State your goal in your students’ language.

To give yourself an even chance of teaching writing to teens and adults, you need to phrase your goal in terms your students will not only understand but also will embrace as their goal.

It doesn’t matter what the jargon is within your school or with the broader education community: If the way you describe why students must learn to write doesn’t tap into something your students want for themselves, you’re chances of teaching those students to write is pretty slim.

Let me give you an example of goal-setting that resonates with students.

Back in the late 1980s, I piloted a summer program for the New York State Education Department. NYSED wanted to see if it was possible to use distance learning technology with students in the bottom quarter of their class.

To see if distance learning would work with that population, I asked four schools to select kids who had failed at least two eighth grade classes and whom they expected to drop out of high school. The schools’ goal was to keep kids from dropping out of school, which is bad for PR and state aid.

We offered students a different goal: You’ll graduate with your class.

Of the 17 students in the program, 16 graduated with their class.

I don’t know that those students wouldn’t have graduated if we’d described the program’s purpose as to keep them from dropping out of school, but I suspect that goal might not have had as much appeal as graduating with their class.

However you describe your goal for teaching writing, phrase it in terms that your students will adopt emotionally and intellectual as their goal, too.