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Writing Instruction Gone Wrong?

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Mr. McNamar grapples with the question of how to teach English effectively in his blog, The Daily Grind. He bravely declares his shortcomings, detailing his perceived inability to help a student with still-developing writing skills.

Writing instruction continues to be a weakness in my skill set. I have great confidence that I can take a student who writes well, and guide them towards truly effective writing — or what I call refinement. Taking a student whose skills are still in the development stage and moving them towards a higher level of communication, that's where I struggle. I can point out a student's weakness, but I don't know where to begin the instruction... I thought, I can't mark up every error and provide an alternative, can I? That's where I struggle. What type of feedback on an essay is appropriate and more importantly, helpful.

What do you think? Is there a “correct” way to teach writing? What advice would you give to Mr. McNamar?

7 Comments

In my opinion, starting with the 'big picture' is the way to go. By focusing first on the ideas in a student's writing - and not initially getting bogged down in every grammatical error - will allow you to work towards competency in communicating those ideas. From there, fine tuning grammar and taking writing to the 'next' level is easier. Check out a great resource for parents who want to elevate their children's writing at http://tinyurl.com/d9gmed. Good Luck!
Heather Widener

I agree with the previous poster that starting with writing rather than writing mechanics is the best approach. However, the teacher probably already does that. Most people who work successfully with competent writers use that approach.

Beginning writers (those who are not competent) need structure and routine. What bores teachers and competent writers to tears will be just what beginners want.

If you can think of writing as analogous to making music or driving a car, it's much easier to figure out what to do to help beginning students (of any age) learn to write.

Strategies that work best for me in teaching college students are those recommended for special education at the elementary and middle school level. See http://www.you-can-teach-writing.com/teaching_kids_to-write.html



I agree that breaking the writing into segments, much like we special educators do for most any kind of instruction, is a good start. Marking an entire writing project might dishearten the writer. May I also suggest working in small groups, kids giving feedback to kids; their collaboration with the guidance of the teacher, can be very powerful.

Also, I am now blogging again myself after over a year of lag....come see me at www.mentormatters.blogspot.com

I've been retired for several years now, but I still meet parents of former middle school students here in town who claim I taught their children to write -- and indeed some became assistants in writing workshops at college -- but I never set out to teach writing. I used an interdisciplinary curriculum with themes when possible, especially when teamed with a math-science colleague and I taught social studies and language arts. The writing assignments all had a purpose connected with the curriculum, except for a few years when sixth graders wrote a personal essay each week producing a 30-entry autobiography by year's end.

Usually I thought of student essays as "talking on paper," and I wrote marginal notes the parents appreciated. They were my reactions or questions in the main. If the handwriting (cursive, you bet!), spelling, or proofreading made understanding the essay difficult, I explained why the nitty-gritty was influencing the assigned grade. "Great word choice!" "Strong sentence!" "Could you start the essay with this sentence to get the reader's attention?" "Any proof for this idea?"I saw my comments as a one-sided conversation with the student. It seemed to pay off.

Enjoy your grading of essays; it's the first step in keeping an open mind toward what you're reading and evaluating. MTL

I was a teacher many years ago, before I got into publishing. I found that the only way to teach writing is to get kids writing. Each student has a bound notebook and they were required to write a page a night...no restrictions.
They could write one word over and over aagain...that was their choice. And there were no grades for doing it, but it was a requirement of the class. And I didn't have to read what they wrote; it was their choice. Those who never wrote before began enjoying the freedom it brought to their expression. In fact, we just published a book called The Undercover Kids and one of its goals is to get kids writing.

For any teacher who wants to improve the quality of writing in their classroom, please check out the newly released "Writing Express' DVD series. Based on Dr. William Spivey's 30 years of teacher training, his invention of the Sentence Expansion Tree for primary and secondary instruction, this training series has raised test scores and improved writing in classrooms across America. You can see testimonials from teachers who have improved the quality of their students' writing almost immediately. Test scores improve dramatically, and students start to love writing rather than panic when it comes time to do it.
Divided into 5 strands of Instruction: The Simple Sentence, The 3-5 Sentence sequence, The Expository Support Chunk, Narrative Descriptive Writing, Persuasive and Expository Writing and based on the National Standards and the Five Traits of Writing, kids in Kindergarten through high school delight in the use of the Human Sentence and the Sentence Expansion Tree. This will get your students writing immediately and de- stress your writing curriculum design.

There is no question that teaching writing is hard. After all, writing well is hard! There are so many things to get right... spelling, grammar, punctuation, starting with a topic sentence (usually), varying sentence length, etc., not to mention "higher level" considerations and nuances.

But many teachers (and parents) make things harder than they need to be by attempting to teach (or at least grade) all of these things at once.

There is huge value in low-stakes topic- or skill-specific exercises. Working on teaching students to describe using sensory details? Have students describe a collection of settings, each with a single paragraph that describes using all of the senses. Working on teaching dialogue? Have students write an entire piece with no exposition. And so on. For each exercise, discuss and grade only the specific topic or skill in question.

Think of the sports analogy... basketball coaches don't just put kids in a game and then critique every aspect of their play. Instead, they do dribbling drills, and shooting drills, and footwork drills, and so on.

And, as Mr. McNamar alludes to in his initial post, returning a paper covered in red ink is not helpful, no matter how "correct" the corrections are, strictly speaking. Have someone whack your across the head each time you make a mistake and see how motivated you are to keep trying. Especially with something that can be as deeply personal as writing, it is important to provide supportive and critical feedback in a way that encourages a student to want to continue learning and improving.

Take the long term view and act more like a coach than an Educator. Encouraging a young writer to keep writing while meting out advise and corrections in small doses will eventually lead to success: a confident, skilled young writer. Beating the enthusiasm out of student by dumping hundreds of issues and corrections at a student all at once will surely lead to failure: a student forever turned off from the joys of writing.

-Mike Fine
Co-author, Young Writers' Toolkit (www.youngwriterstoolkit.com)

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