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.
In Part Three, Tan Huynh, Dr. Lynell Powell, Dr. Rebecca Alber, Cheryl Mizerny, Mitchell Nobis, and Kai Marks to make their comments.
We finish up this series with responses from Alan Sitomer, Sean Ruday, Jen Schwanke, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, Kathy Glass, Meghan Everette, and Brian Kissel. I’ve also included comments from readers.
Response From Alan Sitomer
Alan Sitomer is a California Teacher of the Year award winner, inner-city literacy specialist, and nationally renowned keynote speaker who specializes in engaging disengaged, underperforming students. Alan is also a professional writer. To date, he’s authored 20 books. His latest comes from Scholastic: Mastering Short-Response Writing: Claim It! Cite It! Cement It!, a success tool for teaching evidence-based writing:
The good news: soon you will know the #1 mistake writing teachers make around elevating student performance, and you’ll be able to easily and swiftly correct your instructional practice.
The bad news: the #1 mistake teachers of writing make is thinking that there is one single mistake that, once easily and swiftly remedied, is going to turn your students into Rumi.
Don’t worry, I have practical ideas that can immediately help your instructional practice, but let’s begin at the beginning. First, “mistake” is too harsh. Teaching is tough, and everything exists on a continuum of growth. Each student possesses certain writing skills; teachers possess certain writing instruction skills; these come together as students and teachers work together. The teacher of writing must also walk the tightrope of having to accelerate the advanced writers, scaffold for the low-performing writers, make comprehensible for the English-language-learning writers, and maintain a rigorous, standards-based pacing track for everyone.
So, what can be done? Entire books have been written in response to this question, but here’s a simple recommendation that, in my experience, moves mountains: stop over-assigning.
We all understand that children must first learn how to walk before they can run. However, in classrooms across the nation we assign multi-paragraph, evidence-based, complexity-driven, long-form responses, before students can compose a clear, evidence-based paragraph demonstrating proper grammar and spelling with a nice through-line of cogent thinking.
Thus, we set our students up to fail.
Great chefs begin with mastering toast. Great pianists begin with “Chopsticks.” The same logic holds true across every learning endeavor. Why we jump quickly past ensuring students master short response straight to composing nuanced, long responses oozing with critical thinking and sophisticated textual analysis is baffling.
Slow down. Meet kids where they are. Multi-paragraph essays are built one paragraph at a time, single paragraph responses are built one sentence at a time, and sentences are composed one word at a time. Trust me, I know. As the author of 20 published books I promise you that every sentence I have ever published was iterated in exactly this manner.
I believe is that to be successful in teaching evidence-based writing, a student must master three core skills that they can demonstrate in one simple, clear, concise paragraph. Young writers need to be able to make a claim, cite evidence that directly supports the claim, and form a conclusion directly connecting evidence to the claim through logical reasoning. I’m talking about making sure they can really nail the composition of 50-75 words before we ask them to really nail the composition of 500-750 words.
As Abe Lincoln once said, “If I only had seven hours to fell a tree, I’d spend the first six hours sharpening the saw.”
So help your students sharpen their saws by asking for fewer sentences of higher quality.
Response From Sean Ruday
Sean Ruday is an associate professor of English Education at Longwood University and a former classroom teacher. He is a co-president of the Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar and has written several books about grammar and writing instruction published by Routledge Eye on Education:
Rethinking Writing and Grammar Instruction
I spend a lot of time in writing classrooms: my responsibilities as a professional developer, student-teaching supervisor, and author of practitioner-focused books result in me observing, analyzing, and discussing more hours of writing instruction than I can count. I often notice that there are so many awesome things taking place in today’s writing instruction: the teachers I observe do wonderful work making connections to students’ out-of-school lives, incorporating mentor texts into their instruction, and responding to student work in meaningful ways.
Writing instruction can reach an even higher level by rethinking grammar instruction: while grammar skills are traditionally taught in isolation, research on the topic shows that out-of-context grammar instruction doesn’t actually translate to student writing. In other words, students who do worksheets become good at doing worksheets, but don’t turn into better writers. However, it doesn’t do our students any good to totally avoid mentioning anything grammar-related either: this makes them unfamiliar with the building blocks of sentences. I recommend that teachers present specific grammatical concepts as tools for effective writing that students can apply to their own works to make their writing as strong as possible.
There are six instructional steps that I suggest using to help students think metacognitively about how grammatical concepts can function as tools that can be used to maximize the effectiveness of a piece of writing:
- Familiarize students with the fundamental features of a grammatical concept.
I recommend using a brief mini-lesson to introduce students to the essential components of the grammatical concepts being discussed; this forms the foundation for the analysis and application of the concept that the students will do as this process continues.
- Show students published examples of a grammatical concept.
Now that the students are familiar with the fundamental features of a concept, they can enhance their awareness of its use by seeing authentic examples of how it’s integrated into published writing. This gives a sense of authenticity to grammar instruction, as it illustrates how published authors use specific grammatical concepts in real writings.
- Talk with students about why the grammatical concept is important to the published example in which it appears
This step takes the discussion of a grammatical concept to a deeper level by talking with the students about why that concept is important to example in which it appears. I’ve found that the best way to facilitate these discussions is to show students examples of how a published text looks with the grammatical concept and how it looks without it.
- Have students work together in small groups to analyze the importance of the grammatical concept.
This next instructional recommendation releases more responsibility to the students, asking them to work in groups to identify a published example of the grammatical concept they’re studying from a text of their choice and analyze its importance to that text.
- Ask students to apply the grammatical concept to their own works.
This step gives students even more ownership, as it calls for students to work independently on their own writing and to focus on using the grammatical concept you’ve been discussing to further enhance their pieces.
- Help students reflect on how the grammatical concept enhances their writing.
This final step encourages students’ metacognition by asking them to analyze how the use of the concept on which you’ve been focusing maximized the effectiveness of the piece. I like to ask each student how using the grammatical concept made her or his work as strong as possible and how the piece would be different if she or he didn’t use that concept.
These instructional recommendations can help students see grammatical concepts as tools for effective writing, not as boring and disconnected concepts that exist only on worksheets. Since this process incorporates published examples of these concepts, you can easily integrate it into the rest of your literacy instruction by making connections to the pieces students are already reading.
Response From Jen Schwanke
Jen Schwanke has been a language arts educator and school administrator for 20 years, currently serving as an elementary school principal in Dublin, Ohio. She is a graduate instructor in educational leadership and has written frequently for literacy and educational leadership publications. She is the author of the ASCD book You’re the Principal! Now What? Strategies and Solutions for New School Leaders:
It’s inherent in teachers: we want things to be right. We like perfection. We feel accomplished when our students get all the correct answers on a test; when they display thorough comprehension in reading; when their papers read as though written by a professional.
That’s how many teachers fall into the trap of wanting students to be flawless writers, and what makes them push and push toward perfection. I did it myself when I was a writing teacher. I’d be all gung-ho starting out, happily working with my students through the prewriting and writing stages, but then we would enter the sinkhole of revising and editing. And we would edit. And edit again. And again, over and over. I had my students do peer editing, self editing, teacher editing, digital editing, parent editing, and on and on. I beat those papers to death—sometimes, we’d spend three or four weeks on one single writing assignment.
But students don’t like to do anything for a straight month, much less work on countless drafts of the same paper. No one does. Even me, as an adult writer: after a certain amount of time with a piece, I grow so sick of my own voice, so tired of twisting things around and trying to make them perfect, that I grow to resent the very words I’m trying to perfect.
So what should writing teachers do differently? Let it go. We shouldn’t force students to edit until they hate their own voice, or until they stop caring about what they were trying to say in the first place. When the piece is good enough, done enough, let it be good and done. Move on; try something else, something new and fresh and fun. The ironic thing, of course, is that the end result will be the same. Our students will still grow into strong writers—but they won’t dread or resent the path it takes to get there.
Response From Heather Wolpert-Gawron
Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher. She is a staff blogger for Edutopia and also blogs at tweenteacher.com. She is the author of such books as: Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement (Corwin, 2017), DIY for Project Based Learning for ELA and History (Routledge, 2015), and DIY for Project Based Learning for Math and Science (Routledge, 2016):
The biggest mistake teachers make is in simply asking students to write without offering them feedback or training them to give feedback to one another. You see this a lot as the students enter secondary levels in education. We’ve all been in those high school classes where the students sit, in class, and read a chapter or section, then are asked to write an essay in response to a prompt. Read, write. Read, write. The next time they might see that writing, perhaps there’s a score of some kind, maybe some red-inked critique, but the pattern starts again with no feedback or revision process. In addition, many times it’s the content that’s critiqued, not the writing quality. “Did they get the answer right?” seems to trump “Did they communicate their theories effectively?” That’s not teaching writing. Having said that, informal daily journaling has a purpose, but it has to be paired with the teacher’s voice giving frequent feedback. This feedback can comment on content, give advice to improve quality, or simply help engage students through interaction with the teacher’s annotations.
But I get why it’s not happening as much as it should. Anyone who teaches writing (and that should be every teacher) gets slammed by the sheer workload. But there are ways to meet the requirement:
- Train students in expectations so they can share the responsibility of giving feedback.
- Focus on giving feedback on only one skill with each assignment.
- Stagger due dates.
- Have students request feedback on something they know they are challenged by (because they’ve reflected on it ahead of time).
There are ways to keep up with the massive workload that’s associated with being a writing teacher. Ignoring the importance of frequent feedback is not one of them. Look, I have over 200 students a day, and it’s a struggle to keep up. But if I can’t keep up with the feedback, then I have to adjust what I’m asking them to produce, otherwise, they simply embed their errors even more deeply.
Response From Kathy T. Glass
Kathy T. Glass, a former teacher, is a national consultant for K-12 audiences and an author of several books related to curriculum and instruction. She is invested in increasing educators’ capacity to hone their craft so they translate what she teaches to effective classroom practice. Check out her website: www.kathyglassconsulting.com:
In their report “Writing Next,” authors Graham and Perin (2007) cite 11 recommendations of research-proven instructional methods to improve writing skills for students in grades 4-12. Among them include explicitly teaching the steps of the writing process, using writing as a vehicle to learn content material, orchestrating situations during the writing process for students to work collaboratively (e.g., brainstorming together or giving feedback), and teaching how to combine sentences.
Another item on their list—product goals—may not receive the attention in the classroom that it deserves. This recommendation means that teachers should articulate reachable expectations specific to a writing task, including the purpose for and characteristics of the writing. Teachers ought to identify the overarching goal, such as producing an argument, and set discrete objectives along the way that contribute to the whole (e.g., stake a claim, identify logical reasons, and research to determine supporting evidence). As well, a timeline that chunks out these key milestones will help students monitor their own due dates and help to set manageable goals.
If asked to perform a task like write a grant or a resume, teachers want to know the criteria and study examples before setting out to write. Students, too, should be aware from the get-go what is expected of them so they know what they are striving to achieve. In explicitly identifying what these expectations entail prior to writing, students can clearly work towards their goals and monitor their progress. This can be done by sharing a rubric or checklist and using one or both as instructional tools.
To this point, teachers should design criteria and present it early so students are operating from a stronger position to succeed. Here is an example of an activity that is designed to orient students to a checklist (narrative example) to set expectations and make learning transparent. It can be adapted to any writing genre and for presenting a rubric.
Response From Meghan Everette
Meghan Everette is a Teacher on Special Assignment in the Salt Lake City School District and a regularly blogger for Scholastic’s Top Teaching site:
Writing instruction is one of the unspoken ills of teaching. Students write, and teachers instruct, but rarely do worlds collide. Once students are around third grade, the expectation is they will produce paragraphs and respond to text. Rarely, if ever, do we support students in the actual work of how to write.
Consider the progression in many schools. Students learn letters and beginning sentence in kindergarten, progressing to full sentences in first grade. They might be taught subject and predicate in grammar, and capital letters and end marks, but are they ever instructed on how to construct their thoughts into complete written work? By 2nd grade, students are found to locate answers in the text and throw a prepositional phrase in to turn the question into an answer. String several of those together, and your writing instruction is complete. Students enter upper elementary and middle school without every learning to construct meaningful written work and are baffled at the longer essays thrown at them. Even into high school, we often instruct students on the construction of a research paper, without ever attending to the real power behind written words. The complete disconnect causes faults and fraught throughout school.
To combat this, teachers must teach writing, not just ask students to write. It seems natural and the immediate response is that students write all day. Sure, but when are you instructing them about their composition? Have you given them a foundation for putting their thoughts into paragraphs and papers? In an effort to avoid being formulaic in writing, we’ve ditched the instruction all together. Furthermore, students need repetitive practice. I’m often reminded of the rules of teaching handwriting; if you don’t do it every day, then don’t bother at all. Writing instruction, not the act of writing, must happen consistently. And it takes time. It will take much more time than anticipated. It must be done, and not at the expense of all those other writing opportunities either. Perhaps the real fault is teachers haven’t been taught to teach writing and have instead been victim of the same structures throughout their own education.
The other practical solution is a full-school system for writing. Years ago, our students struggled with writing. Walkthroughs led to two overarching issues. First, students were never being instructed in how to write, and second, anyone teaching writing was teaching is wildly differently from the next teacher. The lack of consistency led to confused students. Together, teachers created an ideal outline and rubric for our oldest grade. Working backward and determining what was reasonable, we adapted the outline and rubric to fit at each grade level. Students worked in kindergarten through 5th grade under the same basic structure and expectations, increasing the length and complexity at each grade. Wording was unified between teachers so that writing discussions across the school sounded the same. By aligning everyone to the same basic plan, the effects of teaching writing were compounded to successful outcomes over time.
Teachers mistake having students write for writing instruction and schools don’t take the time and effort to develop a cohesive school-wide plan. These two efforts, time-intensive and yet easily accomplished, can transform student writing.
Response From Brian Kissel
Dr. Brian Kissel is an Associate Professor of literacy at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. A former elementary school teacher and literacy coach, Brian teaches courses, conducts research, and provides professional development in writing instruction. He has a new book, published by Stenhouse, titled When Writers Drive the Workshop: Honoring Young Voices and Bold Choices. You can follow Dr. Kissel on Twitter: @btkissel. He can also be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org:
In the past 15 years there has been a shift in writing instruction in which teachers have felt pressure to move away from curricular decision-making based on writers and towards allowing scripted or packaged-programs to dictate instruction. In this era of accountability, many school districts have chosen to teacher-proof (and ultimately student-proof) the curriculum by stripping agency from teachers and students. This shift results in classroom instruction that is not responsive to student needs and student products that look, sound, and feel the same. Allowing programs and Pinterest to dictate instruction is, I believe, the greatest mistake teachers make in writing instruction.
Instead of relying on packaged programs to drive instruction, teachers should consider the following instructional moves to make their writing classrooms more student-driven:
- Make Time to Teach Writing:
In many states where only reading and math are tested, writing is not given the priority it deserves. To grow as writers, students need about one hour, every day, to work on their craft.
- Confer with Writers:
As students write independently within the classroom, teachers should meet weekly with students in 5-10 minute conferring sessions. During these sessions, teachers should ask questions, listen to student responses, and offer feedback that moves the writer forward.
- Provide a Space for Writers to Receive Peer Feedback
: Writers need a space to ask peers for feedback about their writing. Whether it is an Author’s Chair or a writing group, writers need opportunities to ask an audience to provide specific feedback on a piece of writing.
- Ask Writers to Self
-Reflect: Writers need opportunities to set goals for themselves and monitor their progress through self-reflection. Too often, teachers evaluate student progress without hearing the voices of their students. When writers maintain their own portfolios, self-evaluate their work, and take 1-2 minutes daily to reflect on their progress, they take ownership of their learning.
- Craft Lessons Based on Student Work: When designing instruction, teachers should first consider what their students know or don’t-know-yet. Teachers learn this by analyzing notes they take during conferring, observational notes they write when listening in on peer feedback, and examining the responses writers make when self-reflecting. Using this data, teachers can craft instruction that is truly student-centered.
It requires a lot of energy from teachers to make their classrooms more student-driven, rather than packaged-program-driven. This method of instruction is messy and nuanced; it’s more difficult than simply reading from scripts. But if we want our students to make sound decisions as writers, self-evaluate their progress, and develop unique writing voices, they need us to make this shift. We must create writing classrooms where writers drive the curriculum.
Responses From Readers
Thanks to Alan, Sean, Jen, Heather, Kathy, Meghan, and Brian, and to readers, for their contributions!
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