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Response: Avoiding 'Missed Opportunities' in Writing Instruction

(This is the second post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new "question-of-the-week" is:

What is the biggest mistake teachers make in writing instruction, and what should they do instead?

In Part One, Lisa Eickholdt, Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski, Mary Ann Zehr, Nancy Frey and Valentina Gonzalez share their commentaries. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with David and Jill on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Eugenia Mora-Flores, Julia G. Thompson, Karen Sher, Bret Gosselin, Dr. Vicky Giouroukakis, and Emily Geltz contribute their suggestions.

Response From Eugenia Mora-Flores

Eugenia Mora-Flores is a Professor in the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California (USC). She teaches courses on first and second language acquisition, Latino culture, and in literacy development for elementary and secondary students. Her research interests include studies on effective practices in developing the language and literacy skills of English Leaners in grades Pre-K-12. She has written 9 books in the area of literacy and academic language development (ALD) for English learners. Eugenia further works as a consultant for a variety of elementary, middle and high schools across the country in the areas of English Language Development (ELD), ALD and writing instruction:

Writing instruction is one of my favorite areas to teach, mainly because I struggled as a writer. Specifically as an English learner I spent extra time working on improving my writing and have spent almost twenty years learning about how to best support writers in K-8 classrooms. Though there are many areas in writing instruction that teachers find helpful to focus on, one area I think we often misunderstand or overlook in writing instruction is the role of teacher as facilitator as opposed to editor.

The Role of Correcting, Teacher as facilitator: Teachers often ask me, "How do I correct their writing when there is so much to correct and how do I go about telling them what to fix?" I have a few guidelines that might help teachers in thinking about when and how to correct.

  1. Ask yourself, have I taught the students the error they are making? If you know that you have already taught a rule, a spelling pattern, a convention, sight words, transition words, etc. then you have to hold students accountable. Provide a list of all the things you have covered that they should go through and check for. Editing checklists of what was taught in YOUR classroom. Sometimes we provide standard editing checklists, but they are not as meaningful as those that come from what they know and was taught in your class. As teachers of writing we often do a lot of editing practice by correcting our students' papers and having them just fix the errors WE found. This practice does not lead to transfer. Students do not pay attention to what they are fixing and why. Guide them to find their own errors by providing a familiar checklist and hold them accountable.

  2. Correct a "chunk" of the writing with the student first. A chunk can be a paragraph, a page, an introduction, a short portion of the writing and make note of the errors they are making in a small section to apply throughout the rest of their writing. Students will make common errors throughout a piece of writing. If we focus on a small chunk they can begin to apply it throughout the rest of their writing.

  3. Notice and focus on one teachable moment at a time. These are the moments when we do one on one conferring with students. Show them one new strategy or skill as a writer and have then apply it throughout the text. This is an opportunity to teach them something new as a writer to work on as they improve their writing.

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Response From Julia G. Thompson

Julia G. Thompson received her BA in English from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg and was a classroom teacher for forty years. As a seminar leader for the Bureau of Education and Research, Julia currently works with educators to determine the best ways to help challenging students.  Author of Discipline Survival Guide for the Secondary Teacher and The First-Year Teacher's Survival Guide, Thompson also provides advice on a variety of subjects through her Web site, www.juliagthompson.com; on her blog, juliagthompson.blogspot.com; and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/TeacherAdvice. You can contact her at[email protected]:

I must admit that teaching students to write is my favorite part of teaching. And I will have to also admit that grading papers is, hands down, my least favorite part of teaching. I just hate grading papers. Although my primary desire as a teacher of writing is for my students to learn to express themselves with clarity and precision, another part of me (the dark side) wants them to write well just so it is more fun for me to grade their papers. With this guilty dichotomy in place, I have worked hard to make it easy for my students to be successful. Here are the things that have worked for my students.

While it is true that students need models to go by as they write, many teachers just give them only one. I found that when I did that, students would just parrot back to me the verbiage of that sample. Instead, I offer at least three complete models and several partial ones that explain the trouble spots such as transitions or graceful ways to introduce evidence for each assignment. Because they see that there are different ways to write something and still be "correct," I have found that this encourages my students to develop their own voice.

Although I give students a detailed rubric at the time that I make the assignment, I have found that they don't really pay as much attention to it as I would like. I think that too many of us use generic rubrics that really don't guide students effectively. What I started adding as I made an assignment is a stylesheet similar to the ones that editors give professional writers. With the stylesheet, I can have built-in mini lessons as I remind them of some of the common mistakes that they have made in the past as well as some of the usage and grammar that may be specific to the current assignment. For example, a style sheet could include information about how to make certain problematic words possessive or how to eliminate contractions in formal writing or how to spell a particularly tough word from the text. I found that while students ignore the rubric, they are diligent about using their style sheets.

I have always found it awkward to hold writing conferences after an assignment is graded and returned, but I have observed many different teachers doing just that. It's too much like a sad autopsy with an embarrassed or angry student. Instead, I like to schedule writing conferences with students between rough drafts. At that time, they can share with me what is bothering them about their papers and together we can work through solutions. To make this even more effective, I like to put a projected grade on a draft--a sort of "If you keep on going this way with this paper, you can expect a grade of ___." Because many students focus on grades, this tends to allow our mid-assignment conferences to be intense conversations about their writing as they work to improve their projected grade.

When I was a new teacher, I wrote in my horrible handwriting all over their papers. After a while, I learned to focus my comments and to make them meaningful. I realized that it was not my place to edit a student's paper, but to evaluate it and make suggestions for the future. With this shift in thought, I focus my comments on teaching and not just on marking mistakes. I also got into the practice of using a highlighter to mark the passages that were particularly strong. Instead of just pointing out the awful bits, I could also show them what they did right. What a much more pleasant and useful way to spend grading time than just slicing up a student's writing errors.

Timely feedback is key--and not always easy to do. I like to have students work through a peer's almost-final draft with a very specific checklist similar to the stylesheet and the rubric that I give with each assignment. This allows for one level of non-judgmental feedback just when they need it. It also cleans up some of the smaller errors that I won't have to mark later.

My evaluation of the final draft is almost always returned to students within three days even if the assignment was a long one. Is this tough? Yes. Is this tedious? Yes. Is it worth the effort? Absolutely. My students know that I take them and their effort to write well seriously when I make the effort to return their work quickly.

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Response From Karen Sher

Karen Sher is an Instructional Coach at Lemonwood K-8 School in the Oxnard School District in Oxnard, California and is a member of the Instructional Leadership Corps, a collaboration among the California Teachers Association, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, and the National Board Resource Center at Stanford.  She is also a member of CTA's Institute for Teaching and a Governing Board Member for the Oxnard Union High School District in Oxnard, California:

The Instructional Leadership Corps and California Teachers Association's Institute for Teaching are all about strength-based teacher leadership, so let us shift the paradigm and ask, "What is a teacher's greatest missed opportunity when developing their students as writers, regardless of curriculum, or content, or grade-level?"  The greatest missed opportunity is the one to build a community of writers, simply by writing alongside students. 

To develop a community of writers, a teacher need only live by two rules:

Show.  Don't tell. 

A writing teacher is not one who assigns writing and then watches it happen from afar.  A writing teacher is in the mix, writing alongside students.  Simply telling students to produce a piece of writing is not enough.  We must show them how to write, by writing.  Is the thesis strong enough?  Which transitions will work best?  What is my counterargument?  Does a comma go there?  The strength and courage that students develop when they see what a strong and courageous writer does - what a writer actually does to develop his or her writing - this is the single, most powerful tool a teacher has - to show, not tell.  A teacher's writing need not be perfect...there is no such thing, but to build a community of writers, a teacher's writing must be authentic. 

I do.  We do.  You do.

The expectation is that students in every content area will write routinely over time for a variety of tasks, purposes and audiences.  Therefore, just as every teacher is a reading teacher, every teacher is a writing teacher.  Students must be presented with, and look closely at, strong models of content-specific, academic writing from a variety of primary and secondary sources.

Teachers may have clear expectations for what a finished piece of writing should be, but if they have not experienced the process of developing an answer to the question they have asked, there cannot be a clear understanding of how to help guide students to meet those expectations.  If a teacher is going to assign a piece of writing, it should be a given that they are going to write a response themselves.  This is strong modeling.  This is the "I do."

Next is the "We do." 

Each class is a community onto itself.  Like fingerprints, there are no two alike. What does remain consistent in each of these communities is the teacher's responsibility to provide strong models of content-specific, academic writing from primary and secondary sources, including our own writing.  Together, we closely examine these pieces, and communicate about what interesting things we discover and what ideas we might like to pursue further.   Together, we construct responses - possibilities of what may be - and then, we write.  We use our creativity.  We collaborate with others.  We work. We think critically.  We edit.  We revise.  And we write some more. We are a community of writers, and this is where the magic happens! 

Finally, it is time to set them free to see what they can do on their own.  It is time for the "You do."  A writing teacher's job is to push his or her students to the next level of academic writing...whatever that next level may be.  The "You do" is the summative assessment.  It is time for the students to produce, publish and shine.  Every student can show growth in his or her writing.  It is not by accident that growth occurs.  It is by intention.

Not writing alongside students, this is a writing teacher's single, greatest missed opportunity. 

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Response From Bret Gosselin

Bret Gosselin teaches writing to his high school ELLs in North Texas. In his eleven years in education, he has been a teacher, an instructional specialist and sheltered instruction trainer. He believes all students can write well and makes sure his have the opportunity to do so every day:

The short answer to that question is low expectations from the teacher. The long answer involves educator priorities, lack of foresight and inexperience with innovative writing approaches. On the whole, we tend to make assumptions and focus on what our students can't do instead of giving them opportunities to prove what they already know. From this perspective, teachers often approach their assigned writing tasks with a procedural mindset; reducing what is meant to be an organic, creative process into a step-by-step formula to meet the "needs" we believe our students to have.

As a result, we have implemented graphic organizers, sentence stems and rigid writing structures that hem our students in and prevent them from exploring original ways to express their ideas. While I understand that much of this comes from the reality of the high-stakes testing world we live in, we also must consider the significance of the real world that also needs to be prepared for. When we limit our students' writing in order to fit a specific genre for a fabricated purpose with an inauthentic audience, we hinder their ability to become true writers with the necessary skills to function as educated adults.

I have seen teachers give their students "fill-in the blank" essays where the sentence structure was so scripted that all students had to do was add a few words in like a Mad Libs page. I have seen teachers create meticulously detailed formulas and acronyms prescribing the location of every sentence from start to finish; leaving the student thinking to memorizing the pattern rather than meeting the author's purpose. These practices, however well intentioned, promote the assumption that students already understand why they are writing and that their weakness lies in the details of crafting sentences.

Not only is the opposite true, but shifting the focus to the author's purpose actually produces the quality details that teachers fear their students can't accomplish. When students set out to write a persuasive piece, for example, and understand what it means to really convince an audience, their diction, syntax, and grammar will align itself accordingly. If they know they need to be persuasive then they will make better decisions that lead to true persuasive writing. When a student understands fully why they are writing, the how becomes less of a challenge.

As to the pragmatics of accomplishing this with students, I have found Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O'Dell's "Writing With Mentors" to be the most helpful. The premise of the book is that purpose guides form, and that the use of professional and modern "mentors" serves as a guide to producing writing that can effectively meet that purpose. Before a student can successfully craft meaningful text, they need to see what real writers are doing well so the process is concrete. From there, they can make informed decisions about how to organize and construct their initial drafts.

As a teacher of ELLs, this is especially helpful as providing mentors gives my students more access to vocabulary and language structures that cannot be directly taught one lesson at a time. With the help of mentors, my students are able to use language authentically and communicate real messages in complex and nuanced ways that a formula would never be able to. As a result, I read unique pieces from my students that are truly interesting rather than the same essay repeated a hundred and fifty times. I like teaching writing this way and more importantly my students like learning to write this way.

Good writers are good writers. If you know what you're doing and why you're doing it, you'll be able to apply your skills in any context. When time is spent letting students learn, internalize and own the purpose for writing, the form and structure will follow with less help than what many teachers feel comfortable with. We need to start trusting our students' ability to think and do for themselves so they have the chance to see what they are truly capable of. It may require a significant shift in thinking, but that is the nature of being an educator, isn't it? I think we can all agree our students deserve at least that much from us.  

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Response From Dr. Vicky Giouroukakis

Dr. Vicky Giouroukakis currently teaches English and ESOL methods at Molloy College and started her teaching career as an English and ESL teacher at a high school in Queens. She has presented and published extensively on the topics of literacy, curriculum and assessment, and diversity, and her latest co-authored publication is titled, Achieving Next Generation Literacy: Using the Tests (You Think) You Hate to Teach the Students You Love (2016; Corwin):

I have been coaching at an elementary school for the past two years and at one of our sessions, the upper grade-level ELA teachers were complaining that their students simply did not seem to care about their writing. Even though they produced multiple drafts, the final writing product still was weak in content and form and lacked thoughtfulness and careful attention to detail. When I asked who the audience typically is for these young students, the response was, "the teacher, of course."

The biggest mistake teachers make in writing instruction is having students write with the sole audience of the teacher in mind because it typically leads to inauthentic writing in which students are not invested. Instead, teachers need to get students to care about their writing by asking them to address different audiences and purposes on topics that matter to them. In fact, one of the seven capacities of the literate individual as outlined in the Common Core State Standards document is the ability to respond to varying demands of audience, task, purpose and discipline. So what should teachers do to help students develop this ability?

  1. Begin with questions. Have students ask questions about a text that they are reading or a topic in which they are interested. You can even assign the questions, but it is better if most of them come from the students. Then, have students respond to these questions by providing their own knowledge, opinions, prior knowledge. You can continue this pattern of questioning and responding to stimulate more curiosity and develop more writing.

  2. Have students respond to various audiences, tasks, and purposes. It is best when writing develops organically, when students have something to say. If students are frustrated that they are not able to use cell phones in school, then have them write a letter to the principal trying to persuade him or her to allow cell phone use. Request that the principal respond to these letters and discuss with students the impact that their letters had based on the principal's response. Letter writing (e.g., to parents, friends, administrators, politicians) facilitates audience awareness far more than any other type of writing. Similarly, a blog is another opportunity for students to voice their opinions and reflect on their own thinking. Engage students in different kinds of writing--to inform/explain, argue, tell a story. Share and discuss mentor texts with varying styles of writing, written for different audiences and purposes.

  3. Use technology as a way to motivate authentic writing. Youngsters today use social media, so they know how to use them and for what purpose. Create classroom Twitter or Facebook accounts and have students tweet or post the summary of a text or an opinion to an article that they read in class. You can also create a Google Classroom and incorporate presentation apps, such as Peardeck and PowToon Presentations that students use to demonstrate their knowledge and express their views on a topic. Websites, like Grammaropolis and NoredInk, improve students' grammar and writing skills.

  4. Encourage students to work together to compose or revise. They can work in pairs to read each other's work and anticipate comprehension problems. You can also have them collaborate on traditional writing or word processing or digital storytelling (Storyboard That, Storybird) and co-creating multimedia documents (Collabrify Writer).

  5. Focus on the process of writing, of course, but also on the product. Students need to understand that going through the process of writing is important in that it helps them understand, appreciate, and enjoy writing, but the product reflects the process and how much work and effort they put into it, and should, therefore, be something of which they are proud. Working on the final draft, editing and proofreading are essential steps in clearly and accurately communicating a desired message. In order to show the importance of strong writing that demonstrates command of standard English conventions, you can have students do a scavenger hunt and identify errors or misuse of language in texts that you provide and discuss why good writing is important. The other disciplines should also teach discipline-specific writing and enforce strong writing so that students understand both that they need to be able to respond to varying demands of discipline and that good writing is not reserved for the English class but is also important across the content areas.

  6. Publish students' work. What better way to celebrate students' work than to publish it on the school bulletin board or website or teacher page or even an online journal? Invite parents and other members of the community to read students' work or listen to it presented.

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Response From Emily Geltz

Emily Geltz is a sixth grade ELA teacher at Oyster River Middle School in Durham, NH in her fifth year of teaching:

The biggest mistake teachers make in writing instruction is not being writers themselves. The most important thing I have learned as an ELA teacher is that writing beside my students and taking them through my process is invaluable for teaching writing. If I am going to expect my students to write anything-- from a Personal Narrative, to a Persuasive piece, to poetry, I need to show them examples. While showing exemplar models is great, I also need to show them the way a piece of writing looks in draft form-- and that is where I come in.

Growing up, I cannot remember one time where my ELA teachers wrote in front of me. Writing was an assignment-- to be done at home and turned in. Because of this, I wrote one draft and I was done. I never learned the intricacies of drafting and revising-- the time spent searching for the right word or title, the struggle of trying to make a paragraph or a point work, the heartbreak of coming to terms with deleting it if it just doesn't fit. That's my job as a writing teacher-- to peel back the layers of the final draft to show all the work that goes into a piece of writing. The only way I can do this is to be a writer myself.

Even if you think you can't do it-- push yourself to write in front of your students, to share your writing, to be a writer yourself. It's the best thing I've done for my students as writers.

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Thanks to Eugenia, Julia, Karen, Bret, Vicky and Emily for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder--you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And, if you missed any of the highlights from the first six years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don't include ones from this current year, but you can find them by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

This Year's Most Popular Q&A Posts

Classroom Management Advice

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I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for Part Three in a few days..

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