Getting students to write well without writing at length

Photo of students writing In mid-January, Marc Tucker wrote a piece  for Education Week‘s Top Performers blog, “Our Students Can’t Write Very Well—It’s No Mystery Why.”

Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, is noted for his research and writing on the policies and practices of the countries with the world’s best education systems.

His EdWeek article is blunt. After noting that American high school students rarely are required to read entire novels, let alone read entire nonfiction books, Tucker says:

High school students are hardly ever asked to write anything of significant length.  Why not?  Because in this age of accountability, they are not tested on their writing ability.  By which I mean that they are not asked to submit to the testing authorities 10- or 15- or 20-page papers in which they are expected to present a thesis and defend it, analyze something complicated from multiple points of view and draw a reasoned conclusion, or put together a short story in which characters are developed in some depth and insights are revealed. [boldface added]

I empathize with Tucker. I’ve not had notable success finding qualified applicants either.)

As my regular readers know, for decades I’ve toggled together a living as a writer-editor (books, magazines, newspapers, an academic journal, marketing materials) and a college writing teacher, thanks in no small part to temporary and part-time jobs in places such as a hospital, the IRS National Computer Lab, and a resort hotel.

I’ve learned far more about writing from the places at which I’ve worked than I ever learned from my academic studies.

I believe deliberate practice is the key to learning to write.

I’m not, however, convinced that reading widely produces good writers: I see a reciprocal rather than a causal relationship.

I agree with Tucker that too many students are getting through school without learning to write.  As Steve Graham‘s research has shown, most teachers either don’t teach writing or don’t know how to teach writing, or both.

Besides that, teachers often have very little idea of what people in jobs outside education must write, the conditions under which they write, or the standards to which writers are held in jobs outside education. The typically English teacher is a person (usually a woman) whose out-of-education employment consisted of summer jobs waiting tables or working as a retail clerk — jobs that don’t entail writing complex documents or writing semi-technical documents such as are needed for the job Tucker was trying to fill.

If we want students to write on the job, they need to be taught to write, not just given writing assignments. In my experience, short papers on topics related to their courses are the best vehicles for teaching writing.

Students in an English class may not be interested in writing about why word choices matter or why English spelling is so difficult, but they can at least see it has some connection to English class. Similarly, students in science classes may not care about chemistry, but they can at least see that an assignment to compare the tone of an article in USA Today about a newly discovered use for tomato peels with the tone of an article in Scientific American on the same topic has some relationship to chemistry.

When I’m lucky enough to have students for an academic year,  I teach students a set of strategies I use in my own writing and stick to just what Common Core calls informative/explanatory writing. My students write in class every period for at least half the year so I can give them feedback orally as they write.

Whenever I can get away with it, I guarantee students that as soon as they demonstrate on two papers in a row that they have met my standard for competent writing, I will drop every writing grade up to that point. If they are happy with a C, they don’t have to do anything else the rest of the term.

I’ve done this when I’ve had three preps: five, 20-student, composition classes, one ed psych class, and one magazine journalism class. I thought I’d die before that year was over, but no student earned less than a B.

When students are competent at I/E writing — I estimate that they’ll need to write at least 20 complete, short papers to become competent — they will be able to start paying real attention to what they have to say.

That’s when they can profit from an across-the-curriculum expository writing program in which they get experience writing the kinds of longer papers Tucker expects from applicants for jobs at his organization.

2 thoughts on “Getting students to write well without writing at length

  1. I have recently had a conversation about teachers, specifically my granddaughter’s high school English teachers, in which I stated they assign and grade rather than teach. I taught high school for thirty years; the first ten or so I also assigned and graded and could not understand why my students writing grades were so bad. Then the light dawned and I changed everything about my classroom and started developing writers. I wish I could go in and teach some of these teachers a better way to do it, but I tried while I was still teaching and heard over and over that there just was not enough time to do it differently. Until teachers take the time to consider individual needs and teach to the student rather than the curriculum not much is going to change. Meanwhile, I am about volunteer to teach a high school writing class at the library and hope to capture my granddaughter and some of her friends.


    1. I went through a similar process, although since I wasn’t trained as an English teacher, I ran out of things to “teach” much sooner!

      I sympathize with teachers who think developing writers is way too hard: I have many days when I totally agree, and I’m sure that’s true for you as well. What teachers don’t understand is that teaching nonfiction writing isn’t something that’s an add-on to what else has to be taught: It is a way of teaching the essentials that students must learn.

      Please keep me posted on how the writing class goes. If your class works, I’d be tempted to try one myself. You might remember ages ago I had offered an online class (that got no takers!) called “Zucchini in Zero Gravity.” It’s a short course in preparing a research paper, which focuses on how the paper goes together rather than on the research part. The students use a nonsense topic (Should zucchini be allowed in outer space?) and invent all the sources, all the experts’ credentials, etc., but present their “findings” very seriously in prescribed research format. I’ve been tempted to try that locally as a summer program. There’s not a lot for the junior high kids to do, and junior high boys love nonsense topics, as much as I love reading their nonsense!

      All the best, Joleigh. You’re an encouragement to me!


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