The importance of deepening and widening the way we teach writing - SmartBrief

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The importance of deepening and widening the way we teach writing

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This post is sponsored by Curriculum Associates

Writing instruction is transitioning. Common Core has set new standards for the writing skills students need to master in order to be college and career ready. These standards have altered the course—and priorities—of traditional writing instruction. Educator Jim Cunningham talks about this shift and how teachers can successfully navigate this new landscape.

Why is writing important now?

During No Child Left Behind, writing instruction was all but forgotten, but with the new focus on college and career readiness in the Common Core and similar standards, writing has again become a main character in literacy education. It takes 13 years of schooling to achieve college and career readiness in any subject; so learning to write really needs to start in kindergarten. The people who put together the new writing standards clearly recognized this.

What key shifts have you seen in writing instruction? What are the new emphases in the standards?

With the Common Core, we are asking students to write about what they are learning—literature, science, and current events, for example—and to master academic forms of writing such as informational texts. They now have to formulate arguments and support those with reasoning and evidence based on what they are reading. It is this type of writing that is new for teachers and students in the elementary and middle grades. It brings up issues related to “the prior knowledge problem,” where students need to have adequate knowledge of a topic before they can be expected to write well about it.

The second shift is the emphasis on conventions. Before NCLB deemphasized it, writing was generally taught from a whole language perspective that largely ignored conventions. In the Common Core, conventions are important and even young students are expected to demonstrate command of conventions in their writing such as subject verb agreement and starting a sentence with a capital letter and ending it with the appropriate punctuation.

The third shift—and perhaps the most important one—is that students are expected to be writing to learn as well as learning to write. Writing is no longer contained within a writing block; instead it occurs both there and across the curriculum, where it is informational in nature. With the pre-Common Core focus on personal writing, we often didn’t evaluate students’ writing or demand it be excellent because we wanted students to like to write. We still want students to like it, but we now have a rigorous set of standards against which we can evaluate students’ writing skills and hold them accountable. This will ensure all writers improve.

What are some of the hurdles teachers face in teaching writing and how can they overcome them?

One of the issues I see with teaching the writing process is that teachers don’t have students first get used to writing. Planning, editing, and revision are all part of the writing process, but teachers should not be working on editing and revision until students are comfortable with producing pieces of writing. Once students are producing an adequent amount of writing, educators can start to introduce the writing process. Not every piece of writing should go through revision and editing; this is what it means to be process-oriented instead of product-oriented. Educators should have students revise or edit selected pieces and use this process as a vehicle for teaching students how to write better.

By using engaging mentor texts, or high-quality, engaging examples of what they are teaching students to do themselves, teachers can help students acquire the language to talk about the writing and help them aspire to become writers.

It seems that integrating reading and writing instruction would help improve student writing as well as content knowledge. How can teachers successfully implement this strategy in their classroom?

One strategy is to implement quick writes. For instance, if educators are experimenting with writing in the science classroom, give students a writing assignment with a maximum time to write not to exceed five minutes. This type of writing is never revised, edited, stored, or graded. Instead, students can receive a cooperation grade for completing the assignment. The purpose of quick writes is to get students thinking about what they are learning, which in turn helps students engage more with the content. Educators can also use this type of writing to help students access prior knowledge before they teach a lesson and to get used to writing across the school day so it is no big deal. Once quick writes are in place, students can do quick writes after reading that help them think about and remember what they read.

How can administrators best support teachers’ efforts?

Administrators need to help teachers stop worrying about what their students can’t do. I often find elementary teachers are afraid to let their students write something that isn’t perfect. This puts a burden on students and teachers that neither can overcome, which in turn leads to either postponing writing, or working on a piece so long that it takes all of the joy out of writing.

Remember, Rome was not built in a day! One of the many good things about the new standards is that they are set up to be very gradual. We start students writing as early as kindergarten, and there are new things to be learned right up through grade 12. Educators have to realize that this is a gradual process and that there are specific things they are teaching students at every grade. When they start to think about the new standards as a progression, it makes teaching writing easier. Administrators can support teachers by helping them to understand this progression through the appropriate professional development.

What are some things teachers and administrators look for in a writing program in order to best teach the new standards?

A quality writing program, like Ready® Writing, will include a lot of different things. Does the program support writing becoming routine by grade three, and then continue this for grades three and up? The program should also make sure:

  • Students are doing a lot of writing
  • It teaches all of the conventions and rigor of the new writing standards
  • There is an opportunity for students to write at the keyboard and publish pieces of writing
  • It teaches students how to write to sources and do research
  • It offers both teacher-delivered and blended learning opportunities
  • It addresses all 10 writing and writing-related language standards at the application level
  • It assesses whether or not students can apply the standards

Lastly, don’t be duped by false claims from some publishers or free online lessons that they are teaching the writing standards. If materials are narrow and low-level, they won’t adequately address the scope and rigor of the new Common Core writing standards.

Read more from Dr. Jim Cunningham on the importance of reimagining the way we teach writing in K–5.

Jim Cunningham of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill was a member of the Text Complexity Committee for the CCSS in English Language Arts, and is an author of Curriculum Associates’ Ready® Reading and Ready® Writing programs.