Teaching Opinion

Response: Teaching Writing by Respecting Student Ideas

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 09, 2012 11 min read
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(Note: This is the fifth and final post in a series on teaching writing. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here and Part Four here)

Katie Ciresi asked:

What advice can you give to help teachers be more effective in helping students become better writers?

This series is a companion to last year’s five posts on Helping Our Students Become Better Readers.

This series began with guest responses from Mary Tedrow, Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey. Another three educators -- Aimee Buckner, Carolyn Coman and Tanya Baker -- contributed their ideas in Part Two. Educator and author Ralph Fletcher shared his ideas on how we can specifically help boys become stronger writers in Part Three. Last week, Barry Lane provided his guest response.

Today, in addition to sharing my thoughts on the topic and comments that readers have left over the past three weeks, I’m including contributions from teachers Renee Moore and Ray Salazar.

In Part Two of this series, I shared that I had collected what I consider to be the best online writing resources in one place. That collection includes a helpful piece that Lara Hoekstra, an exceptional colleague, has written describing how English teachers at our school work collaboratively in the area of writing instruction and assessment (California Writing Project staff helped us develop this process).

Much of the advice I might have offered has already been shared by guests who have responded in this series. I would, however, like to briefly share about the importance of helping our students develop intrinsic motivation to want to write. Research has shown that one of the key elements necessary for this kind of motivation is a sense of self-efficacy, or competence. Our students will be more likely to want to write if they feel confident in their ability to do so competently. There are many ways to scaffold instruction to help them develop that capacity, and I’d like to share two simple ones today.

As wary of formulaic writing as I am, I have found teaching two simple “formulas” useful to our students to help them develop a sense of self-confidence. One is “ABC” (Answer the Question, Back it up with evidence like a quotation, and make a Comment or Connection) and the other is “PQC” (make a Point, Quote from the text supporting your point, Make a connection to your personal experience, another text, or some other knowledge). You can see examples of these kinds of paragraphs here. Having these simple formulas in mind has clearly helped my students overcome initial reluctance to write, and they have been able to use them as “jumping off points” to writing that is more expansive and complex.

These next three paragraphs are adapted from my upcoming book,Self-Driven Learning: Teaching Strategies for Student Motivation and, specifically, from a chapter on writing instruction I co-authored with Lara and several other colleagues. It focuses on using inductive teaching and learning:

Briefly, one way to use the inductive method in writing instruction is by presenting students with numerous short or longer examples of information on a broader topic (called a “data set”) -- let’s say “earthquakes” -- which they then to place into categories. Here are
two examples of a data set that are simple and designed for Beginning/Intermediate English Language Learners, but they can also be made far more complex and lengthy.

In terms of writing, this categorization activity is easily transferable to writing -- additional information can be added to the categories, which can then be converted into paragraphs, and students can also easily cite their source. It’s a very accessible process that students can use in writing whatever they need to in any class -- even when they don’t actually have a formal “data set.” Instead, when they’re reading a textbook or research online, they can just convert whatever notes they’ve taken into categories. In fact, my students regularly say that this is the most important strategy that they have learned to help them become better writers.

Feelings of self-efficacy are important for the development of intrinsic motivation. Easily transferable tools, like this inductive method (and the formulas mentioned earlier), can help students feel confident in writing. The more confident they feel, the more they will want to do it.

Response From Renee More

Renee Moore, NBCT, 2001 Mississippi Teacher Of The Year, has taught English for 21 years. She is a member of: Mississippi’s Teacher Licensure Commission; the Board of Directors of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards; and the Teacher Leaders Network. Renee is also a published author and education blogger, You can follow here on Twitter at @TeachMoore:

Do we really want our students to become writers? What is a writer? What do writers do?

I’m a writer. What do I do?

I spend lots of time reading and thinking about things that matter to me. I often write in response to someone else’s ideas or writings. I respect my readers, and I expect that readers will read what I have written, think about what I have said, and, hopefully, respond. I expect to be part of a conversation about things that matter.

I like words and phrases. I like to play with words. I like when people use words in clever (but not deceitful) ways.

Our students text, update their status on Facebook, visit chat rooms and blogs because they want what most of us want--to communicate, to be heard, and to be understood.

Particular strategies and methodologies do not seem to be the key to student achievement, especially in writing. I know from my own research and that of others that African American students have achieved measurable success in language arts under teachers who use very different methods. Context, however, seems to matter greatly. If that’s the case, then we need to spend more time understanding those contextual issues (culture) and developing our pedagogy out of them to create a more effective working relationship between teachers and students.

Research on the so-called achievement gap between white and African American students suggests that the atmosphere of the classroom and the relationship with teacher (the learning context) are vitally important to student academic success. As Lisa Delpit reminds us, “Knowing students is a prerequisite for teaching them well.”

This knowing of our students is not a paternalistic overgeneralization that results in low expectations. In her moving essay--which I highly recommend that every ELA teacher read--former NCTE President Kylene Beers writes passionately about an experience she had in a high-poverty high school, describing numerous conversations with teachers there who sincerely believed that what “those kids” needed was to sit still and memorize.

We are not training seals; we are teaching fellow human beings how to be better communicators, as we learn more ourselves.

One of the most powerful ways to show we care about our students and their learning is respect and respond to their ideas; as we show them how to express those ideas in academically effective ways. While I admire and use many of the teaching techniques that have been suggested in this series, the first step is to take the time to know my students and find ways to let them know that I respect them as literate persons.

Response From Ray Salazar

Ray Salazar is a National Board Certified English teacher in the Chicago Public Schools. He writes about education and Latino issues on The White Rhino Blog. You can follow him on Twitter at @whiterhinoray. This is a summary of a longer post that Ray has written, which also includes student examples:

If You Teach 5-Paragraph Essays--Stop It!

Part I: Introduction--What inspired my argument?

For decades, too many high-school teachers have instilled persuasive writing skills by teaching students the five-paragraph essay. You know it:

Introduction with three reasons
Reason #1
Reason #2
Reason #3
A summary of all three reasons

However, the five-paragraph essay is rudimentary, unengaging, and useless. A more effective opening would be a classic journalistic lead or argumentative response that ends with an argument in three parts--not three points.

Aristotle’s five-part structure for argumentative writing facilitates the implementation of the Common Core, proving that students can succeed with critical thinking in the 21st century.

Part 2: Background--What preceded my argument?

The five parts became five paragraphs because of low expectations, poor literacy training, or convenience. Instead of the predictability of five paragraphs, five parts allow students to synthesize multiple sources using facts and narratives. The writer is then challenged to meet the audience’s needs, not his own.

Part 3: Confirmation--What proves my argument?

The thesis in a five-paragraph essay doesn’t lend itself to debatability. This other structure does:

specific topic + debatable view + significance to the audience

Students can also use a subordinate phrase to de-emphasize common beliefs: Despite its widespread use, the traditional five-paragraph essay does not allow students to express ideas engagingly, proving that this structure limits students’ writing development.

Part 4: Refutation--What challenges my argument?

But how are students going to learn organization without the five-paragraph essay? Truthfully, they’re not learning an organizational pattern that succeeds outside of your own classroom.

To increase real-world success, teachers should use the College Board’s SOAP format so students understand guidelines and expectations:

Subject: Who or what are you writing about?
Occasion: How much time do you have to write?
Audience: Are they supportive or skeptical?
Purpose: What is this essay supposed to do?

Aristotle’s five parts has no length limit. The five paragraph essay limits students into about 1½ pages.

Part 5: Conclusion--What are the benefits of accepting my argument?

Unlike the five-paragraph essay’s conclusion that begins with repetition of previous information, the use of five parts encourages students to make inferences or predictions.

If we follow Aristotle, students will learn that their persuasive abilities, when used responsibly, will have value outside of the 46 minutes they were given to write.

Comments From Readers

P.L. Thomas:

My greatest argument is honor the conditions of writing that real-world writers confront and enjoy.

School-based writing tends to be driven by prompts, narrow (and inauthentic) rules, teacher-/standards-driven purposes and audiences, and rubric-based assessments.

Those characteristics are largely ABSENT in the lives of real-world writers.

Narrow and scripted writing is asking little of a students, and in fact is quite simple, and these prompted behaviors are even easier if students are allowed and invited to be full and complex writers themselves, sitting beside teachers-as-writers/writers-as-teachers.

We must stop doing FOR and prescribing FOR our students; instead we must create classroom opportunities for students to discover writing and the writing process in rich, complex, and unpredictable ways.

Cassandra Hammond:

I teach 8th grade ELA, and writing was always billed to me by other teachers as one of the most impossible tasks at that age. I have found that there are three key elements to building great writers. First, annotate, annotate, annotate. I have them dissect and analyze the writing of other great writers, we even do styesteals sometimes. Second, give them a solid structure. So much writing instruction is rather vague, I give my students a very strong structure for writing, they can add beauty to that easier than building from scratch. Finally, I make paper alinear. Rather than working from start to finish, we use separate papers for each paragraph and they rarely work from beginning to end. It more closely follows what most adult writers do on the computer, but we can accomplish it without having a classroom of tablets.

Brian Newman:

I did a study using my students a few years back comparing voice comments embedded in students’ papers vs. typing the comments in the comment bubbles using Microsoft Word. After giving feedback on a draft to one class using the voice comments and one class using typed comments, I found the revisions in the voice comment group were significantly better. Another teacher assessed the essays for me as well and came to the same conclusions. An ancillary part of that study was to see the time difference in how long it took me to assess using each method: I took 2:40 less, on average, per paper using voice comments.

After interviewing the students, they said that the voice comments “felt more personal.” They also mentioned ideas such as, “I felt like you were really asking me to do this” instead of just reading the comments typed (or written) on a paper as suggestions. In older versions of Microsoft Word, we had the option of “Insert New Voice Comment"; however, they did away with that in the latest update. Today, I use Audacity, and I read a paragraph, hit record on Audacity, and make my comments.

Walt Gardner:

As a former English teacher and journalist, I think it’s important to distinguish between practice and appropriate practice. If we want students to be able to write a persuasive essay, then it behooves us to give them practice doing precisely that. Writing descriptive essays is not appropriate practice for that objective.

Thanks to Renee, Ray and readers for contributing their responses.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. I’ll be including them in a future post.

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