Writing: Are we Teaching it Wrong?

For this school year, I've been asked to support teachers in the writing portion of the English Language Arts Curriculum. I'm not a writing teacher by speciality but I'm a writer and a teacher so that's start. 

As I scan the list of concepts and issues I've been asked to support, I continue to wonder about the relevance of these ideas for today's students:

·         Writing benchmarks
·         Writing process
·         6 + 1 Traits of Writing
The assumption for 90% of teachers and parents is that writing is about text and text is usually linear. I don't very much that many of the understand the ideas here:

These questions envelope my thinking around writing:

  • How much of past practices and instruction about writing continue to remain relevant?
  • Can we teach writing in isolation?
  • Does writing need to be authentic? Is writing an essay for your teacher authentic? Can we do better?
  • Does it work to teach writing without a firm understanding of what it means to write for screens?

Will's latest post in particular raises many questions.

I've no doubt the much of the work of my own district is based on sound research and offers a great foundation for writing. Take a look at a rubric from our Grade 4 Writing Benchmarks:

I still worry about context. I was taught that you needed to be a good writer because one day your job may require it. Today we don't need to wait to find reasons for our students to write. Writing prompts, while useful, are often used because kids can't think of anything to write about because they rarely were writing. I have to believe we're nearing the end of the age where teachers had to develop wild scenarios and reasons for students to write. In fact, we're in the middle of a writing revolution. My 11 year old daughter has started at least 3 blogs in her life and her latest revolves around her love of fashion. She is a blogger and a writer. Schools don't need to tell her that. Schools do need to help her get better. 

I recently attended a webinar on the Power of Non-Fiction Writing. The focus of the webinar was largely around the way that non-fiction writing can improve test scores, to which I usually respond with, "who cares?". It was also mentioned that it can lead to deeper understanding. That's what I'm interested in. Sadly, Angela Peery, never did address the role of online writing. I'll give her the benefit of the doubt in that in one hour she can't share everything but it does seem like a key point was missed.

So I'm left to wonder how much of my new work has to include connective writing. Bud has already led me to some key resources. He's also wrestling with some great questions. Again, I'm not suggesting that the writing process, 6 +1 Traits of Writing isn't valuable. I think there's a great deal of solid ideas when it comes to communications in general. But I'm just not sure how long we can pretent that writing for a screen is somehow superfluous.

Seriously, does non-digital writing even matter?

4 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

  • Good question. I add, shoudl there be anything other than digital writing today, really? Doesn’t all serious writing start out digital now? Isn’t your question about where the writing occurs rather than how? For school, is it in a personal (digital) journal, a word processing document, for personal and class use. Or is it in a broader context like a blog, wiki, or even in short bursts on twitter?

    The concept of draft and revision is troubling for me, when it’s digital. All writing is draft until finished. Serious writing begins (is that pre?), develops, gets feedback, is revised, more feedback, is revised, and eventually is due and that’s final.

    Anyway, I’ll stop rambling, er, writing now…

  • Pingback: Tweets that mention Writing: Are we Teaching it Wrong? «Ideas and Thoughts from an EdTech -- Topsy.com()

  • Debbie

    I have two degrees in English. I taught Freshman Comp a lifetime ago. I am not sure if I would meet these requirements, as I understand them. If a teacher is looking for organization, I’d be hard pressed to show it. Whenever any teacher wanted an outline, I’d provide it. What they never knew is that I’d write the essay first and then go back and figure out the outline. Frankly I think that emphasis ought to be more on writing as an organic process more so than something that requires organization.

    I used to be a more linear writer, but I have discovered that the most interesting writers are not. When people tell stories in real life, there are often things that are left out and inserted midpoint. Unless a story is rehearsed, it rarely comes out as A to B to C so therefore D. There are often interjections.

    Online writing is interesting to me because there is an audience albeit not the one that a person may expect. I tell long stories on Twitter, for instance. I have no idea if anyone is reading, but, at the very least, it helps me hone my craft. I hope I have become a more thoughtful communicator. Online writing forces a person to ask themselves, is this really necessary? My best tweets are probably the ones I never make.

    I don’t recall elementary school level writing being this complicated. Or else i was unaware as to how I was being evaluated. I find this intimidating. I’d be curious to know just how much creativity and innovation comes out of a class taught this way. When I was teaching, some of my colleagues would grade down for comma faults, for instance. I thought it was a good way to teach if you wanted students to hate writing. Friend of mine in the over 21 grad dorm dropped out because, as a returning student, her Composition teacher was too strict when it came to grammar rules. He gave her an “F” I much preferred interesting writing to “correct” writing. I had girls who wrote really well in terms of grammar and spelling but perfectly devoid of content. The boys, on the other hand, would write really interesting papers albeit filled with misspellings and grammatical errors. By my colleague’s standards, I should have flunked them. I figure that if someone has something to say and can express it really well, the mechanics can be taught to them. It’s rare to go the other way around. if kids do not know how to observe and be creative, they cannot be taught how to be critical thinkers. Well, they can, but it takes much, much longer.

    I think it’s great that your daughter wants to express herself about so many different things. I’d like to see more of that, and less of mechanically perfect papers. I am not sure that teaching things this way is much of a motivator except for a student to quit while they are ahead.

    • Debbie,

      I did the same thing! Writing my first draft and then going back to figure out the required outline portion. With my 11th grade students, they struggled when I didn’t require them to follow the prewriting>outline>rough draft>final map they were used to. When I said “do what works for you,” in terms of a first draft or prewriting, I got a lot of “huh?”

      I think if I’d had more time with them (I was hired later in the year to replace a retiring teacher), I would have done more to make their writing authentic through publishing it online. They didn’t care about me reading it – I was safe. I think they might have cared more if it was going to an authentic audience.

  • Drafts? Revisions? I would fail this class!

    If it doesn’t come out properly in the first draft, I figure I don’t know enough about the subject to be writing about it.

    • Stephen,

      I suppose defining drafts and revisions is worth discussing. The blog post I wrote was not in a traditional sense revised but having multiple copies but it did have me pause, reword, erase, add and omit. My guess is much of your writing does as well.

      I do have concerns with the language in a rubric like this. Any suggestions?

      • Debbie

        Quick thought, Dean. Perhaps it’s not the language so much as the method. Wikis are very useful for helping me see how I revised something. Or, in a collaborative effort, who revised what and when. Not sure if there’s any way around calling it something a draft or a revision. What is the difference between a draft and a revision? I don’t know. Some folks I know do indicate if they have edited something, but if a wiki format is used then it’s evident.

  • In my internet classes I continually get kids who “can’t write” yet seem to produce dozens of blog entries which are thoughtful, complete, and authentic. Yes, there may be spelling errors. Above all they wrote for an audience and were assessed by that audience.

    I am convinced many of us are teaching how to read or write in what many call 3D. Writing with links is very different than pen and paper.

    I would love if all (or nearly all) student writing was in one place and teachers could collaborate on assignments/assessment/comments. I would love if the the 6th grade teacher stopped by on the blog and commented on the AP English essays (and vice versa!!).

  • Debbie


    I love the idea of these blog entries. When I taught back in the early to mid ’80s, the emphasis was on formulaic stuff. Compare/contrast. Classification. Things like that. Culminating in argument. Students had to buy the professor’s textbook. Even at the college where they taught the arts such as film and so on. We had to do book checks to make sure the students had. Nope. Nothing regimented here. No freedom for individual instructors to do more than assign and discuss readings from these textbooks and readers. And at the four year univesity where i started out as a TA, as I said, three comma faults and get an “F’ for a class. Where we teaching writing or a grammar class? My favorite students were the ones who wrote authentic stuff and who cared about language spelling mistakes and all. I gave him a B because I figured that I ought to take off a bit for spelling. Frankly the way that language evolves, I’d rather see more kids who need to consult a dictionary than perfect papers with no substance, but, hey, check out those perfect dots over the “i”s.

    Until I joined Twitter, I never thought much about why school is the way it is, and, educators talking about using technology in the classroom… o brave new world for this technodope. Disclosure: My husband is an MIT grad and Open Source advocate, so I am not unfamiliar with technology. Just that my teaching experience is another lifetime ago, and that is why using technology in the classroom— such a revelation. Using blogs in a classroom is still astonding to me, but I am rapidly warming up to the idea, and I can see from your experience that this is the way to get kids to write. And adults, too. Before the internet we all got it wrong. I guess that is what strikes me about what this teacher wants to do, at least in my limited understanding. It seems like it’s based on a pre-online, pre-internet, pre-wiki model. I think that telling kids to write about what interests them is a far superior way to get them to learn how to write and to actually like writing than the rhetorical models we have insisted they model their writing after. First creativity and then rules, with a nudge towards critical thinking along the way. And, as always, if people see good writing then they have something upon which to model theirs.

  • Mark Kowalski

    I think a good writing process is always a useful way to organize and communicate your thoughts effectively. The medium is irrelevant. It is how we interact with that text after it is written/shared that varies greatly from traditional systems. Teachers want to know what skills are transferable to the computer. If you can show them that all their skills are transferable and that the great leap is in the transactions that happen after sharing…then you have something.

    BTW, my web browser’s spell check helped me correct three spelling mistakes and I used my computers thesaurus to write this comment. I never would have spell checked or used a thesaurus as a kid.

    • Mark,

      I’m not so sure the medium is irrelevant which is my struggle I agree that some type of process may be important but I”m not sure the traditional means get at that. As stated in the comment by Stephen, how critical is drafting and revision? Writing has always been seen as a process. Is writing a facebook status or twitter update a process? It might be but certainly not in the ways we’ve taught.

      Again, I’m not doubting the value of some type of process but I wonder if the ones we teach our students is exactly what they need.

      • Mark Kowalski

        I didn’t think of Facebook or Twitter when making my previous post. So are commenting and updating specific modes of writing? Is it a fluency skill? I know that some peoples’ status updates are completely unintelligible. I think that it does highlight that it is something that does need to practiced.

        • I’m thinking about the kinds of “real writing” we do everyday. I worry sometimes that the type of writing we ask our students to do isn’t very real.

  • I am sure the classroom is one of the few places my 11 year old students use a pen to write with. Away from school they write on mobiles, computers or some other digital format. Their communication also usually include other modes of literacy alongside like, images, colour, audio, video. I think reading and writing are rarely done in isolation with 21st century learners.

    However I have seen poor writers in my class use taught methods of brainstorming, planning, crafting and re-crafting to develop a wonderful story on paper. I think the process is just as relevant for digital text, for students it allows time to reflect and improve. It also allows teachers time to guide and scaffold their writing.

    As with everything there needs to be balance, not everything needs to be planned and edited. However, I don’t think digital literacy is getting it’s fair share in the classroom. Certainly not in balance with our students real world writing approaches.

  • Dean, yes, you have captured the dilemma. Many teachers facing teaching to the test think the most efficient way is to prepare students using the formulaic 5-paragraph essay. Yet we know good writing really comes from having choice, writing for a real audience (now mostly online), and writing often. (And, almost to a person, my best writers were voracious readers.)
    As a teacher, I found that packaged programs, confusing rubrics, and mandatory prompts never produced strong writing. So we wrote a lot,sometimes just drafts. That said, other times, we took pieces through revising and editing– and then published them in final copy (on the wall, sending them to online contests, etc). Unless students were readers, they still needed help in determining best word choice, sentence variety, and organization.
    I agree students are writing now on their own. But will they be read? Think of how many boring blog posts we bypass. What good writing teachers have figured out is having students “write to be read” (and not just by the teacher) matters.
    Authentic writing also means considering what it means to write online (soon the primary form of communication): hyperlinks (changes in citation?), length of paragraphs (eye strain?), voice in comments (how to build community through writing?) and much more. When teachers embrace this digital world and encourage students to write in all parts of it, their students’ writing will improve. Yes, connective, honest writing is essential.

  • Old survey I did with my students about writing http://shsweb.blogspot.com/2007/10/survey-results.html

  • Debbie

    What is “real” writing? What is “real” in education? Are story problems real? Perhaps they would be if we had an actual science experiment to connect them to. Writing needs to be relevant to one’s audience.

    I agree with Susan about the five paragraph essay. Since writing is already considered a chore, it’s this odd compromise. OK, then only five paragraphs. I recall my college students whining about five hundred words. I remember seeing tiny numbers in the margins. When they got to five hundred, boom, they were done.

    I am intrigued with “write to be read,” and wish I had thought of that back when i was teaching Freshman Comp. Perhaps then my students would have had more enthusiasm. Difficult to be enthusiastic about a class that is mandatory and to be endured. Encouraging students to blog and comment on blogs makes a difference, because when a person writes about what interests them chances are good they will interest someone else. Makes me wish I could travel back in time and teach Freshman Comp from this perspective and with this technology.

  • Real writing… I remember high school and hating English. Didn’t like to read or write what I was told to. Same with college English – it was a chore. When I started working for a research organization, I had to write technical papers, co-author primary papers, for an international audience, etc. Suddenly I had a purpose for writing… I hired an English teacher to critique drafts of my papers and learned more in 3 months workin on my first technical paper than I did in all my years of English “training” before. My point… purpose should come before task. The motivation changes radically as does the quality, depth, etc. I find that I sometimes enter the zone or that state of flow when I’m writing for purpose. Imagine if assignments given to students had that as a goal in addition to learning structure, grammar, style, etc. Purpose first I say!

  • I think the mots important thing is that kids are allowed to write about something they care about at a young age. This will develop their passion for writing, much like how some of the strongest readers develop.

  • We are content driven. We want to write what we think/know and we want to read the same from others. We want authentic conversations.

    Is there value in going through a process to practice? How many athletes would be successful if their coaches didn’t require them to break down what they do into smaller pieces to practice? Is the problem in the amount of practice we require or that we don’t follow it up with “real” writing?

    I do see value in practice. As I see the problem, we don’t like to practice. We want to do it once. When it is finished we want to move on.

    My students right now are writing a dramatic monologue. If I don’t look through the content they are covering they will miss “important” (dunno how important knowing the rock cycle is) information they need to have included. Even after I tell them what they are missing it may not get changed. They just want it done. We taught them that.

    • Few would argue that practice is unnecessary but I might argue about the kind of practice we offer. The isolated practice that takes place in many classrooms is akin to practicing basketball in your classroom when a perfectly good gym is available as well as outdoor courts. You might get away with that for a while but if kids are playing everyday on the court and you spend a bulk of your time practicing in a classroom, they’re going to wonder about the validity of your approach.

      My practice comes from spaces like this. I don’t typically take a great deal of time to craft my work. Maybe I should. 😉 The point is the bulk of our writing and communication is based on “cheap failure” as Shirky puts it. I know many teachers lament the thoughtful, well constructed piece of writing that most students hate to do. The reality is that that type of writing is not what we do for the majority of our communications. Does teaching traditionally support the work of real writers today? That’s my question. I think part of the answer might be yes, but too much of that approach negates or at least ignores the realities of today’s communication style.

      • I think most of what we teach students to do in school is for school and not the world outside of school. In my opinion we have created our own “school reality” that does not transfer outside our walls. Our purpose has become to perpetuate our existence.

        The only real purpose for rules in communication is to ensure that what we want to express is clear. Twitter has made it clear to me that a lot of meaning can be expressed quite well in 140 characters or less. Maybe we should spend more time working on succinctness with our students instead of a large word count.

        I am beginning to think that schools have almost made themselves irrelevant in several areas of life including writing. For example English teachers can’t stop text speak even if they are foolish enough to try. Schools should be the first institution to adapt to our population instead of the last. If not we are simply babysitters teaching ancient history.

  • I’m sure there are those who would disagree with me, but I wonder if the non-digital writing helps early writers find direction and entry into voice while the digital writing refines voice and improves fluency. I see the need for both. Digital writing could take over the process completely, though. I just view the non-digital as a safe playground for emerging writers.

    I for one can attest to the fact that voice developed faster for me in the digital realm. Fluency has increased as well. I also found that my students were far more willing to return to a piece after publication to fix the items they missed during the editing and revising stages. The fact that they have it in global publication has a lot to do with it. Ease of editing and improving also plays its part.

  • Lately I’ve been having a lot of discussion about what is “real” writing in the elementary grades. Digital, or on paper, the final product is generally all that is read by the reader. Rubrics help the writer understand how good is good enough in a final piece. I have a hard time understanding how rubrics that include quantitative measures make the quality of writing better. It is not how many of “something” that makes writing good, it’s how well that strategy was used. Drafting, or the habit of writing, is not always visible. By the time I post this there will be no record of my drafts or how many points I’ve made or even if they have a sub point. This seems to be an artificial requirement in the rubric, not related to quality of the final product. The rubric also addresses revision. Revision has to help the reader comprehend the final text. It is about meaning with little connection how many revisions it takes to make meaning. Rubrics should help our writers understand the quality expected, not the quantity.

  • Pingback: Creating Lifelong Learners » Blog Archive » Six Ways Teachers Can Improve Education This Year()

  • I’m responding to the post that mentioned my webinar, Harness the Power of Nonfiction Writing. We at The Leadership & Learning Center believe that when teachers have students do more writing about what they are learning, they learn more. Simple! But we also have over 10 years of research with our clients showing that increased writing is correlated with higher standardized test scores. That’s because students have actually learned more.

    So, perhaps the main point of my webinar was not driven home. Having students do more writing, whether on paper or electronically, is GOOD for students. Writing helps us all think and learn.

    However, we have many educators who still instruct in a way that doesn’t engage students’ brains fully. Writing turns kids’ brains on and should be used in multiple forms, multiple times daily.

    Sadly, I don’t find many classrooms that are equipped with the necessary electronics to allow students to do the kind of writing I’m doing now. So, what I try to get teachers to do first is to talk less and allow students to write and talk more. Then we work toward increasing the authenticity of the writing tasks — to include blogging, etc.

    Thank you all for dialoguing about this important issue.

    • Thanks for responding Angela.

      First off, I’m not entirely comfortable in assuming that increased standardized test scores are true evidence of learning more but I’ll leave that point for a different discussion.

      I’m not discounting your research and certainly value the opportunity for students to write. Given your research is 10 years old, I do wonder if at some point, things may change in that I wonder how long we can continue getting students to write in these non-authentic ways? I’m not sure how much effort a student will take writing a 5 paragraph essay when they can write for audience with a click of a button the second they get home. I feel like the 5 paragraph essay for example is an educational construct that exists only in schools. I realize that not all schools are equipped to be fully writing online but we’re close to being able to have many of our students bring whatever writing tool they have. That could mean cellphones, laptops, whatever. I’m not seeing enough of a shift to recognize this shift for our schools. These students go home and write for real audiences and in different contexts and I don’t think we’re preparing them.

      So while I’m with you on the value of writing, I’m not sure the context in which we’re teaching it is going to remain viable. I think there are some staples of good writing that stand the test of time but there are also some very important nuances to writing and communicating online that need to be explored much more deeply than is currently the case. Once our students reach an age of basic writing skills (8-10 years of age?) they begin writing online. We need to be helping them do this.

  • I’m hoping that this post will provoke a bit of conversation among colleagues who work closely with teachers, kids and their parents in a writing community that exists outside of the school system. We emphasize process, we rely on the Traits, and we use rubrics. We begin with vision though. When we first began learning together, we hoped to help kids define who they were, who they wanted to be, and how they intended to write in ways that aligned to those answers. This accomplished our first goal–inspiring writing that mattered to real audiences. It enabled something more that we didn’t quite expect at first, though. When we had writers do this visioning work first and then align purposes, genres, and outlets accordingly, the kids we were working with taught US about forms we weren’t yet aware of as teachers. This was a critical discovery. We knew that if we intended to function as a community, then everyone would need to build and share their expertise. Requiring writers to define a vision–which is bigger than a goal or a set of interests or territories–has compelled them to engage in their own study of what writing is, what it can be, and how they can produce and share it. They are providing all of us an increasingly wide lens, and when we listen to them as teachers, we find we learn a lot. We’re also realizing that we may not WANT to have all of the answers or provide distinct definitions or boundaries. This imposes a ceiling that doesn’t really seem to exist. Kids can search for and shape the answers they need as they go. They can create their own boundaries and design their own rubrics too, with our support.

  • it is quite common that almost all kinds of serious issues starts out digitally today, but i guess this post would enlighten people in the writing sector to start taking different measures to raise issues rather than just getting digital…

  • Digital writing matters a great deal, but non-digital writing is still important, even in education. Students need to be fluent in both, and English/Language Arts teachers need to know how to teach both. We’re starting to see some entrenchment and hyper-specialization in writing instruction. Students need to be comfortable and accomplished in both digital and linear communication.

    You’re right that authentic writing experiences and contexts are the best way to approach writing instruction. Rubrics, traits, etc. frequently miss the parts of a student’s writing that make it come alive; they frequently reward writing that is correct but boring. If you’re measuring correctness, these approaches may have some validity. If you’re helping students become accomplished writers, they need much more in both digital and “analog” realms

    Thanks for a thoughtful post.

  • @Brian Kuhn

    What do you mean when you write ask “doesn’t all serious writing start out digital now”?

    On behalf of all my students who begin almost all of their writing on paper (due to numerous circumstances) I am offended.

    Personally, leaving out required writing by teachers, I think that notes students write to each other are very serious as students are discovering who they are through this medium (among other, obviously).

    Some of my best ideas and sentences are scrawled on post-it notes, index cards, and Baskin Robbins napkins.

    There are many writers, stand up comedians, and random people who are writing in their Moleskine notebooks everyday. Are you intimating that their writing is not serious?

    These are only a few examples…could you please clarify your question/statement?

    • Stephen,

      I’ll let Brian defend his statement but I do think that if you’re able to make writing authentic and meaningful, all the more power to you my point, is that I think it’s harder to do. Hard to convince a student that writing a story on lined paper in a binder, is of value when they have access to audience and purpose in their pockets. If you are making a case and having success, great. I’m suggesting that it is becoming harder and harder to do that.

    • Brian Kuhn

      Stephen, I wasn’t intending offense. I realize that pen and paper is still very common for writing. But, in our experience with comparing writing on paper to on laptop, we saw consistently higher volume and quality from students. A grade 6 teacher shares this story on video about students, in particular boys, writing up to 8 times more during a 5 minute write… The difference between a paragraph and a short story. Kids are able to get their ideas down faster and with less effort, they tell us. So, my comment about serious writing really refers to deeper, longer, more refined with less effort. It frees them to write to more, continuously improve it, easily rearrange it, and with less effort. Our teachers teach kids to use mind mapping tools and linear outlining and press a button to start their content writing. I hope this adds the context and helps.


  • @Dean

    Brian specifically states “starts out”, or begins digital. I agree that a story in a binder is not authentic as a published piece. However, Brian’s words and my argument are different.

    I contend that serious writing can begin in any medium, not just digital. After all, serious writing is simply a reflection of ones thoughts regardless of medium, or even audience.

    Not all students see a cell phone as a content creation device. I would hope that I can show a student there is meaning in writing even without a digital device. A digital device does not make one a serious writer. If a teacher has to resort to persuading a student with a digital device to write and explore their own world, I am saddened as the motivation for writing is misplaced.

  • Brain,

    Well stated and I completely agree! Thank you for responding! I hope my tone didn’t offend as I, too, was not intending offense!

    • No offense taken 🙂 I think this is a good discussion. Thanks to @shareski for initiating it. Cheers.

  • Deb

    Our university has taken an initiative to help improve writing in the majors. Our school of nursing had limited writing experience for the students to expand their writing skills in uppper division classes. However with this inititative, we have seen an increase intheir writing skill level. I would like to think that this process was assisted through our use of wiki’s along with a encouragement to utilize blogs to find and share information. Thanks for all you share

  • Pingback: Thinking In Mind()

  • I contend that serious writing can begin in any medium, not just digital. After all, serious writing is simply a reflection of ones thoughts regardless of medium, or even audience!!!

  • Pingback: Thoughts on Communication Tools | Mind of a Champion()