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)....


BBat50 said...

Steve sent me this response for posting (slightly abridged):

Great piece, John. And thanks for the "shout out" as the kid say. One paragraph caught my eye:

"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. "

Not only does this kind of writing never occur outside of academia, it doesn't occur inside either. That is to say, if kids take 5PE's to college, they get crushed by their teachers.

The definitive argument on the 5PE is written by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and writing coach Donald Murray in his book The Craft of Revision

Whether I liked the 5PE or not, it would be had to argue with a man who has not only been a successful writer but who has also dedicated himself to coaching successful writers.

Historically, the 5PE is what a paleo-anthropologist (aka someone like Stephen Jay Gould) might call a "spandrel". It's a kind of accidental adaptation -- something that serves no useful function but that evolves into reality because something related to it evolved that was useful.

to be continued....

Steve Peha
Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc.

BBat50 said...

Steve's comment part 2 - In the case of the 5PE, its inspiration comes from the traditional Ph.D. thesis or formal research paper which follows this familiar format: Abstract + Body + Summary of Conclusions. In a long and complicated research paper, the Abstract is vital for fellow researchers looking for a quick way to know whether a study is relevant to their work. The Summary of Conclusions is vital to those performing meta-studies. So this form, like all authentic forms, arose naturally over time because it served its readers better than any other.

In the 5PE, the "tell 'em what yer gonna tell 'em" + "tell 'em" + "tell 'em what ya told 'em" format is a "mini" Ph.D. thesis or research paper. The problem is that in such a short form it makes no sense to say the same thing three times. And, obviously, it makes no sense to have exactly three idea in the middle either. Furthermore, the 5PE is not a standard approach to expository writing. Just look at any newspaper or magazine article, or an encyclopedia entry. You'll be hard-pressed to find a 5PE anywhere.

I do indeed teach kids the 5PE. It's just a type of writing, after all. And a very simple one at that. I teach it not because it helps kids become better writers but because, by teaching it as a type of writing and explaining its history and use, I can prevent kids from becoming worse writers when they encounter it at another time. Kids who are taught the 5PE as writing come away with a dangerously mistaken notion that the 5PE is writing, rather than merely a contrived pre-college academic form. As long as kids know what the 5PE is, and they study it in proportion to all the other forms in the world, then there is no real harm in learning it -- except for the time kids waste in doing so as they will never again be asked to create a 5PE once they leave high school.

An equivalent approach, one that allows kids to create 5PE's but not get bogged down by them, is to teach LEAD + BODY + ENDING. In this situation, we're showing kids the exact structure of almost all short form writing -- including the academic thesis paper -- while allowing for specific instances like the the 5PE. The "lead" can be defined as that part of a piece that "gets a reader's attention, hints at the topic, and makes the reader want to read more." The "body" can be said to be that part of a piece that "delivers on the promise of lead" (usually by adding key supporting details) and the "ending" can be said to be that part of a piece which "makes the writing feel finished and gives readers something important to think about." (Actually goes beyond the conclusion to explore the purpose of the writing itself.)

This approach allows for the 5PE (just limit the lead and ending to one paragraph, and the body to three) but also accounts for virtually all other types of short form prose. As such, this is the "frame" I teach first, followed by many different executions of various forms that make use of this frame.

It's not so much that the 5PE is bad. Only in extreme cases, when the 5PE is all kids are taught, is any harm done. But the 5PE is needlessly limiting, and that's the last thing any teacher or parent would want in a child's education.

Good luck with your work!

Steve Peha
Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc.