Promise and Paradox: Writing in America’s Schools

Image of student-author by WriteSteps. The Common Core writing standards demand something new to overcome decades of flat test scores despite promising advances in pedagogy. Promising advances such as writer’s workshop have changed the face of writing instruction, but national measures still tell us that two-thirds of our graduates can’t write. How do we solve that paradox?

Why do America’s children write so poorly? Writing instruction has seen a lot of innovation since I was a kid. Like many of my peers, I struggled with writing under the old system of the 3 A’s – assign, assume, and assess. My teachers assigned a topic, assumed we could write about it, and assessed our finished pieces.

Today’s kids have it better. Yet there’s still a disconnect. Despite the advances in instruction since I was a child, most teachers still don’t teach writing well. On the last national writing assessment (the NAEP), less than a third of 12th graders, and less than a quarter of elementary students, could write proficiently.

How do we reconcile promising changes in writing pedagogy with this reality? That calls for a quick history lesson in writing instruction.

Message Over Mechanics

New approaches for young writers emerged in the 1980’s when process writing made its way into American classrooms. The whole language movement had made its impact on reading, and now Donald Graves and Donald Murray brought a similar holistic approach to writing.

Rather than simply correcting errors and assigning grades, they focused on meaning. They encouraged children to write about what they knew. They celebrated their ideas. In a radical departure, process writing teachers accepted mistakes in handwriting, spelling, and grammar. Frequent writing would provide the experience kids needed to develop these now-secondary skills.

Process writing also introduced the pre-writing, writing, and rewriting approach. Further, the teacher now functioned as a guide, rather than judge. Instead of just grading students’ final product, teachers now modeled their own writing process and checked in regularly as kids composed their own pieces.

Writer’s workshop, which many educators today associate with Lucy Calkins, is an example of the process writing approach. The National Writing Project has also popularized process writing in summer institutes for teachers.

West Coast Twist

As process writing was incubating on the East Coast, new ideas were also percolating out West. In 1983, a committee in Beaverton, Oregon developed a new assessment rubric – The Six Traits – to improve assessment, a perennial challenge in writing instruction. The traits included: ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions.

Though the Six Traits were conceived as elements for a new assessment rubric, they proved a valuable teaching tool. Teacher Rhonda Woodruff discovered this with her fourth graders in 1986. It turned out that playing the role of evaluator helped students strengthen their writing process, and soon, Oregon teachers were sharing this new instructional approach in national workshops. In 1990, The Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory acquired a version of the original rubric and began selling traits-based instructional aids.

More good leadership emerged in the 1990’s. Teacher Marcia Freeman and later, Ralph Fletcher, built on the foundation of process writing with their ideas for teaching targeted skills such as writing leads and creating transitions.

The Blind Men & The Elephant

Individual research studies have documented the advantages of most of these approaches to teaching writing. Why then, has achievement remained flat for 30 years? Besides the fact that writing has not been given enough instructional time – which I hope the Common Core will cure – I think the biggest reason is that we’re dealing with a case of the blind men and the elephant.

Successful Common Core writing instruction will need to overcome the syndrome of the blind men and the elephant -- by WriteSteps. Each instructional method offers teachers one piece of the puzzle, but none offers everything they need.

In the old story, six blind men visit an elephant, but each one seems to meet an entirely different creature based on the part he has touched. Thus, one describes the elephant as being “like a spear” (tusk), another claims it’s “like a tree” (leg), and so on. The story tells us a person can have a piece of the truth even if he’s still missing a big part of it.

Writing pedagogy is like this. Each instructional method offers teachers one piece of the puzzle, but none gives teachers everything they need. This is why two-thirds of our graduates can’t write. Few elementary teachers learn to teach writing as part of their training, and they simply don’t have time to pull all the pieces together once they’ve entered the classroom. They still have to teach reading, math, social studies, and science, too. Usually, their districts try to support them by offering either:

  • a basal that dumbs down instruction so much that writing lessons seem lifeless and devoid of meaning, or
  • a writer’s workshop program that is full of “heart” but demands so much training that few teachers are actually able to implement it with strong results.
Seeing the Beast

I chose my profession to become the teacher I never had. And perhaps because I made a D- on my first writing assignment in college (yes, it’s true), I set myself to become intimately acquainted with that elephant as a teacher. With the support of my principal, I studied every hair and wrinkle on the beast.

What I developed was pretty simple. I gave my students the best of the best. I fused best practices into a comprehensive approach, their success got attention, and I was asked to help my peers. Thus began my journey as writing coach and crusader.

What I hope to contribute to teaching in general, and to the pool of resources in particular, is akin to giving glasses to blind men. I don’t want any teacher, anywhere, to be limited by an incomplete view of the animal. This is what standards based writing demands. We can shorten the learning curve for teachers and help them befriend the elephant. I’ve seen what can happen when teachers and students grasp its totality. It is nothing short of magnificent.