Is It Time To Go Back To Basics With Writing Instruction?

 ( Flickr/David Merz)

Most educators acknowledge that literacy is important, but often the focus is on reading because for a long time that is what achievement tests measured. In the last few years there has been more focus on writing in classrooms and on tests, but many students still have difficulty expressing their ideas on paper.

Often students struggle to begin writing, so some teachers have shifted assignments to allow students to write about something they care about, or to provide an authentic audience for written work. While these strategies are important parts of making learning relevant to students, they may not be enough on their own to improve the quality of writing. Practice is important, but how can teachers ensure students are practicing good habits?

Nell Scharff Panero taught high school English for 13 years before going back to school to get her Ph.D. in educational leadership. She is now the director of the Center for Educational Leadership at Baruch College, part of City University of New York (CUNY). As a teacher she was often frustrated that she didn’t have more concrete tools to teach writing. Like many teachers, she taught her students to brainstorm, to write outlines and thesis statements with details that backed them up, but when students still struggled she didn’t feel she had the tools to dig deeper.

“If language was breaking down at the level of the sentence, I didn’t know how to break it down or what to do about it,” Scharff Panero said. “And I didn’t know how to expect more.”

These experiences teaching ultimately led her to the work she currently does, guiding teams of educators in an inquiry process to identify specific, granular gaps in students’ ability to write. Peg Tyre documented one school’s inquiry and implementation process at New Dorp High School in her article “The Writing Revolution,” published in The Atlantic. Despite initially pushing back, Tyre writes that through inquiry teachers began to see that their students didn’t understand things like how the conjunctions “but, because and so” work in sentences, and these gaps were preventing them from expressing complexity in writing.

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“I think what’s most counter-cultural, and not really in the knowledge base, is how to develop students at the level of the sentence and all the ramifications that has in terms of thinking and content,” Scharff Panero said. She has recently published a paper titled "Progressive mastery through deliberate practice: A promising approach for improving writing" in the journal Improving Schools about the New Dorp approach and how it compares to commonly held beliefs about writing instruction, as well as the existing literature on how to teach writing.

“There’s a belief that you immerse kids in it and they kind of figure it out,” Scharff Panero said. And some kids can, especially if they grow up in a language-rich environment without any of the common barriers found in public school classrooms, like learning English as a second language, special needs, trauma and poverty. The idea is that models of good writing naturally transfer to students as they regularly practice their own writing, but sometimes students don’t pick up on crucial ideas that end up inhibiting them as they advance in school.

Indeed, many students in the public education system aren’t “catching” what they need to know about writing -- the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress writing test found almost 75 percent of eighth- and 12th-graders in the U.S. wrote below grade level and only 3 percent of U.S. students, across all demographics, wrote at an “advanced” level.

“Some people can make it, but how do we learn more about how we can teach it better, so everyone does better?” Scharff Panero asked.

The strategies New Dorp teachers used to fill gaps in students’ understanding came from Judith Hochman’s book Teaching Basic Writing Skills, and they seem simplistic. To the average high school teacher, spending a semester on sentence-level exercises that are heavily scaffolded seems easy and boring. But Scharff Panero said that when teachers try taking instruction back to basics using what she calls “progressive mastery,” they see big improvements in the quality of both thinking and writing, and that students can meet high school expectations when teachers slow down to show them how to write well.

The New Dorp turnaround inspired New York City to require the approach at the 30 lowest-performing high schools in the district, called Renewal Schools. Some of these schools are now beginning to see a shift, but only after some difficult discussions with staff.

“It was very much an attitude that we went in; we taught it; the kids didn’t pay attention; they didn’t study; and they should have learned it,” said Dan Scanlon, principal of John Adams High School. “A lot of people felt they were being blamed for their kids not learning something.”

Scanlon said it was difficult for his staff to acknowledge that pointing fingers at students wasn’t going to improve performance. Instead, the staff had to accept the reality of where their students were at and try something new and different for most high school teachers. Because John Adams has been a low-achieving school for a long time and has been designated a Renewal School, teachers ultimately had no choice. The whole staff got trained in the writing strategies, called Writing is Thinking through Strategic Inquiry (WITsi), and learned how to apply them to their content areas.

“We have better teacher practice because of their implementation of WIT and that has improved performance on Regents exams,” said Joanna Cohen, a vice-principal at John Adams. School administrators chose to implement writing across the curriculum because they began to see that many of the gaps in writing knowledge also pointed to fundamental abilities to express relationships. Using “so” correctly in a sentence, for example, indicates causality, an idea that’s just as important in math and science as it is in more writing-intensive disciplines like social studies and English.

HOW PROGRESSIVE MASTERY WORKS

The WIT activities are not a set curriculum meant to be used exactly the same way by every teacher. Instead, Scharff Panero explained that teachers are trained in the strategies and then use their own discretion to introduce different approaches, according to their instructional goals. For the program to work well, it’s important for teachers to be able to pick out and focus on writing structures that indicate a way of thinking, no matter the discipline. For example, distinguishing general ideas from specific statements is a crucial skill that comes up when students write paragraphs that include a topic sentence, along with supporting sentences that back up the topic sentence.

When the idea of distinguishing general from specific is the focus of the lesson, the teacher can approach it in a different way. For example, in the Hochman Method used at New Dorp and studied by Scharff Panero, teachers started by giving students a paragraph and asking them to pick out the general statement, the topic sentence and specific statements, the supporting detail. Starting with the model before asking students to write their own topic sentences helped reinforce the bigger idea of the difference between general and specific.

The idea behind progressive mastery is to protect students from what confuses them until they have mastered each individual component. With that in mind, the freshman high school students Scharff Panero studied focused on the level of the sentence, as well as note-taking strategies, for a whole semester. They looked at examples, identified different kinds of sentences and the details within them, filled in word stems, learned to expand sentences and how to combine them.

A scaffolded activity focusing on the differences between but, because, and so in a sentence.
A scaffolded activity focusing on the differences between but, because, and so in a sentence. (Nell Scharff-Panero/"Progressive mastery through deliberate practice: A promising approach for improving writing")

Many of these activities are “closed" in that they have a right or a wrong answer that indicates both how well students understand the writing structure, as well as the content involved. Scharff Panero is aware that many educators believe writing in this didactic way inhibits creativity and free expression, but she says students need to understand the rules of writing before they can break them. And, she pushes back against the idea that this approach is dumbing down expectations, arguing that short, sentence-level exercises can contain a lot of rigor and show deep thought.

“My feeling is that if you believe, as I do, that they’re missing foundational skills, then if all you do is increase the rigor without closing the skill gap, then you’ll just make the divide bigger,” she said. Asking students to read longer and more challenging texts, and to write longer essays without first showing them in concrete ways how to build up to that level, defeats the purpose in her mind.

After mastering sentences, teachers move on to how to build a paragraph. They teach students how to write quick outlines using a specific note-taking strategy that can then provide an easy guide for writing. Many of these ideas are familiar to English teachers, but the difference with the progressive mastery or WIT strategies is how teachers break down each aspect of writing. Many high school teachers haven’t been taught to teach this way, and while they know how to write themselves, they may not be thinking clearly about the scaffolded steps required to accurately summarize or build on an idea. As simple as they sound, these writing strategies are meant to fill in those gaps.

Example of a sentence expansion activity.
An example of a sentence expansion activity. (Nell Scharff-Panero/"Progressive mastery through deliberate practice: A promising approach for improving writing")

JOHN ADAMS HIGH SCHOOL

It was frustrating, but John Adams teachers had to face the reality that their kids needed them to step back and explicitly teach things like how to effectively use conjunctions in a sentence. While it’s natural that the English department expected to be reading and analyzing literature, its teachers soon realized that if they didn’t help their students master writing, they’d never get there.

“We weren’t really sure how well it was going to work because we thought it was really low level for high school,” said Loribeth Libretta, an English teacher at John Adams. She’s been using the WIT strategies for five years now and has seen the difference it has made for students. She remembers one shy freshman boy who lacked confidence and most writing skills. Now, he’s a junior in her class and she says it’s a joy to read his well-developed paragraphs that flow together and express high-level thinking. He’s also become much more confident as a learner.

“Ideally they should have learned this in elementary and junior high school,” said Lauren Salamone, who teaches sophomores Global History. “That’s your automatic reaction, but it’s not the reality.”

There’s a lot of writing on the New York Regents Global History exam, which requires students to answer several document-based questions as well as two essays covering a lot of content. Salamone didn’t resist the writing strategies because she could see early on that her students didn’t have the skills to write at the level required of them. And, to her surprise, her students were grateful to learn the code to good writing.

“They just kind of naturally grabbed on,” Salamone said. “They didn’t really question at all. If anything they found the benefit in it.”

As a science teacher, Jennifer McHugh was skeptical of the schoolwide writing strategy. She didn’t see why she should use valuable class time to teach writing when students wouldn’t need that information to pass the Regents test in her class. But, she complied with the program because she had to, and has come around to how the writing strategies improved her students’ scientific thinking as well.

Asking students to use “but, because and so” about the science they are learning has given students new tools and perspectives to discuss what they know. And, McHugh has found that the writing exercises help her see where students have gaps in their knowledge. For example, if a student uses “but” incorrectly in a sentence, it’s likely he or she doesn’t understand the relationship between the two things yet.

“It helps with their critical thinking skills because they’re thinking from multiple perspectives,” McHugh said. She’s seen her students grow over the year and they earned better Regents scores as well.

What started out as a writing program has become a way to scaffold content and improve teacher performance at John Adams. Teachers are consistently asked to dive into the data in their classrooms and try to understand where the gaps are and how they can be filled. The inquiry that staff did to find the gaps and develop strategies to fill them is ongoing. This work is pushing them to think more critically about how they teach as well.

Scharff Panero believes education researchers need to do more explicit studies on best practices to teach writing, and sees her paper as a starting point for that work. Research has already shown that improving writing also improves thinking, content knowledge and speaking skills. She’s not convinced the WIT strategies that she helped develop for New York City’s Renewal Schools are the only way to see pronounced growth in students’ writing abilities. It could just be that identifying and actively trying to fill gaps in writing, no matter how it’s done, is enough.

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She’s also skeptical that a software program could find and remediate weaknesses in writing. The processes she has witnessed are very human-based, requiring a teacher’s expertise. Principal Scanlon also thought it might be hard for a computer program to yield the same results. He pointed out that software can give a teacher a lot of data, but how he or she uses that data is much more important. He believes that requiring teacher teams to do cycles of inquiry into their students’ skills, while providing them with support and ideas for closing gaps, serves the important purpose of helping teachers grow, too.

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