You Can Teach Writing

Teaching the writing process means students must write full documents.

It should go without saying that teaching the writing process requires allowing students to demonstrate that they have mastered the entire writing process.

Like many other things that go without saying, however, it needs to be said.

Using informal writing prompts, you can determine whether students have mastered specific parts of the writing process, but if you want to know whether they have mastered the entire process, you need to use formal writing prompts to allow students to demonstrate their learning. 

It's only then, after students have practiced that process until they write complete documents competently, you can use formal writing prompts for writing assessments.

If the course and its teacher last long enough, the formal writing prompt finally becomes a tool that turns the students' writing process into a thinking process for learning and sharing new information.

Expository writing produces a document.

When you and I are teaching the writing process for expository nonfiction, we're aiming at a completed document that's longer than one paragraph and has a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end.

For students grades seven through college, expository prompts that call for a formal response bear such names as essay topics, essay exams, term papers, research papers, or written projects.

In workplace situations, similar expository writing tasks ask for evidence-based memos, white papers, reports, recommendations, or proposals.

Rather than use any of those names, it's probably wisest to use the neutral terms document or text, both of which are nebulous enough to fit all sorts of written products and which are familiar to 21st century students.

The writing process offers many choices.

The different kinds of written products result from different choices their authors made during the writing process.

The expository writing process — just like the processes for writing everything from poetry to legal writinghas five activities that writers must do:

  1. Find a topic to write about.
  2. Decide what to say about that topic.
  3. Decide how to organize the information.
  4. Develop the central idea.
  5. Present the idea following appropriate writing conventions.

The choices the author makes for activities three, four, and five determine the appearance of the finished product. Two individuals could pick the same topic and choose the same point to make about the topic and yet one would produce a sonnet and the other produce a history book.

Shortcuts help in teaching the writing process for expository nonfiction.

Initially, your formal writing prompts should drag students through the most basic writing process at a rate of approximately one complete document in two hours.

Students will not learn the writing process by going through it a half dozen times. In my experience, they typically need to produce complete documents 20 times before they begin to write competently.

That explains why teaching expository writing in as little as a semester/half-year is grueling for teacher and students. Trying to teach it in eight weeks, which seems to be the current fad in college courses, is a killer.

I'd like to see colleges condense football season into eight weeks.

But I digress.

Teaching the writing process well enough to produce entire classes of competent writers within a single academic year, let alone a single semester, requires us to take a couple of shortcuts that will plunge students into writing almost from the first day of class.

Shortcut #1: Give students a writing topic.

The first shortcut is to provide students with a writing topic rather than asking them to find a topic on their own.

Not only does this avoid what for many students is the hardest part of writinggetting started — but it also mimics the kinds of writing assignments people get in the workplace.

The boss doesn't tell Josh, "Give me a report by Friday." She says, "Give me a report on the shipping dock remodeling project by Friday."

I don't feel that I shortchange students by so much as a dime if I don't insist they come up with their own writing prompt topics, nor should you.

Shortcut #2: Help students narrow the topic.

Until every student in a class is writing competently, help students narrow the formal writing prompt topic. Here, too, this mimics workplace writing.

In many cases a work assignment specifies or at least implies the options:

  • Who is the best applicant? Clearly anyone who isn't an applicant can't be recommended.
  • Should we buy out our competitor's business? The options are buy or don't buy.
  • Which local agent offers the best business insurance plan? The only options are local insurance agents who sell business insurance.

When you are teaching the writing process to not-yet-competent writers, indicate in your writing prompts the basis on which they should narrow the topic you've given them.

Here are three examples of the kinds of language you can use to help student narrow the formal writing prompt topic:

  • From your reading, show …
  • Show the truth of this maxim from your personal observations …
  • Discuss at least two potentially negative consequences of thoughtless online postings and illustrate your thesis with real-life examples.

Shortcut #3. Start students writing in essay format.

I use the traditional essay format when I'm teaching the writing process, but I call it the basic document format or the basic text format. There's no need to muddy the waters with meaningless jargon.

You will recall that in the old-fashioned five-paragraph essay, the model for essay format, each body paragraph discusses one reason for believing the thesis statement is true.

We know expository fiction doesn't have to be written that way. Our students don't know that yet, nor do they need to.

Novice writers, especially those who struggle with writing, seem to find it easiest to learn the writing process when all the information about one point of their writing skeleton™ sentence outline is in a single paragraph.

(Writing skeletons are discussed in the students' writing strategies section of this website.)

My guess is that those struggling writers need visual images to guide them, since their ability to visualize verbal images usually is limited. At any rate, I use both physical diagrams and verbal pictures to help students envision what a completed document will look like.

In essay format, together the beginning and ending of expository nonfiction are no longer than the shortest middle section paragraph.

For some students, it's more helpful to say that the word count of their body paragraphs should be roughly three times the combined word count of their introduction and ending paragraphs. 

Even if you start out with such arithmatical guidelines, it's best to encourage students to learn to eyeball their drafts. If a body paragraph looks short in the first draft, the writer may have omitted something she or he intended to put in that paragraph. 

Writing assessments can assess more than just writing objectives.

If you prepare formal writing prompts for all the major concepts, patterns, and skills in your course, formal writing prompts can give you both:

  • writing assessments, including assessments of writing mechanics, and
  • assessment of other (non-writing) course content.

You must have formal prompts which allow you to assess students' mastery of  the major concepts, patterns and skills for the expository writing process. 

You can do a better job of teaching if you have writing prompts on additional authentic non-writing topics that you can use to assess both knowledge of that other content and students' mastery of the writing process.

I've identified the writing skills, patterns, and concepts you need to teach. They're all right here on this website.

Identify course essentials other than writing.

It's up to you to identify what the "non-writing" skills, patterns, and concepts to teach your classes along with expository writing.

Fortunately, you will probably need to do the analysis only once in your teaching career. Methods and strategies change, but the essential skills, patterns, and concepts of a discipline don’t change.

Hint: Start with skills. There are usually a relatively small number of them. Then figure out what patterns students must know to learn the skills; again, that's a relatively small number.

Finally, figure out which concepts students must learn before they can learn to recognize the patterns or learn the skills required in your discipline. 

There's absolutely no need to spend time presenting material that students can figure out on their own as they respond to your carefully crafted writing prompts.

Have students write documents in class.

In theory, responses to formal prompts can be written as homework. In my experience, however, out-of-class writing is, at best, ineffective and, at worst, counterproductive.

I've learned to have students do all the writing for formal prompts, including all the planning work, in the classroom under my watchful eye until at least halfway through the course.

That's not just because I have in-class writing as one of "final exam" test conditions. It's primarily because I walk around and give feedback through every step of the writing process up to the writing of the actual draft document.

Teaching formal prompt creation is beyond the scope of this website. When you are ready to plunge into that topic, visit yctwriting.com's sister site, PenPrompts.com, which is devoted exclusively to the art and science of preparing expository writing prompts.

Test your writing prompts in writing.

The better your prompt is prepared, the better the responses will be. Since responses to formal writing prompts count toward students' grades, you need to be sure your prompts are clearly written. Your students shouldn't suffer for your sloppy writing.

You should always test your prompts in writing to be sure that following the directions will produce the sorts of documents you intend.

The easy way to test formal writing prompts is by using a writing skeleton™. You'll learn all about them in the writing strategies section of this site, but briefly, the writing skeleton™ is sentence outline.

Each of the skeleton's three points is a single sentence consisting of the working thesis, the word because,  and a reason for believing the thesis is true.

If the person testing your formal writing prompt can come up with three sensible (not necessarily correct) reasons for believing your thesis is true, it's safe to say the writing prompt communicates the assignment clearly enough that students can respond to the prompt in complete documents.

It's only by giving students formal writing prompts that display the students' entire writing process that you can know whether you've been successful at teaching the writing process.

What to read next

If you're working through the instructional strategies, the next topic is about assessment of those full documents in terms of the goal of every student being a competent writer by your course's end.

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 2011-12-16 by Linda Aragoni. She posted this version to yctwriting.com on 2018-01-01. 

Website visitor comment on place of thesis in teaching the writing process.

This year teaching Expository Composition in High School, it dawned on me that the real problem students have is finding the Thesis Sentence to begin their essays. I am afraid they have not mastered this skill.

I need some advice from fellow teachers for easy ways to help students find the courage to proceed on a test. Some students have become so bewildered that they just will not write at all.  ~ Anna