Great Writing Comes Out of Great Ideas

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


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.

Many of the things that contributed to success in the schools we studied also seem to be present in New Dorp. First, there was strong support and leadership from the school administration. Writing has to be high on a school-wide agenda.

Second, and closely related, teachers were involved in initiatives that went beyond their own classrooms. In our studies, the sources for these initiatives varied widely, from the National Writing Project, to collaborations with local universities, to state-sponsored professional development projects. The dedicated teacher standing in front of her own classroom, however stimulating and exciting, is not enough to transform achievement for a school as a whole.

Third, teachers became part of professional learning communities, working together, sharing ideas, gathering information, and changing curriculum and instruction in response to what they were learning. Such approaches build school-wide capacity by honoring the knowledge and experience that teachers bring with them. And they also recognize that there is no simple script, no silver bullet, that will improve student achievement. Instead, they require consistent emphases across the school, evolving over time in response to students' needs and accomplishments.

Fourth, there was a recognition that writing is tied closely to thinking about new material, and requires tools and strategies that can and should be taught. These may be as formulaic as the structure of a five-paragraph theme, or as open-ended as using sentence starters (because, although, if) to build arguments. They may include turn-taking cues to draw readers into productive discussion ("I agree/disagree...because," "I have something to add"). The point is that these are tools, not ends in themselves. Once students have learned to use them, instruction can focus elsewhere.

Finally -- and this is where I think Peg Tyre's article may lead us somewhat astray -- the most effective writing programs are able to embed what is required by high stakes tests and then move beyond to a much richer vision of curriculum and instruction. This is necessary whether the tests are those currently in place in most states, or the new ones being developed for the Common Core. Argument and exposition are important skills, but they build upon and incorporate the richness of the narratives that give most children their first opportunities to write (and talk) at length.

In the current enthusiasm for expository text, we need to be sure we don't cut the roots of the very skills we are trying to nourish. When we look at the end goals of education, the achievements in reading, writing, and language that are outlined in the Common Core are not a curriculum, but rather the kinds of oral and written language skills that students should be engaging as they explore issues that matter in literature and in life. And when students do this as a matter of course, we will have the real writing revolution.