Students need reasons for writing

People rarely learn skills as an end in themselves. They learn skills so they can accomplish something they need to do or want to do. That’s as true of writing skill as it is of driving skill.

It isn’t necessary that students write about things that interest them in order for them to learn to write. It is, however, vital that they see writing can be used to communicate ideas about what does interest them.

The best models for teaching writing are teachers of complex skills such as driving, playing a musical instrument, or playing a sport.  Those instructors plunge learners into hands-on activity. Drill on specific components is always in the context of the whole process.

Moreover, the instructors stick to one application until students master in. You won’t see a music teacher giving students a lesson the flute one week, a lesson on drums the next, and a lesson on violin the third week and then expecting students to be proficient at playing the trumpet. Having students write a personal narrative, a fable, a poem and a persuasive essay during the school year and then expecting them to be proficient at expository nonfiction is just about that silly.

[2/27/2014 removed link to material no longer available.]

Writing skill comes from practice

People learn the skill of writing through repeated practice in writing. Learners may be helped by reading about writing or through isolated practice of some tricky writing technique, but people learn to write only by repeatedly going through the entire process of writing.

The best way to provide practice is to have students respond to expository nonfiction writing prompts (called essay questions when I was in high school) across the curriculum on a regular basis.

To guarantee enough practice, students from middle school through high school should write an essay at least every other week. The younger students can write single-paragraph or three-paragraph essays; those in tenth grade and older should write five-paragraph essays (which need not have just five paragraphs) requiring at least two good reasons for believing their thesis is true. Under that kind of regular practice regimen, students will get so they can produce a competent piece of writing without only modest effort.

Teachers should allow students to decide which essays are important enough to warrant more than a modest effort.  (Be honest. How many days a year do you feel you are doing something on the job that’s worth your all-out effort?) If teachers do their jobs well, each student should find at least one essay a year that she or he feels is worth putting real effort into doing well.

If students are really writing across the curriculum, teachers in one specific subject area shouldn’t be stuck giving all the feedback and doing all the formal assessments.