Teaching Opinion

Response: Writing Instruction & the Common Core - Part Three

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 05, 2013 10 min read
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(This is the final post in a series on this topic. You can see Part One here and Part Two here)

Anjilla Young and Lori DiGisi both asked a similar question:

What can we do to prepare for the Common Core writing skills in our classrooms?

In Part One of this series, I shared some of my suggested resources, and educators Mary Tedrow, Ray Salazar and Tanya Baker contributed their commentaries. Part Two highlighted the ideas of Heather Wolpert-Gawron, Kathy Glass, and Carol Jago.

Today’s post, the final one in the series, includes commentaries from Amy Benjamin, Alice Mercer, and from many readers.

Response From Amy Benjamin

Amy Benjamin is a teacher, educational consultant, and author whose most recent book is Big Skills for the Common Core (Routledge):

First things first: Writers must read. Any instruction in writing must follow opportunities to read, read, read. No shortcuts. And it therefore makes sense that if we want students to learn how to write in a particular genre, they need substantial experience, as well as guidance, in reading that genre. Only then will their brains absorb the vocabulary, become familiar with the style, follow the organizational structure, and--not to mention--learn the content of the genres in which we ask students to write. Productive language (speaking and writing) grows out of experience with receptive language (listening and reading): It’s all about emulation of models.

The Reading Standards in the Common Core, if taken seriously and executed fully, will automatically magnetize the Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language Standards. I say that because there are thirty-two Literacy Standards. They overlap and interlock. The idea can’t be to have educators memorize thirty-two discrete Standards and then fashion thirty-two stand-alone lessons and assessments, checking off competencies as they go. If we invite students into reading-based conversations (before and after) to unlock meaning in the complex text that the Common Core requires; if we have them write regularly--both formally and informally, both to validate what they’ve learned and as a means to learn, connect, and remember--we can blend literacy skills with content, making language, both oral and written, the well-spring of academic learning.

The Common Core Writing Standards call for variety: variety in audiences, variety in the level of formality of the language, variety in purposes for writing, variety in content, variety in form, and variety in the process of producing a finished writing piece. Writing Standards 1, 2, and 3 call for the writing of arguments, informative/explanatory texts, and narratives, respectively. Standard 4 calls for the writer to vary the level of formality to accommodate the expectations of the audience. Standard 5 calls for the use of the writing process (planning and thinking, drafting, revising, editing). Standard 6, interestingly enough, calls for the use of technology (presumably that means electronic technology) as a collaborative tool in producing a written piece. Standard 7 calls for both short and long research pieces. Standard 9 requires students to consult with both literary and informational texts to support and analyze the writer’s claims. And Writing Standard 10 reinforces the need to create a pervasive culture of writing within a school, a place where students routinely write to express ideas and write to actually formulate them.

That brings us to frequency, with regard to assessment. If students are writing routinely as much as they should, for teachers to read, much less assess, much less comment upon, everything they write would be an impossibility. In an authentic writing culture, not everything needs to be handed in and returned with a grade. Students need to write for themselves (metacognitively), for each other (cooperative learning), for authentic audiences, as well as for assessment. When we say: “My students write so much, I can’t possibly correct everything they write,” we are doing the job the way it is meant to be done.

Now let’s talk about research. Forget about that staple of the school year, the dreaded One Big Research Paper. Students today are supposed to be doing research frequently-- for short, as well as longer, writing tasks. When you think about it, research comes naturally to students, as they--as we do--turn to search engines to verify or advance their understanding of the world in the course of conversations with friends. As for citation, consistency is the key. We can stop quibbling over whether to use MLA, APA, Chicago, or whichever style guide we had to use in college and have sworn by ever since. As long as students cite their direct quotations, paraphrases, and statistics using a standard style, we can move on to more important matters. After all, when they do get to college and the workplace, they will have to adapt to the preferred style of that institution.

Finally, we can eliminate much of the heartache inherent in reading/evaluating student papers if we frontload the task by making our directions to the students accessible, unambiguous, and helpful. Select clear task verbs: analyze, describe, explain, propose, compare, justify, summarize are better than write about, discuss, tell about, write a research paper on... While you’re at it, toss out a handful of useful words from your school’s academic vocabulary list, especially the generic ones that the students may not have thought to use (I recommend Averil Coxhead’s High-Incidence Academic Word List, a list of 570 words that are arranged into ten subsets that are organized by the frequency in which the words appear in academic text).

Don’t overdo your suggestions of words to be used in a writing task. If you offer just a handful of words, they are more likely to be used by the students than if you inundate them with hundreds all at once. And, I recommend offering two or three “sentence frames.” These are broad, open “shells” of sentences types that will work well in a given writing task. I recommend “They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing,” a little gem by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein (Norton, 2007). Once you see this, you’ll wonder how you ever did without it. But, again, don’t overdo it with the recommendations for sentence frames. The fewer you recommend for a given writing task, the more likely you are to see the students actually use them.

So that’s it: Read, read, read; give lots of opportunities and variety; don’t feel that you have to assess everything; back it down on the monster research paper; spend time formulating the writing task so that it clarifies the task and offers helpful suggestions about the language. Have a great school year!

Response From Alice Mercer

Alice Mercer teaches sixth grade at an elementary school in Sacramento, CA. She started her career in Oakland, Ca, and moved to Sacramento in 2001. Alice is active in her union doing social media outreach, and is on State Council, the policy setting body of the California Teachers Association. Her blog is Reflections on Teaching:

How do I teach writing with Common Core? I’ve focused on two things: moving to doing short response writing assessments instead of multiple choice, and putting the reading we do in subject areas on the same level and at the same time I do my assessment of English Language Arts stories and texts. Some of the things I do are not different than my prior writing instruction, and no doubt many things will change over time. I don’t think of what I’m doing as based on Common Core, since the standards are supposed to be neutral on issue of instruction. I’d prefer to think of this as focusing on best practices.

Here are some of the things I’ve done:

* Moving the reading of content lessons (science and social studies) to the morning reading block.

* Doing a weekly short response written assessment on our English text, whatever novel we’re reading, social studies, and science, and limiting it to one question. This means more focus on quality and less on quantity.

* Giving students a check list (rather than a longer rubric) for grading, so they can see more easily where they met expectations, or fell short. These check lists help me derive a grade for their writing (based on the total), and to focus on specific parts of their writing to grade them in content areas.

* I show students examples of strong writing when we review their writing each week.

I’ve also tried to mix in alternative formats and technology:

* Students do writing and deliver a weekly podcast on what they’ve learned.

* I show high quality videos (Human Family Tree, Planet Earth, the Abolitionists, etc.) to engage their interest, and to get them to think analytically about information in a multimedia format.

* Students are offered opportunities to do assessment in alternative formats, like comics/graphics.

I’d like to do more things. The students are still coming from a writing program (influenced by Reeves) that emphasizes teaching some specific forms of writing formats. I’m concerned this stifles voice, and their writing is too mechanistic. My goal is to develop more voice in my students’ writing.

Responses From Readers

Joanne Yatvin:

I consider [reading] the most important factor in learning to write. Because written and spoken language are very different in many dimensions, learners need to read a lot to find out what good writing is like. Those students who read the works of good writers absorb their tacit lessons about form, vocabulary, sentence structure, etc. In my own work as a teacher, school principal and writer on writing, I have advocated for allowing--no, encouraging--students and especially English language learners to model their writing closely on the literature they’ve read. For example, after reading Judith Viorst’s “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad, No Good Day,” elementary grade students can write about their own bad, good, or boring days using Viorst’s structure and as much of her language as they need. The most capable writers are encouraged to move farther away from the original while still describing a significant day in their lives.


Writing for an audience, and understanding what the audience expects, is very important. I have a poster that I made hanging in my classroom: “Readers Have Expectations ... Writers Have Responsibilities.” It shows the two sides of the literary coin, how you can’t have a writer without a reader, and vice versa.


Commenting on the first post in this series, Developing Student Writers By Letting Them Talk, wrote: This reminded me of what cognitive instruction professor at Radford Univ., the late Dr. Joan Fulton [a Piaget scholar] called “talking on paper.” She gave the nod to Vygotsky’s interpretation, of thinking being the next step after toddler and preschooler’s describing what was happening as they played, thinking was talking in the mind. She called writing “talking on paper.” It makes the concept more reachable to the younger student, and helps older students when learning about homely, conversational, sophisticated, and literary levels of speech/writing.

A number of readers commented via Twitter, and I’ve collected them using Storify:

Thanks to Amy, Alice and to readers for their contributions!

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