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.

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.

Learning to Write by Trial and Error

Building block pyramid broken, human figure toppledSome kinds of knowledge are acquired only  by trial and error.  For example, students need to see a direct cause- and-effect relationship between a particular writing choice and the its result before they understand the need for planning before they write.

If students discover they messed up only after they get their grade, writing teachers need to get students to see where in the writing process where a different choice could have produced a different outcome.  Focus their attention by asking, “Where’s the first place you could have made a change that would have changed how this outcome?”

The biggest messes are caused by not having a clear working thesis. The working thesis should be the first sentence students write; it’s the main idea that directs everything they do. Students may recall that as a fact they’ve filed under “dumb stuff my teacher says,” but until need experience of attempting to write without a working thesis before they realize effort they put into initial planning pays big dividends later.

Allow students correct as best they can  before deadline any goofs they discover before they’ve submitted a final draft .  Refusing to let students modify a topic or outline after they discover it won’t work is just plain dumb.

Giving students extra time to correct a first-part-of-writing-process error they discover at the last minute is dumb, too.  The whole point of planning is to develop the ability to figure out how to produce desired outcomes without trying all the available options.

Deadlines are marvelous for concentrating attention.

I learned that by trial and error.

Photo credit: “Stability 3” uploaded by Avolore http://www.sxc.hu/photo/596909

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.