Common Core Writing: Writing is Taught, Not "Caught"

December 26, 2014

By the time students reach middle school and especially high school, there is this assumption that students know how to write. They have, after all, been doing it for five, six, seven, eight years, right? Wrong. Writing must be explicitly taught; it's not something to which students will just catch on.
This is the third in a series of posts about my online course, Common Core: Implementing the Writing Standards. You can read my first post about the introduction to the writing standards here and my second post about the gradual release process here.

This third post focuses on the idea that writing must be taught, not "caught." This is perhaps less of an issue at the elementary school level where students are being given basic instruction in how to write the alphabet, words, sentences, paragraphs. But by the time students reach middle school and especially high school, there is this assumption that students know how to write. They have, after all, been doing it for five, six, seven, eight years, right?

Wrong. My ninth grade history teacher had a very cute saying about what happens when you assume: you make an a** out of you and me (a** + u + me = assume), however, I am just a guilty as the next teacher of making assumptions about students' writing skills.

In my first year of teaching, I started the year by asking students to write an autobiographical piece. I knew I was in trouble when students struggled to select a topic substantial enough to write about. A general graphic organizer with guiding questions and space for recording the details to be discussed in each paragraph was somewhat helpful but still did not help students introduce and structure ideas within and between paragraphs. 

By the time students reach middle school and especially high school, there is this assumption that students know how to write. They have, after all, been doing it for five, six, seven, eight years, right? Wrong. Writing must be explicitly taught; it's not something to which students will just catch on.I dragged my students through about four days of writing before I threw up my hands and moved on to other, more structured writing activities. Lesson learned. Instead of teaching my students how to write the way I wanted them to write, I behaved as if they would just catch on to what I wanted them to do.

This article, "The Writing Revolution," addresses the same topic and offers solutions. The school at the center of the article, New Dorp High School in Staten Island, New York, in 2008 identified bad writing as the barrier to their students' success. "Students’ inability to translate thoughts into coherent, well­ argued sentences, paragraphs, and essays was severely impeding intellectual growth in many subjects. Consistently, one of the largest differences between failing and successful students was that only the latter could express their thoughts on the page." 

Students who could not write well could not pass the Regents, New York's exit exam for high school students. Since 2008, many other states, including mine, Pennsylvania, are moving toward the idea of exit exams. In Pennsylvania, students in the graduating class of 2017 must pass the Keystones for Algebra 1, Biology, and Literature to receive a high school diploma.

At New Dorp, analysis of student writing revealed that students lacked knowledge of coordinating conjunctions to link and expand on simple ideas: like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Students also struggled to create complex sentences with dependent clauses: although, despite, however. These gaps in knowledge can be attributed to a change in how writing is taught. 

While fifty years ago, elementary­ school teachers taught the general rules of spelling and the structure of sentences, about twenty five years ago, schools took a different approach. Students were given interesting creative­ writing assignments. If students were writing as part of a fun, social context, they would “catch” what they need in order to be successful writers.

For solutions, New Dorp turned to the Windward School and its Hochman Program, in which students are "explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts—but, because, and so. They are instructed on how to use appositive clauses to vary the way their sentences begin. Later on, they are taught how to recognize sentence fragments, how to pull the main idea from a paragraph, and how to form a main idea on their own." Students are given a formula or recipe for writing, and once students understand these rules, they can then begin to break them.

At New Dorp, teaching writing became a focus across all subject areas. Students practiced using subordinate clauses in science class, specific prompts for discussion in English class, and transitional phrases to write a paragraph in history class. While critics worry about the loss of creativity and this focus on teaching writing has not solved all of the school's problems, New Dorp has seen positive growth and feels prepared for the Common Core shift.

When I look back at my attempt to jump write into writing autobiographical pieces my first year of teaching (I thought it would be fun and allow students to express themselves), I cringe. Certainly I could have first had students read and analyze a series of sample texts using the gradual release process. This would have allowed students to first identify and then employ the techniques used by skilled writers. 

However, even before that, I should have instructed students on basic writing skills, like how begin a response to a prompt. So many of my students struggled with how to start off that piece and many writing assignments that followed. About halfway through my first year I developed a lesson on turning a prompt into a statement.

By the time students reach middle school and especially high school, there is this assumption that students know how to write. They have, after all, been doing it for five, six, seven, eight years, right? Wrong. Writing must be explicitly taught; it's not something to which students will just catch on.
The lesson began with direct instruction or the "I Do," where I showed students three steps to turning around a prompt.
Step 1: Cut off the “question words” to create a sentence stem and change your question mark to a period.
Step 2: Re-read the sentence stem, and add, move, remove, or change words if you need to.
Step 3: Re-read the sentence stem and complete the statement by answering the question.
While "TAG" was something my students claimed to be familiar with, I could not assume they actually knew how to do it.

Then I moved onto the guided practice or the "We Do," where students guided me through turning around a prompt using the three steps I had given them. This could be done multiple times if necessary. I then asked students to do a "Two Do," and work through one or a few prompts with a partner.

For the independent practice or the "You Do," I developed two sets of prompts. The first set allowed students to turn around a prompt and actually answer it (mostly opinion based questions).

By the time students reach middle school and especially high school, there is this assumption that students know how to write. They have, after all, been doing it for five, six, seven, eight years, right? Wrong. Writing must be explicitly taught; it's not something to which students will just catch on.The second set allowed students to turn around the prompt and think about how it would be answered (text-based questions). These prompts were much higher level than the first set, prompts similar to what they would be asked to answer on Common Core aligned state testing.

Did some of my students already have the knowledge and the skills to complete parts of this lesson? Yes, and these students could be paired with students who had no knowledge. Did more practice hurt them? No; being able to teach someone else solidifies your own understanding. 

Was this lesson an ah-ha! moment for many of my other students? Yes; it was as if up to this point they had been expected to catch on to this rather than being taught this. Did most students struggle with the higher level prompts? Yes, and that is when I came back to the "I Do" and modeled a higher level prompt. Were all of my students able to turn prompts into statements correctly 100% of the time after this? No, but now they had a formula to approach the prompt with. 

Even in late December, I still approach a student who has not started writing in response to a prompt with these three steps/questions: Did you take of the questions words? What do you need to change? What are you going to say to answer the question?

If you are interested, you can check out the whole lesson here. Next up: argument writing.

For more writing lesson ideas and resources:

You Might Also Like

1 comments