Lately, I’ve been learning a lot about teaching writing. No, I’m not new to teaching writing–I was a middle school English Language Arts teacher for more than twenty years. I’ve also worked with high school students for the past several years, preparing them to write the SAT essay. However, just lately I’ve taken on a new set of writers: college freshman. The lessons I’m learning from interacting with them and their writing brings me full circle. This is what I was ultimately preparing my middle school and high school students for: academic writing.
And now that I’ve encountered the ends to the means I spent years preparing my students to encounter, I’m reminded first of all that good writing remains the same, no matter what the level!
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So what is “good writing”?
Good writing reflects careful consideration of:
MESSAGE / PURPOSE
EVIDENCE / SUPPORT
WORD CHOICE / TONE
CORRECTNESS / DOCUMENTATION
Simply put, what is said and how it is said determines the degree to which one’s writing can be considered “good.” The degree to which any number of these items is included in what is expected from student writing, of course, differs depending upon the age and ability of the students, and just HOW each of these components manifests itself also differs across grade levels.
For example, the very first writing students are expected to create focuses almost solely on AUDIENCE and MESSAGE. Once students are able to construct a simple message for a real or imagined audience, PURPOSE becomes a factor and ORGANIZATION grows in importance. As student writing progresses, EVIDENCE and SUPPORT to enhance the MESSAGE for the benefit of the AUDIENCE grow in significance and students learn to use WORD CHOICE and TONE to affect their AUDIENCE and enhance their connection to their MESSAGE…and on and on it goes, with each element increasing in significance as the writing increases in sophistication. CORRECTNESS is important from day one and grows in scope all along the writer’s journey. At some point, DOCUMENTATION (coupled with the format sector of ORGANIZATION) is introduced and is incorporated into EVIDENCE and SUPPORT for the MESSAGE.
So what methods have I traditionally pursued to support my students in producing good writing?
I’ve never been someone who embraces “canned” programs of any type. My writing instruction was informed heavily by my involvement with the Third Coast Writing Project, Western Michigan University’s arm of the National Writing Project. As a result of that influence, I learned about and implemented the writing process and a focus on revision and editing in my classroom. As time went on, I learned how to conduct writing conferences (from my wonderful Learning Network mentor, Mrs. Geri Williams) with my students, which were amazingly helpful for students, but which I never felt like I could implement with fidelity on a regular basis because of time constraints in short, middle school fifty-minute English Language Arts class periods into which I had to layer a myriad of instruction and practice that reached far beyond just writing instruction.
As a result, and following the lead of what students would have to help them with their writing on high-stakes testing, I came to rely on checklists to assist my students through revising and editing their writing. I developed elaborate checklists that, while I did instruct students in initially implementing, I probably was not vigilant enough in keeping track of whether or not said checklist were really helping my students to become better writers.
I had realized early on that “student revising and editing conferences” were not working in my middle school classroom, so I long ago discontinued having students read and comment on each others’ writing. Middle school students, and developmentally rightfully so, have an innate inability to really care about other students’ writing, so as a result, I saw what I initially hoped would be beneficial “meetings of the minds” between students deteriorate quickly into surface level “meetings of the mouths” despite whatever support I seemed to be able to come up with to offer in way of modeling and reinforcing best ways to conference with classmates over writing. So, I abandoned peer writing conferences in exchange for checklists.
The one thing I still believe I did do right for my students in terms of supporting their writing development was, and continues to be, extensive modeling. I modeled pre-writing, during-writing, and post-writing (revising and editing) approaches and specific examples for my students. I modeled how to develop topic sentences and powerful paragraphs, then I modeled constructing arguable thesis statements and significant support. I modeled writing (and presented excellent models of published) titles, introduction, and conclusions.
In fact, I’m convinced that any success my middle school students had in their writing pursuits, if the success had anything to do with their teacher at all, rested solely on the extensive modeling I presented, for I am just as convinced that those checklists were a total waste of time.
That said…what am I learning that limits students in producing good writing?
Though I have taught college classes for many years–namely reading methods classes and intern seminars–this semester I have embarked upon a new teaching pursuit: college freshman English composition. For the first time in my teaching career, I am actually teaching a class that focuses solely on the development of writing. I’m not sure yet about what my students are learning…their first essay was just due, but, I know that I am learning TONS about supporting developing writers.
With all of my former limitations cast aside, I am learning to be super-intentional and spot-on focused on EXACTLY what my students’ writing needs to reflect.
The first thing that has become apparent to me is that I now believe that in my earlier teaching pursuits, I was hyper-focused on the CORRECTNESS aspect of my students’ writing. This was underpinned by classroom and high-stakes testing writing rubrics typical to the age group I taught. Middle school writing rubrics typically had four categories: Topic, Organization, Voice/Style, and Mechanics. So, that made correctness 25% of what was important. And granted, correctness is important. However, in this day and age of auto-correct, grammar check, and style check, isn’t CORRECTNESS being a bit over-rated for young writers? And at what cost? Students who spend all of their revision/editing work time focused on correcting errors might never actually work on making their MESSAGE better at all!
In addition, from my on-going work with high school students working on preparing to take the SAT (I’ve taught SAT prep for three years now), I know that CORRECTNESS is only one of thirteen rubric points in scoring the essay that presents students’ good writing to potential colleges, making it worth only 8% of what is important on the SAT essay. Now, I do realize that high school writing rubrics do assess more than just the four areas that middle school writing rubrics are limited to, but I currently do not have a high school writing rubric in front of me to refer to directly, so I’ll just suffice it to say that I do realize that high school writing rubrics probably do count CORRECTNESS somewhere between 8% and 25%, so there is a natural progression in place.
And, finally, guess what? According to the college writing rubric I am now using for my college students (this writing rubric is standard across all composition classes at the college where I teach), CORRECTNESS is worth only about 5% of the grade for their essays.
That said…what am I learning that best supports my students in producing good writing?
Simply put, the biggest thing I’m learning about teaching students about good writing is that when less focus is stressed on CORRECTNESS, the result is naturally more time and more mental energy that can be focused on the MESSAGE and all of the other components of good writing.
Please don’t take this the wrong way…my college students produce writing, especially their early drafts, that is often replete with errors. But, because of the focus of the rubric, coupled with the fact that the final drafts of their essays, our focus must remain on meaning (as expressed through the MESSAGE, ORGANIZATION, EVIDENCE, SUPPORT, WORD CHOICE, and TONE…almost the entire writing rubric). Issues with CORRECTNESS are often left up to style/grammar/spelling check, but are, surprisingly, just as often resolved as a result of revising the writing to make the MESSAGE better!
That said…how am I now supporting my students in producing good writing?
Though I still rely heavily on modeling writing for my students, short, specifically focused writing conferences and peer revision encounters, coupled with whole-class writing workshop experiences that are focused on only one or two distinct expectations of the finished essay now constitute my main approach in supporting my students to produce good writing.
Now granted, my college freshman English composition course consists of only a handful of students compared to the size of my middle school, and even my SAT prep classes, I do not think that the size of a class precludes a teacher from successfully implementing these approaches. And, my students have to write and turn in three drafts (each must focus on developing particular aspects of the essay and must be different, obviously, from the prior drafts), whereas middle school and high school students usually are only expected to have one or maybe two drafts prior to their final. As when trying out anything that someone else swears by, naturally, one always has to modify to fit his or her particular circumstances.
First, writing workshop in my college writing classroom has three layers: oral readings of compositions with focused written feedback and whole class on-the-spot discussion led by the teacher (me) of each essay, peer-to-peer specifically-focused sessions guided not by checklists (as I would have done previously) but by ONE very specific focal point, and, finally, immediate revision time given IN CLASS wherein students can immediately apply the writing advice they have just received.
- When my students read their drafts out loud to the class, I encourage them to do so with a pencil in their hand so that they can quickly mark issues with the text that they realize they need to return to later as they are reading it out loud.
- As they read their composition to the whole class or just after they’ve read, I ask them to point out any of several aspects of what is expected in their final draft: thesis and restatement, counterargument, cited sources, background information about the topic, etc. This serves as confirmation to the students and working models for other students who may be struggling with these elements.
- For their part, the students who are not currently reading aloud are asked to respond to the current student author in writing by offering feedback on such aspects of the writing as perceived tone, perceived audience, etc. This feedback is invaluable to the student author in understanding how his writing is being perceived by his classmates. Since this is a draft that is being shared, there is time to make revisions before the final draft is due.
- To replace the checklists that I have previously had students use, I’m now directing peer writers to inspect each other’s writing for specific elements expected in the essay such as reasoning to support evidence provided, evidence of the thesis in every paragraph, suitable diction to fit the purpose and the tone, evidence of rhetorical mode (we’ve mostly worked with compare/contrast and cause/effect thus far).
- My college class is three hours once a week. That luxury of time is wonderful in allowing students to have time to actually act on their found need for revisions while their discovery is still fresh. I realize that this is a difficult obstacle to overcome, however, especially in a secondary setting where class sessions may be less than one hour. In that case, I suggest the teacher break down the task even further, but always allow time immediately after writing workshop and/or peer conferences for students to make the revisions to their writing.
Again, I realize that what I do in my college class is probably to ensure good writing is not what most classroom teachers can duplicate in their own classrooms directly. However, the ideas I’m expressing here can be adapted and applied:
- keep the focus on MEANING, not on CORRECTNESS
- throw out the revision and editing checklists…real conversations are so much more valuable!
- break down revising tasks…don’t bombard students with long to-do lists
- allow time immediately for making the revisions suggested to the writing
- and model, model, model!
Need some help with providing quality writing models of titles, leads, and conclusions for your students? Click here to access my PowerPoint, entitled “Advanced Writing Techniques –Titles, Leads, and Conclusions.”
One last thing…
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