7 aims of a sensible HS writing program

A sensible goal for a high school or post-secondary writing course should be that:


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.

figure aims dart at target 1

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.

figure aims dart at target 2

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.


figure aims dart at target 3

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.

figure aims dart at target 4

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.

figure aims dart at target 5

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.

figure aims dart at target 6

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.

figure aims dart at target 7

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

Writing prompt: Is higher education an insurance policy?

I’ve been thinking about insurance lately. (I have an annual premium coming due; it does concentrate the mind.)

Sometimes when I hear people talk about sending their kids to college so they can get a good job, I get the sense that they think of a college degree as a kind of insurance policy. Of course, nobody ever says that, but the implication seems to hover just overhead.

It might be worth asking high school juniors and seniors to explore what value they expect to receive in return for their tuition and fees. The diploma might look nice framed on a wall (assuming the graduate has enough money left after tuition and fees to pay for the framing) but what do they really expect to get out of college? Perhaps equally important is the question how and when will they know if they got what they needed?

I think if I were to give that prompt, I would require students to do some personal interviews with college graduates:

  • an interview with someone who completed a bachelor’s degree from one to three years earlier
  • an interview with someone who completed a bachelor’s degree from four to 10 years earlier
  • an interview with someone who completed a bachelor’s degree 20 or more years earlier

I’d have each student come up with a list of three to five questions to ask each interviewee to get their take on the value of their college degree.  And I’d stipulate that they couldn’t ask any teachers in their school/school district.

Over at the PenPrompts.com blog this week,  I posted another insurance-related prompt for folks in the social sciences, especially economics and political science. That one explores whether health insurers ought to give discounts to people who didn’t any claims in a prior year(s) the way car insurers do.