What I’ve learned about teaching writing Part 1

Teaching writing is a fundamental part of teaching English.  Not surprisingly, writing does not come naturally to most people and is something some students dislike.  Literacy experts tell us that it is a key component in overall literacy; as well,  the ability to express oneself clearly and logically is necessary for university and for many jobs.  The literacy movement has stressed the need for more writing across the curriculum as a means to improve critical thinking, to provide insight for the teacher and to increase student’s command of their writing.  Sadly, writing is still the domain of English teachers in a lot of schools.  Science teachers, for example, may ask for reports or an essay but they may not have their students write in any other fashion in their classes.

I have witnessed an amazing progression in the teaching of writing since I was a student in high school.  Writing was something we were told to do in school e.g. write a composition about your holidays but it was not something we were shown how to do.  In fact, when I went to university, all I knew about essay writing was that it had an introduction, a body and a conclusion.  I am not sure how I got through a degree in English literature with how little I actually knew about writing.  My understanding and knowledge came later after I had taught it, probably badly, for many years.  In the late 70’s, the idea of teaching the writing process and maintaining a writing folder of work became common practice in the classroom.  Although, this is normal for most English teachers today, it was a revolutionary idea that made a lot of sense.

So what have I learned?

1.  Excellent writers are born not made.  It’s a gift like athleticism; however, competency can be taught.  In order to become a competent writer, a student must have a lot of practice, they must be metacognitive about their own writing and they must have the components of writing broken down for them.  Many years ago, I taught grade 11 English at night school.  A lot of the men in the class were in the armed forces and had left high school when they were 16 after completing grade 10 or in some cases, grade 9.  Most of them were in their 30’s.  Every one of them was a competent essay writer; they may not have had brilliant things to say about a novel but they could express themselves very precisely in a 5-paragraph essay.  This showed me two things:  writing keeps improving with age and maturity and it helps to have some motivation for doing it.  Those men had to do report writing for their jobs and had learned how to do it because it was a job requirement.  We can give students a certain amount of external motivation by demanding a standard but until it becomes something they personally want to improve, they won’t do so.

2.  My present grade 12 students are better essay writers than were the students I taught 20 years ago.  This is surprising because the students from the earlier time period were all from English speaking homes and were definitely middle-class.  The reasons for this are multi-fold.  The literacy movement and the school board’s investment in professional development and instructional coaches at the elementary level has resulted in more consistency in their language arts programs.  Students entering high school are better prepared than they once were. Secondly, students today start writing essays in grade 9 and by grade 12 will have written quite a few.  And finally, I think we teach essay writing more effectively.

3.  There is no quick-fix solution or a one method approach that will make students better writers. Recently, the NCTE highlighted an article in  The Atlantic Magazine called “The Writing Revolution” which chronicles the success of New Dorp High School which raised its test scores dramatically by instituting a school-wide writing program.  Many of the practices that they followed are well-known strategies and certainly effective.  I don’t take issue with them at all but I do question the criticism that was thrown at the practice of encouraging students to write from personal experience and to write about emotions. Personal writing serves more purposes than just teaching kids how to write.  Creative expression and engagment are worthwhile goals.  You can teach students to write analytical pieces without having to sacrifice more personal writing.  Students should be taught both types.  One thing that New Dorp school did which must have made a difference was to have the students write in every subject area which is something I have already discussed.  The volume of writing that that would create even without the other reforms that they instituted would be highly beneficial.

4.  English classes in secondary school have always taught how to write a literary essay.  It is a major evaluation piece and is standard on exams.  Although I see such essays as having some value, I also have come to realize that these particular writing skills don’t necessarily transfer over to other subject areas.  Some students will absorb the basics that they have learned and use them in history or other subjects but this isn’t true for all students.  Another weakness that I see in the literary essay is that the students who do best on this type of essay are generally parroting back what they have learned in class or what they have read elsewhere.  Although we like to tout the essay as an example of the student’s ability to think, there is really very little original thinking going on in most essays.  Instead, the essay is primarily an example of writing and organizational skills.  I do think we should still keep teaching these essays but I also believe that more emphasis should be placed on writing other types of essays that will encourage more original thought and have more transferable skills.

5.   I have been influenced by many writing texts over the years but none have changed my practice more than these three:  Teaching Adolescent Writers by Kelly Gallagher, Reading Response Logs: Inviting Students to …. by Mary Kooy and Jan Wells and  And None of it was Nonsense by Betty Rosen.  The three books are completely different and I have taken many ideas from them which I still use.  In part 2, of this blog I will discuss the best strategies that I have used over the years.

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