Sunday, February 28, 2010

Writing Essays - What are the standards?

Without much thought, I mentioned in a recent forum post that the standard measure of writing skill in K12 is the five paragraph essay.

I shared the article with a real authority who took me to task on it. The problem is that I'm marketing-oriented and not that in-touch with the curriculum, curriculum designers, or teachers.  Woops.

In any case, I thought I'd bring myself up to speed real quick.  I'll start with the existing standards and then look at the new CCSSO writing standards.  I'll look both at the types of writing and the rubrics. I'll start with a big state, The Golden State.

The California standards say:  The CSTs in writing address the state Writing Application content standards for grades four and seven. In grade four these standards require students to produce four types of writing: narratives, summaries, information reports, and responses to literature. In grade seven these standards require students to produce five types of writing: narratives, persuasive essays, summaries, responses to literature, and research reports.
The tests do not include research papers because of the time constraint.

The CA document includes some interesting examples:
Writing Task -  the Persuasive Letter

Directions: In this writing test, you will write a persuasive letter in response to the writing task on the following pages.
  • You will have time to plan your letter and write a first draft with edits.
  • Only what you write on the lined pages in this booklet will be scored.
  • Use only a No. 2 pencil to write your response.
Your writing will be scored on how well you
  • state your position on the topic
  • describe the points in support of your position, including examples and other evidence
  • address possible arguments against your position
  • use correct grammar, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. You may include a salutation and closing, but the format of the letter will not count as part of your score.
Read the following writing task. You must write a persuasive letter about this topic.

Your school district is thinking about lengthening the school year by starting two weeks earlier. Do you think adding extra days to the school year will improve education? Write a letter to the editor of your school newspaper that will persuade others to accept your viewpoint. Be sure to address opposing viewpoints in your letter.

The Grading was in accordance with the Standard Writing Applications (Genres and Their Characteristics) Standards, excerpted here:
2.4 Write persuasive compositions:
a. State a clear position or perspective in support of a proposition or proposal.
b. Describe the points in support of the proposition, employing well-articulated evidence.
c. Anticipate and address reader concerns and counterarguments.
Grade Seven Focus
The best student responses to the 2008 writing tasks exhibited the following characteristics:
  • They maintained a consistent organizational structure. They contained an introduction that presented the points to be developed; a body that developed the points that were presented in the introduction; and a conclusion that went beyond a simple repetition of these points. They used effective transitional devices to bridge ideas between sentences and paragraphs.
    • When you write your letter, remember
    • to state your position on the topic
    • to describe the points in support of your position, including examples and other evidence
    •  to address possible arguments against your position
    • to use correct grammar, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. You may include a salutation and closing, but the format of the letter will not count as part of your score.
  •  They presented a clear position with precise and pertinent ideas, details, or facts that supported that position. In contrast to the general and/or vague language that characterized writing at the lower score points, the best responses used concrete language that gave substance and individuality to the writing.
  • They demonstrated an effective use of sentence variety throughout the response. Sentences ranged from simple to complex to compound. The simple sentences often contained multiple nouns, verbs, and/or modifying phrases. Sentences began in different ways. Some sentences started with subject-predicate, and others began with a subordinate clause or transitional phrase.
  • They contained some errors in conventions, but these errors were those expected in first-draft writing in grade seven. The errors did not interfere with the effectiveness of the writing or with the reader’s understanding of the writing.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Writing Skills & Writing Curriculum

I've interested in teaching and learning to write. For K12 students, we created to build writing skills. It's a traditional curriculum teaching to properly construct sentences, paragraphs, and essays based on the standards used in most school systems. Time4Writing relies on personal writing coaches (licensed teachers) to go beyond the automated approach to building writing skills (including grammar, spelling, and vocabulary) that is used in

I have also taken a foray into new media and new approaches to writing with our blogging course for adults.  This teaches creative writing along with some technology, writing skills, and self promotion (and protection) skills by helping people create or improve their blog.  It's our most popular course in terms of student satisfaction (they love it) but our least successful course in terms of marketing it and making it profitable (It's turned out to be an expensive hobby for me).

My heart is probably more in the idea that there is a lot of innovation that could and should happen in terms of teaching writing.  So here's a quick summary of my thoughts in this area.

1. The traditional goal of K12 academic writing is to produce on-demand a tightly structured five paragrah expository essay. The essays are expected to demonstrate the basic writing principles of proper structure, an overall thesis introduced in the opening, paragraphs with topic and concluding sentences, and supporting detail.  Content is often of secondary importance to structure and correctness. This type of writing almost never occurs outside of academia. 

2.  I've done some reading where people are critical of this approach, most notably Steve Peha of  Teaching That Makes Sense (, great thinking and writing on that website, nice guy too).   I'm not convinced that it's so ill-conceived. Here's how I think about it.

3. Writing skills are open-ended and building them provides a solid foundation for all types of writing. Lets use a sports analogy for a second.  When basketball players practice, they do endless layups by themselves trying to execute an exact string of steps.  Martial artists endlessly practice kata which are arcane and stylized. In both cases, the practice is not "real world" since in real games (or fights), there is almost a never simple layup to the basket (and of course, a fighter never ever never gets into a cat stance or a horse stance when they are fighting). Nevertheless, these forms of practice build skills, coordination, and control which can be applied to more complex situations at game time (or when the bell rings).  Martial artists have for centuries practiced blocks (inwards, outwards, upwards, downwards) which are ultimately more like calistenics than real world paries. My point is that just like in sports, the practice simulates only a fraction of the real deal. And if students the writing skills to meet academic writing requirements, they have a solid foundation from which to learn to attack real world writing challenges.

4.  Another thought is that the real educational problem is not just writing skills development, it's motivation. Students are often not highly motivated (yes, I'm trying for the understatement of the year award).  Does the writing assignment have anything to do with how motivated the students will be and whether they will struggle to express themselves and thence build skills? Of course yes.  A thousand times yes.  But, it does not follow that writing prompts per se are necessarily demotivating. Bad writing prompts are demotivating, good writing prompts are inspiring.  On the corner of my desk sits a book called Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt. He suggests that his greatest success as a language arts high school teacher might have come from when he had the students, an ethnically diverse academically-uninterested batch, read aloud their favorite recipes in class.  One could argue that part of the appeal was that everyone knew it was something new, an experiment.  Couldn't writing prompts, properly designed, provide the same appeal?

OK, time's up. I have people coming to my office. I'll conclude that this is an interesting discussion and probably, the closest that I could claim as a consensus view is that canned time-proven writing prompts are an inferior tool to a teacher, in touch with the students, designing prompts that inspire and challenge the students at that time.  Creating a prompt involves many skills but mostly it has to do with knowing what matters enough to the students so that they'll struggle to really express themselves.

Looking forward, I'll probably do some cross over work taking new media techniques into teaching writing to K12 students (I just bought a slew of books on the subject) and I'm interested in adapting our Time4Writing materials to the problem of teaching some remedial writing skills to adults. I find many adults are embarrassed by their writing and they just need help:
- mastering some confusing words: their they're too two to your you're etc
- ensuring subject verb agreement
- mastering short expository sentences
- mastering effective paragraphing and essaying

BTW, below is an example of the type of lessons that we teach at Time4Writing (double click on it to see it full size)....