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.

Coach students as they practice writing

icon of basketball player. text asks teachers if they keep students from practicing badly.

As with any skill — from baking to basketball — even if someone practices diligently, that person’s skills won’t improve if they practice incorrectly. Part of writing teachers’ duties is to make sure students practice writing correctly.

We must teach students what to practice and then supervise their practice so they practice the right procedures the right way. Such supervision isn’t about correcting papers; it’s about coaching writers.

Where coaching pays highest returns

There are four places in the expository writing process where coaching students as they practice does the most good.

When students are preparing a working thesis

The working thesis is a one-sentence summary of the main point the writer plans to make in his/her document. It sets the direction in which all the rest of the writer’s work will point. If the working thesis is vague or convoluted, the writer is in as bad a position as a basketball player who doesn’t know which basket to shoot for.

Teachers need to coach students through the process of using teacher-provided working thesis statements until they can be weaned to create their own. Depending on the student, the weaning process could take months.

The more students are encouraged to depart from standard thesis-and-support writing, which teachers tend to call "creative writing,"  the more  students need to decide in advance what point they want the writing to make.  Not having a target generally means hours of wasted time, which tends to turn students off writing. 

When students are preparing a writing skeleton™

The writing skeleton™ is a list of three or more  sentences each of which describes one reason for believing the working thesis to be true.  Coaching students through the writing skeleton™ process is crucial to their success as expository writers.

Preparing a writing skeleton™ resembles scientific research: There’s a hypothesis — the working thesis — to be proved or disproved. But before scientists start work, they first determine what will be sufficient evidence to prove the hypothesis. Similarly, as expository writers start the writing process,  they need to decide what will be sufficient evidence to make it appear plausible that the thesis is correct. (Standards are higher for science than for English class.)

If writers don’t already have evidence to support their faith in their working thesis, in their writing skeletons they make a guess as to what sort of evidence they will find when they do their research. If the writers have evidence, their writing skeletons summarizes that evidence.

It’s very difficult for teens and even adult students to grasp the need to figure out before they do any research what kind and amount of evidence they will need to prove their case. They require coaching to help them realize that it’s much easier and quicker to find specific types of evidence to prove/disprove their working thesis than to write on broad topics.

When students are rippling to identify sources

Ripple strategy is a tool that helps writers figure out where to look for the evidence their working thesis indicates they must find. Just as ripples surround the point at which an object such as a pebble enters a body of water, so ripples indicate rings of potential sources — sources are people — increasingly distant from the writer.

The central ring represents a writer’s personal experience if it’s relevant to the working thesis. The next largest ring represents people writers knows personally, such as family members, co-workers or classmates, who could be approached for evidence on the writer’s working thesis.

Ripples still further from the center represent people a writer could approach through personal contacts, such as a cousin’s boss or a neighbor’s son. Further out are people the writer has heard of but has no personal links with as yet. These may be experts with the most relevant information.

Finally there is the far-out ripple, that of published information.

Students need to be coached through the process of identifying sources and approaching them not just for a writing assignment but for success on the job in twenty-first century businesses.

When students are repairing their documents

After students have drafted their texts, they enter the repair stage. The first part of text repair is to make sure the draft substantially matches the plan. This means students check to see if they overlooked some essential point or piece of evidence they meant to include. If students have planned well, there should be no need to major revisions.

The second part of the repair work is to edit the document for surface errors. I teach my students to do this via single error editing and Individual Mastery Plans. I have students edit their draft documents three times, each time looking for just one of their three most serious habitual errors.

How to coach writers in practicing correctly

You have two primary ways of coaching students. One way is by creating checklists from strategies. You can give students a checklist or have them create one that they can use to tick off completion of tasks. Note, however, that this won’t work unless you’ve taught strategies thoroughly so students are comfortable using them.

The other way — and the one that I find more effective — is coaching by walking around.

When students are doing one of the four tasks listed in this post, walk around the room looking over shoulders encouraging, asking questions about what students are doing and why they’re doing it that way, and suggesting one student talk to another who solved a similar problem.

In your walking around, you want to help students discover the first point in the writing process where they could have done something differently and produced a better outcome. Telling students, "If you’d done X earlier, you wouldn’t be in this mess now," probably makes you feel better, but telling them is never as effective as helping them to discover it for themselves.

Coaching eventually comes down to helping someone discover on their own something you’ve already spent hours teaching them.