Thursday, March 10, 2016

Tips on Writing

*REPRINT from my other blog - April 7, 2012

I am sharing my favorite tips for superb writing as a part of the Superb Writers’ Blogathon. In partnership with Grammarly grammar checker, this series is bringing helpful hints to aspiring superb writers all across the world wide web.  

“It’s about readin’. It’s about writin’. It’s about thinkin’.”

That’s the advice of an old-school professor of rhetoric when asked about the goal of AP Language and Composition and freshman writing classes. In an era of complicated state standards and debates about the Common Core, English teachers need to remind themselves of the basic mission. Of course, many English teachers love the literature side of the job because they love their books and the themes. That handles the reading and the thinking.
But what about the writing?

English teachers are tasked with teaching students how to write - and this is often the most neglected part of the job. In fact, many English instructors don’t consider themselves composition teachers. For one, it’s hard. The reason is obvious: to assess writing, teachers end up buried under mountains of essays. Secondly, teachers too often use writing as simply summative assessment. The kids write an essay to show what they know. And many teachers do not know how to teach the craft – for writing truly is a craft, an art form.

The key to effective writing instruction is the opportunity to write. Students must practice the craft, and they must do so in a variety of genres for a variety of purposes. And it’s OK for writing to simply be practice. A colleague once told me, “If you’re grading everything they’re writing, they are not writing enough.” Whether it’s journaling and free-writing or copying famous speeches and essays in the tradition of the Greeks and Romans, regular practice of writing is integral to success. Thus, students should occasionally just write. One of my favorite free response activities is to read the students a short essay to begin class – generally it’s from the works of Robert Fulghum, the author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. His essays are great conversation starters.

So, how do we move from assigning writing to teaching it?

We all want our students' writing to sing. Creating voice where there is little to none, however, is a challenge. Thus, as my AP Language students progress in their writing and ability to argue and deconstruct style, I reach a point where top students wonder if their scores will ever improve. The key to higher scores is often sophistication of language. It's diction, syntax, tone, style, voice, mood, attitude, and command of language. Top papers just sound better. And it's the way they command the language that makes the difference. Thus, breaking the task down into its various components is fundamental. It’s what many people call Six-trait.

To that end, I use an assignment writing op-ed commentary as a way to model effective style/voice, and as a way to help them find their own. We analyze numerous pieces of commentary during the year, as they are great pieces for style and opinion/argumentation. In crafting their own, students are then challenged with finding some topic on which they have something interesting to say. To begin, we do a few short journal entries entitled "Angry Talk," Happy Talk," and "Interesting Talk." They often share their ideas - and even a few choice sentences - as a way of generating ideas and discussion. Often, this assignment produces some of the best writing I see from them all year.
The issue of teaching and grading conventions – that is, grammar and mechanics – is also a tricky aspect of the job. While grammar is only one aspect of effective writing, a poorly edited paper is distracting and ultimately ineffective. Thus, teachers are remiss if they don’t hold students accountable. In a standard, holistic rubric, conventions are certainly considered, but they are not the predominant part of the grade.

Certain practices in writing instruction can improve grammatical fluency. For example, one of the most effective is the practice of sentence combining. Giving students a deconstructed and simplistic passage in single sentences and asking them to combine the sentences is a helpful tool for improving command of language. Sentence combining not only improves sentence fluency and sophistication of syntax, but it also dramatically impacts mechanics and punctuation.

Finally, the task of editing and revising is integral to developing the craft. In this area, the use of exemplar essays is foundational to good instruction. Showing students how it’s done well is a step beyond simply assigning and returning writing. Whenever I discuss exemplar papers, I always urge – even require – that students copy some of the sample sentences that I’ve highlighted. This work goes in their writing journal along with a reflection on their own paper. Students must always copy and take note of sentences I’ve edited. Revising and re-writing a troubling sentence effectively internalizes the improvement. Early in the year, I ask students to circle all the weak word choice – especially “be” verbs – in their sentences and revise the sentences with a stronger, action verb. Giving them a list of such verbs, analytical terms, and tone words is also helpful.

Ultimately, the craft of writing can – and actually must be – taught. Students learn through the opportunity to write and create, the freedom to make mistakes, the practice of peer and exemplar review, the act of editing and revision. While few of us wield the magical pen of Shakespeare or Mark Twain, all of us can – with effective instruction – become competent and effective writers.