You Can Teach Writing

Achieving goals as an expository writing teacher

For most expository writing teachers, achieving goals is hard because they have so many goals. When they focus on one, they ignore another.

And more often than not, the goals that are ignored are those that concern expository writing.

That's unfortunate.

What am I saying?

It's not just unfortunate: It's criminal. Every student must learn writing skills.

No writing teachers who don't produce entire classes of students who are competent writers should think they are achieving their goals.

Few students have star quality.

Achievements of a few writing stars can conceal a writing teacher's incompetence. The true measure of a writing teacher's work is how well the entire class writes.

That, however, is not the popular view.

If you teach in a public school, unless 80 percent of your English language arts students take AP English, participate in poetry jams, or publish their first novels before their junior prom, you're made to feel you are just another cog in the educational machine.

Even homeschooling parents aren't entirely immune from the writing starts syndrome. If her kids struggle with writing, people subtly let the homeschooling mom know there's something wrong with her.

Let's be realistic here.

Any nincompoop can teach writing to a bright, talented youngster who wants to write.

Those bright, motivated kids can — and do — learn writing skills all by themselves regardless of how far short you fall in the best teaching practices department.

All students must learn writing skills.

The real challenge is teaching the typical talentless kids without any interest in writing.

Remember the old story about the bank robber who, when asked why he robbed banks, said, "Because that's where the money is"?

The reason writing teachers need to focus their attention on the talentless kids who couldn't care less about writing is that they are the majority of students. They vastly outnumber the learning disabled, who, it must be noted, qualify for intensive help.

Teach easiest-to-learn writing: I/E texts.

If you're going to teach expository writing well, you need to teach just one type of expository writing until every student writes at least competently in that format.

The first time you teach nonfiction writing, make the experience as easy as possible for yourself by teaching the expository nonfiction that's easiest to teach. By shear coincidence, that type of exposition also happens to be the easiest type for students to learn.

The easiest type of expository writing for teachers to teach and for students to learn is what the Common Core State Standards call informative/explanatory text, I/E for short.

(If you come from a traditional English background, you may know I/E texts by names for various types of essays other than arguments and narratives. You can see how essay types fit within the three Common Core categories on my expository essay continuum.)

Schedule with an eye to achieving goals.

You may have students who enter knowing two-thirds of what you have to teach them.

You will almost certainly have a few students who don't know anything you have to teach them.

And you may even have a few students who don't have anything between their ears.

Whatever their assets and liabilities, those students will learn to write only by practicing writing. 

Students don't become competent writers because you give a certain sequence of presentations or spend a week discussing each writing strategy. Students learn writing skills through practice.

All your students will need writing practice.

When your goal is that every student exit your course writing competently, you must plan so there's enough practice time within the course for every student to reach competence.

The majority of my college students need about 100 hours of daily writing practice before they achieve competence. That equates to going through the entire writing process, from idea to edited document, 20 times.

Of course, a few catch on faster, but probably a quarter of my students are still fumbling after 20 times through the entire writing process.

Your classes aren't going to be like mine (and mine are never twice the same). But the solution that works for me will work for you.

Aim to finish teaching at the 3/4 point.

Since I have found that roughly three-quarters of my students are writing expository nonfiction competently three-quarters of the way through my course, I plan to finish teaching everything students need to know to write expository nonfiction three-quarters of the way through a course.

In other words, I plan to have taught students all eight of the essential writing strategies thoroughly by the three-quarter point in the course.

Some of the strategies require just one presentation and some follow-up via informal writing and one-on-one feedback.

Other strategies, such as the working thesis statement and the writing skeleton™, may need to be presented eight or 10 times in various ways at increasing depths.

Teaching every strategy requires formative assessment, giving feedback, and assigning formal writing prompts that guide students' practice.

If you teach an academic-year-long course in North America, your better students will have enough practice to reach competence after Christmas break.  The majority will be writing competently by Valentine's Day. 

Your slowest students may not be writing informative/expository texts competently until March or April.

Don't change goals, objectives mid-course.

You will be sorely tempted to give up trying to turn your lunkheads into writers far before you've even given them a fair chance to catch on to what you're trying to teach them.

Do not give up trying to teach your lunkheads to write. And do not dumb-down your goals and objectives in mid-course because you see no way of achieving those goals with the lunkheads you have.

It's not fair to yourself or your students to add, remove, or modify goals/objectives mid-course.

Teach for the seventeenth time, if necessary, but don't change your target. Sooner or later, something will click in the brains of even the dullest of the dull and they'll be able to write competently.

Students need more practice. Keep requiring writing.

It doesn't matter how long students take achieving their goals. The important thing is that every student achieves writing competence by the time your course ends.

Students who are early achievers are highly likely to be capable of B- and A-level work. And a surprising number of slower students can do B-level writing, too, given more time to practice.

It's your job to make sure all students get plenty of time to practice.

You can let up when 3/4 of students are competent.

When three-quarters of your class reach competence, you may choose to stop teaching writing in a formal way and use the time for teaching other required content.

You could also start giving writing prompts that suggest one body paragraph be developed with a specific narrative technique such as cause and effect or an anecdote, or suggest they use the argument element of acknowledging an opposing viewpoint.

I usually plan to teach most of my non-writing content in that last quarter of a course and also give all students the option of using some argument or narrative elements.

What to read next

With four instructional strategies behind you, it's time to drill down into strategies that apply specifically to teaching expository writing, beginning with instructional strategy 5, which deals with the best writing pattern to teach.

If you reached this page via a search engine, you may wish to start from the beginning to see what you missed. Here are your choices:  HOME page. Instructional strategies. IS1 Teach required writing. IS2 Aim for competence. IS3 Align objectives to goal. IS4 Plan 3/4 point finish. IS5 Teach 1 writing pattern. IS6 Teach 1 writing process. IS7 Individualize remediation. IS8. Do daily writing practice. IS9 Give fast feedback often. IS10 Require full documents. IS11 Assess for competence. IS12 Wait for writing skill.

Content on this page was first posted at you-can-teach-writing.com on 2008-10-15 and 2010-10-15 by Linda Aragoni with updates in 2013-04. She posted this version to yctwriting.com on 2018-01-01. 


Did you miss something?

Instructional strategies discussed elsewhere on this site explain how to set fewer goals and teach toward them more deeply:

If you haven't read the discussions of those instructional strategies, you may want to click back to see what you missed. All 12 teacher strategies are accessible from the navigation bar option Start Here.