How to teach writing better

How well you teach writing to teens and adults boils down to whether you use practices that facilitate students’ learning or whether you use practices that either don’t help students develop writing skill or actively inhibit their developing writing skill.

Writing isn’t learned in the same way a subject such as history is learned by accumulating facts and concepts and making them fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Students certainly have to master some facts and concepts, but a student only learns to write when that students puts the pieces together to produce an image that looks like the idea in that student’s mind.

person at start of path to distant place

Choose best practices instead of poor ones

You facilitate students’ mastery of writing by choosing teaching practices that help all students learn to write. Below are what I think are the top 10 most important choices you can make as a writing teacher if you want all your students to become competent writers:

Number 1: Concentrate on teaching your average students. Don’t focus just on your best students. Average students will make up the majority of your students. Your best students will need little, if any, help. The poorest students require short periods of help frequently and positive reinforcement for small successes.

Number 2: Coach and mentor all your students. Don’t coach and mentor only your best students.

Number 3: Give every student individual attention. Don’t concentrate your attention on your presentations. You can accomplish a great deal in a one-minute chat with a student.

Number 4. Teach for realistic tasks. Don’t teach to artificial tests.

Number 5. Focus on having students learn to write. Don’t focus on having students enjoy class.

Number 6. Teach to authentic tests. Don’t teach to bubble tests.

Number 7. Evaluate according to students’ writing skill. Don’t evaluate by students’ enjoyment.

Number 8. Stress interconnections of content. Don’t teach pieces of content in isolation.

Number 9. Demand competence from all students by the course end. Don’t accept not-yet-competent work from some at the course end.

Number 10. Respond to student writing. Don’t correct student writing.

There are other practices that will make it easier for you to teach a group of teens or adults to write competently, but I’ll save them for other days.

© 2021 Linda G. Aragoni

Students or customers?

Many months ago, I received a notice about upcoming webinars for teachers. One of the webinars caught my eye and raised my blood pressure. It was titled “4 Sure-Fire Ways to Improve the K-12 Customer Experience.”

I don’t know whether the college students in my freshman English courses have had good customer experiences in high school or not, nor do I particularly care. It’s obvious most of my students didn’t learn a lick in K-12 about how to write on demand the kind of nonfiction prose everyone has to be able to write. I do care about that.

It is not my job to improve the K-12 customer experience.

I’m a teacher, not a customer service representative.

It’s my job to take the students who didn’t learn how to write in grades K-12 and turn them into writers.

If students don’t like English 101, I don’t let them do basket weaving instead.

If students find writing evidence-based, logically presented documents is hard, I tell them, “Writing is hard for me, too. Just do it.”

If students don’t do their assignments, I don’t refund their tuition.

If your students show up in my freshman English class, they will learn what their K-12 customer service representatives failed to teach them or they will fail freshman English.

You have been warned.

©2021 Linda G. Aragoni

Informal writing prompt: spelling bye Chirstine

Today I have another informal writing prompt for you to use with teens or adults. It uses a notice posted by a work-seeker.

Here’s an image of the posted notice (the phone number has been removed) which you should display and read aloud to students.

Here are the directions to give students.

First, in no more than two sentences, identify the error or errors you see in this notice and explain how you’d correct the error or errors. You have 1 minute to write.

Now, in one or two sentences, based just on what you’ve noticed, what do you think is the likelihood the writer will land a job, and why do you think that? You have 1 minute to write.

Here are the errors.

With a little luck, students will have found bye should have been by and Aid should have been Aide. Probably Chirstine should have been Christine. although I suppose it’s possible that someone is named Chirstine.

Why use informal prompts?

This is the sort of prompt that you can give at the beginning of a class to get everyone’s attention. Like all informal prompts, it requires students to respond immediately, so their responses will let you do a quick assessment of their spelling and editing skills. Moreover, you’ll be able to do quick assessments regularly.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Words whose spelling-meaning links must be taught: SYDLS

Everyday English speech is cluttered with simple words whose appearance—that is to say, their spelling—must be drilled into students so they don’t mistake one familiar word for another similar-sounding word when they write.

I tell my students they must know, for example, when to use bare and when to use bear. The reason they must know the correct use of those simple words, I tell them, is “so you don’t look stupid.” I refer to such similar-sounding familiar word pairs or word trios as “SYDLS words.” 

This week, I’ve seen dozens of SYDLS mistakes in, of all places, a course developed by the Smithsonian in conjunction with The Great Courses entitled America’s Founding Fathers. The course embeds the professor’s lecture into the video as subtitles. It appears that someone transcribed the lecture from an audio recording, but no one checked the transcription for accuracy. The transcription includes such SYDLS as these:

  • “unregulated as to some,” in a discussion of finances, instead of unregulated as to sum
  • “enact bands on the importation of slaves” instead of enact bans
  • “The principle states” instead of the principal states.

(I also saw justice tenacity” instead of just as tenaciously, which is a mishearing, although not a SYDLS.)

I have a file box of over 300 SYDLS word sets. I teach the most common ones the way I take vitamins: one a day. I try to give students some mnemonic device to help them remember one half of a pair of confusable terms. Sometimes that’s a drawing, like this:

Simple mnemonic for when not to use the spelling alter.

See how the two As in altar are used as like sawhorses to create an altar?

Sometimes it’s just suggesting a link between a word and its spelling. For example, the word principle is used in settings where the idea of a rule could be substituted without destroying the meaning of the sentence entirely.

If you aren’t already dropping daily hints to your students about correct use of common words, I suggest you put that on your to-do list. It requires relatively little work on your part to make sure your students don’t often look stupid.

Postscript: Aside from the SYDLS, America’s Founding Fathers is a great course. I’d love to sit in Allen C. Guelzo’s classroom without benefit of subtitles. He really is a master teacher.

© 2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

When is more practice all that’s needed?

Ball player and musician each practicing .
What’s the point at which practice will improve writing skill all by itself?

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.

©2020  Linda G. Aragoni

Teaching writing online: Three practices that work

If you’ve been required to become an online writing teacher during the Covid pandemic, the difficulty of teaching students to write in an online class may have driven you to the point of despair.

I know that feeling.

The first time I taught a writing class, I told students everything I knew about how to write in the first class period. For the rest of the semester, I didn’t teach at all. I gave students nonfiction writing topics to write on in class. While they wrote I walked around and talked with individual students about what they were doing. Despite my untraditional procedure, students learned to write and I learned that what students need more than information about writing is practice writing.

To teach writing online, you will also need to find ways to have students practice writing under your supervision. Doing that isn’t easy using Zoom or similar technologies designed for large group meetings, which are essentially lecture halls. Here are three tips for teaching writing online.

Don’t use traditional textbooks                      

To learn how to write, students need to have only the most basic information that they can use and reuse repeatedly. That means they need easy-to-remember strategies for nonfiction writing. Nonfiction is the writing everyone is required to do, and most required nonfiction writing is short: a telephone message, a request for vacation, a report on why pump #2 failed. Textbooks have far too much information.

Teach writing strategies

Instead of a textbook, I give students eight writing strategies building upon a pattern of thesis and support. They can use the strategies as a basis for virtually every bit of nonfiction writing they’ll be called upon to do in school or in most work situations.  

The frightening word write doesn’t appear in the directions.

One of my writing strategies is an alternative to an outline that I call a writing skeleton™. A writing skeleton™, like a human skeleton, forms a framework that holds the body together but isn’t obvious on first glance.

Every assignment I give novice writers includes a writing skeleton™. The skeleton typically consists of three sentences in which a working thesis is followed by a place for the student insert a reason for believing the thesis is true. Writing skeletons are clunky and awkward, but they’re convenient for students to use: they keep the students’ supporting statements linked to their thesis statements.  Since no one but you and a student need to see that student’s writing skeletons, they don’t need to be pretty.

Stick to essentials

Variety may be the spice of life, but variety keeps students from learning to write. You must stick to the same eight writing strategies. You must keep repeating yourself until you’re ready to scream before you see the first glimmer that someone is catching on. If you can’t stand being bored, perhaps you ought to consider a career other than teaching English.

That’s all you really need to know and to teach.

© 2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mastering writing: The 100-hour rule

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:

  1. Provide learners with physical tools and vocabulary required to learn the skill.
  2. Point out the sequence of actions the skill requires.
  3. Allow learners to watch them perform the skill at a very basic level.
  4. Identify the most crucial aspects of the skill.
  5. Make learners practice the skill under their supervision.
  6. Drill learners on the most crucial aspects of the skill.
  7. Correct learners’ technique during practice sessions.
  8. Make sure learners can go through the entire skill without outside assistance.
  9. Make sure learners actually use the skill without their supervision.
  10. 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.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

 

ABCs tell warm bodies how to teach nonfiction writing

Most people who end up teaching nonfiction writing get into it the way I did, by being the most convenient warm body the administration could find readily.Cover of The Writing Teacher's ABCs

The Writing Teacher’s ABCs: Help Teens and Adults to Competent Nonfiction Writing is for them.

The Writing Teacher’s ABCs  isn’t an “everything you need to know” book.

It’s more of a “the least you can get by with while you figure out what you’re doing” book.

I broke the big, frightening process  of teaching writing into 26 short, practical chapters, so

even if someone isn’t a great writer,
even if someone never taught nonfiction writing before, and
even if someone has  no clue where to begin,

The Writing Teacher’s ABCs will give them enough to get started and keep ahead of their students until they get the hang of teaching writing.

Get a free copy

I’m giving away copies of The Writing Teacher’s ABCs to the first 100 people who surf over to digital publisher LeanPub.com.

The book is available at LeanPub.com in pdf format for computer viewing, in EPUB for iPad and other ebook readers and phones, and in MOBI for Kindle.

Only 100 copies of the book have been set aside for this offer, so if you want a copy, don’t delay. The giveaway ends Feb. 28, 2015, if the quantity hasn’t already been exhausted.

Buyers who arrive too late to get a totally free copy,  can preview the front matter and two chapters, and then set their own price.

If that’s not good enough, there’s a 45-day, no questions asked, money-back guarantee.

You can Tweet about the book using the hashtag #abcwrite .