I’m about to take a
to a totally new expository writing project: a series of short, illustrated expository nonfiction about how to have pleasant experiences visiting in a Whether you go to visit a resident who is part of your or as a call on someone as theiror, as I did, spend time making new acquaintances as athere will be a book from the series to meet your unique needs.
You can get monthly reports on my progress (or lack thereof) by giving me your email address and promising not to gloat if I make a fool of myself.
What’s the last nonfiction book you choose to read that wasn’t assigned reading?
Tell me about that book
Was that book:
on a topic related to the subject you teach?
a how-to book?
a biography/autobiography of sports or entertainment figure?
a history book?
something you just thought sounded interesting?
Did you read anything I might be interested in?
What, if anything, from that book have you used in teaching?
What, if anything, from the book have you found yourself thinking about since you read it?
What, if anything, from that book have you shared with someone else?
Would you read another book on the same topic?
Would you look for another book by the same author?
Have you recommended the book to someone else?
Have you signed up for the author’s email list, if the author has one?
Your answers to each of those questions tells me whether you think the book was worth the time you invested in reading it.
Why your answers matter to you
The postmaster in a small community in which I lived told me he hated reading and he hated writing, but every time I’d get a shipment of books, he’d ask, “Did you get anything I might be interested in?” If I told him about a book that he though he’d be interested in, he’d make a note of the title.
Like my postmaster, a large number of your students and mine complete high school without ever reading a book that was interesting to them. The wider the range of nonfiction you read, the more likely it is you’ll be able to suggest books that your students might also find interesting reading.
Students don’t become good readers unless at least some of what they read is interesting to them. To be able to point students to well-written books that may interest them, you need to be knowledgeable about at least some nonfiction titles on topics that may not be your first choice of rainy-day reading.
Why your answer matters to me
As my long-time readers know, nearly all the writing I’ve done has been instructional materials that nobody reads unless they are paid to. Before I drop off my twig, I’d like to write a practical nonfiction book that is read by people who aren’t paid to read it.
You, for example.
For a long time, I’ve wanted to write a book about how to have mutually pleasant visits with people in nursing homes. A former nursing home activities director at one of the homes at which I volunteered is working with me. We have grand plans for a series of short, illustrated, square “gift books” that we refer to as our “Thanks for Dropping By” books. “Thanks for dropping by” is what nursing home residents always said when I left.
If we decide to go ahead with the how-too books, Ill ask you to join my email list. I hope when/if you see the invitation, you’ll sign up, identifying yourself as a potential reader of my practical, nonfiction books for people who aren’t paid to read them.
Learning enough about any skill to be able to profit from additional study of that skill requires 100 hours of practice, according to researchers. After 50 years of writing expository nonfiction and teaching teens and adults to write expository nonfiction, I’ve figured out how squish those required 100 hours’ writing practice in 15 weeks.
It’s not easy, but it can be done.
The general procedure
Maintain a single focus. To turn non-writers into competent expository writers in 15 weeks you and your students must do nothing in those 15 weeks except activities that are an essential part of the process of expository nonfiction writing. Don’t ask students to write narrative—even nonfiction narrative—or to write arguments or to read anything other than expository nonfiction. Adding those elements doesn’t make the course interesting: they make the course difficult. Focus every class session on having students respond to that week’s writing prompt(s).
Ready 20 writing prompts. You will need to have 20 writing prompts prepared before the course starts. You won’t have time to prepare prompts during the course. Each prompt should be on some aspect of communication, which is, after all, what English classes are supposed to teach. There are enough potential communications topics to give every student at least moderately interesting to write about a few times a semester.
Embed each writing prompt in a lesson. Each writing prompt should be delivered within a self-contained writing lesson (see below). Use the same format for each lesson to keep things as simple as possible. Each prompt should enable students to plan, research, draft, revise and edit their responses in a maximum of five hours. (Five hours work on each of 20 writing prompts yields the desired 100 hours.)
Make class time writing time. Students can’t improve their writing until they first know what the process of writing looks and feels like. Except for those few early days of the course when you are presenting the writing process, have students spend most of their class time on task(s) to prepare them for that week’s writing prompt, such as:
figuring out what question the writing prompt is asking
phrasing a working thesis to responds to that question
developing a writing skeleton™
rippling to identify information sources for their responses to that week’s writing prompt
Teach while students prepare to write. Except during class periods when students are writing their texts, you should use class time for teaching. Circulate through the room. Look at what students are doing. Read. React. Confer with individual students about their work. Ask students if they could have avoided a particular problem by doing something differently earlier in the writing process. Give help where it’s needed.
Push students to complete entire tasks in class. Don’t hesitate to require student to submit a copy of their work by the end of a class period if that’s what it takes to keep them working.
Require students to write under test conditions. Devote at least one class period a week to having students compose their responses to that week’s writing prompt under whatever test conditions (handwrite/keyboard) you’ve established for the course. You need to get students used to producing complete clean drafts under pressure. On a topic for which they have prepared, teens and adult students should be able to produce 600 handwritten words in longhand or on a keyboard in an hour.
Do group instruction once.
Present the writing process 3 times. In the first three of the 15 weeks, lead students three times through the entire process of responding to an expository writing prompt. The first week, go through the process carefully using students’ first week writing prompt as the demonstration material. Repeat the procedure the next two weeks with those weeks’ writing prompts as demonstration material. Each time, before you give students the writing lesson which includes the following basic information for that particular writing prompt, talk students through how to
figure out what question they are being asked,
phrase a working thesis that responds to that question, and
develop a writing skeleton™ for that working thesis.
After that, the information in the writing prompt should provide enough guidance for most students. If a student has difficulty understanding the directions, you can deal individually with that student. You’ll find a discussion of eight essential strategies for student writers at my yctwriting.com site.
The writing lesson below shows how material that students need in to know to complete each assignment is included in the writing lesson. Here ripple strategy is explained in detail, providing students with a reference, should they require one.
Evaluate with a checklist
Use a simple checklist to tell students how they performed. Every item on the checklist should be (a) essential to the expository writing process, and (b) worded in such a way that the only possible responses are yes or no. Ideally, your checklist should be arranged in order of the importance of that item to the entire writing process. Thus, my six-item checklist starts with “The writer’s thesis is clearly stated in the opening paragraph” and ends with “The writer ‘does the evidence waltz’ in each body paragraph so the presence and significance of the evidence to the writer’s thesis is clear.”
During the 100 hours students are working to develop basic writing skill don’t even think about any of the finer points of writing. After everyone in your class has mastered the basics, then you can begin helping them learn ways to modify the basic expository pattern and to make their writing more powerful. Until you have all your students capable of responding to a writing prompt on a subject about which they are knowledgeable in a clear, coherent text don’t even think about having them write anything more interesting.
Is preparing those lessons too much work?
I have two collections of writing prompts that you can buy. Both collections are available from my E-junkie shop.
Ready, Set, Write! is contains 20 complete writing lessons for not-yet-competent teen and adult writers. They aren’t simplistic, but they simplify the writing process.
Bullying Begins as Words contains prompts five prompts for not-yet-competent writers plus five for competent writers and five for proficient writers.
When you buy either collection you get an e-book containing all the prompts and teacher information for each prompt, plus a handbook you can use with any of my PenPrompts collections. Within a few days after your purchase, you will receive information about where to download individual copies of your prompts authorizing you to reproduce the prompts for use with your students as long for the rest of your teaching career.
A required writing course should result in students being able to perform required tasks.
I’ve never seen a college catalog or a high school schedule that listed a course in “Writing Appreciation.” I have, however, seen plenty of English teachers who taught required writing courses as if appreciating writing was their goal. That shouldn’t be the goal.
Write what everyone must write
The goal of a required writing class should be that every student leaves able to write the kinds of texts everyone must write. The kind of writing that everyone must write is short, expository nonfiction that follows a pattern.
Follow a pattern.
Most required writing is formulaic by design. Every profession, business, and organization has certain patterns it uses for the writing it most often needs done. Newcomers are expected to be able to recognize the patterns and follow them. The people who report directly to Mark Zuckerberg may be given freedom to be creative, but the new hire in the UX design division will have to follow a pattern.
Do fast, final-quality first drafts.
Emails, online chats, and reports must be prepared quickly and the first draft must be done right. The information must be correct, understandable, and free of embarrassing writing mechanics errors because outside the classroom, the first draft is often the final draft.
Nonfiction patterns help writers to recollect all the essential information to include, arrange it in a sensible way, and still have a couple minutes to check their draft for errors.
Use writing to achieve everyday goals.
Students must leave a required writing class class able to use writing for the tasks that everyone must do in what even English teachers call “the real world.”
Equally important, they must also know to use writing for these purposes in their everyday lives. Writing can be a powerful tool for figuring things out when there’s nobody around to ask.
Assess a situation.
The reporter telling what happened at the school board meeting, the nurse writing up patient notes, and the poet exploring her relationship with her mother are each using writing to assess a situation.
The engineer evaluating locations for a new power plant, the novelist emailing her agent about locations for a book launch party, and the teen texting his cousin about which of two girls he ought to ask to the prom are each using writing to explore alternatives.
The city planner writing a grant application, the befuddled computer user chatting with tech support, and the grandmother in Seattle posting a request for a oatmeal cookie recipe on Facebook are each using writing to recruit assistance.
Solve a problem.
The bus driver tired of answering questions about the fare uses writing to tell passengers what the fare is. The human resources frustrated by incorrectly completed new hire paperwork uses writing to prepare easier-to-use forms. The fifth grader hospitalized for three months uses writing to keep up with her class.
The guy in Omaha who has Aunt Cora’s oatmeal cookie recipe sends posts it on Facebook for the grandmother in Seattle is sharing a solution. So is the Albuquerque grant writer who publishes a book of grant writing tips and computer scientist in Hong who posts online his PowerPoint presentation on applications of artificial intelligence in cardiac surgery.
If students in first year college composition class or your high school English class cannot write what everyone must write and do not use writing for the purposes for which everyone must be able to use it, you’re not doing your job.
A collection of formal writing prompts I’ve been working on off and on for several years is finally nearing completion.
Each prompt in the collection is a self-contained expository writing lesson for teenage and adult writers who aren’t yet competent expository writers.
The collection contains 20 formal prompts on English Language Arts topics including grammar, literature, research skills, and a few crossover prompts that let students join ELA content to content from other disciplines.
In preparing the prompts, I’ve tried to balance writing difficulties against cognitive difficulties so that students who have not yet achieved competence as expository writers aren’t overwhelmed by having too many difficult challenges in a single assignment.
In addition to the students’ material, each prompt has a page of related material to help teachers shepherd students through using the prompt. The teacher material includes a chart showing how the prompt aligns with both
The Common Core State Standards and
A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (2001, Anderson and Krathwohl).
If I don’t have any technical difficulties this week, all 20 of the prompts should be ready for a final edit this time next week.
High school and college essays may have an arbitrary length (e.g. 2,500 words) or structure (e.g. abstract, introduction, literature review, discussion). However, the way writers go about writing nonfiction exposition is the same regardless of length or number of paragraphs. The expository writing process does not change. It always begins with finding a topic and goes on to:
developing a working thesis on the topic
finding support for and opposition to the working thesis
organizing a response around the working thesis or some modification of it
drafting the paper
editing the paper
Of course it is.
That’s its virtue.
Once students have gotten the hang of the process, which many can master in third or fourth grade, teachers can teach them how to approach more complicated topics and formats as modifications of what they already know. When students aren’t focusing on their fear of something new, they can focus on their writing.
So tell students they have just one process to learn.
Start small with beginning writers. You can teach them to start writing expository nonfiction with three-sentence introductions:
First sentence identifies the general topic.
Third sentence presents the thesis statement.
Second sentence builds a bridge between the first and second sentence ideas.
Of course, that’s not how mature writers write introductions, but it is enough to launch your beginning writers into the composition process. Most of what beginners need to know about how to write they will only learn as they actually write. You need to give them less instruction in the theoretical how-to and more writing opportunities.
Remember writing is a process.
Don’t fret if beginning writers’ introductions are puny or boring as long as their essays have introductions with the requisite three sentences. Beginning writers need to get a feel for the entire writing process before they can work at developing any single part of it
Don’t waste your time talking about what students can learn only by experience. Prepare them as best you can for that first writing experience and throw them into the essay.