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Re-envisioning rigorous writing instruction in a common core era

7 min read

Voice of the Educator

This post is sponsored by Curriculum Associates

Writing instruction took a back seat to reading during the No Child Left Behind era. Common core has brought it back into the spotlight, with a brand new set of rigorous expectations. Educator and literacy expert, Jim Cunningham, discusses the challenges teachers face today and what they can do to successfully teach to the new standards.

How have the expectations for teaching writing changed with the introduction of the new, more rigorous Common Core State Standards?

From about 1980 to 2002, writing was taught in almost all elementary schools and assessed in many states. Since No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which focused on reading and math, writing instruction in the elementary grades has declined tremendously. NCLB was the most intense fidelity implementation of any federal education policy, but it did not have any writing requirements in it—there was Reading First but no Writing First in NCLB.

Now with the common core, writing is back. There is an equal number of writing and reading standards, and they are equally rigorous. Writing is assessed and also required for some items on the reading and research tests. These new expectations, however, leave many teachers at a disadvantage. The public education system has a lot of teachers who started teaching in 2002 or later, when writing was not a focus and because of this, we have a lot of teachers with less expertise in writing than reading or math and who are not writers themselves.

What are the key challenges teachers will face in meeting these expectations? What would be your no. 1 recommendation for teachers as they tackle the new standards?

Because of the lack of emphasis on writing in the past decade, students often do not see the value in it or believe they can do it successfully. Teachers, because they have usually not been taught how to teach writing, suffer from confidence problems. In light of this, educators are right to be concerned about the quantity and quality of writing required by the new standards.

So, how do educators overcome these challenges? My number one recommendation is to be systematically gradual. You would never throw a kid into a pool and just expect they can swim. You need to get them used to the water first. Start where the students are. First, get students to write more. Writing is something everyone learns by doing, not by hearing about it in a lecture. Educators then need to slowly increase the writing demands placed on students. Educators need to see the process as a year-long curve with a reasonable slope. Curriculum Associates’ Ready Writing, for which I am an author, provides a nice example of this. It provides bite-sized examples of writing broken up over multiple days. The key is to get students over their fear of writing and then get them to do a little writing every day. Once students are writing regularly, educators can work on teaching them to apply conventions and other characteristics to that writing.

The new guidelines challenge teachers and students to approach the writing process in a very different way than they did before, such as by finding evidence in texts or writing to sources. How do you see this approach improving instructional practice and learning outcomes?

Since the 1980s, research has indicated that one of the main challenges for students in writing is having sufficient “prior knowledge.” There is strong research that supports how important it is for students to have prior knowledge of a topic before writing about it. Without it, it is difficult for students to focus on the how of writing. Those who know more will appear to be able to write better, while it is really just knowledge differences masquerading as writing differences. Interestingly, research also shows that students who write in the content areas learn more than those students who don’t. By writing in the content areas, they learn the content better and can concentrate more on writing, because they have been taught knowledge about the topic they are writing about! This is why writing to sources is such a good idea—building knowledge first and providing sources to consult helps students overcome the prior knowledge problem in writing so they can use the writing process to improve how they write about that knowledge and to those sources.

How can school leaders help teachers adjust their instructional practice to ensure student success?

We have to remember that this is the first time we have had standards that started at the top—with college and career readiness, and have worked downwards through the grades. Historically, we have started at the bottom, looking at what kindergarteners should be able to do and then adding what was reasonable to learn in first grade based on what was learned in kindergarten, etc. In order to compete in a 21st century information economy, where more jobs require solid writing skills, this had to change. However, it means that the writing standards, like the reading and math standards, are more rigorous at each grade than ever before.

Leaders need to understand that the number one job is overcoming students’ reluctance to write. Students are often afraid of making mistakes and administrators and educators need to put themselves in students’ shoes. Writing is not something you know, it is something you do and school leaders need to understand and support this. There needs to be an emphasis on modeling, coaching, and feedback. They have to provide enough time for writing to take place, both in ELA and across the curriculum. Educators can’t teach students to write to rigorous standards if students don’t get enough varied opportunities to engage in it.

What recommendations do you have for helping teachers turn good readers into good writers?

Good readers do have an advantage in writing, because they have been exposed to good writing and a lot of meaningful vocabulary. Educators need to take advantage of readers’ skills, and they can make bridges between reading and writing. A good example of this is the use of mentor text, which provides teachers and students with a common language to use while students are learning to write, thus making writing instruction more effective and efficient. Programs like Ready Writing do this. Other bridging activities might include having students read a text with certain characteristics and then rewrite or extend the text by modifying those characteristics in some way. Using characters from one story and placing them into another story context is one example of this. With nonfiction, educators can use compare and contrast. For instance, if reading a book about two types of spiders, educators can have students build content knowledge on two types of beetles and then compare and contrast the beetles in the same way the book did with the spiders.

It’s an exciting time for writing in our education system. With these new standards, students will be better prepared to be the knowledge sharers of the future. Writing is back, and I believe it’s back to stay this time.

Want more? See part 2 of this Q&A with Jim Cunningham, The importance of deepening and widening the way we teach writing.

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 the Ready® Reading and Ready® Writing programs from Curriculum Associates.