Sunday, December 09, 2007

How to improve the teaching of writing
   Five steps to a better high school writing program

Learning expedition at Whitefish High School

I’ve heard that the writing curriculum is going to get some attention from the administration this year. Nothing that schools attempt is more difficult than teaching writing. Writing may be the most intellectually challenging thing many students are asked to learn in school, and teaching writing requires individualized coaching, which is laborious and time-consuming.

We’ve gone through something of a revolution in teaching writing since the late 1970s, when “the writing process” began to be championed throughout the land. Most state teaching guides now talk about the writing process. Unfortunately, this hasn’t led to any measurable improvement in student writing:

Over the last 20 years, during which process has been integrated into instruction nationwide, all NAEP reports have shown a gradual decline in writing performance. The NAEP 1996 Trends in Writing report (U. S. Department of Education, 1996), the most current comparative report as of this writing, showed that holistic scores (on a 6-point scale) for fourth-grade writers changed from 2.82 in 1984 to 3.02 in 1996. This change is statistically insignificant. The percentage of run-on sentences actually increased during this period, as did the percentage of sentence fragments. The more recent 1998 NAEP Writing Report Card (U. S. Department of Education, 1999) does not look at longitudinal data but nevertheless allows us to compare student performance as reported in the 1996 Trends in Writing report. The 1998 report examined results for Grades 4, 8, and 12 and found that percentages of students performing at the basic (below average) level were 84, 84, and 78, respectively. The percentages of those performing at the proficient (average) level were 23, 27, and 22, respectively. Only 1% of students at each grade level performed at the advanced (above-average) level. If we compare the 1998 and the 1984 data, we find that the above-average figure is unchanged for 1998, that the average figure is lower for 1998, and that the below-average figure is higher for 1998.

James D. Williams, Preparing to Teach Writing: Research, Theory, and Practice. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: 2003, p. 99.

Between 1998 and 2003 there were slight improvements in the NAEP scores for 4th and 8th graders but not for 12th graders. Since in Montana scores stayed flat during that time, that meant our students slipped downward in the national rankings (aside: there was a huge gender gap in Montana, and elsewhere: Montana eighth grade girls scored 168, which was 31 points higher than the 137 scored by boys).

Although the widespread adoption of process teaching has not led to notable improvement in writing, I don’t take this to mean that the approach is wrong. Indeed, as one who has spent countless hours trying to write better, I am quite sure it is right. Good writing really does require planning, drafting, revising and revising and revising.

Instead, I just take the lack of improvement as evidence of how difficult the challenge really is. If kids do not write a lot and do not get quick and useful feedback on how they are doing, they are not going to get much better, regardless of whether the teaching takes a pedagogical or a process approach. What this means in practice is that if most students are going to learn to write skillfully, the school day needs to include substantial blocks of time for writing, and the writing teachers’ work day needs to include substantial blocks of time for coaching student writers.

The National Commission on Writing has called for schools to “double the amount of time most students spend writing.” I suspect that for many students on many days, this would be quite easy, since two times zero is still not much.

If improving writing in the district were assigned to me, these are the steps I would advocate:

1. Clarify and articulate the vision of why writing matters. Be able to say clearly why it is important. Then say it often.

Kids do learn what they are taught and they do believe what they are repeatedly told, if what they are told isn’t so foolish that their own experience contradicts it, and if the tellers aren’t obvious hypocrites, only mouthing pieties they have no intention of living.

I believe writing matters because it’s impossible to do large, complex thinking tasks without it. I believe writing matters because without being articulate in language, we are at the mercy of the large bureaucracies that govern modern life. Theodore Dalrymple, in his work as a physician in the London slums, commented on the way the inarticulate are held hostage by the very bureaucracies that were invented to serve them:

In their dealings with authority, they were at a huge disadvantagea disaster, since so many of them depended upon various public bureaucracies for so many of their needs, from their housing and health care to their income and the education of their children. I would find myself dealing on their behalf with those bureaucracies, which were often simultaneously bullying and incompetent; and what officialdom had claimed for months or even years to be impossible suddenly, on my intervention, became possible within a week. Of course, it was not my mastery of language alone that produced this result; rather, my mastery of language signaled my capacity to make serious trouble for the bureaucrats if they did not do as I asked. I do not think it is a coincidence that the offices of all those bureaucracies were increasingly installing security barriers against the physical attacks on the staff by enraged but inarticulate dependents.

I believe writing matters because I believe every human life matters, and to the extent possible each should create a history of its significant experiences and insights. I believe writing matters because organized societyעwith its miracles of medical science, of improved production and distribution that make life less painful and more enjoyable, of social linkages that help us find and stay connected to those who are important to us—depends on dense communication, including written communications, at every level. I believe writing matters because I agree with Francis Bacon that “Reading makes a full man . . . writing an exact man,” and all the higher occupations require the sort of analytical exactness that can only be learned through writing.

Oh, and then there’s this:

The bottom-line problem and opportunity remain the same: The correlation between career success and writing proficiency is extremely strong. Government and private sector employers alike have told us that those who can write well will advance in the workplace and those who cannot write well will struggle to be promoted or even retained.

Bob Kerrey, National Writing Commission Chair

2. Ensure that all teachers hired can write well. Don’t assume any teacher has much writing skill just because he or she has a teaching license. Especially don’t assume all English teachers can write or teach writing.

Require a writing sample created at the interview site at the time of the interview. Promote this school as the place where writing matters. Include the emphasis on writing in all vacancy announcements. Make this the place teachers who have a passion for teaching writing want to be.

3. Develop the writing skills of teachers already on staff.

This is challenging. “Drive-by” inservice workshops won’t do it. Further, much of the advice out there about the teaching of writing really has little to do with the foundations of powerful writing, which are still knowledge, grammar, rhetoric, and logic. The first rule of powerful speaking, Cicero taught, was to know your subject. He observed that unless a speaker “grasps and understands what he is talking about, his speech will be worthless.” So it is with writing.

But if you took seriously the ”6 traits”—the most popular framework for writing instruction in the public schools today—you might think that good writing was mostly a matter of “voice.” And if you look at some of the fliers that come out of the National Writing Project, you might think good writing was mostly a political affair, having to do with empowerment, authenticity, and, again, voice.

Well, maybe it is, but I sure wish more of today’s education authorities believed that “research"—including not just Googling but also interviewing, observing, and experiencing—was thought important enough to be a trait. Also, some mention of truth and accuracy would be bracing.

In any case, good writing is intimately connected to learning and to a writer’s purposes. It is important in ways quite far removed from writing 40-minute essays in response to prompt unrelated to any real world purposes (even though there is quite a lot of overlap at the level of fluency and basic skills).

For teachers who are expected to include writing among their teaching strategies, one thing that would make sense would be to have them write frequently about their practice: brief reviews of websites and other materials, introductory comments to units they want to use, reflections on student work, and so on. When I was a high school principal, we included reflective writing in-service training, and then we published teachers’ thoughts about using writing in their teaching. I was surprised at the generally high quality of the work we received.

Today, I would think long and hard about ways to use blogging to engage teachers in writing and collaborating about their practice. For one thing, I would design the school website so that each department was posting regularly for the public, for other staff, and for students about topics of interest in that discipline. Janet Clarey discusses a similar idea (though in a corporate rather than a school setting) a little more here. Teachers would need to be given some time to write, but if they are not given regular time to write and, more important, a reason to write, they are not likely to get much better at it or give it a tremendous amount of thought.

4. Ensure that student writing is visible.

Both accountability and standards are best addressed by making the work real and public. Athletic programs provide a model--both accountability and standards grow out of regular games and tournaments. A writing program should also feature regular performances. The best of these, I think, involve writing for real world purposes with a natural audience, such as local history.

Blogging is a new genre of writing that should also have a place in the writing curriculum. What I have in mind is not at all the diary-writing that young people put on their My Space pages, but the focused and regular writing on specialized topics that have emerged everywhere. While journalism continues to decline as a profession, all sorts of businesses are adding bloggers to their payroll, recognizing the advantage of putting a personal voice before the public, along with a constant flow of information and links related to the business, whether that is gardening or automobile racing or software development. For students, the practice of regularly reading online information on a topic that interests them, and then commenting on it and providing links, is an excellent way for them to advance their interests while doing large amounts of regular reading and writing.

Note: I would be leery of burying the writing in literature courses. Though many teachers apparently do a great job of integrating writing into the study of literature, it’s far easier not to do so. Teaching literature is fun and relatively easy. Most writing teachers would rather be teaching literature. Very few writing teachers went to school to teach writing. Most went to school to read great books, to spend time in the storyworlds of fiction; they didn’t go to school to learn to teach writing to the unwilling and uninterested. Teaching writing is labor-intensive and time-consuming—an easy thing for a literature lover to put off or slight when they also have curricular obligations to read all those novels.

It’s quite easy for a class mixing the study of literature with the teaching of writing to focus more on literary analysis than on writing. That is, after all, the focus of most classes taken for an English major. Many English majors are not taught how to write so much as how to appreciate literature. Appreciating literature is, of course, a fine and wonderful thing, though not something as culturally central as it once was. It’s not just that reading has been declining for some time among all age groups, it’s also that the age of great poetry has passed, in the English speaking world, and the age of great fiction is rapidly fading in the rear view. Few people today walk around with lines from the great tradition of English poetry resonating through their lives. This is unspeakably sad, and in some moods I feel it is likely that it will yet be catastrophic.

Nonetheless, the important cultural conversations in the present age are occurring elsewhere—for imaginative works, in television series and films, and for fundamental questions in the biological sciences, in cognitive science, and even in history, but not, unfortunately, in fiction and poetry. Worldwide, nonfiction outsells fiction by $55 billion to $25 billion. When a work of fiction does enter into the national consciousness, it is most often because it has either been transformed into a successful movie or it has been discussed by Oprah.

At the post-secondary level, writing across the curriculum programs have liberated composition classes from the English department. It was, after all, mostly a historical accident that led to the strong association of English with composition. Professors in all disciplines are expected to write, and anyone who imagines literature professors know more about writing than people in other disciplines probably hasn’t read much recent scholarship in the field.

5. Ensure that writing teachers have the time.

This is the main thing. Students don’t write more in large part because teachers don’t have time to deal with floods of student writing. I suspect that the real reason writing ability declined during twenty years of emphasis on the writing process was simply because all the workshops and exhortation was unaccompanied by any real increase in time to do the work. If a teacher assigns only fifty students an essay, that will translate into more than fifteen hours of reading and commenting. If those essays are taken through three drafts, you can triple that time. This is time that, for a typical teacher, will be spent after school and on weekends. A good writing conference with a single student can easily take a half hour, though such conferences are much, much more effective than scrawling comments in the margin.

But even those large investments in time aren’t enough. Except for teachers of honors classes, much of the writing will contain numerous basic problems, such as unclear pronoun references, which can’t be explained simply to students who are not eagerly seeking the skill. At the end of reading a batch of essays laden with problems of basic usage, problems of style, problems of coherence and organization, and problems of general mindlessness, the teacher needs to decide what to do about it all.

Writing comments on papers hasn’t been shown to be particularly effective. Even if it were feasible, reteaching everything that needs to be retaught tends to be similarly ineffective. Students who have failed to figure out active voice many times before are quite capable of ignoring yet another lesson. There isn’t time in class to reteach everything, though if you add up the errors made in many typical classes, they will include pretty much everything. There have been dozens of suggestions for how to handle what is basically an impossible situation: have the students edit each other’s work, have students get their papers read by two or three other people before turning them in to the teacher, teach “mini-lessons” on all those problems that show up in the work. All of these work to a limited degree with a limited number of students, but a good many students continue to write poorly all the way through high school graduation, and then on through college, and not infrequently on through graduate school.

What works best is coaching: reading carefully through a students’ paper while giving explanations and making helpful changes. To the extent that I have been able to do this, it has worked. I believe a good faith effort to teach every student to write competently would require a writing teacher’s load to be no more than three classes a day, with no more than fifteen students in each class. The other three hours a day would be spent reading student writing and holding conferences. Students enrolled in a writing class should be simultaneously enrolled in a computer-equipped study hall, both so they have time each day to write and so they are available for conferences.

Teaching writing to 45 students a day, who were actually writing for an hour each day, would be more than a full-time job. If this were done at least one semester each year for three years during high school, I would expect to see significant gains in the writing ability of a majority of students in such a program.

If this isn’t possible, for financial reasons, then I would advocate that such a program be available to those students who freely choose it. It is as impossible to teach a student to write well who hasn’t the least desire to learn it as it is to teach good basketball skills to a player who refuses to run at more than three-quarter speed or to pay attention to what is happening on the court. Though sometimes a talented teacher can motivate a student, this is a difficult and inexact art, and I’m not of the mind that opportunities should be withheld from some students because no one has found a way to persuade all students to strive for them.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 12/09 at 05:37 PM
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© 2007 Michael L. Umphrey
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