Gillespie on teaching writing

Education News has published an interview with Oregon teacher Tim Gillepsie about teaching writing in high school. How to teach kids to write is not a mystery, he says:

First, to learn to write well, a student has to practice writing frequently. (Feel free to slot this finding into the “Oh…duh!” category.) However, it must be clear that this means actually setting pencil to paper or fingers to keyboard and composing, not just doing grammar exercises or spelling tests.  As the College Board report noted, decades of research have shown that isolated skill drills fail to improve student writing.  Second, students need to get good response on their rough drafts and have opportunities for revision. This all sounds simple, but as you note in your question, it’s one of the most labor-intensive instructional situations in the whole educational endeavor.

Then he makes the main point that needs to be repeated often. Writing can’t be taught well in high schools until districts make it priority by adequating staffing English departments:

Working at a good clip, I can usually average three papers an hour---about 20 minutes to read, analyze, and respond to each paper. That means it takes 2700 minutes---that’s 45 hours, an extra work week---to get through a pile of 135 papers.  Whenever English teachers assign a composition, then, we have to make some tough decisions. Will we spend nine hours every Saturday for five weeks to keep up (and is waiting five weeks to get a paper back going to help a student get better as a writer), or will we try to average three hours every weeknight for three weeks, or what? Of course, any plan clashes with our other joys and obligations as spouses, parents, homeowners, neighbors, involved citizens, and people who want to have balanced lives. And all this for just one paper from each student! To really get adequate practice, students ought to be writing at least two or three compositions per eight-week quarter. One a week would be even better, but that would be impossible for any English teacher to keep up with and still sleep occasionally. Thus, the main obstacle to adequate student practice and subsequent growth in writing appears to be….well, simple human limitations, plus the sad fact that there aren’t 30 hours in a day.

Furthermore, the emphasis on tests may be distracting schools from focusing on difficult academic skills, such as writing:

I’m just not convinced that rising test scores on these massive high-stakes tests will actually signal real, consequential academic improvement. To ensure that our lowest-performing students reach a minimal standard of literacy, which is an absolutely crucial bottom-line goal, we might be inadvertently lowering standards across the board.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 10/24 at 01:14 PM






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