Feedback is only half of teaching writing

Until students write competently, most teacher feedback is usually more of a hindrance than a help. That’s not because the advice is bad, but because the writers are already drowning in advice that they aren’t yet capable of following. What keeps a student from writing better isn’t lack of information; it’s lack of practice.

Like beginning basketball players or beginning clarinet players, beginning writers know basically what to do, but they don’t know how to get their eyes, ears, muscles, and brain working together to make it happen. Giving feedback is no substitute for giving students adequate time to practice writing.

Students need both.

Ball player and musician each practicing .
The best advice is worthless without practice in applying it.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

How to do the nearly impossible:

Give 100 hours of writing practice in 15 weeks

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.
row of small hour glasses suggest many hours of practice

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.)

top section of a writing lesson showing its main parts
Top of a writing lesson from my Ready, Set, Write! collection. Note the prompt is within a lesson that includes suggestions to help students start the assignment.

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.

row of small hour glasses

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.

a writing lesson developed by Linda Aragoni
A writing lesson from my Ready, Set, Write! collection for not-yet-competent writers.

row of small hour glasses suggest many hours of practice

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.
QR code for Linda Aragoni's e-junkie shop
Scan the code to visit my shop.

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.

©2020 Linda G. 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

 

Practice does not make perfect

Forget the cliché.

Practice, even lots of practice, doesn’t make perfect.

The concert pianist practices even after performing for international audiences for decades: Practice hasn’t made her performances perfect.

Practicing won’t make your students perfect writers either, not even if they practice correctly very hard for a very long time.

But the goal of practice is not perfection, whatever the cliché says.

What does practice make?

Practice makes automatic.

Practice makes competent.

Practice makes efficient.

Practice makes permanent.

Practice makes proficient.

Practice makes plastic.

If you are teaching writing, those are the learning objectives you should expect to achieve by having students practice.

Profound yet simple: The key to good writing

Images of activities in which practice is essential for progress.
Practice is as essential in writing as in any other hands-on activity.

Practice is as vital to a writer as to a sports player or craftsman.

Teach students to practice the craft of writing.

Coach them during their practice.

Let them see you practicing the craft yourself.

Praise disciplined effort.

Practice makes progress.

And ultimately, practice makes skill permanent.

Writing is a foreign language

It’s time American teachers face the fact that for our students, written English is a foreign language.

Our students can decode writing if it’s not too complicated. They can pass tests of grammar knowledge. They can put together collections of sentences in written English.

What they can’t do is write English language paragraphs for the purposes for which they need or want to write English language paragraphs.

In brief, our students haven’t learned to use written language in real life as a tool for communication.

The way we teach writing (or don’t teach writing) is the major culprit.

We don’t teach writing right.

We don’t give young children enough opportunities to use writing to do things that are both interesting and useful to them.  And we need to give even grade school students opportunities to write both fiction and nonfiction.

We regularly encourage elementary school students to invent stories, which may be interesting to them, but rarely encourage them to do writing that’s useful. Because of that, we turn off many youngsters who are creative but not imaginative, the ones who see how to make something better rather than envisioning an entirely new thing.

There’s no reason that writing cannot be both interesting and useful to youngsters. Even invented stories can be turned to practical uses, which is a fact teachers at all levels routinely ignore.

While we’re having students invent stories, we’re also having them learn grammar and related writing mechanics in isolation from their own writing. The writing mechanics exercises we give students don’t sound like they were written by elementary school students because they weren’t.

Students do exercises (many of them are disguised as games these days) but success with the exercises doesn’t translate into ability to write good sentences of their own. To be able to write good sentences, students need to practice with their own material.

We expose without teaching.

After messing up the teaching of writing in K-6, we mess up from grade 7 through college by failing to give students either procedures or practice in writing the kinds of things adults must write in the kinds of situations in which adults must write: short, nonfiction texts written with an eye on the clock.

In grades 7-12, we expose students to various kinds of writing—perhaps one narrative essay, one comparison essay, one argument essay—but we don’t actually teach students to write any of those things.

It’s hardly any wonder students don’t learn to write: They graduate high school with just enough exposure to writing to build up an immunity.

By the time they reach my first year college course, teens and adults don’t need or want any more exposure to writing. They have enough information about writing, but nobody has taught them to do it.

Most first year college students  would be happy to have help to improve their writing providing the help focuses on a limited number of procedures which are

  • easy to understand
  • easy to learn
  • easy to adapt
  • widely applicable to their own writing situations.

For my students, I’ve identified 10 procedures, each of which can be stated in one sentence, which work in probably 95 percent of the writing situations adults encounter. Unfortunately, teens and adults aren’t able to write just because they have a set of procedures to follow.

Teach and then supervise practice.

In my experience, to become competent at writing most teens and adults need 100 hours of practice—supervised practice—applying the strategies in authentic writing situations. Typically, for first year college students, 20 times through the entire writing process is about 100 hours practice.

That may sound like a lot, but 100 hours of practice between seventh grade and high school graduation shouldn’t be a big deal.

In those 100 hours, we need to do some honest-to-goodness teaching of writing, being physically present while students practice, interacting with them, helping them apply their developing skills to their own writing situations.

And we need to do it now before young people lose the ability to communicate without pictures.