How well you teach writing to teens and adults boils down to whether you use practices that facilitate students’ learning or whether you use practices that either don’t help students develop writing skill or actively inhibit their developing writing skill.
Writing isn’t learned in the same way a subject such as history is learned by accumulating facts and concepts and making them fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Students certainly have to master some facts and concepts, but a student only learns to write when that students puts the pieces together to produce an image that looks like the idea in that student’s mind.
Choose best practices instead of poor ones
You facilitate students’ mastery of writing by choosing teaching practices that help all students learn to write. Below are what I think are the top 10 most important choices you can make as a writing teacher if you want all your students to become competent writers:
Number 1: Concentrate on teaching your average students. Don’t focus just on your best students. Average students will make up the majority of your students. Your best students will need little, if any, help. The poorest students require short periods of help frequently and positive reinforcement for small successes.
Number 2: Coach and mentor all your students. Don’t coach and mentor only your best students.
Number 3: Give every student individual attention. Don’t concentrate your attention on your presentations. You can accomplish a great deal in a one-minute chat with a student.
Number 4. Teach for realistic tasks. Don’t teach to artificial tests.
Number 5. Focus on having students learn to write. Don’t focus on having students enjoy class.
Number 6. Teach to authentic tests. Don’t teach to bubble tests.
Number 7. Evaluate according to students’ writing skill. Don’t evaluate by students’ enjoyment.
Number 8. Stress interconnections of content. Don’t teach pieces of content in isolation.
Number 9. Demand competence from all students by the course end. Don’t accept not-yet-competent work from some at the course end.
Number 10. Respond to student writing. Don’t correct student writing.
There are other practices that will make it easier for you to teach a group of teens or adults to write competently, but I’ll save them for other days.
One important and often-broken rule of grammar is that a pronoun should refer to the last preceding noun. By following that rule, writers help readers grasp the meaning of a sentence without rereading it. Following the rule also keeps readers from snickering over an absurd idea created when a writer ignores the rule.
Today’s writing prompt, which uses an historical fact prominently printed on the front of a rural chamber of commerce’s newsletter, would help your students learn why that rule is a rule.
Begin the mini-lesson with a statement of the rule. To make sure students pay attention, write the rule on the board or display just the rule using whatever technology you have for projecting information. To make sure students understand the rule, restate it at least once using some alternative to last preceding noun. You could say, “In other words, a pronoun should refer to the person, place or thing named at the left of the pronoun.” Or you could say. “A pronoun is a substitute for an already-identified person, place, or thing.”
Then say something like this:
“I’m going to show you what appears to be a three-sentence historical fact that was published in a small town chamber of commerce’s newsletter. Then I’m going asks you for some observations about the item.”
Ideally, you should show students the item in context, so that even if the picture is fuzzy, students get the idea that a photograph accompanying the written item shows a building with a windmill on its roof. Here’s the historical fact:
Mt. Pleasant Drive, showing part of the water system, circa 1890. This was the Roberts Waterworks. The huge windmills pumped water from two deep wells into a reservoir, which was then pumped into the village.
Watch students’ faces. You’ll be able to tell which ones see the grammatical (and engineering) problem of pumping a reservoir into the village.
Now say something like this: “Write one sentence in which you identify all the pronouns in that historical fact. You have 30 seconds to write.” Time students as they write. Then go on to a second, third, fourth, and final task.
“Next, I’d like you to write one sentence in which you tell me what the nearest preceding noun is for each of the pronouns you identified in your previous sentence. You have 30 seconds to write.”
“Now pretend you’re the writer of the item about the waterworks. Rewrite the sentence or sentences in which you found a pronoun that didn’t refer to the noun at its left, fixing the sentence or sentences so they won’t make anyone snicker. You have 60 seconds to write.”
“Finally, aside from any problems you found with pronouns that the writer dropped too far from their preceding nouns, is there anything else about this historical fact that you think sounds funny? Tell me in one or two sentences what other problem you find in that historical fact. You have 90 seconds to write.”
If you wish and have enough time, you may want to have students share their ideas about the other parts of the item that sounded funny to them. You’ll have some students who recognize that the first of the three sentences isn’t a sentence at all. I suspect it probably was the caption for the photo in the book Stones from the Walls of Jericho. Captions are not always full sentences.
Collect the informal writing to scan to see who struggled with the assignment. Informal writing prompts should prompt you to take precautionary measures to keep students who didn’t get material the first 14 times it was presented from missing it again in your classes.
Below are my reviews of three literary nonfiction books suited for high school English classes, with notes about other subjects with which the books correlate. Also included is information about the lengths of chapters, which is always a concern of the least fluent readers.
Geologist George Plafker arrived in Anchorage, Alaska, the day after the March 27, 1964, Good Friday earthquake devastated the southern half of the state, causing over 130 deaths, and unleashing massive tsunamis. Plafker had been in Alaska before, so he noted after a few hours flying that there was no disruption of the landscape to show the earth had moved. That bothered him. It suggested there was something different about the Good Friday earthquake.
Plafker would spend the rest of his life trying to figure out how and why, besides its huge strength—9.2 magnitude—the Good Friday earthquake was different. In the process, Plafker would confirm the then-controversial theory of plate tectonics.
Henry Fountain was a reporter and science writer for TheNew York Times. His journalistic training shows in the way he explains science for people with minimal background. For example, he describes a glacier “is like a giant milling machine moving across the landscape” and says at Valdez “the sediments the dock sat on turned to jelly and slumped during the quake.”
Fountain writes carefully and respectfully about the people who lost loved ones, their belongings, their livelihood in the quake and flooding it caused. For example, he reports on the difficulties small villages face in trying to rebuild: the costs of materials, the need to work quickly, and the emotional issues connected to the villages’ loss and fear.
The Great Quake would be a good complement to students’ studies in science and to students interested in emergency preparedness and crisis management.
The 15 chapters in The Great Quake average 17 pages long, but they are visually divided into sections by horizontal rules, so students’ reading could be conveniently split into smaller tasks.
The format of Bill O’Reilly’s The Day the World Went Nuclear might make students think the book is childish, but it’s not. It is an adult book designed to lay out facts in a readily understandable, straightforward way. O’Reilly leaves the speculation about would have happened if America had not chosen to use atomic bombs to other writers.
O’Reilly puts a multifaceted story in a very accessible format with short chapters, well-leaded type, and lots of pictures. The chapters are dated so it is easy for readers to keep the timeline of events in mind.
One interesting feature of the book is a list of key figures in the development and dropping of “Little Boy” on Hiroshima August 6, 1945, along with photographs of them.
A series of short articles after the text proper present related topics such as the decision to use the bomb, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and America’s incarceration of her Japanese citizens. The book also contains President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech, Emperor Hirohito’s surrender speech, and chapter devoted to the later lives of individuals associated with the A-bomb drop.
The Day the World Went Nuclear is obviously appropriate in connection with students’ study of American history or world history. O’Reilly’s book fills in gaps that students’ history texts omit.
Reading O’Reilly’s text should not be challenging for students eighth grade and above. Chapters are typically only five or six pages long, probably under 1,000 words.
Let me tell you how good Nicholas J. C. Pistor’s Shooting Lincoln is: I stopped taking notes after the first 100 pages because I couldn’t wait to see how the story ended. I knew photographed story of the century wasn’t the assassination; there are no photos of that. So, what was the big story and who got it first?
The professional competition was between Matthew Brady, who considered himself an artist, and Alexander Gardner, who called himself a photographer.
Brady’s photographs of Lincoln are works of art. His photo of Lincoln standing, taken in New York City before the Republican Convention, may have been responsible for Lincoln’s nomination.
Gardner, an editor from Scotland, learned the basics of photography from Brady, doing grunt work while Brady got the fees and the acclaim. Gardner’s famous battlefield photos from Antietam, which Brady displayed in his studio, revolutionized battlefield photography.
Gardner became convinced that journalism’s future was tied to photography. He proved that in the summer of 1865 by taking the first live-news photograph of the story of the century. (Read the book to learn what that news event was.) Gardner also invented mug shots. They were first used to aid in the search for John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices.
Shooting Lincoln would complement study in American history, communications, journalism, and business.
Pistor’s book is 16 chapters averaging about 14 pages each, plus a prologue dated Feb. 5, 1865 that begins “The President looked like he was already dead” and an epilogue dated 1875, that’s about motion pictures.
A note about book sources
I bought all these books from HamiltonBook.com. You won’t get the latest bestsellers there, but you can get deep discounts on books that have been in print a few years. All items are new, and all the books are hardbound unless marked otherwise. Postage and handling for up to 18 books is just $4. https://www.hamiltonbook.com/books
Here’s an informal writing prompt that will let you see whether students know what you mean when you talk about the function of some grammatical or punctuation term.
When we talk about grammar and punctuation, we often use the term function. In no more than three sentences, explain the meaning of function. To make your explanation clear, give an analogy to the function or functions of some physical object. You have 90 seconds to write.
This simple prompt will let you know whether students understand the terms you expect them to know. If they don’t understand the terms you’re using, you need to teach those terms as vocabulary.
Many months ago, I received a notice about upcoming webinars for teachers. One of the webinars caught my eye and raised my blood pressure. It was titled “4 Sure-Fire Ways to Improve the K-12 Customer Experience.”
I don’t know whether the college students in my freshman English courses have had good customer experiences in high school or not, nor do I particularly care. It’s obvious most of my students didn’t learn a lick in K-12 about how to write on demand the kind of nonfiction prose everyone has to be able to write. I do care about that.
I’m a teacher, not a customer service representative.
It’s my job to take the students who didn’t learn how to write in grades K-12 and turn them into writers.
If students don’t like English 101, I don’t let them do basket weaving instead.
If students find writing evidence-based, logically presented documents is hard, I tell them, “Writing is hard for me, too. Just do it.”
If students don’t do their assignments, I don’t refund their tuition.
If your students show up in my freshman English class, they will learn what their K-12 customer service representatives failed to teach them or they will fail freshman English.
When I took my MS at Syracuse University, I was awarded an assistantship at the Newhouse School of Public Communications. My first term, I was assigned to work for a faculty member in the Advertising Department.
A few weeks into the fall term, the Dean of the Newhouse School told me that the professor had protested being given an assistant with no advertising experience. The Dean said he told her there are usually a couple assistants who need to be reassigned and if she’d wait a couple weeks, he could arrange a swap. The professor had come back that week and told him I was the best assistant she’d ever had.
She said she had given me a stack of papers to grade and was astonished that I knew exactly what to look for and had graded the papers overnight. I had accomplished the task that so astonished the professor by grading students’ papers according to how well they did what the directions told them to do.
At the time, I couldn’t believe that no other graduate assistants had reached that startling conclusion. Now, that that I’m older and more disillusioned, I realize that being able to discover the goal of an assignment from the directions for an assignment is not a common skill.
That’s why I was pleasantly surprised this week by an email I received from a graduate of a area college expressing interest in doing illustrations for books I’m writing about how to visit in nursing homes. (If you’re interested in getting updates on what I’m doing, use this link: https://dropping-by-books.ck.page/signup)
The artist said was interested in the project because she had done some visiting in a nursing home and her grandmother was reaching a point at which it is likely that she will have to be in a nursing home. Those two facts from her personal experience tell me she understands the goal of my books.
As writing teachers, you and I need to regularly spend a few minutes forcing students to think about what the goals of specific writing prompts are. If students see writing prompts as just busy work, even if they respond well to the prompts, we’ve not done a good job of teaching writing.
More than two years ago, I clipped a page written by a school superintendent in his district’s April 2019 newsletter. My intent was to use it later as an informal writing prompt. I think August 2021 is later, don’t you?
Here’s how he began his message:
With the approaching spring season at B-G, comes the start of Phase 2 of the multi-year Capital Project. The District has successfully wrapped up Phase I and will begin this next phase hopefully in April.
The Blue and White: Bainbridge-Guilford Central School District School News & Notes, April 2019
Those two sentences suggest two questions that you could pose to students as triggers for informal writing. After reading the sentences aloud as students follow along, ask them these two questions to which they must respond in writing. Allow time for them to write their response to one question before you ask the second question.
Question 1. After reading the first sentence carefully, identify the simple subject and the simple predicate of the sentence. If you have difficulty finding them, it may be helpful for you to rewrite the entire sentence in normal subject-verb-object order and then identify the simple subject and simple predicate. You have 90 seconds to write.
Question 2. In the second sentence, identify what that the adjective hopefully modifies. Decide if the word hopefully is correctly placed in that sentence. In no more than two sentences, explain why you think the word hopefully is or is not used correctly there. You have one minute to write.
The first question may give students difficulty. I know I read the writer’s first sentence a couple times before I figured out what the writer was talking about. The simple subject and simple predicate are “start comes.”
As if that’s not confusing enough, the reference to “the approaching spring season” is strange: spring is nearly over in April. Furthermore, the coming of spring does not bring about the second phase of the capital project. The superintendent was trying to say “Phase II of the multi-year capital project is about to start.”
Question 2 attempts to get students to look at the word hopefully. The construction of the superintendent’s sentence has the district beginning Phase 2 of the capital project hopefully. People running projects almost always do begin hopefully and often lose hope as the project goes on. To make his intent clear, the superintendent could have said , “The District has successfully wrapped up Phase I and hopes to begin Phase 2 in April.” For even more clarity, he could have said this month instead of in April, which might have been understood to mean April of the next calendar year.
Tell your students that when they realize they’ve used the word hopefully, it’s smart to see if there isn’t a simpler way to write that sentence. I hope that helps.
This morning while reading Ben Sasse’s book The Vanishing American Adult, about which I’ll no doubt say more after I finish it, I stopped short when I read, “Seeing distinctions is a learned habit.”
All of us writing teachers know our students must learn to distinguish between, for example:
a complete sentence and a fragment of a sentence,
a word that must be capitalized and one that need not be capitalized,
words that must be put in quotation marks and words that need not be in quotation marks.
Until this morning, however, I’d never applied the term building habits to the teaching of writing, but that’s what teaching writing amounts to. I feel quite like Moliere’s Monsieur Jourdain who discovered he’d been speaking prose for 40 years. There is something freeing about thinking of teaching writing as a matter of guiding students to develop habits.
We not only need to teach right from wrong in matters of writing mechanics, but make sure students habitually choose the right punctuation, spelling, and capitalization by giving them daily or near-daily opportunities to make those choices.
We need not only to teach procedures that produce coherent documents but give students enough practice that producing coherent documents is a habit. That will require us to have students write full documents at least weekly.
We need not only to teach students to recognize a message that’s worth sharing but also to give them enough practice choosing writing topics that they habitually write about topics that matter. Some students may be mature enough to do that in sixth grade; others may not be mature enough to do it as college sophomores.
The start of a new school year is just a flip of a calendar page away for many teachers whose duties include or consist of teaching writing. For many years, I was one such teacher.
One thing I learned over those years was to make sure students understood on the first day of class what they were expected to do in the class. Unfortunately, it took decades of trying various approaches before I found a find a way to accomplish that objective on opening day.
The method I use I discovered when teaching asynchronous online classes for University of Phoenix. The University’s teachers were encouraged to have student use a chat room to get acquainted. When I promoted use of the chat room, students spent almost a quarter of the class chatting about their out-of-school interests before I could get them focused on learning to write.
So, I decided to start off the class by introducing myself in the online classroom as a writer. I told students they could get acquainted in the chat room, but I required students to introduce themselves as writers in the classroom space. That adjustment reclaimed nearly two weeks of class and enabled me to get most students writing at the end of eight weeks at a level that students in face-to-face classes typically took a 15-week semester to achieve.
To learn more about how I used the “I’m a writer” assignment to get students off to a good start, see this post from seven years ago.
For most of the last 20 years, I’ve written primarily about teaching writing to teens and adults for an audience of teachers of teens and adults. For about the last 18 months, however, I’ve been writing about nursing home visiting for an audience of people who wanted or needed visit in a nursing home.
Although I had some experience in visiting in nursing homes to draw on, the project has become a challenge. The challenge hasn’t been coming up with things to write about. I had enough experiences in doing nursing home visiting to be able to identify the information I needed.
The problem is identifying how to reach my audience.
I know from research and observation that most friendly visitors are women, typically age 30 to 60. Other than that broad age range, there isn’t much that they have in common. They aren’t defined by any of the usual categories of race, religion, political affiliation, social class, education, hobbies, etc. (A snide smirk: friendly visitor is what nursing homes typically call someone who doesn’t come to visit family members, which always makes me wonder if people who come to visit family are unfriendly visitors. But I digress.)
Before I can sell books, I must (1) find what people who are likely to be interested in becoming a nursing home visitor have in common and (2) determine who do the majority of them rely on to guide their choice of free-time activities.
What does this have to do with teaching writing?
If you’ve gotten this far, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with teaching writing. If you’re teaching high schoolers who just want to scratch something down and get out to soccer practice, it has nothing to do with teaching writing.
On the other hand, if you teach college students heading into careers, audience identification is a big deal. Students who have a skill or product to sell—even if the product is themselves—must be able to find the audience that wants what they have to sell.
The student’s first task is to identify that audience. If a student is an artist who wants to sell his art work, he has to find people who buy original art. If the student wants to work as an accountant, he has to find people who hire accountants.
The second task of anyone with a skill or product to sell is to figure out where their audience congregates and to go there. Sellers can’t can show potential buyers why they need their products unless they are in the place where their audience hangs out. That place need not be a physical place; it can be a virtual space online. Your students may need to figure out what online platform employers in their field use and learn to use that platform well.
Coming back to my problem, my buyers will probably be found on Facebook. What I need to know is which people on Facebook women between the ages of 30 and 60 will rely on to guide their choice of what to do in their free time. I’m looking for people with enough Facebook followers that their recommendation can sell 101 to 500 books about how to visit in a nursing home.