Learning To Write

What do you remember about learning to write? 

Here's what I remember: 

  • extensive checklists 
  • "playing" with margins 
  • bibliography rules and regulations 
  • art prompts 
  • "take a side" prompts (for example, Is the death penalty acceptable?) 
  • college-ruled paper 
  • diagramming sentences 
  • The Little, Brown Handbook 
  • Times New Roman 
  • multicolor uniball gel pens 
  • losing 20 points for a comma splice 

Apparently, these are the things I thought about when I was in school. If there were graphic organizers in existence, I never saw one. There was no such thing as dictation. I don't know any teachers who care about the size or lines on a student's paper. The "Add Comment" option had just recently been made available in Microsoft Word. I wrote on an actual keyboard, not a laptop keyboard and definitely not an iPad keyboard, if it's even fair to call it that. 

 A slew of graphic organizers, courtsey of Google Image search. 

A slew of graphic organizers, courtsey of Google Image search. 

I am assuming that because I was an avid reader and did what I was told in school, I eventually figured out how to write grammatically correct sentences. I have no recollection of doing any informal or personal writing after 8th grade. I don't remember revising anything, ever. If, as Daniel Wilingham says, "Memory is the residue of thought," then, well, that is rather unfortunate for me. Does that indicate that uniball gel pens consumed my mental energy? That I was so preoccupied with what I was going to write with, that I completely forgot what I was supposed to write about?  

In chapter 3 of Why Don't Students Like School?, Willingham explains why students remember the joke you made or what you were wearing but often don't recall what they were supposedly learning: 

"To teach well, you should pay careful attention to what an assignment will actually make students think about (not what you hope they will think about), because that is what they will remember." (54) 

And then there's this, which makes perfect sense: 

"Whatever you think about, that's what you remember. Indeed, it's a very sensible way to set up a memory system. [...] When we're talking about school, we usually want students to remember what things mean. Sometimes what things look like is important--for example, the beautiful facade of the Parthenon, or the shape of Benin--but much more often we want students to think about meaning. Ninety-five percent of what students learn in school concerns meaning, not what things look like or sound like. Therefore, a teacher's goal should always be to get a student to think about meaning." (61) 

If only it were that easy! So the question is: How do we get students to think about the actual act of writing when there it involves so many complex cognitive processes? If just one of those processes doesn't function in a typical way, then writing becomes a tremendous ordeal. Writing is hard enough for neurotypical kids, and extraordinarily difficult for those with impaired working memory, handwriting, reading skills, phonological abilities, etc. What is one to do? There is hardly any research on teaching high school students with LD to write. A recent article published in Remedial and Special Education found only 14 studies from 1965 to 2011 that explored the use of interventions to improve writing among students with disabilities. And in those 14 studies, only 51 kids were involved! 

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Dismayed, I continued searching. Or, rather, wilfing. I stumbled upon a book called Best Practices in Writing Instruction. I downloaded the book in epub format for not-so-instant reading and eventual disappointment. (Note: Adobe Digital Editions, which purports to be an e-book reader app, barely deserves the 1.5 stars it has received on the App Store.) I've read parts of 3 chapters so far; little enlightenment has resulted, though it does make some decent points and provide some reasonable reminders about best practices. 

From the chapter on planning, I learned to see planning as beginning in either one of two ways: a top-down approach where students plan prior to writing and a bottom-up "discovery" approach wherein writers discover new and important ideas while they write (169). It's clear that teacher modeling of either planning process is helpful to students, but it's not clear how to best model planning or pre-writing, or how to convince students that it's worthwhile, especially because "many developing writers are simply unable to plan because of the complexity of the demands of the cognitive processing tasks" (171). Futility, indeed. 

The chapter on revising makes it clear that self-regulation and metacognitive skills are required for this part of the writing process. It provides some insight into useful classroom practices. One example involves teaching students how to evaluate the work of their peers, and then pairing them up to evaluate each other's work. Even thought this is something I have done with students before, it's good to see that there is a legitimate reason for doing it. Another point the authors make is that the criteria for revision need to be specific rather than general. In other words, huge tables that provide generalizations about what constitutes a high score, don't actually help students revise because they aren't specific. Here's an example of one of those unhelpful rubrics from the Common Core

Actually, it's not really fair to say they aren't helpful at all, because they can be, if used as a starting point for feedback, or if students make them. They could even be useful for teachers as a starting point or as a reminder of standards, as in the case above. 

The last chapter I read, on sentence construction, is probably the subject that I know least about of the three. It turns out that writing a sentence demands a considerable amount of brainpower (210). All of these cognitive tasks are required: 

  • formulate an idea 
  • retrieve words to match the idea 
  • mentally arrange and rearrange words 
  • turn those ideas into a readable structure 
  • manipulate text to make the ideas precise 

Teaching sentence combining skills is the best way, according to the author, to teach students how to improve their sentence construction. But to learn how to combine sentences, one must first understand the parts of sentences and the ways those parts work together. 

I wish I could teach an entire course on how to write a sentence, or that I had the time to confer with each student prior to having him or her organize ideas in some kind of planning document or graphic organizer. I know that they should be devloping rubrics with my guidance based on what they observe about their own and their peers' writing. I wish I could convince them that revision is an integral part of the writing process, which itself is a term I kind of despise because it has been co-opted by well-meaning teachers to indicate something other than the organic, self-motivated, reflective process it is supposed to be.

I think that graphic organizers, had I been forced to use them, would have stymied my thinking in the same way that they do for some of my current students. However, I know that had I been taught more writing skills more explictly and in a way that invited me to think about what my writing meant--rather than what color and type of pen I wrote it with, what font it was in, or whether I had a comma splice--I would have not only expanded my sentence-construction repertoire and expedited my revision process, but I also would have found my thinking liberated and my mind poised, ready to examine anything from a text to the world in a different, more flexible way.