Underlying most educational programs is an assumption that beyond a certain point all that’s necessary for students to become better at that subject is more practice. Whether or not that assumption is true across the curriculum is debatable, but I find the premise useful in teaching writing.
Students don’t need to know a lot of stuff in order to learn to write nonfiction. Most of what they need to know is really about how to plan a piece of writing. Unlike something like grammar, where the rules are the same for every sentence, planning a piece of writing is tough because very writing assignment is different. That’s why learning to write seems like such a long slog for students and their teachers. But once students master the skill of identifying a single assertion to discuss and picking three reasons why that assertion is true, they’re two-thirds of the way to being able to pull together a document that focuses on that single assertion and mostly makes sense.
I know that even in a half year course that meets three full hours a week in person or online, I can’t get a group of adult students to all write comfortably. A couple students may have enough previous experience to write quite well, but the majority will still have to push themselves to complete each writing assignment. The best I can do—what I’ve decided must be my goal—is for each student to write three competent papers in a row.
When a student can write three consecutive papers that are competent work, that tells me that all that student needs get better at writing is more practice. They don’t need me any more. They can get that writing practice in other courses and in other subjects.
What for you is the point at which all your students need only more practice—without additional input from you—in order to become better writers? Define that point and you’ve defined your goal as a writing teacher.
When you reach that goal post, you’ll no longer have to drive students through the basics. Instead, you’ll be able to talk to each student as one writer to another. That’s when teaching writing becomes fun.
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.
Everybody’s heard about the 10,000-hour rule. That’s the rule that says to become a top-notch practitioner of a skill, whether that skill is playing tennis or violin, making ceramics or taking x-rays, a person needs to put in 10,000 hours practicing that skill.
What everybody ignores is that those 10,000 hours of practice are done only after student of the skill has mastered the basics. Basic skill mastery has its own rule, the 100-hour rule.
Most skills require 100 hours of practice using the basic procedures and techniques of that skill to become adept enough to profit from additional study.
Learning a skill requires doing the skill
Nobody masters a skill just from reading about it, or just from hearing lectures about it, just from discussing it in a small group, or just from watching YouTube videos about it. Skill mastery requires the learner to do the entire activity repeatedly.
Practicing some critical, small part of the process in isolation may be necessary, but skill mastery comes only by practicing the skill for its intended purpose. That means the violist must practice playing entire pieces, the baker must practice baking entire pies, the writer must practice writing entire documents.
Sometimes a person masters a skill on their own, simply by trial and error. But all too often when errors exceed successes, people lose heart and quit trying to master the skill. Most people require assistance from others who have already mastered the skill.
Teaching a skill requires distillation
To give learners the 100 hours of appropriate practice they need to master the basics of a skill may not require someone who put in the 10,000 hours’ work to master the basics. People who are really good at a skill aren’t always good at teaching that skill to others: They know too much. They overwhelm the novices. They forget how long it too them just to get to the point that they didn’t have to think about what to do next.
Someone may have only 1,000 hours or only 300 hours beyond the basic 100, but if that person can distill into a few simple steps what the newbie needs to learn, that person can probably do as good or better a job teaching newbies than the expert, providing that person can distill what the newbie must learn into a few short, easy-to-understand sentences. As long as what must be learned as information is short and clear, the procedure it describes can be complicated and delicate. That’s why my program for teaching writing consists of only eight sentences totaling 33 words. The first sentence is here.
Skilled teachers help learners 10 ways
Whether the skill they need is bricklaying or baking, trigonometry or writing, skilled practitioners can help. To be helpful, a skilled person—a.k.a. the teacher—needs to be able to perform 10 tasks for the learner:
Provide learners with physical tools and vocabulary required to learn the skill.
Point out the sequence of actions the skill requires.
Allow learners to watch them perform the skill at a very basic level.
Identify the most crucial aspects of the skill.
Make learners practice the skill under their supervision.
Drill learners on the most crucial aspects of the skill.
Correct learners’ technique during practice sessions.
Make sure learners can go through the entire skill without outside assistance.
Make sure learners actually use the skill without their supervision.
Schedule regular practice sessions until each learner has spent 100 hours practicing the basics of the skill.
Every teacher who wants students to master a skill must be ready, willing, and able to perform each of those tasks—and then do them as learners require.
Next week, if things go as planned, I’ll show you how to provide required 100 hours’ writing practice to teens or adults in 15 weeks.
I read a short post this morning at Mindshift about visual learning. It’s gist is that, although people may prefer visual presentations, having information presented in multiple ways is best for learning, especially if one of the multiple ways is visual.
For teachers of writing, keeping that fact in mind is important.
To develop a skill, people have to do more than see someone else use the skill. Knowing what to do is just the beginning.
To acquire a skill, people need to actually use it. (If people could learn skills by watching experts, there would be thousands of NFL fans who developed skills to rival Tom Brady or Johnny Unitas just by watching television.)
Ideally, people make their initial attempts to learn a skill under controlled settings where mistakes aren’t catastrophic.
Once they have enough skill not to be dangerous, they need to practice in situations that mimic the actual setting in which they will use the skill.
As writing teachers, it’s well worth remembering that writing is only learned hands-on and it’s learned best in practice settings that mimic real settings.
Writing teachers, unfortunately, often overlook the need for practice in simulated writing situation.
Writing nearly always involves both visual and kinesthetic activities. Sometimes writers use auditory or oral activities as well, reciting a mnemonic to themselves, for example, or discussing a planned piece of writing with a peer.
Most people, including English teachers, do the bulk of their writing in what journalists call “clean first draft” situations. That means that while we run spell check and try to allow at least a few hours between drafting and editing our draft, most of our writing is not rewritten even once: The edited first draft is the final draft.
I know that makes teachers of the process approach to writing shudder, but it makes typical students happy: They just want to get the assignment done.
The more times students get the assignment done—assuming they practice writing correctly—the sooner they develop skill at 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,
you probably should being preparing students in December, 2014, for the intellectual tasks comparisons require.
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.
Like playing violin or clarinet, writing is a skill. Talent alone—or even talent coupled with motivation, good teaching, and family support—doesn’t produce musical prodigies.
A study by a researcher at the University of Arkansas found that world-class musicians became proficient by practicing music. Of course, not everyone becomes a world class musician no matter how hard she or he practices. Talent does come into the picture. But those folks who don’t achieve star billing are a vital part of the arts scene. They become the orchestra and the audience for the top performers.
Similarly, those who don’t become great writers become a huge audience of amateurs who write competently, if not brilliantly, themselves. They know from experience how difficult writing is, how hard one must work to become really good at it.
So if you want your students to appreciate literature, require them to write regularly until they become competent amateur writers. They’ll become the book buyers, the book club members, the parents who read to their children.