A sensible goal for a high school or post-secondary writing course should be that:
ALL STUDENTS WRITE FIRST DRAFTS COMPETENTLY.
In today’s workplace, it doesn’t make any different how great a piece of writing a student can turn out in 18 drafts. It a student can’t turn out a first draft that’s competent, that student won’t last long in an 21st century office. You don’t get a second chance to write a first draft.
Define competence clearly
Competent writing should be defined like this: On a topic with which they are familiar, in one hour all students can write a clean, 500-word I/E nonfiction text which responds to the prompt.
To avoid nitpicking, I say clean means free of the 20 serious errors in Connors and Lunsford’s 1988 list and free of topic-specific misspellings. That’s not a perfect solution, but it restricts the definition of errors to a manageable number. If the topic is biology, biology terms must be spelled correctly. If the topic is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the student must spell novel correctly and get the characters’ names right.
To achieve the goal, take aim 7 times.
Aim 1. All students must be able to write expository nonfiction texts of 1,000 or fewer words.
The 1,000 word figure is used here, rather than the 500 words specified in the goal, to allow teachers flexibility. Although multiple short papers are more effective than a few long ones in teaching students to write, sometimes 500 words just isn’t enough for students to do justice to the topic.
I don’t recommend more than one 1,000-word paper a semester with not-yet-competent writers. I do recommend having students write in class the drafts of each of the papers they submit for a grade. Students should be able to draft half an 1,000-word paper in an hour.
Aim 2. All students must write on demand in timed situations.
Students must not only know information, but must also have a process for writing that is second-nature to them. Without both, students cannot compete for jobs. Today’s workplace does not allow time for rewrites.
Aim 3. All students must be able to follow a writing pattern.
Every workplace has certain types of texts that it requires routinely. Students must be able to identify the key features of those texts and reproduce the pattern in which the key features are organized. Teachers should never assume student can recognize a pattern in writing.
4. All students must be able to summarize what they hear, see, read, or think.
Nobody takes time to read a lengthy document unless the document a good, single-sentence summary in a prominent place that gives someone reason to believe the whole document is worth reading.
Aim 5. All students must be able to identify evidence to support their main point, using personal knowledge, personal contacts, and traditional print and digital information sources.
In the workplace, people are the most-consulted information sources. Students need to know how to get information from people, including people who are not interested in providing information. not just from traditional print and digital resources.
Aim 6. All students must recognize situations that require a different writing pattern than they normally use.
Some employees work 10 years without having to use anything other than the basic, thesis-and-support pattern, but they need to know how to respond in the 11th year situation that requires a different pattern.
Aim 7. All students must accurately assess their strengths and weaknesses as communicators.
While all students need to be able to write short I/E texts competently, they need to know whether whether their writing is their strength. You might have a student who is a whiz at editing other people’s writing, or one who has a knack for spotting what essential piece is missing from a text, or one that seems to know instinctively what visuals would communicate a message. Encourage students to become at least competent writers and to develop other communications skills as well.
©2020 Linda G. Aragoni