns of error (and patterns of praise, too) in their drafts and develop mini-lessons around those. Show them that revision is about making writing better: deleting, adding, re-arranging. Use excerpts of anonymous drafts (or from former student papers) to work as a whole class revising.
Once students have completed those argumentative essays, speeches or narrative poems, make sure they go beyond an audience of one (the teacher). Have them share in small groups or have an Author’s Chair where they can volunteer to read aloud to the whole class. Sharing completed drafts and celebrating all your hard work is a vital part of the writing workshop.
Response From Cheryl Mizerny
Cheryl Mizerny is a veteran educator with over 20 years experience-primarily at the middle school level. She began her career in special education, became a teacher consultant and adjunct professor of Educational Psychology, and currently teaches sixth grade English in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Her teaching is guided by her belief in reaching every student and teaching the whole child: socially, emotionally, and cognitively. She writes a blog about student motivation and engagement at The Accidental English Teacher:
The brilliant minds of education experts who’ve shared their wisdom inform my work every day. I’ve built the foundation of my practice firmly on their shoulders, and I continue to learn from them every day.
Two of these experts, Kelly Gallagher and Nancy Atwell, taught me the most important lesson in teaching writing: Do not grade every piece of writing a student creates. In fact, research shows that the very act of placing a grade on a student’s work ends the learning. What’s worse, it can damage their perception of themselves as a learner. It’s also unfair because writing is a person’s thoughts on a page, and grading it is extremely difficult and rarely objective. Therefore, it makes sense to separate writing from grades to the greatest possible extent.
The biggest mistake I was making was burying myself under a mountain of unnecessary grading. Once I stopped doing that, I was able to focus on helping my students become better writers.
More grades do not make students better writers, more writing does. Gallagher says that students should write four times the amount of writing than a teacher can actually grade. Hearing this gave me the freedom to provide students with extensive low-stakes, motivating writing practice that I would never grade. In turn, this allows them to develop their craft without the self-restraint that holds them back from taking risks for worry of a lowered grade. No one grades a baseball player’s performance in the batting cage. It only counts on the field, in the real world. The same should apply to their writing.
In order to motivate my students to want to write more, I focus on choice, voice, and authenticity. I rarely use writing prompts unless they are open-ended. Most of my assignments use humor or are personal. I don’t copy-edit their work and crush their spirit by docking their grade for mechanical errors. They also share their work with peers but never for the purpose of peer editing. Instead, they merely give compliments and/or ask clarifying questions.
I see the biggest growth by mainly focusing on formative, ungraded assessment. When I read, “Your Rubric is a Hot Mess” on Jennifer Gonzales’s blog, I immediately instituted the use of a single-point rubric on which to provide feedback and not to assign a grade. Instead, while reading their work, I keep a running list of common weaknesses and errors. I then provide these to the whole class and they evaluate their work based on this information. I also showcase their strongest writing (and make it a point to represent every student throughout the year) and use mentor texts. I have individual writing conferences that end up being more efficient and productive than hours of writing comments. In addition to conferring with students, questionnaires and written reflections are very beneficial and informative. I find that my students are actually internalizing the feedback and learning more about their writing ability.
John Hattie is a firm believer in having students set goals and to self-report their grades. He says, “Once a student has performed at a level that is beyond their own expectations, he or she gains confidence in his or her learning ability.” This can be done by explaining the target learning objective on a single-point rubric and having them self-assess their achievement level on that standard.
Changing my grading practice allowed my students and me to love writing instruction again.
Response From Mitchell Nobis
Mitchell Nobis is the president of the Michigan Council of Teachers of English, a co-director of Red Cedar Writing Project, and a curriculum support teacher in Metro Detroit with over 20 years of experience in the high-school English classroom. He recently co-authored Real Writing: Modernizing the Old School Essay (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and wrote a poem per day for the June 2017 cohort of the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project:
Teaching writing is as easy as creating and then herding a batch of cats. A piece of writing must first be born as an idea--no small feat itself--that then must be developed with illustrations and evidence and reasoning, ideally all while having an engaging style and structure. Now get two or three dozen students (or more) per hour to do that with regularity. Then grade it.
How does a teacher triangulate the biggest mistake we make in writing instruction when writing has a million moving parts? To some extent, we start by letting go. Writing is thinking made visible. We may think in visuals, but we define in language. As Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” We use words to formulate, share, analyze, and discuss ideas, yet we humans hardly teach language at all. We’d be wise to acknowledge that.
Think about toddlers. Most of a child’s words come from just being around adults. Children hear us, and their elastic brains pick up the language. Yes, parents correct toddlers’ “misuse,” often by repeating it back in its accepted form. By then, though, we’re already largely tweaking minutiae. For example, when my three-year-old says, “Daddy, I mad!” I might reply, “Yes, you are mad.” In that scene, no meaning was lost--I merely helped him with syntax. (Of course in reality I’d be ducking the Nerf balls he’d chuck at me in frustration.)
Teaching writing should use modeling too because we write like we read. Too often, schooling separates reading and writing instruction, and then we teach grammar and formulaic structures instead of writing. We need to put reading first while showing students the connections to writing. When we read, we usually focus on content, but our brains work in the background and notice syntactic patterns, vocabulary, where punctuation goes, and more. We can make this process explicit in school. We can invite students to read more, but we can also invite students to discuss the writers’ rhetorical choices. Which character is your favorite, and how did the author make you like her? What is the author’s argument, and how did he make you think and feel about it?
When we shift our focus to modeling and facilitating, we can show options instead of thinking about teachers as arbiters of correctness. There is no correct or incorrect, only appropriate or inappropriate for the context and audience. Once we accept this, we don’t need to teach what’s right. We can just write. To get there, we need to read a lot. We can stop acting like teachers have every answer and instead act as guides in the wilderness of language.
Studies show that we learn grammar and vocabulary best by reading, not by doing exercises. When we read, we absorb patterns and techniques. If we invite students to read as writers, then we can grade as readers, not corrections officers. Plus, when it does come time to study specific rules of grammar, usage, and mechanics, students will better understand how and why rules can help their writing.
When we teach writing as a fill-in-the-blank exercise, our students do not generate thinking, nor do they learn. It is no wonder that we as a nation struggle with deep thinking and analysis--we’ve trained the people to look for someone to tell them what to think and then to repeat it with the commas in the right places (which doesn’t usually happen anyway). We must become better writers, and it boils down to this: Read, write, repeat, and always be thinking.
Response From Kai Marks
Kai Marks is an award-winning teacher, instructional coach, and administrator who has worked in elementary, high school, and college settings in both public and independent schools for more than twenty years. She holds an MFA in Writing from the University of San Francisco and currently serves as the Director of Curriculum for Compass High School in San Mateo, California:
Teachers don’t spend enough time on prewriting. Investing more time in the prewriting stage of the writing process makes all the subsequent phases of the writing process come together more quickly, increases student confidence, and ultimately produces stronger writing.
Prewriting helps ensure quality of thinking and reasoning. For example, if a middle schooler discovers during the prewriting phase that the quotes or examples don’t fit the topic or thesis she is working with, she can make changes before heavily investing in a first draft. And, when students are ready to write, the first draft tends to be written more easily, with greater confidence, and often requires less revision.
How do you successfully expand the prewriting part of the process? Most teachers teach students to prewrite with a graphic organizer or other brief planning task. I recommend combining this instructional strategy with several more. The goal is for students to have more in their minds than could ever make it on the page, so that they can select details and evidence from a wider range of possibilities and experiences.
Some helpful prewriting strategies include:
- Share the expectations and rubric for the writing task before students begin to write. If working with older students, consider enlisting their help to create the rubric. This helps set a purpose early on and guides students’ thinking before the writing task begins.
- Use whole-group brainstorming. Students share as many ideas as possible. The teacher writes them on the whiteboard, and students record the notes for themselves. One idea often leads to another. Students generate many ideas in under fifteen minutes.
- Use pair or small-group brainstorming. Ask students to do this before bringing ideas to the whole group. Talking things out often helps students clarify their thoughts.
- Use individual brainstorming. Give students a chance to record ideas before creating a full piece of writing. This is a strategy that can be used in concert with small-group and whole-group brainstorming.
- Take a walk. Take your class outside for a short walk anywhere on campus. Sometimes just the movement and change of setting will spark an idea. This strategy is particularly helpful for poems or narrative pieces or pieces where observing details is required.
- Use images. Students can search for images on the Internet or work with visual images a teacher pre-selects. Ask questions like, “What do you think of when you see this?” This is one way to use visual cues to jump-start thinking for students. Relevant short videos can also be helpful.
- Create a contest or “scavenger hunt” that encourages review. Students review their resources (textbooks, notes, etc.) to see who can find the highest quantity of relevant details, examples, evidence, or experiences.
- Use classical music. Silence at the beginning of a writing task can be intimidating. Consider using classical music during individual thinking/brainstorming time.
- Create an atmosphere of curiosity and discovery. Writing should be fun. The possibilities are infinite. Create a classroom culture that encourages asking questions and experimenting with ideas.
Teaching our students to invest more time in the prewriting phase of the process is one of the greatest gifts we can give students. Prewriting provides scaffolding for thinking, planning, and finding relationships between ideas. Prewriting helps students prove to themselves that they have something to say and gives them confidence to boldly fill the blank page with quality writing.
Thanks to Tan, Lynell, Rebecca, Cheryl, Mitchell and Kai for their contributions!
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