Teaching writing operations

If you are going to turn writing students into student writers, you have to teach them to write without thinking about writing. Without procedural automaticity, writers can’t focus on the content of what they want to say.

Make students compare writing to other skills

Students are more willing to put in time learning to write if they can see the similarity between what they must do to write competently and what they must do to become competent at some other skill that matters to them.
Learning to write operationally—that is, to be able to do writing as a few sets of interconnected steps that don’t need to be mentally triggered, physically performed, and mentally monitored as independent tasks—is essential for our students if we expect them to become competent writers.
Rather than tell students that, I use writing prompts to force not-yet-competent writers to discover a connection between learning to do writing and learning to do some other skill that they see as immediately more important to them than writing. 

Begin with a quote from Alfred North Whitehead

For this prompt, I begin with a quote from philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead in An Introduction to Mathematics. (Quoting Whitehead always impresses the department chair.)

“Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.”

After presenting the quote, I ask students what civilization means.  Then I ask them what advances  and operations mean in the context of the quotation. My students usually start with a dictionary and elaborate on its definitions.

Focus attention on small aspects of civilization

Because civilization is a huge topic, I tell students I want them to think about some tiny aspect of contemporary civilization they are familiar with and use their experience with it to illustrate how being able to do more tasks without consciously thinking about them improves its overall quality.
For example, if they play clarinet or chess, draw or do wood turning, work in food service or bookkeeping they undoubtedly have some tasks they must do routinely that can be considered that activity’s operations.

Give the writing assignment

I assign students to show from their personal experiences or personal observations that some small activity of contemporary civilization improves when participants in the activity are able to do more tasks without conscious thought.

Give planning aids along with the writing assignment

To support not-yet-competent writers, I give them a working thesis and a writing skeleton™ so they can quickly figure out what they might be able to write about. All they have to do is fill in the blanks.
The working thesisI know __ improves when [who] extends the number of operations [it/they/we] can do.
Writing skeleton™ point 1: I know __ improves when [who] extends the number of operations [it/they/we] can do because __ improves/improved when __ are able to _A__ without thinking about it.
Writing skeleton™ point 2: I know __ improves when [who] extends the number of operations [it/they/we] can do because __ improves/improved when __ are able to B without thinking about it.
Writing skeleton™ point 3: I know __ improves when [who] extends the number of operations [it/they/we] can do because __ improves/improved when __ are able to C without thinking about it.
Given the introduction described here and the planning aids, most teens and adults will be able to produce a 500-600 word rough draft in an hour. The drafts won’t be great writing, but each draft will drag students through the entire writing process.
Repeatedly dragging students through the writing process is what teaching writing requires.

Thinking backwards

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about thinking.

More specifically, I’ve been thinking about how to think backward from a goal.

For the last three months, I’ve been working at building a new website with content from my old “You Can Teach Writing” site.

That has necessitated learning a new software program to replace my antique Dreamweaver (purchased in 2000!), learning how to create responsive sites that will display properly on mobile devices, and figuring out how to organize all the website elements—photographs, illustrations, icons, call-out boxes, text, headlines—so I can find information when I need it and format it consistently across the site.

Finding all the information I need to learn requires a lot of research. All too often something I’m sure I will need to have later is discussed at the point where it is deployed, rather than at the point at which I ought to start collecting it.

I’ve not reached any earth-shaking conclusions from these three projects, but I’ve made a few observations that I want to remember when I teach.

Goals hold emotions

Goals always have an emotional component, either actual or potential.

I’ve seen that emotional component several times in software user forums where company employees were annoyed by users’ desire for step-by-step directions.

Users felt successful when they could complete a simple task quickly with the software, while the employees felt unsuccessful if users only wanted to do simple tasks quickly.

As a teacher, I’m tempted (and often succumb) to set goals whose achievement I would find satisfying. I’ve learned that if I set writing goals at a level that students think they can achieve and that they would be satisfied to achieve (I call it “C-level” for competence level), students are much more likely do the assigned work and achieve that level or higher.

Save information for use

People doing an information task for the first time waste a great deal of time and endure a great deal of frustration because they don’t know how to record the information they gather.

By contrast, experienced knowledge workers doing an information task develop strategies and templates for gathering, sorting, labeling, and saving the information they gather.

As a teacher, I try to give my students the benefit of my experience by providing strategies and templates that I and colleagues have found helpful.

Even though the materials I provide might not be useful to every student or in every situation, it’s generally easier for them to modify a prepared structure than to develop one from scratch.

Sequencing precedes skill

To an uninformed observer, skills look like an automatic response to a particular type of stimuli. Actually, skills are sets of tasks performed in such rapid sequence that the tasks seem to melt into one fluid action.

Before people are skilled, they learn to go through component tasks in sequence. Because tasks have both mental and physical components, the learners must:

  1. Remember the next action required.
  2. Physically position themselves to perform the action.
  3. Perform the action.
  4. Verify that the action was performed successfully or backup to #2.
  5. Remember the next action required and go through steps 2-5.

When my writing students “get it” they will behave—and feel—as if they were born knowing how to write.

I need to remember that getting to that point will require many repetitions of the underlying process to get their eyes, brains, and bodies to perform the necessary actions automatically.



Long, Slow Preparation Aids Advanced Writing

You can reduce the strain of difficult writing assignments, such as compare-contrast writing or literary analysis, by preparing students as they do other activities over fairly long period of time.

If, for example, you are going to have students write a comparison essay in March, 2015,

2015 Calendar with March circled
2015 Calendar

you probably should being preparing students in December, 2014,  for the intellectual tasks comparisons require.

2014 Year Calendar with December circled
2014 Year Calendar

Josh and Caitlin may know nothing about writing comparison essays, but they most certainly know something about using comparison thinking.

Build on what they know.

Use that knowledge to help you teach something that’s in your December lessons.

Then tell students explicitly that the skill they demonstrated so brilliantly will be used later in the course for the comparison essay.

Once you start looking at your materials with an eye to the cognitive processes students need to write a comparison essay, you’ll find many places in which it feels natural to use a comparison to have student discover or describe a relationship.

Continue drawing on students’ knowledge of comparison thinking to help you convey information and to plant the notion that they have the necessary skills for the project coming up later in the year.

Activating knowledge and activating self-confidence over a period of weeks enable students to tackle difficult writing tasks without undue stress.

When it comes to writing skills, familiarity breeds confidence.

Writers need rapid feedback from writing

controller in hands of gamerThe kid who hates to write may also be the kid who is enthralled by video games. The games are probably more complicated than writing, but they appeal to kids because, among other things, they give rapid feedback.

Anyone attempting to learn a skill wants immediate feedback. Would you learn to knit if you had to wait until the end of the grading period to know if you were correctly applying the directions for knit and purl? I don’t think so.

The strategies writing teachers teach their least experienced writers should provide feedback apart from any feedback the teachers provide. That maxim is particularly important in what English teachers with self-destructive tendencies call the “pre-writing stage,” practically guaranteeing that students will skip planning entirely.

For planning strategies to be effective for struggling students, the strategies must have a quick pay off. Struggling writers cannot wait three days or a week to learn whether their plan worked. They need to know NOW.

The popular writers’ workshop strategy that has students write and rewrite to find their thesis does not give positive reinforcement soon enough to be effective with struggling writers or with writers who have learning difficulties.

If the first sentence Josh writes is a sensible working thesis sentence, that initial success makes it more likely that he will go on to prepare a three-sentence ¹writing skeleton™.  Applying writing skeleton™ strategy reinforces Josh’s writing effort and makes it likely he will attempt another step in nonfiction process process.

How do you build feedback into the writing strategies you teach your beginning and struggling students?

¹ A writing skeleton™ is a list of main points of a piece of writing, each point formed by the working thesis statement plus the word because and a reason for believing the working thesis to be true. Such a skeleton keeps novice nonfiction writers from losing sight of their main point: As they plan they actually make their thesis statement part of their body paragraph topic sentences.

Working Thesis Key to Planning Good Arguments

The most difficult part of writing nonfiction for most students is coming up with a good working thesis to control their planning efforts. With Common Core State Standards putting increased emphasis on argument, it’s useful to look at the role a good working thesis plays in planning an argument.

A first year college student wrote she was having problems writing an argument about holistic health care. She shared the thesis she had already written:

While conventional medicine is science based and has proven it’s place in life threatening illnesses and emergency situations, holistic health care is a less invasive way of healing the whole body, using natural therapies that have been used successfully for hundreds of years.

The student said she feared her thesis was too broad. She also said she didn’t know how to incorporate rebuttal and wasn’t entirely sure her paper was an argument. Her analysis wasn’t far from the mark.

If we strip all the extraneous language from the student’s thesis, we’re left with this as a working thesis:

Holistic health care is a less invasive way of healing the body than conventional medicine.

What is the exact opposite to that position? It’s this:

Holistic health care is a more invasive way of healing the body than conventional medicine.

Would anyone seriously argue that such things as nutrition and de-stressing are more invasive than brain surgery, for example?

No way.

That’s the student’s problem: An argument essay for training purposes needs a debatable working thesis, one that people can argue both for or against using facts and logic. A real-life argument need not be so black-and-white, but students need clear-cut propositions to debate in order to learn the process.

The student’s work contains a nugget that has potential for an argument essay that she might already have research to support:

Holistic care should be used by health care providers in all but life threatening and emergency situations.

To see if there are arguments for that thesis, the student could use a writing skeleton™ following this model:

Holistic care should be used by health care providers in all but life threatening and emergency situations because [reason 1].

Holistic care should be used by health care providers in all but life threatening and emergency situations because [reason 2].

Holistic care should be used by health care providers in all but life threatening and emergency situations because [reason 3].

If the writer can make a case for that position, she still needs to explore the opposition’s argument so she knows what she must refute. To explore the opposition, she can use the writing skeleton™ again like this:

Holistic care should not be used by health care providers in all situations that are not life threatening or emergencies because [reason 1].

Holistic care should not be used by health care providers in all situations that are not life threatening or emergencies because [reason 2].

Holistic care should not be used by health care providers in all situations that are not life threatening or emergencies because [reason 3].

The process I outlined here makes the process of planning an argument easy enough that average students can muddle through it. Muddling through may not sound like much, but students who don’t get through the process the first time rarely try it a second time.