Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Writing Instruction that Works

A.N. Applebee and J. A. Langer's study of writing instruction across the nation is described in their recent publication, Writing Instruction that Works: Proven Methods for Middle and High School Classrooms. The book has chapters for ELA, science, social studies, math and technology as well as ELL and students in poverty. Interestingly, they do not examine the role of special ed or struggling learners outside of English language learners. Each chapter begins with a background and overview of current practice, and continues with portraits of successful practice, the CCSS, a bottom line and future directions. While some of the chapters were penned by some associates working on the multi year study, the format contributes to the consistency in tone and concept that makes the book readable.

Key findings were that good instruction in writing can and does take place in pockets of excellence around the country and across subjects. That being said, writing is usually constrained by a focus on high stakes testing that CCSS is only likely to increase. While teachers of different subjects will agree that writing in their discipline contains unique elements separate from other disciplines and that writing is an important element of their subject area, they do not spend considerable time having students write or teaching them to write within their discipline. Furthermore, the CCSS have structured writing so that there is no appreciation for writing style differences across disciplines. One such difference- English uses active sentences with a rich and diverse use of vocabulary while science uses the passive voice and repetitive use of vocabulary (p. 6)- indicates the challenge of cross-curricular writing that prepares students to write in different subject areas in college and career and the challenge of allowing English teachers to lead the charge of grading standards across a school building.

Another point of interest is in how technology is utilized in writing instruction. So long as technology is used only as a reference material (ex. encyclopedia and dictionary) and a typewriter, it will not teach students to write in a functional manner beyond school. Collaborative writing such as wikis and blogs and platforms like Google documents enable a rethinking of the role of writing and communicating across the curriculum. So long as broadband connectivity and hardware access is limited, the ability to effectively and efficiently use these tools is limited. If we want to re-envision writing in education, we must embrace tools and their power to change communication.

Cross curricular ideas for increasing the amount of writing in classrooms include:
  • opening activities like quick writes that ask students to describe what they know about a topic,  predict how yesterday's learning could be applied to the topic of the day, compare yesterday's learning to something else, use vocabulary to describe something in their personal lives, etc.
  • ticket outs in which they summarize what they learned about the topic to date, compare and contrast two concepts, explain or describe what they learned, provide a quote, example or situation and ask them to analyze it or form an opinion using information from the day's lesson, identify how the knowledge from today could be used in their lives, ...
  • reflection on their performances
  • summarize their notes or a reading passage

Many of these activities are short, taking five minutes or less. They can be completed independently. They are open ended and require higher level thinking. They are real life applications of writing to learn.

If we want our children to be better writers, they must write. Not everything they write needs to be graded. Feedback can come from peers or self-reflection. Finding ways to incorporate writing into the day, every day is important. It helps develop thinking and learning. It reinforces ideas and exposes errors of thought. After note taking, short answer responses may be the most often type of writing that students complete. We need to incorporate the higher level thinking and composition skills rather than the spit 'em back skills that students learn how to do, but benefit little from.

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