Great Writing Comes Out of Great Ideas

Students need to master written language. But they also need rich topics to write about. 

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As Peg Tyre notes in her article, schools in the U.S. are about to confront a host of new challenges. The majority of states are on their way to adopting the Common Core Standards, a set of reforms that will dramatically change the way many schools teach writing across subject areas, not just in English class.

And this is as it should be -- to be knowledgeable in any academic subject, a student must be able to develop arguments and provide appropriate evidence. In studies that my colleagues and I have conducted in middle and high schools across the United States, it is common to hear a science teacher, for example, complain that the way students are taught to write in language arts just won't do for their writing in physics (or biology or chemistry). Follow that idea a bit further, and the implication is clear: Teachers of science (as well as of history and other subjects) need to help students write in the ways appropriate to their own subject areas.

"Generic" writing skills -- ones that can be learned in English class and applied everywhere else -- just won't do. And neither will a curriculum that focuses on knowledge about writing (the conventions of written English and the structures for paragraphs or whole essays) -- rather than on the issues and ideas that make a subject interesting in the first place. This is where I think Peg Tyre's article may lead us somewhat astray.

We can certainly all agree that if you want students to learn to write well, you have to start by asking them to write. Looking broadly across the U.S., this will require a major change. The high-stakes tests that drive curricula in most states require very little writing, and that in turn has driven writing out of many classrooms. The National Assessment of Educational Progress reported earlier this month that in 2011, 40 to 41 percent of public school students at grades 8 and 12 were given less than a page of writing homework in a typical week. In fact some 14 percent of 12th graders reported being asked to do no writing for homework at all.

In our own studies, we found that roughly 80 percent of the assignments students complete do not require them to compose text. Instead, they are asked to fill in blanks, copy notes, or choose among multiple-choice responses. Such activities may help them remember specific content, but they do not help them learn to do anything interesting--that is, to explore ideas that matter. And they certainly don't help them learn to write.

Yet over the past several decades, we have learned a lot about what it takes to improve students' writing. And efforts like those of the National Writing Project have helped many teachers and schools improve their curricula. Our recent studies included a sample of schools that had reputations for excellent writing programs. The schools were spread across 5 states with very different high-stakes assessments for middle and high school students. And many of the schools were dealing with the difficult issues of poverty and language learning that echo those at New Dorp.

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Arthur Applebee is a professor of education at Albany-SUNY and directs the university's Center on English Learning & Achievement.

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