The Writing Gap: Why a Renaissance in Writing Instruction is Imperative

“Appositive?”

“What is an appositive?”

“Is that even a word?”


These were snippets of conversations overheard in a teacher’s book study at Liverpool High School, a large, suburban school north of Syracuse, NY. The assembled teachers, from a variety of disciplines including World Languages, English, Social Studies, Science, Mathematics and Special Education, comprise a group studying The Writing Revolution by Dr. Judith C. Hochman and Natalie Wexler.

One book study participant, a teacher-leader, had stumbled upon The Writing Revolution through her reading of an article in the American Educator’s summer edition: “One Sentence at a Time: The Need for Explicit Instruction in Teaching Students to Write Well,” also written by the authors of The Writing Revolution. This discovery promoted a proposal to the School Excellence Team (SET) for a collaborative book study offering a small stipend to volunteer participants.

Why would teachers (mostly non-ELA instructors) in a suburban high school with high graduation rates sacrifice their time to engage in such a book study? Why do professionals such as these participants seek out such resources? Why do colleges and employers cite disappointment with incoming freshman and new hires’ written communication skills?

The answers lie in the writing gap.

The writing gap is demonstrated by student’s inability to fluently communicate in their native language: English. The writing gap begins with the omission of training for teachers in all disciplines and at all levels in the intentional instruction of writing. The writing gap is apparent in the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report citing that only 1 percent of high school seniors tested wrote at an advanced level, while 52 percent performed at a basic level. Literacy has primarily focused on reading strategies and many teachers, especially at the secondary level, are frustrated by students’ poor written expression. However, the blame does not lie with the students: teachers have very little training in writing instruction; many non-English teachers do not see their role as one of writing instructor. Therefore, the writing gap is one that both teachers and students share.

Prospective employers and institutions of higher learning have been complaining about student’s writing skills for some time. As far back as 1874, more than 50 percent of Harvard University students failed a writing entrance exam. Of course, only a minority attended university in the 19th century so one might argue that skills would improve through the evolution of college attendance in the 20th century. However, in 1975, Newsweek, published: Why Johnny Can’t Write, a scathing expose on the detrimental effects of television and sixties progressive education techniques that moved away from writing rules to a focus on expression. This Newsweek report spurred an educational reform movement and ultimately led to the 1983 federal report: A Nation At Risk.

The writing gap is one that both teachers and students share. Click To Tweet

Since the 1980s, standardized testing has sought to hold teachers and students accountable, but with dismal results in writing. Mainly the poor results in writing are tied to poorly written, pedestrian writing prompts. Not surprisingly, students who come from very word-rich home environments demonstrate writing fluency disparate to their peers from non-literary homes (aka lower-socio-economic environments). This dichotomy of student achievement is best shown in the groundbreaking research of Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley in their mid-1980s study of Head Start Programs called: “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3.” The writing gap is a symptom of a more significant endeavor facing public educators: reaching students from diverse backgrounds by empowering them with literacy tools.

The 2001 federal No Child Left Behind Act further extended the standardized assessment movement and emboldened many corporate education reformers to financially gain from the illusion of change. Enter the 2009 Common Core Standards with their emphasis on ELA and Math, coupled with the Race to the Top monies dangled at 48 recession-laden state governors, and more tests were created by companies like Pearson. Moreover, attention and standards focused on student achievement, but teacher training was not prioritized.

Although the Common Core Standards made written expression a higher priority, it did little to draw attention to writing instruction. Eight years after inception, teachers, students, professors, and employers are still reeling from the writing gap. In January 2017, the Hechinger Report released an article entitled: Most colleges enroll many students who aren’t prepared for higher education.” The author, Sarah Butrymowicz, writes: “Data from 911 two- and four-year colleges revealed that 96 percent of schools enrolled students who required remediation in the 2014–15 academic year, the most comprehensive recent numbers. At least 209 schools placed more than half of incoming students in at least one remedial course. At least 569,751 students were enrolled in remedial classes that year.” It is clear that many high school graduates are not well prepared for college-level performance.

The revival of writing pedagogy begins with teacher training, in all subjects, including English. In the journal English Education, Robert P. Yagelski writes:

 “Most teachers of writing, especially in secondary schools, are not themselves writers. Most secondary English teachers do not think of themselves as writers, nor do most school administrators. And in teacher certification programs, writing is often subordinated to literature and reading. As a result, in mainstream writing instruction, writing is not a transformative experience for most students.”

For too long writing has been an activity with very little intentional time spent for instruction or revision. Teachers have assigned a significant number of writing pieces, but repetition alone does not promote effective written communication.

Writing instruction needs a renaissance.

When surveyed, most teachers cite very little to no writing instruction training in their undergraduate or graduate coursework. At the state of New York College at Geneseo pre-service teachers are only required to take one course on literacy for secondary education certification, and two courses for the elementary or special education programs. At the University of Massachusettes, elementary education majors must complete 34 credit hours, but only one course in reading and instructing language arts. To fill the need for professional development, some school districts have invested in literacy programs, like Lucy Calkin’s reading and writing primers. However, many educators have felt dissatisfied with the results of Calkin’s materials. Most educators, k-12, are self-taught — a combination of a little coursework, a few professional development programs, and maybe some collaboration with colleagues. The two most useful training programs often cited by teachers include the National Writing Project and The Writing Revolution. 

Virginia Hovendon, a secondary art teacher from Copenhagen School District, explains the writing gap this way: “I don’t remember having instruction in writing, and honestly lately all we get instruction in is technology. It is as if nothing else is important. I know I am the art teacher, but I still make them write, and I believe in the importance of writing.”

Jon Cain, also a teacher at Copenhagen School District, connects with Virginia Hovendon’s thoughts when he replies: “I believe that there is a constant need to find ways to help students express themselves through the written word, and that is has become even more important as we have become more dependent on technology. Pure writing skills have, in many instances, taken a backseat to the push to help students develop technological skills. I think that, as teachers, we need to continue to develop the skills needed to evaluate where students are at, at how to incorporate writing and writing skills into all disciplines. Most importantly, I think we need to work on the idea of having coordinated writing curriculum that spans grade levels and disciplines. Many teachers do not have writing backgrounds and therefore do not evaluate or work to improve specific writing skills within their students. Ideally, every teacher should be a writing teacher.”

When discussing her minimal teacher training in writing instruction, Leslie, a High School English teacher, from the Salem-Keizer School District, in Salem, Oregan states: “The consensus was that by teaching me to write, I could in turn then teach a student to write.” Even in English education, the expectation is one of trickle-down pedagogy. Unfortunately, like the misguided Regan-era economic theory, teachers are not making it rain. 

Crystal Ponto, an English teacher at the Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES Compass Program, cites the need for training across the disciplines: “Last year a fellow English teacher and I created an event called WRITE NOW 13 where the entire school stopped and spent 13 minutes writing. The actual event was amazing, but the negativity from some teachers surprised me. I teach at a BOCES, and we have many Career and Tech Ed teachers. Many of these teachers are masters in their profession (welding, automotive technology, etc.) but may not have been as thoroughly trained as content area teachers. Through a lot of dialogue and reflection, it became clear that some of these teachers were anxious about their own writing skills and their admission that they don’t have their students writing enough in the classroom. It was clear in the writing responses that the students reflected what their teachers projected.”

Filling in the holes of the writing gap begins with teacher training. 

The participants in The Writing Revolution book club, a group of about twenty-seven educators including one administrator, quickly appreciated Hochman’s assertion that sentence construction is the key to effective writing across disciplines.

It was clear that the students reflected what their teachers projected. Click To Tweet

When asked why they had volunteered for the book study, one science teacher, Sarah Conger, explained:  “I was becoming frustrated by being told that I needed to work on ELA in my science classroom when I have already incorporated reading in a very active, and I would say successful, way for years. I was not given a clear way forward for what they wanted from me. I wanted to become a more effective Science teacher… all of my meeting time was being driven towards what felt like tires spinning, ELA work that didn’t connect to me or my subject area, and wasn’t benefiting my teaching or my students.”

Dr. Hochman’s technique lets the content adjust the rigor but offers students and teachers concrete writing exercises, planning templates, and revision guides. In essence, The Writing Revolution provides educators, especially at the secondary level, methods to improve student writing that does not sacrifice the coverage of the content or increase the time needed to teach the information.

In “Why Kids Can’t Write,”  New York Times author, Dana Goldstein, outlines the benefits of Dr. Hochman’s technique by quoting the professor’s simple message:

“It all starts with a sentence.”

The simplicity of The Writing Revolution techniques is the gateway to student achievement, but more importantly, it offers teachers from all disciplines concrete tools for writing instruction. Over the course of the first and second marking periods, the members of the Liverpool High School book study began infusing Hochman’s ideas about sentences into their curriculum. Their weekly meetings, fueled by snacks and enthusiasm over shared materials, were both scholarly and collaborative.

The book study group began with Hochman’s because-but-so drill, which promotes more in-depth investigation of a topic while constructing a solid argumentative structure for an expository essay. In The Writing Revolution, the authors continually remind the reader: “As with other TWR activities, the content of because-but-so drives the rigor. When you adapt the activity to the content you’re teaching, be sure to anticipate student responses and ensure that your students have enough content knowledge to complete the activity successfully.” This message is the essence of The Writing Revolution and is an essential piece of the revival of writing instruction.

Students began telling book club participant teachers: “Oh, we did this with Mr. G, or we did this in Spanish.” These comments were offered as positive examples of learning transfer by the students.  As the students grew in their comfort, so did the efficacy of the teacher participants. 

The second shared technique that stood out was the use of appositives, a phrase or clause equivalent to a noun, that is placed beside another noun to explain it more thoroughly, as defined in The Writing Revolution. Appositives was a term that most of the teachers in the book study had never used. Modeling for the teachers and subsequently, the students became paramount. In The Writing Revolution, the authors demonstrate the use of an appositive:

New York City, the largest city in the United States, is a major tourist attraction.

Teachers in the book club shared materials and discussed best practices. Team drives were created, and documents in all subjects were saved. The result: collaboration between adults led to improved student achievement.

Sarah Conger explains the benefits of studying The Writing Revolution.  “I have actually seen the “light” so to speak as to how using writing instruction in a meaningful and intentional way could help foster stronger critical thinking and learning in my students…not to mention giving them the confidence to clearly articulate answers to meaningful writing activities on science topics.”

A school librarian, Nancy Nessel, sees all students at Liverpool High School. When asked about the benefits of her involvement with The Writing Revolution book study she commented: “So far, I see students engaged in their writing and not a lot of stressed faces. Another benefit is that I incorporate the skills I learned on my own daughter at home and have seen such a difference in her own writing.”

When Liverpool students were asked about the benefits of The Writing Revolution methods, many cited increased knowledge of the content, the writing of dynamic sentences and the improved organization of their thoughts. Some students also noted how many of their teachers were using the same techniques and employing standardized vocabulary. Teacher collaboration yielded enhanced cognition and transfer of skills between disciplines.

Ultimately, teachers must learn literacy instruction to teach writing. If students cannot effectively write about a topic, they have not mastered the material. The writing gap is real, but so is the desire of teachers to learn how to teach writing. 

High school teacher, Leslie, from Oregon desires training. She states:  “I want to learn ways to motivate a reluctant writer — one who is afraid to write for fear of doing something wrong, one who can’t seem to get started so quits before even putting pencil to paper, one that has had a paper marked so heavily in red pen it bleeds. “

After surveying teachers, it is clear that a writing renaissance must include four very significant characteristics:

  1. Training must be research-based in proven methods from teacher’s own anecdotal accounts. The Writing Revolution and the National Writing Project are excellent places to begin teacher’s instruction.

  2. Training must be supported by professional learning communities focused on student writing samples as evidence to utilize best practices and to also implement more strategies where needed. Professional development cannot be a one-time seminar. For student writing to improve, teachers need time to assess, collaborate, model and reflect.

  3. Training must be across disciplines and grade levels. All teachers must be literacy teachers — reading and writing experts in their subject areas.

  4. Teachers must conference with students individually and give them opportunities for revision and further feedback.

The days of test and punish are nearing an end.  The desired results of student improvement and school reform have not materialized.  Teachers, of course, already recognized the needs of their students.  Educators could tell you what changes were needed, but no one in power was listening to them.  Instead, politicians, academics, and corporate reformers have enacted laws, dangled money, pursued flawed evaluation systems, and overtested the nation’s children.  It is imperative that a writing instruction renaissance begins, but its crucial that the revolution is led by teachers.

 

For further reading about writing instruction, read Jennifer Wolfe’s piece:  “3 Steps to Helping Students Develop College-Ready Writing Skills,” at The Educator’s Room.

 


Sources:

Butrymowicz, Sarah. The Hechinger Report. “Most colleges enroll many students who aren’t prepared for higher education.” January 3, 2017.

Goldstein, Dana. The New York Times. “Why Kids Can’t Write.” August 2, 2017.

Hochman, Judith C. and Natalie Wexler. The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grade. Jossey Bass: San Francisco, Ca 2017.

Yagelski, Robert P. “Writing as Praxis,” English Education, 2012

 

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About the Author:

The more I teach, the more my compassion for students, parents, and teachers grows. Thank you for reading my thoughts.

2 Comments

  1. Victoria Milne December 10, 2017 at 6:02 pm - Reply

    Laura, your article articulates what I could see, the writing gap, was only going to get worse at the time I retired in 2007. The comment about non ELA, or social science teachers not supporting time for writing instruction in their discipline, let alone being able to help a student in a situation such as study hall, sure rang true. Many colleagues stated they thought their time was being wasted on workshop days. It never occurred to me it might have been anxiety over their own writing ability that produced this attitude.

    Since submitting your survey I was asked by a friend to review her high school senior daughter’s college application essay. The daughter, adopted from mainland China, had traveled to China with her family this summer. Consequently she wanted her essay to reflect on this experience. I did read her essay as did several other educators her mom, my friend, knew. In the end my friend said it was very interesting to her that each of us had picked up on different aspects in our suggestions for improvement, from sentence structure to vocabulary. Her daughter chose from among these to create the finished essay. No doubt we were each helping as well as corrective. But to me, so interesting that our insights were so broad concerning what to emphasize for improvement .

    Great that writing in the content area is receiving a renaissance!
    And thanks for the shout out.

  2. Natalie Wexler December 11, 2017 at 3:32 pm - Reply

    As one of the co-authors of The Writing Revolution book, I’m delighted to hear that teachers and students at Liverpool High School have taken the method to heart and found it so helpful! To take things a step further, you and other teachers might want to consider getting training through The Writing Revolution organization, either in New York City (we offer courses during the school year and in the summer) or online. Here’s a link to more information: https://www.thewritingrevolution.org/services/courses-2/

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