You Can Teach Writing

Competence tops writing goals; objectives mark progress toward that goal.

For writing teachers, setting goals and objectives are essential because even the term writing itself can have many different meanings.

Begin the goal-setting process by defining what is essential learning within the context of your course. The absolute essentials are the basis of your learning goals for your course.

We can't teach everything. We can't even present everything. Having a limited number of targets helps us make choices about what students must learn and what we must teach.

If you teach writing in a course devoted exclusively to teaching expository nonfiction writing, you should have just a single goal for the course. (See Instructional Strategy 2 for information about the best writing goal.)

The majority of us, who teach writing within courses that aren't devoted exclusively to teaching nonfiction writing, must confine ourselves to two or three clear course goals, one of which is a writing goal. Those goals must be written down.

Three learning goals is the limit.

If you have more than three learning goals for a writing course, you will not succeed at teaching writing and probably won't succeed at meeting any other course goal.

Without clearly written goals and objectives, we risk being distracted by materials, activities, and assessments that are not related to the writing we want our students to do.

When we get distracted, students become confused; before long, they give up trying to learn to write, and we give up trying to teach them.

Goal statements set a general direction.

Big targets are goals; objectives are much smaller.
Competence is a big bull's eye.

Academic goal statements describe in broad, general terms what all students should achieve by the end of a particular course of study. You and your fellow teachers are supposed to have students meeting specified goals by the end of their academic program.

Goals will help you set a direction for your teaching, but they aren't particularly helpful on a daily basis. They:

  • describe terminal (ultimate/end point) knowledge and skills.
  • cannot be evaluated or measured directly
  • may include attitudes as well as behaviors
  • may describe post-graduation behaviors (e.g. lifelong learning)

Without more information than is in the goals, you won't know how much of the responsibility for getting students to the goals rests with you or how to go about teaching so you fulfill your responsibilities.

That's why goals need objectives: Objectives tell you how to go about achieving the goal.

Prepare one writing goal for your course.

Draft a writing goal you intend to have every student in your class meet by the time your class is over. The goal statement should specify:

  • students for whom the goal is set
  • type of writing students must do on the end-of-course assessment
  • amount of writing students must do on the end-of-course assessment
  • length of time students will have to write the end-of-course assessment
  • writing topics for the end-of-course assessment

Your writing goal must identify an essential component not only of students' education but also an essential component of their lifelong learning.

The parents and taxpayers who pay your salary expect students to complete their formal education  with more than just a diploma: They expect students to be able put their learning to practical use. You ignore that expectation at your peril.

Prepare one non-writing content goal.

Students need something to write about. It's preferable for those writing topics to be topics within your discipline. So even if your course is a dedicated writing course, set a secondary learning goal for non-writing content.

The trick is to be sure any secondary goals stay secondary for your course purposes. If you devote all your class time to discussing your secondary goal material and assign all the writing as homework, students will assume that writing isn't very important. 

I advise against making "grammar" one of your goals in a writing course. When you're teaching writing, you don't want to give the impression that grammar is its most important component. You want students to regard grammar as a tool for communication, not as topic unrelated to their everyday lives.

You might be able to adapt an institutional goal as a focus. For example, if your institution wants students to continue learning after graduation, you could set an objective of having each student investigate ways they expect to need to use nonfiction reading and writing skills after graduation.

The results of their primary research could be used as supporting material for I/E text documents responding to formal writing prompts about the importance of being able to write expository texts competently.

Objectives are milestones.

For help in tracking whether you are achieving your goals — or at least headed in the direction of achieving them — you need some specific markers to use. That's where having goals' objectives is necessary

Writing objectives are descriptions of essential information and skills that learners must learn in order to achieve writing goals.

Other objectives are descriptions of essential information and skills that learners must learn in order to achieve your other, non-writing, goals.

If your institution gives you goal statements but no objectives, you can turn institutional goals into objectives. Q052

Even if you have discipline-specific standards for each year, such as the Common Core provides, you'll still be missing some information Q055 you need in order to be efficient and effective. After you figure out what's missing, follow the directions for turning institutional goals into your objectives. 

Teach what must be learned.

Not everything that could be taught to help students to achieve a goal is necessary to teach. Not everything that could be learned to help students achieve a goal is necessary for them to learn.

As you'll see when we discuss the writing strategies for students' use, skills are the essentials for teaching nonfiction writing,

Arrange your objectives logically.

Arrange each of your writing goals' objectives in a logical progression. That will allow students to use the objectives as a checklist.

In the instructional scheme I teach at this website, my eight essential strategies for student writers are objectives arranged in the order in which students need to do them when they write expository nonfiction.

For your non-writing content goal, you may want to a different arrangement of that goal's objectives; for example, you arrange them so the first letters of their key terms spell a word. Whatever arrangement you choose should make logical sense so students can memorize the objectives readily.

Make your goals' objectives measurable.

Objectives must be written so that outside observers unfamiliar with your class can easily determine if a student did or did not meet the objective.

A goal's objectives should be able to be evaluated in one of three ways:

  • Through a yes/no decision
  • By counting
  • By a combination of 1 and 2.

If an objective says the objective is a score of 65 on a final test, anyone with a basic knowledge of arithmetic can tell whether a student who scored 68 did or did not meet the objective.

Objectives aligned with your course goals should be phrased in ways that are equally clear-cut.

I know some of you are already freaking out at the thought of trying to evaluate writing in the mechanical ways I recommend. That's because you're thinking in terms of assessing completed documents.

Most assessments we do while teaching expository writing is formative assessment of small components and small sections of the planning and repair stages of the writing process.

Prepare as few non-writing content objectives as necessary.

It is easy to write objectives; it is hard to limit yourself to writing only essential objectives. Writing objectives for the non-writing parts of a mostly-writing course is particularly hard because there are so many options to choose from.

If your institution provided a list of goals that cover non-writing content, do this first:

If you have been handed a list of goals, make sure the items describe outcomes. If the list you are given actually describes grade-specific topics or activities, you will have to set your own goals and objectives for non-writing content.

Somewhere in that mess of topics and activities are hints of concepts and skills that are widely applicable. Those are what you need to identify. Do it by grouping related items, and then grouping the small groups into larger related groups.

When you've sorted all the topics and activities into no more than a half-dozen groups, figure out what essential concepts and essential skills tie all the items in each group together. Craft goals for your non-writing content from those essentials.

Then describe in an objective some accomplishment that is essential to achieving your goal for non-writing content.

If your institution hasn't provided you with non-writing goals, do this first:

First, you'll need a non-writing goal that will

  • provide a topic for students to write about
  • advance some institutional or discipline-specific goal

Hint: You can pull a goal either from your institution's mission statement or from the website of a organization for your academic discipline to start your thinking.

Your non-writing goals don't need to be met during your writing course if that's not practical. Merely advancing toward a long-range goal is enough.

For example, if you set a goal of having students be able to tell fiction and nonfiction writing apart, you could have students read some children's fiction and nonfiction and draw their conclusions from them. That's not on the same level as reading adult fiction and nonfiction, but it will help students learn the distinguishing features of fiction and nonfiction.

Another option that's a bit trickier, is to choose a course-related topic you think might interest students and figure out what long-range course-related goal you might achieve with it. There's a real risk of getting sidetracked by unessential material here, so be very careful if you choose this option.

You can use my student writing strategies as writing objectives.

If you embrace as your own my writing goal that all students write expository nonfiction competently, you can use my eight essential writing strategies as your objectives.

I'll just mention here on too-often overlooked point about why goal's objectives are so important: You teach expository writing by giving feedback in terms of your objectives.

Fit together goals, objectives, and assessments.

In a course whose sole goal is teaching expository writing, nearly all assessments for the first half of the course need to be formative assessments in which you looking at one or two aspects of students' writing.

In a course in which there's other (non-writing) content to assess, things are a bit trickier. Students' writing ability, or lack thereof, has a way of influencing our perceptions of their knowledge of non-writing content.

For the first half of a course with dual goals, I suggest you focus primarily on teaching writing because learning to write takes enormous mental effort. By the time students become competent writers, everything else in the ELA curriculum looks simple by comparison.

For purposes of assigning grades, the best advice I can give is to use clean, first draft documents written in class in a single class period to assess both

  • writing competence
  • non-writing content knowledge.

A clean first draft lets students display their writing skills, and as a test of content knowledge, it sidesteps the potential for cheating that is part of take-home tests.

You'll learn about clean first drafts when we look at students' writing strategies.

Your writing goal's objectives apply to clean first drafts.
Clean first draft is free of messes

What to read next

After figuring out your goal's objectives, use instructional strategy 4 to plan for achieving your goals.

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. IS 11 Assess for competence. IS12 Wait for writing skill.

Content on this page was first posted at you-can-teach-writing.com on 2009-07-01 and updated 2013-04-01 by Linda Aragoni. She posted this version to yctwriting.com on 2018-01-01. 

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