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You Can Teach Writing
 

Writing skill develops slowly. Be patient.

Even if a novice writer is interested and motivated, writing skill develops slowly.

As a writing teacher, you need to be prepared emotionally as well as pedagogically for the length of time it will take novice students to become competent writers. If you are unprepared in either dimension, your teaching experience will be less successful than it needs to be.

On this page, I'll give you some guidance about how long you can reasonably expect to spend teaching writing to novice writers before you see real results.

The ordinary English teacher underestimates by as much as 90% the amount of time it takes for students to achieve the writing skill they will need outside the classroom.

I don't want you to be an ordinary English teacher.

Having a realistic understanding of how long teaching expository writing takes will help you avoid premature discouragement that makes you want to chuck the whole thing.

Being discouraged when you don't see the results you can reasonably expect to see is OK: By then you will have so much invested, it will be too late to quit.

Plodding practice is as good as passion.

To develop expository writing competence, students need repeated practice in the entire writing process and extra practice on parts of the process that are trickier for them. 

Students don't need to be passionate about expository writing, or even particularly interested in it to become decent writers. They can achieve writing competence by just plodding through their practice sessions.

In fact, the majority of my students achieve writing competence simply by putting one word after another until putting one word after another becomes an automatic response.

Teach writing strategies thoroughly.

If we're going to have our students achieve expository nonfiction writing skill — expository nonfiction is the kind of writing everyone must do — we need to teach our students learn to use writing strategies aligned with expository writing.

For your students to master any writing strategy, whether it's one of mine or someone else's, they need ample time to practice applying the strategy after they have memorized it.

When you teach any strategy, you must actually teach it rather than presenting it. Students must understand what they are doing and why they are doing it before they practice it.

Students also need to see that the strategy accomplishes something they want to do. That something might be passing English, or it might just be getting to soccer practice on time. Point out those if…then connections for students so they don't miss them.

A routine develops skill in using the writing process.

Students need a strategic writing process, but just mastering individual strategies won't turn them into writers. You will need to devote chunks of class time early in a course to help novice writers combine strategies to produce written documents.

For example, even though the working thesis is just one sentence long, you may need to take most of two or three class periods to get students accustomed to writing a working thesis and expanding it into a writing skeleton.

Even after you've taught the writing process well, if your class meets fewer than five days a week, you'll need to give one-sentence reminders of the salient points every class meeting for weeks.

Unless students practice writing strategies correctly, they are unlikely to develop writing skill, so you also must monitor students' writing strategies practice and provide fast, frequent, informal feedback.

Calculate the practice sessions needed.

You don't get good writing from students who sweat their way through every sentence word by word. Until students are comfortable enough with a particular strategy to use the strategy automatically, they cannot concentrate on what they have to say.

Writing and using a thesis statement — or learning any other writing strategy requires learning a new habit. The rule of thumb is that people need to do something (like brushing their teeth or putting the car keys on the peg by the back door) 28 times in a row to make that action a habit.

Divide 28 by a strategy's frequency in the pattern.

 

If you use the 5-paragraph essay as your pattern, you can readily calculate the number of formal writing assignments students will need to complete before they can reasonably be expected to use a particular writing strategy appropriately and comfortably.

 
Calculator hints at time needed to build writing skill.
Calculate time to writing skill.

In preparing a document that uses the 5-paragraph essay pattern and process, students use ripple strategy three times per essay.  Twenty-eight — the number of daily repetitions needed to build a habit — divided by three is nine and a fraction.

Thus, you or I can reasonably expect students to need to use ripple strategy in at least nine or 10 complete documents before they use the strategy appropriately and comfortably.

By contrast, building a thesis statement from a topic is a task done only once per formal writing prompt. Twenty-eight divided by one is 28.

Thus, you or I can expect to have students going through the entire writing process 28 times and producing 28 complete documents before we see any of our students writing thesis statements appropriately and comfortably.

I get faster than expected results by using informal writing to give students more practice in building thesis statements than they'd get just from writing full, formal documents, but I still can't teach expository writing in anything under five weeks of concentrated, none-of-us-is-going-to-get-out-of-here-alive work.

You can improve your time-to-writing-skill by using informal writing, too, but getting there will still seem to take forever.

Planning to have students write complete documents in five stages over five days lets you plan non-writing content to teach while you're teaching writing.

Don't expect your writing program to delight students.

The common English teacher mistake is to give students far too much time for each stage of the writing process early in the course. When we've worked all summer getting the curriculum ready, we assume students will be as excited about our wonderful writing program as we are. 

They won't. 

And they are not going to become excited about our wonderful writing program at least until you've developed them into competent writers — and maybe not then.

Ninety-nine out of 100 students do not want to learn to write. They just want to get through our writing courses with as little effort as possible. 

Having a long time to write can be a huge psychological barrier for students. It is often better for a student to dash off something that's not great than for the student to spend an hour trying to decide what to write and not write anything.

We have to treat our teen and adult students as if they were toddlers: Keep them so busy with things to do that they don't have time to realize what they are doing is really boring stuff. 

A big part of teaching writing is pushing students to do a bit more than they think they can do in a bit less time than they think they need.

Use informal writing prompts whenever you need to force students to think about some important topic, whether it's related to writing or to some other course objective.

Requiring frequent informal writing helps make writing a normal, everyday activity, which takes a great deal of the fear out of writing. And it also keeps toddlers from teasing the cat.

Anticipate the class time you'll need early in a course.

Time management may not be part of the English curriculum, but it is an important part of learning to write and an extremely important part of learning to teach writing. 

It's essential that you prepare for the first couple weeks of class so that within 12 class days, for a semester long or year-long course, you present students with all eight writing strategies and take students through the entire writing process using those eight strategies at least once.

For at least for the first quarter of a course, I have all students do all the writing for all their formal writing prompts in the classroom under my watchful eye so they are never just sitting staring into space.

During those weeks, for each formal prompt I estimate that students will initially need:

  • 5 minutes to read the formal writing prompt and choose their thesis statement on day 1

  • 5 to 10 minutes to draft their writing skeleton on day 2

  • 10 to 20 minutes to prepare a full plan on day 3

  • an entire 45-minute (or longer) class period to speed draft the document on day 4

  • 10-15 minutes to do three single-error edits of their document on day 5.

I plot other class work around that rough schedule.

As students learn the process, give more planning time.

You need to learn to watch students and adjust the amount of time you're giving them to do that day's activity to fit their needs. Don't give too much time: Keep students on task.

You can expect a couple of things to happen across the class. First, as they get a better grasp of the writing strategies, students will realize they need to spend more time on stages two and three when they are planning their documents.

Secondly, as students work on their individual mastery plans, the frequency of their habitual, serious errors in their first drafts will decrease. They will be able to do three single-error edits of their document in perhaps as little as 5 to 7 minutes.

While you're looking for class trends, don't ignore the exceptional students. If most of the class is still struggling to make their writing skeletons in 10 minutes, but two students finished theirs in three minutes, you suggest those two students begin rippling to identify their information sources.

On the other hand, the student who seems to be working hard but not getting it needs one-on-one attention. Such students often can tell you exactly what their problem is and how to fix it.

By the time students learn they should spend as much or more time planning a document as they spend drafting it, they should be sufficiently well grounded in the strategies to be trusted to do their document planning outside of class most of the time.

Want more practical advice regularly?

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Demand full documents regularly.

 

If you don't have students write complete documents regularly in response to formal writing prompts — by regularly I mean completing at least one complete document every other week for an entire academic year — you have almost no chance of having students master writing strategies let alone develop true writing skill.

 
Warning! Regular practice is needed for writing skill to develop.

And to be entirely honest, you haven't got much chance unless you have students writing a complete document every week.

You have been warned.

Habitual strategies use brings efficiency.

Once using a particular strategy becomes a habit, students can focus their attention on a problem and quickly examine all important facets of that problem.

What's more, their brains will not turn off after the students have gone on to other activities. Writers' brains (even high school sophomore writers' brains) continue working to solve a writing problem while their owners are at soccer practice or play rehearsal.

What we call writing skill is really thinking skill, which can the taught and learned given enough practice and patience.

Don't give up until the class is over.

Simply put, learning to write takes practice over time.

Expect it.

Prepare for it.

You can stop teaching writing when all your students have achieved the competent writing skill you described in your course goals and objectives but not before.

What to read next

 

If you've been reading through the 12 instructional strategies, you've come a long way, baby.

Congratulations!

By now, you should have absorbed the mindset and attitudes you need to succeed in teaching writing to teens and adults.

 Now for the easy stuff: The writing strategies you need to teach students.

 
This page marks competion of goal of instructional strategies mastery.

If you reached this page via a search engine without going through the instructional strategies, 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 2010-10-15  and updated 2013-04-28 by Linda Aragoni. She posted this version to yctwriting.com on 2018-01-01. 

 

Cultivate a writing habit.

Until students develop writing skill, each new writing task feels as if the pencil is as big as a parking meter. 

Without writing skill, each writing task looks like it would take enormous effort, like holding a giant pencil.

When writing competently becomes  students' normal way of writing, most writing assignments are scarcely more worrisome than brushing their teeth.

Students must demonstrate writing skill as routinely as hit person brushes his teeth.

If you and I want our students to develop writing skill, we must help them make a habit of writing competently.

For that, they need writing strategies.

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