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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
To grow students into competent writers requires drudgery, and I don’t mean drudgery just for students. You and I have to give students daily writing practice, which means we have to come up with topics for students to write about every day.
Being a naturally lazy person, I collect short pieces of writing to use as writing prompts. My special favorites are examples of bad writing because
It’s easier to find examples of bad writing than to find short pieces of good writing (I told you I’m lazy), and
From their responses to other people’s writing mistakes, students understand why they need conquer their own bad writing habits.
Here’s a photograph of a sign on the door of a room used for group activities in an apartment building:
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.
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 all too well.
In recent years, I’ve typically been expected to provide an entire writing course online to employed adults in eight weeks. A writing course should provide a minimum of 100 hours of actual writing practice to get students to the point at which all that’s required for them to continue improving their writing skills is more practice. It is clearly impossible for me to give my students that amount of writing practice within an eight week period: They would need nearly two hours of free time a day to accomplish it.
In order to get anywhere near the minimum amount of practice, I’ve developed unorthodox procedures to eliminate any activities that are not absolutely necessary and give students as many hours of actual writing practice as I can possibly cram into eight weeks. The process is flexible, easy-to-learn, and it works for all kinds of expository nonfiction writing: It’s the process I’ve used for newspaper reporting, magazine articles, nonfiction books and what is politely called ephemera. (You may refer to ephemera as junk mail, but you won’t sound nearly as well-educated.)
You can reduce the stress of online teaching by adopting three of my practices. They’re equally applicable to teaching students grades seven through 12 as they are to teaching college students.
Here are three strategies that enable me to give students a maximum of writing experience in a minimum amount of time.
1. Don’t use traditional textbooks.
In lieu of a textbook, I have a list of eight writing strategies for expository writers. My list condenses what students must learn to do into eight imperative sentences, none longer than five words.
By learn, I mean not only that students memorize the 34-words list, but that they also are able to apply the concepts and skills inherent in those strategies to different expository writing situations. In some writing situations students encounter, they won’t be able to apply the strategies in their pure form, so they must understand the objectives of the strategies well enough to be able to accomplish them via some non-standard method.
If you’ve seen old films about World War II, you may recall situations in which the good guys in a risky situation have to devise a new way of achieving an objective. Soldiers might have needed to blow up a bridge, but they couldn’t accomplish that objective in the way they’d practiced, so they had to improvise to make use of resources at hand. A similar ability to improvise to achieve a writing objective when the actual writing situation is different from the “typical writing situation” is what I mean when I say students know the eight strategies.
2. Limit learners to prompts you assign.
I don’t allow a great deal of learner choice in the way you probably would define the term. All my writing assignments require expository nonfiction writing on communications-related topics. That’s how I give students authentic “English class” topics and still provide a way for them to bring in their out-of-class experiences.
One of the writing prompts in my PenPrompts collection Ready, Set, Write for not-yet-competent writers is this:
“In an I/E text, discuss 2 to 5 words used to change public perception of some topic, issue, or product in each of three fields of human endeavor.”
Word choices are definitely an English class topic. My writing prompt allows students to draw on both their in-school and their out-of-school knowledge to identify fields in which the choice of terms affects public perception. This year, politics would probably be on most students’ lists. Other fields where word choices matter include such different fields as sales and marketing, education, science, law, economics, real estate, and teaching.
3. Provide everything writers need in one place.
All the formal writing prompts I assign to students I embed in a self-contained writing lesson that’s rarely longer than both sides of a single sheet of paper. In lieu of having students look things up in textbooks, each lesson gives students all the information they need to get started on the assignment. For not-yet-competent writers that includes a working thesis that responds to the prompt and a writing skeleton™ so they can quickly “prime their brains” to notice information that may be relevant to their assignment. As they do each assignment, that writing prompt’s lesson drags them through a single problem-solving process that is repeated in greater or lesser detail in each writing prompt’s lesson material.
A few final words.
I’ve been fortunate so far in being provided with learning management systems to use in teaching writing online rather being required to use a business presentation technology. My students and I have communicated entirely in writing, so every student-teacher interaction reinforced the need to communicate clearly in writing. If you are stuck with Zoom or some other program developed for oral presentations rather than for online teaching and learning, you will have much more difficulty teaching writing online and students will have much more difficulty learning to write in the online environment. I wish that were not the case, but that’s reality.
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.