Why Writing Matters
By:The National Writing Project and Carl Nagin
Publication: Because Writing Matters
Summary: The introductory chapter to the revised and updated edition of Because Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Our Schools.
Why Writing Matters
Concern with the quality of student writing has been a perennial feature of the American educational landscape. What has changed are assumptions about its uses and importance both within and outside the classroom as well as what educators have learned about teaching it. The need for freshman writing courses, one of the most consistently required subjects in the postsecondary curriculum, dates back to 1874, when Harvard University began requiring a written entrance exam. Harvard's version of the course came in response to the poor writing of its upperclassmen1 and the results of its entrance exam, which more than half the candidates—"products of America's best preparatory schools"—failed. 2
For most of the nineteenth century, according to Arthur Applebee, director of the National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement (CELA), "the teaching of writing [in elementary and secondary schools] focused on penmanship and little else. Later, writing instruction was often postponed until the middle and upper grades," on the notion that students first had to achieve basic literacy in reading.3 Writing was something of a silent R, even among Progressives, whose influence on writing pedagogy was "limited to writing about personal experiences or about experiential connections to literature."4
A little more than a century after Harvard instituted its written entrance exam, a 1975 Newsweek article ("Why Johnny Can't Write")5 proclaimed that America had a writing crisis, only this time the onus was placed on public schools for neglecting "the basics." Clearly, this was not a new controversy. What was changing was how educators and policymakers were defining our literacy needs, which in turn changed expectations for writing curricula in terms of their scope and context. The controversy fueled a boom in university-level remedial courses and programs to address the deficient literacy skills of entering freshmen. It also led to creation of the National Writing Project (NWP), whose mission and professional development model are committed to bringing exemplary writing instruction to all of America's schools. Despite repeated "back-to-basics" efforts, the need for improving student writing persists. It raises the question, Why is writing so challenging to teach and learn?
|Many young people come to university able to summarize the events in a news story or write a personal response to a play. . . . But they have considerable trouble with what has come to be called critical literacy: framing an argument or taking someone else's argument apart [and] synthesizing different points of view. . . . The authors of the [writing] crisis reports got tremendously distressed about students' difficulties with such tasks, but it's important to remember that, traditionally, such abilities have only been developed in an elite: in priests, scholars, or a leisure class. Ours is the first society in history to expect so many of its people to be able to perform these very sophisticated literacy activities.|
UCLA's Mike Rose suggests that the stakes for learning to write have changed. The benchmark for what counts as literate writing, what good writing requires, and how many people need to be literate in our society has moved dramatically since the nineteenth century. It is no longer the concern, as it was at Harvard in 1874, of an exclusively white, male elite; in today's increasingly diverse society, writing is a gateway for success in academia, the new workplace, and the global economy, as well as for our collective success as a participatory democracy. At the same time, our understanding of how to teach writing has evolved significantly over the last three decades and now includes guidance about how to support students from a variety of language backgrounds and circumstances to reach high levels of literacy. Successful strategies as well as models and resources for building an effective writing program in a school are known and available. So today, the need to improve writing is perhaps better framed as a challenge rather than a crisis.
Because Writing Matters describes the current state of teaching writing in America, highlighting effective classroom practices and successful school programs. The National Writing Project conceived of this book as a resource for school administrators, educators, and policymakers who want to know how to address the challenge of improving student writing at all grade levels. Its purpose is threefold:
- To make the case that writing is a complex activity; more than just a skill or talent, it is a means of inquiry and expression for learning in all grades and disciplines
- To examine current trends, best practices, research, and issues in the teaching of writing, such as its role in early literacy, how the process of the writer in the real world can be developed in the classroom, how writing can be fairly and authentically assessed, and how writing can be taught across the curriculum
- To offer practical solutions and models for school administrators and policymakers involved in planning, implementing, and assessing a writing program as well as those seeking effective staff development for teaching writing.
This book takes a pragmatic approach to the challenge of improving writing and building successful programs in our schools. Through vignettes and case studies, it illustrates how educators have used writing in diverse classroom and school settings to enrich learning and provide meaningful learning experiences for students at all grade levels. It addresses these core questions:
- Why does writing matter?
- What does research say about the teaching of writing?
- What do we mean by "writing processes"?
- What are some features of an effective writing classroom?
- How can writing be used to develop critical thinking?
- How does writing fit into learning across disciplines?
- What kind of professional development prepares teachers to teach and use writing?
- What does a schoolwide writing program look like?
- What are fair ways to assess writing?
| Effective writing skills are important in all stages of life from early education to future employment. In the business world, as well as in school, students must convey complex ideas and information in a clear, succinct manner. Inadequate writing skills, therefore, could inhibit achievement across the curriculum and in future careers, while proficient writing skills help students convey ideas, deliver instructions, analyze information, and motivate others.|
National Center for Education Statistics,
The book draws from a persuasive body of research over the past three decades that is changing how writing is taught in many classrooms and our understanding of how it can affect learning. The research has brought the practice of writers in the real world into the classroom. It has added new insights about how writing and reading are linked in early literacy. For our increasingly diverse and multilingual classrooms, it has also illuminated many of the social and cultural factors that support literacy development. In addition, this book draws from interviews with teachers, principals, and superintendents who have taken on the challenge of building a successful writing program in their school, classroom, or district—educators working in diverse settings across the country. Some (but not all) of them are associated with the NWP.
For thirty years, the NWP has made improving the quality of writing and learning in our nation's schools its central mission. What began in the summer of 1974 as a professional development institute for twenty-five teachers on the University of California campus in Berkeley has by 2005 evolved into a network of 189 NWP sites in fifty states; Washington, D.C.; Puerto Rico; and the U.S. Virgin Islands, involving more than two million teachers at urban, rural, and suburban schools in realizing its core goal. In 2003–04 these sites led thirty-seven hundred in-service workshops for teachers, with more than a third of these programs part of ongoing partnerships with schools. Serving more than one hundred thousand educators a year in all disciplines in grades K–16 (roughly one out of forty teachers in the United States), it is the only national program that focuses on writing as a means to improve learning in America's schools.
Since its inception, the NWP has fostered university-school collaboration. From that collective effort, much has been learned about exemplary teaching practices in writing and their impact on students' learning throughout their academic careers. This knowledge has been broadened by three decades of research in the field of composition pedagogy, leading to new understanding about the role of writing in our classrooms that has critical implications for educational reform efforts. Policymakers and school administrators, no less than teachers and parents, can benefit from understanding current trends and issues in the teaching of writing and the vital role it can play in achieving quality and excellence in our classrooms across the disciplines.
Today, more and more educators as well as leaders in all areas of society have come to understand that writing is central to success in and out of school. The Neglected "R": The Need for a Writing Revolution, a 2003 report prepared by the National Commission on Writing for America's Families, Schools and Colleges, states "American education will never realize its potential as an engine of opportunity and economic growth until a writing revolution puts the power of language and communication in their proper place in the classroom."6
Writing is no longer only about putting pen to paper. Author-teacher William Zinsser reminds us that "the new information age, for all its high-tech gadgetry, is finally writing-based. E-mail, the Internet, and the fax are all forms of writing, and writing is, finally, a craft with its own set of tools, which are words. Like all tools, they have to be used right."7
Fortunately, successful strategies for teaching writing have been identified and innovative programs implemented with a demonstrable impact on student learning. However, their broad dissemination remains a critical challenge for serious school reform. With the exception of college-level teaching geared to the freshman writer, composition pedagogy remains a neglected area of study at most of the nation's thirteen hundred schools of education, where future public school teachers are trained. Nor is it a specific requirement in most state teacher certification programs. To some extent, the place of writing in educational reform, and debate over its role in developing literacy, has been overshadowed or subsumed by the controversy surrounding the best way to teach reading.
| Effective adolescent literacy programs must include an element that helps students improve their writing skills. Students need instruction in the writing process, but they especially need that instruction to be connected to the kinds of writing tasks they will have to perform well in high school and beyond.|
Reading Next: A Vision for Action and Research in Middle and High School Literacy (report from Carnegie Corporation of New York),
Because Writing Matters makes the case that students need to write more across all content areas and that schools need to expand their writing curricula to involve students in a range of writing tasks. The challenge has been echoed at the national level by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), and the National Academy of Education's Commission on Reading: "Unfortunately, every recent analysis of writing instruction in American classrooms has reached the same conclusion: Children don't get many opportunities to write. In one recent study in grades one, three, and five, only 15 percent of the school day was spent in any kind of writing activity. Two-thirds of the writing that did occur was word-for-word copying in workbooks. Compositions of a paragraph or more in length are infrequent even at the high school level."8
Because Writing Matters examines what school administrators can do to meet the writing challenge in our nation's schools. It explores the research-based teaching strategies that can improve writing and presents case studies of how effective, schoolwide writing programs have been designed in a variety of school settings.
Chapter One explores why writing is complex and what challenges a school must meet to teach it well. It argues that although everyone can and should learn to write, teaching writing well remains one of the key tasks facing schools today as they work to meet increasingly high standards and expectations for learning.
Chapter Two summarizes relevant research from the past three decades about how writers compose and develop. It explores how social and cognitive perspectives on writing have transformed our understanding of the use of writing in the classroom. It examines the links between writing and reading in early literacy and why many researchers believe that writing instruction must begin in the earliest grades. This chapter also explores how classroom writing can be successfully supported by technology and examines approaches to writing that advance the progress of English language learners.
Chapter Three presents evidence from national assessments about what improves student writing. What are the most promising strategies and classroom practices? Can writing support learning in a content-heavy area such as science or math? It explores how writing across the curriculum can be used to support a high level of learning and the need to incorporate critical thinking and inquiry strategies in writing tasks.
Chapter Four makes the case for professional development in teaching writing and why it is a crucial element of school reform. It also describes the history of and rationale for the NWP model of professional development: teachers teaching teachers. This chapter also focuses on professional development that will improve classroom uses of technology for writing and learning.
In Chapter Five, the thorny challenge posed by state standards and assessments for writing is examined. The chapter suggests some ABCs of writing assessment and how it can best be used to understand student progress and development. It considers writing assessment rubrics and effective assessment models. It also examines what a recent study of mandatory state writing assessments has shown about their impact on teaching.
Finally, Chapter Six explores the role of principals and superintendents in helping to build an effective writing program. It presents case studies of how two schools, urban and suburban, developed successful schoolwide writing programs, what challenges they faced, and the results they have achieved.
Models of effective teaching practice, schoolwide writing programs, and the research supporting them have a new urgency for educators, policymakers, and parents today. Beginning in spring 2005, the College Board added a writing component to the SAT. In addition, the ACT, the other major organization administering college entrance exams, now offers a writing component, also available to the increasing number of institutions of higher learning that are using writing as one tool available to evaluate applicants.
"I think it will lead to real reform," says William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard College, referring to the addition of writing components to the SAT and ACT, "particularly in high schools that haven't been doing a good job in teaching writing."9
Although questions have been raised as to the quality and fairness of these exams, the recent changes reflect a significant shift in educators' thinking about writing as a tool for student success in college and beyond. Former University of California President Richard C. Atkinson hails these changes as "a transforming event in the nature of education," noting that "it sends a message to all students that they need to start writing early in their career."10
Because Writing Matters presents a vision of how our schools can help students meet that need.
1. Rose, M. Possible Lives. New York: Penguin, 1985.
2. Connors, R. J. Composition-Rhetoric: Backgrounds, Theory, and Pedagogy. (Pittsburgh Series in Composition, Literacy, and Culture). Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.
3. Applebee, A. N. "Alternative Models of Writing Development." In R. Indrisano and J. R. Squire (eds.), Perspectives on Writing: Research, Theory, and Practice. Newark, Del.: International Reading Association, 2000, p. 90.
4. Strickland, D. S., Bodino, A., Buchan, K., Jones, K. M., Nelson, A., and Rosen, M. "Teaching Writing in a Time of Reform." Elementary School Journal, 2001, 101(4), 388.
5. Sheils, M. "Why Johnny Can't Write." Newsweek, Dec. 8, 1975, pp. 58-63.
6. National Commission on Writing for America's Families, Schools, and Colleges. The Neglected "R": The Need for a Writing Revolution. New York: College Board, 2003.
7. Zinsser, W. On Writing Well (25th anniv. ed.). New York: HarperResource, 2001, p.xi.
8. Anderson, R.C. Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report of the Commission on Reading. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Education, U.S. Department of Education, 1985.
9. Lewin, T. "College Board Announces an Overhaul for the SAT." New York Times, June 28, 2002.
10. Cavanagh, S. "Overhauled SAT Could Shake Up School Curriculum." Education Week, July 10, 2002.
Copyright 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published by Jossey-Bass. All rights reserved. Posted by permission of the publisher. No part of this publication may be reproduced or copied in any form without prior written permission from the publisher.
In their book, Turning Learning Right Side Up: Putting Education Back on Track, authors Russell L. Ackoff and Daniel Greenberg point out that today’s education system is seriously flawed — it focuses on teaching rather than learning. “Why should children — or adults — be asked to do something computers and related equipment can do much better than they can?” the authors ask in the following excerpt from the book. “Why doesn’t education focus on what humans can do better than the machines and instruments they create?”
“Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth learning can be taught.”
— Oscar Wilde
Traditional education focuses on teaching, not learning. It incorrectly assumes that for every ounce of teaching there is an ounce of learning by those who are taught. However, most of what we learn before, during, and after attending schools is learned without its being taught to us. A child learns such fundamental things as how to walk, talk, eat, dress, and so on without being taught these things. Adults learn most of what they use at work or at leisure while at work or leisure. Most of what is taught in classroom settings is forgotten, and much or what is remembered is irrelevant.
In most schools, memorization is mistaken for learning. Most of what is remembered is remembered only for a short time, but then is quickly forgotten. (How many remember how to take a square root or ever have a need to?) Furthermore, even young children are aware of the fact that most of what is expected of them in school can better be done by computers, recording machines, cameras, and so on. They are treated as poor surrogates for such machines and instruments. Why should children — or adults, for that matter — be asked to do something computers and related equipment can do much better than they can? Why doesn’t education focus on what humans can do better than the machines and instruments they create?
When those who have taught others are asked who in the classes learned most, virtually all of them say, “The teacher.” It is apparent to those who have taught that teaching is a better way to learn than being taught. Teaching enables the teacher to discover what one thinks about the subject being taught. Schools are upside down: Students should be teaching and faculty learning.
After lecturing to undergraduates at a major university, I was accosted by a student who had attended the lecture. After some complimentary remarks, he asked, “How long ago did you teach your first class?”
I responded, “In September of 1941.”
“Wow!” The student said. “You mean to say you have been teaching for more than 60 years?”
“When did you last teach a course in a subject that existed when you were a student?”
This difficult question required some thought. After a pause, I said, “September of 1951.”
“Wow! You mean to say that everything you have taught in more than 50 years was not taught to you; you had to learn on your own?”
“You must be a pretty good learner.”
I modestly agreed.
The student then said, “What a shame you’re not that good a teacher.”
The student had it right; what most faculty members are good at, if anything, is learning rather than teaching. Recall that in the one-room schoolhouse, students taught students. The teacher served as a guide and a resource but not as one who force-fed content into students’ minds.
Ways of Learning
There are many different ways of learning; teaching is only one of them. We learn a great deal on our own, in independent study or play. We learn a great deal interacting with others informally — sharing what we are learning with others and vice versa. We learn a great deal by doing, through trial and error. Long before there were schools as we know them, there was apprenticeship — learning how to do something by trying it under the guidance of one who knows how. For example, one can learn more architecture by having to design and build one’s own house than by taking any number of courses on the subject. When physicians are asked whether they leaned more in classes or during their internship, without exception they answer, “Internship.”
In the educational process, students should be offered a wide variety of ways to learn, among which they could choose or with which they could experiment. They do not have to learn different things the same way. They should learn at a very early stage of “schooling” that learning how to learn is largely their responsibility — with the help they seek but that is not imposed on them.
The objective of education is learning, not teaching.
There are two ways that teaching is a powerful tool of learning. Let’s abandon for the moment the loaded word teaching, which is unfortunately all too closely linked to the notion of “talking at” or “lecturing,” and use instead the rather awkward phrase explaining something to someone else who wants to find out about it. One aspect of explaining something is getting yourself up to snuff on whatever it is that you are trying to explain. I can’t very well explain to you how Newton accounted for planetary motion if I haven’t boned up on my Newtonian mechanics first. This is a problem we all face all the time, when we are expected to explain something. (Wife asks, “How do we get to Valley Forge from home?” And husband, who does not want to admit he has no idea at all, excuses himself to go to the bathroom; he quickly Googles Mapquest to find out.) This is one sense in which the one who explains learns the most, because the person to whom the explanation is made can afford to forget the explanation promptly in most cases; but the explainers will find it sticking in their minds a lot longer, because they struggled to gain an understanding in the first place in a form clear enough to explain.
The second aspect of explaining something that leaves the explainer more enriched, and with a much deeper understanding of the subject, is this: To satisfy the person being addressed, to the point where that person can nod his head and say, “Ah, yes, now I understand!” explainers must not only get the matter to fit comfortably into their own worldview, into their own personal frame of reference for understanding the world around them, they also have to figure out how to link their frame of reference to the worldview of the person receiving the explanation, so that the explanation can make sense to that person, too. This involves an intense effort on the part of the explainer to get into the other person’s mind, so to speak, and that exercise is at the heart of learning in general. For, by practicing repeatedly how to create links between my mind and another’s, I am reaching the very core of the art of learning from the ambient culture. Without that skill, I can only learn from direct experience; with that skill, I can learn from the experience of the whole world. Thus, whenever I struggle to explain something to someone else, and succeed in doing so, I am advancing my ability to learn from others, too.
Learning through Explanation
This aspect of learning through explanation has been overlooked by most commentators. And that is a shame, because both aspects of learning are what makes the age mixing that takes place in the world at large such a valuable educational tool. Younger kids are always seeking answers from older kids — sometimes just slightly older kids (the seven-year old tapping the presumed life wisdom of the so-much-more-experienced nine year old), often much older kids. The older kids love it, and their abilities are exercised mightily in these interactions. They have to figure out what it is that they understand about the question being raised, and they have to figure out how to make their understanding comprehensible to the younger kids. The same process occurs over and over again in the world at large; this is why it is so important to keep communities multi-aged, and why it is so destructive to learning, and to the development of culture in general, to segregate certain ages (children, old people) from others.
What went on in the one-room schoolhouse is much like what I have been talking about. In fact, I am not sure that the adult teacher in the one-room schoolhouse was always viewed as the best authority on any given subject! Long ago, I had an experience that illustrates that point perfectly. When our oldest son was eight years old, he hung around (and virtually worshiped) a very brilliant 13-year-old named Ernie, who loved science. Our son was curious about everything in the world. One day he asked me to explain some physical phenomenon that lay within the realm of what we have come to call “physics”; being a former professor of physics, I was considered a reasonable person to ask. So, I gave him an answer — the “right” answer, the one he would have found in books. He was greatly annoyed. “That’s not right!” he shouted, and when I expressed surprise at his response, and asked him why he would say so, his answer was immediate: “Ernie said so and so, which is totally different, and Ernie knows.” It was an enlightening and delightful experience for me. It was clear that his faith in Ernie had been developed over a long time, from long experience with Ernie’s unfailing ability to build a bridge between their minds — perhaps more successfully, at least in certain areas, than I had been.
One might wonder how on earth learning came to be seen primarily a result of teaching. Until quite recently, the world’s great teachers were understood to be people who had something fresh to say about something to people who were interested in hearing their message. Moses, Socrates, Aristotle, Jesus — these were people who had original insights, and people came from far and wide to find out what those insights were. One can see most clearly in Plato’s dialogues that people did not come to Socrates to “learn philosophy,” but rather to hear Socrates’ version of philosophy (and his wicked and witty attacks on other people’s versions), just as they went to other philosophers to hear (and learn) their versions. In other words, teaching was understood as public exposure of an individual’s perspective, which anyone could take or leave, depending on whether they cared about it.
No one in his right mind thought that the only way you could become a philosopher was by taking a course from one of those guys. On the contrary, you were expected to come up with your own original worldview if you aspired to the title of philosopher. This was true of any and every aspect of knowledge; you figured out how to learn it, and you exposed yourself to people who were willing to make their understanding public if you thought it could be a worthwhile part of your endeavor. That is the basis for the formation of universities in the Middle Ages — places where thinkers were willing to spend their time making their thoughts public. The only ones who got to stay were the ones whom other people (“students”) found relevant enough to their own personal quests to make listening to them worthwhile.
By the way, this attitude toward teaching has not disappeared. When quantum theory was being developed in the second quarter of the twentieth century, aspiring atomic physicists traveled to the various places where different theorists were developing their thoughts, often in radically different directions. Students traveled to Bohr’s institute to find out how he viewed quantum theory, then to Heisenberg, to Einstein, to Schrodinger, to Dirac, and so on. What was true of physics was equally true of art, architecture…you name it. It is still true today. One does not go to Pei to learn “architecture”; one goes to learn how he does it — that is, to see him “teach” by telling and showing you his approach. Schools should enable people to go where they want to go, not where others want them to.
Malaise of Mass Education
The trouble began when mass education was introduced. It was necessary
- To decide what skills and knowledge everyone has to have to be a productive citizen of a developed country in the industrial age
- To make sure the way this information is defined and standardized, to fit into the standardization required by the industrial culture
- To develop the means of describing and communicating the standardized information (textbooks, curricula)
- To train people to comprehend the standardized material and master the means of transmitting it (teacher training, pedagogy)
- To create places where the trainees (children) and the trainers (unfortunately called teachers, which gives them a status they do not deserve) can meet — so-called schools (again a term stolen from a much different milieu, endowing these new institutions with a dignity they also do not deserve)
- And, to provide the coercive backing necessary to carry out this major cultural and social upheaval
In keeping with all historic attempts to revolutionize the social order, the elite leaders who formulated the strategy, and those who implemented it, perverted the language, using terms that had attracted a great deal of respect in new ways that turned their meanings upside down, but helped make the new order palatable to a public that didn’t quite catch on. Every word — teacher, student, school, discipline, and so on — took on meanings diametrically opposed to what they had originally meant.
Consider this one example from my recent experience. I attended a conference of school counselors, where the latest ideas in the realm of student counseling were being presented. I went to a session on the development of self-discipline and responsibility, wondering what these concepts mean to people embedded in traditional schooling. To me, self-discipline means the ability to pursue one’s goals without outside coercion; responsibility means taking appropriate action on one’s own initiative, without being goaded by others. To the people presenting the session, both concepts had to do solely with the child’s ability to do his or her assigned class work. They explained that a guidance counselor’s proper function was to get students to understand that responsible behavior meant doing their homework in a timely and effective manner, as prescribed, and self-discipline meant the determination to get that homework done. George Orwell was winking in the back of the room.
Today, there are two worlds that use the word education with opposite meanings: one world consists of the schools and colleges (and even graduate schools) of our education complex, in which standardization prevails. In that world, an industrial training mega-structure strives to turn out identical replicas of a product called “people educated for the twenty-first century”; the second is the world of information, knowledge, and wisdom, in which the realpopulation of the world resides when not incarcerated in schools. In that world, learning takes place like it always did, and teaching consists of imparting one’s wisdom, among other things, to voluntary listeners.