Sunday, December 2, 2012

We need a Writing Renaissance, not a "Writing Renaissance"

According to an article in this past week's Edweek, K12 writing instruction is undergoing a renaissance:

Teachers are focusing on writing instruction like never before. More and more, they're asking students to write about what they read, helping them think through and craft their work, and using such exercises as tools not only to build better writers, but to help students understand what they're studying.
This renaissance, the article claims, includes a shift towards explicit instruction:
The shift is still nascent, but people in the field are taking notice. It marks a departure from recent practice, which often includes little or no explicit writing instruction and only a modest amount of writing, typically in the form of stories, short summaries, or personal reflections, rather than essays or research projects on topics being studied.
In fact there appears to be little or no increase in explicit instruction, but simply a shift in quantity and genres. For example, rather than taking inspiration from Dr. Seuss to write their own whimsical stories:
First graders in South Strafford, Vt., are reading Dr. Seuss' The Lorax, for fun, then for greater understanding, and then to hunt for evidence. They look for events in the plot that illustrate how the whimsical protagonist tries to protect the Earth and assemble examples into a simple paragraph to support the theme of the story.
In keeping with the new Common Core standards for English and Language Arts, the article notes, "these kinds of projects are unusual for the way they connect writing and reading." But the ultimate goal seems not to be to improve writing, but reading:
"Now we're seeing a lot more attention to the idea that writing about a text can improve reading about that text," said literacy expert Timothy Shanahan, the chairman of the department of curriculum and instruction at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The article cites a 2010 study:
a meta-analysis of 93 studies of writing interventions, which found that writing had consistently positive effects on students' reading skills and comprehension. Writing about what they read was particularly helpful to students' comprehension, but so were taking notes on what they read, answering questions about it, and simply writing more often.
In other words, despite the fact that ever since No Child Left Behind, as the article itself notes, concerns about reading comprehension have eclipsed concerns about writing, the ultimate goal of the "Writing Renaissance" continues to be reading.

Worse, this emphasis on writing for comprehension has become yet another excuse to water down math class:
A math teacher in Brighton, Mich., found that writing had a powerful effect on helping her 6th grade students understand algebra concepts. Julie Mallia and a colleague from the English department, Don Pawloski, teamed up in spring 2009 to have students write 10-page "how to" books for the next fall's 6th graders. Drawing both on math and on writing instruction, students had to explain concepts such as solving a problem with x.
What goals the article does mention that pertain specifically to writing are about quantity and argumentation rather than technique. Students should be writing more, and they should be writing pieces that shift from:
"opinion untethered to evidence" and "decontextualized" writing—writing not based on the reading of a text—in favor of writing that requires students to read, comprehend, and respond to text, grounding their interpretations in evidence found there.
As for writing strategies, we find nothing here about corrections and revisions. Instead of rewriting, there's rereading:
They read a text again and again, first to make sense of it and note their questions, as the teacher works the room to help,... A second round of annotating focuses on looking for elements of the genre and how it works. They read again to spot structural decisions the writer made to create meaning, she said. The students then use what they learned in their own writing.
There's something to be said for "spotting structural decisions" and trying to emulate these. Indeed, the one instance of direct writing instruction the article cite pertains to organization:
When Ms. Leddy teaches The Lorax, she walks through the text repeatedly with students, discussing it from a different angle each time. When they're through, students learn to write short "hand paragraphs," with the thumb as the topic sentence—the Lorax cares for the Earth—followed by three examples of how he does that and a "pinky sentence" restating the interpretation.
But none of this addresses a much more fundamental problem that affects all types of writing--no matter whether it's fiction, nonfiction, personal writing, summaries, or more involved, reading-connected writing assignments. This problem, which has become the talk of professors at campuses all around the country, is the problem that growing numbers of students have with the basic building blocks of all writing: phrases and sentences.

In none of the many Edweek articles on English and Language Arts do we find any mention of the steep decline in students' ability to write well-formed sentences. But this is arguably the greatest problem with today's writing, which, even at the college and graduate levels, is riddled with comma splices, dangling modifiers, subject-verb agreement problems, and the kind of garbling that results from a dearth of direct instruction and feedback from teachers and a failure by students to review and revise. Here are just a few examples from my growing collection:

1. Comma between subject and verb: Children who experience the world in a more rigid and narrow manner, will have difficulty with social inferences.

2. Comma splice: Generalization is a tough skill for ASD students to learn, teachers are sometimes baffled that they act a certain way in one subject and completely different in other.

3. Failed subject verb agreement: Two of the defining characteristics of autism includes impairments in social interactions and communication.

4. Failed preposition agreement: There are three types of aphasia to which a child can be diagnosed.

5. Dangling modifiers: In thinking about students transitioning from high school to college, the issues of accepting the disability and self-advocacy are crucial.

6. Wordiness: By providing direct instruction, this assists the students with improving their ability to give examples.

7. Awkwardness (and wordiness): Because of these results, it suggests that “object and subject relative sentences” need different amounts of working memory to be understood by the reader.

8. Displaced modifier: I first inquired about this young man’s high school experience, who I will call RC.

9. Incoherence (and wordiness): Due to the fact that these children with autism are unable to proper engage in social situations eliminates the knowledge base that they would normally acquire.

None of the above-described elements of the so-called "Writing Renaissance" will solve these problems. For this, we need direct, sentence-focused writing instruction. Yet, for all the empirical support there is for this kind of instruction, the tide shifted away from it long ago, and it will take a true Writing Renaissance to bring it back.

6 comments:

FedUpMom said...

It's just bad teaching. This "hand paragraph" that's being promoted leads to clunky, repetitive, stupid text. Give a topic sentence, then 3 examples, then restate the topic sentence? Who could stand to read an entire essay written that way?

Besides, it's totally inappropriate developmentally for first-graders. The main effect will be to make kids hate reading and writing even more than they do already.

Catherine Johnson said...

hand paragraph???

Catherine Johnson said...

As for writing strategies, we find nothing here about corrections and revisions. Instead of rewriting, there's rereading

aaaaaauuuugggghhhhh!

EricMR said...

Katharine, your examples of faulty writing were for what subject(s)?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, my kids do the hand paragraph thing, too. The results are often quite comical with the same sentence essentially repeated over and over. I had a huge argument with my daughter (fifth grade) who insisted the teacher wanted her to write this way, but the result was down right stupid.

Katharine Beals said...

EricMR, I teach courses on High Functioning Autism and language acquisition in autism.