Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Transforming Substance Into Significance, Part 2: Authenticity

Effective instructional writing programs possess authenticity; they actually teach students how to write well. This may seem like an obvious characteristic, one that every program possesses, but experts describe our current instructional writing programs as having little relationship to actual writing. Students fill instructional time completing exercises, usually identifying parts of speech in preprinted sentences, correcting capitalization and punctuation in preprinted sentences, or identifying the correct word form (e.g., have or has?) in preprinted sentences. Despite all this busyness, research indicates that almost no, if any, relationship exists between such practice and actual writing achievement. With such programs, you could train world-champion sentence diagrammers but never produce a student with exemplary writing skills. The programs lack authenticity because they fail to actually teach writing.

To actually teach writing, an instructional program must contain and teach quality writing’s characteristics. This emphasis can be assessed, in part, by examining the program’s research-base. What sources and experts did the developers consult in constructing the program? Note an important distinction: by research-base I do not mean evidence that the program improved standardized test scores. Such evidence can be informative, but the program is unlikely to produce writers if actual writing experts were not consulted in the program’s development. Again, an important clarification is needed: by writing experts, I mean individuals who are professional writers, or better yet, editors.

Why does this matter? Wouldn’t individuals with expertise in teaching language
arts provide the necessary research-base? No. Instructional experts definitely play a critical role in a program’s development, but if they have never written or edited for publication—something beyond an article here and there—they may lack the knowledge needed to establish the necessary content—the concepts and skills that will develop student writing capacity. Let me illustrate by contrasting how an educational expert and professional writers/editors view writing. I own a textbook used widely in college level courses that train education majors in how to teach the language arts. In the opening chapter, a well-known educator argues that students learn to write by writing. She continues this argument, advocating daily journal writing and weekly story writing for elementary students. For her, frequent writing means engaging students in writing many first drafts with little or no follow-up. Teachers who follow her advice and apply her methods will have students generate large amounts of drafting but little actual writing.

In contrast, when professional editors write about writing, they typically devote one chapter to drafting and nine or more chapters to revising. Writing involves careful crafting of the initial draft. Real writing only begins with drafting, but students in many classrooms spend 90% of the instructional time devoted to writing doing 10% of writing’s actual work! Why? Because the instructional program lacks authenticity; it fails to teach students how to successfully revise their first drafts—it fails to teach students to transform substance into significance.

The research-base matters! Whom did the program’s authors consult to establish the program’s content? If they failed to include insights from professional writers and editors in their initial research, the program likely lacks authenticity. It likely teaches something other than writing.

Coming next: authenticity evidenced in genre variety and purposes for writing

Monday, September 29, 2008

Transforming Substance Into Significance (Part 1)

I apologize for the long pause between postings.

I'm beginning a series of postings addressing writing instruction. I know this is a slight departure from the usual emphasis on neurocognitive research, and I will return to that emphasis, but I'm excited about the potential we have to improve student writing achievement. What follows is the introduction to the series which will be continued in several future postings.

Comments & questions are invited!

Transforming Substance Into Significance 1

For years, writing instruction received less emphasis than more easily measured disciplines like reading and mathematics. Standardized testing tended to only assess writing mechanics such as punctuation and grammar—easily measured knowledge (e.g., In which of the following sentences is a comma used correctly?). Since what is tested tends to get taught, actual writing instruction beyond grammar and mechanics received little if any attention. As a result, students learned where to use quotation marks and apostrophes but lacked authentic writing capacity.

these poor instructional practices continue in many classrooms. Researchers describe our current writing instruction as being stuck in the eighteenth century with little real relationship to actual writing. In other words, we are teaching something other than writing while we claim to be teaching writing. Research also indicates that almost no, if any, relationship exists between mechanics instruction and writing achievement. You could train world-champion sentence diagrammers and never produce a student with exemplary writing skills. The relationship just does not exist.

That is not to s
ay that understanding writing’s mechanics does not have a place in writing instruction. It does, but our narrow focus on it fails to produce proficient writers—even if language scores on standardized tests are high. In fact, research suggests that standardized test scores based on knowledge of writing’s mechanics indicate nothing about actual writing capacity.

What, then, characterizes successful writing instruction? Three traits characterize successful writing instruc
tion: authenticity (the instruction actually teaches writing and not just supporting knowledge/skills), integration (the instruction transfers mechanics to actual writing knowledge and skills), and teacher expertise (the instruction is provided by a teacher who knows and uses quality writing practices).

These three elements are so tightly connected that a lack of any one diminishes the others. For example, authentic writing instruction has to be integrated instruction taught by a teacher who knows how writing’s mechanics (punctuation and grammar) translate into good writing practices. Effective writing instruction illustrates all three; one cannot exist without the other two. Let’s examine each one separately and then explore their interactions within effective instruction.