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.

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