Most educators acknowledge that literacy is important, but often the focus is on reading because for a long time that is what achievement tests measured. In the last few years there has been more focus on writing in classrooms and on tests, but many students still have difficulty expressing their ideas on paper.

Often students struggle to begin writing, so some teachers have shifted assignments to allow students to write about something they care about, or to provide an authentic audience for written work. While these strategies are important parts of making learning relevant to students, they may not be enough on their own to improve the quality of writing. Practice is important, but how can teachers ensure students are practicing good habits?

Nell Scharff Panero taught high school English for 13 years before going back to school to get her Ph.D. in educational leadership. She is now the director of the Center for Educational Leadership at Baruch College, part of City University of New York (CUNY). As a teacher she was often frustrated that she didn’t have more concrete tools to teach writing. Like many teachers, she taught her students to brainstorm, to write outlines and thesis statements with details that backed them up, but when students still struggled she didn’t feel she had the tools to dig deeper.

“If language was breaking down at the level of the sentence, I didn’t know how to break it down or what to do about it,” Scharff Panero said. “And I didn’t know how to expect more.”

These experiences teaching ultimately led her to the work she currently does, guiding teams of educators in an inquiry process to identify specific, granular gaps in students’ ability to write. Peg Tyre documented one school’s inquiry and implementation process at New Dorp High School in her article “The Writing Revolution,” published in The Atlantic. Despite initially pushing back, Tyre writes that through inquiry teachers began to see that their students didn’t understand things like how the conjunctions “but, because and so” work in sentences, and these gaps were preventing them from expressing complexity in writing.

“I think what’s most counter-cultural, and not really in the knowledge base, is how to develop students at the level of the sentence and all the ramifications that has in terms of thinking and content,” Scharff Panero said. She has recently published a paper titled “Progressive mastery through deliberate practice: A promising approach for improving writing” in the journal Improving Schools about the New Dorp approach and how it compares to commonly held beliefs about writing instruction, as well as the existing literature on how to teach writing.

“There’s a belief that you immerse kids in it and they kind of figure it out,” Scharff Panero said. And some kids can, especially if they grow up in a language-rich environment without any of the common barriers found in public school classrooms, like learning English as a second language, special needs, trauma and poverty. The idea is that models of good writing naturally transfer to students as they regularly practice their own writing, but sometimes students don’t pick up on crucial ideas that end up inhibiting them as they advance in school.

Indeed, many students in the public education system aren’t “catching” what they need to know about writing — the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress writing test found almost 75 percent of eighth- and 12th-graders in the U.S. wrote below grade level and only 3 percent of U.S. students, across all demographics, wrote at an “advanced” level.

“Some people can make it, but how do we learn more about how we can teach it better, so everyone does better?” Scharff Panero asked.

The strategies New Dorp teachers used to fill gaps in students’ understanding came from Judith Hochman’s book Teaching Basic Writing Skills, and they seem simplistic. To the average high school teacher, spending a semester on sentence-level exercises that are heavily scaffolded seems easy and boring. But Scharff Panero said that when teachers try taking instruction back to basics using what she calls “progressive mastery,” they see big improvements in the quality of both thinking and writing, and that students can meet high school expectations when teachers slow down to show them how to write well.

The New Dorp turnaround inspired New York City to require the approach at the 30 lowest-performing high schools in the district, called Renewal Schools. Some of these schools are now beginning to see a shift, but only after some difficult discussions with staff.

“It was very much an attitude that we went in; we taught it; the kids didn’t pay attention; they didn’t study; and they should have learned it,” said Dan Scanlon, principal of John Adams High School. “A lot of people felt they were being blamed for their kids not learning something.”

Scanlon said it was difficult for his staff to acknowledge that pointing fingers at students wasn’t going to improve performance. Instead, the staff had to accept the reality of where their students were at and try something new and different for most high school teachers. Because John Adams has been a low-achieving school for a long time and has been designated a Renewal School, teachers ultimately had no choice. The whole staff got trained in the writing strategies, called Writing is Thinking through Strategic Inquiry (WITsi), and learned how to apply them to their content areas.

“We have better teacher practice because of their implementation of WIT and that has improved performance on Regents exams,” said Joanna Cohen, a vice-principal at John Adams. School administrators chose to implement writing across the curriculum because they began to see that many of the gaps in writing knowledge also pointed to fundamental abilities to express relationships. Using “so” correctly in a sentence, for example, indicates causality, an idea that’s just as important in math and science as it is in more writing-intensive disciplines like social studies and English.

HOW PROGRESSIVE MASTERY WORKS

The WIT activities are not a set curriculum meant to be used exactly the same way by every teacher. Instead, Scharff Panero explained that teachers are trained in the strategies and then use their own discretion to introduce different approaches, according to their instructional goals. For the program to work well, it’s important for teachers to be able to pick out and focus on writing structures that indicate a way of thinking, no matter the discipline. For example, distinguishing general ideas from specific statements is a crucial skill that comes up when students write paragraphs that include a topic sentence, along with supporting sentences that back up the topic sentence.

When the idea of distinguishing general from specific is the focus of the lesson, the teacher can approach it in a different way. For example, in the Hochman Method used at New Dorp and studied by Scharff Panero, teachers started by giving students a paragraph and asking them to pick out the general statement, the topic sentence and specific statements, the supporting detail. Starting with the model before asking students to write their own topic sentences helped reinforce the bigger idea of the difference between general and specific.

The idea behind progressive mastery is to protect students from what confuses them until they have mastered each individual component. With that in mind, the freshman high school students Scharff Panero studied focused on the level of the sentence, as well as note-taking strategies, for a whole semester. They looked at examples, identified different kinds of sentences and the details within them, filled in word stems, learned to expand sentences and how to combine them.

A scaffolded activity focusing on the differences between but, because, and so in a sentence.
A scaffolded activity focusing on the differences between but, because, and so in a sentence. (Nell Scharff-Panero/"Progressive mastery through deliberate practice: A promising approach for improving writing")

Many of these activities are “closed” in that they have a right or a wrong answer that indicates both how well students understand the writing structure, as well as the content involved. Scharff Panero is aware that many educators believe writing in this didactic way inhibits creativity and free expression, but she says students need to understand the rules of writing before they can break them. And, she pushes back against the idea that this approach is dumbing down expectations, arguing that short, sentence-level exercises can contain a lot of rigor and show deep thought.

“My feeling is that if you believe, as I do, that they’re missing foundational skills, then if all you do is increase the rigor without closing the skill gap, then you’ll just make the divide bigger,” she said. Asking students to read longer and more challenging texts, and to write longer essays without first showing them in concrete ways how to build up to that level, defeats the purpose in her mind.

After mastering sentences, teachers move on to how to build a paragraph. They teach students how to write quick outlines using a specific note-taking strategy that can then provide an easy guide for writing. Many of these ideas are familiar to English teachers, but the difference with the progressive mastery or WIT strategies is how teachers break down each aspect of writing. Many high school teachers haven’t been taught to teach this way, and while they know how to write themselves, they may not be thinking clearly about the scaffolded steps required to accurately summarize or build on an idea. As simple as they sound, these writing strategies are meant to fill in those gaps.

Example of a sentence expansion activity.
An example of a sentence expansion activity. (Nell Scharff-Panero/"Progressive mastery through deliberate practice: A promising approach for improving writing")

JOHN ADAMS HIGH SCHOOL

It was frustrating, but John Adams teachers had to face the reality that their kids needed them to step back and explicitly teach things like how to effectively use conjunctions in a sentence. While it’s natural that the English department expected to be reading and analyzing literature, its teachers soon realized that if they didn’t help their students master writing, they’d never get there.

“We weren’t really sure how well it was going to work because we thought it was really low level for high school,” said Loribeth Libretta, an English teacher at John Adams. She’s been using the WIT strategies for five years now and has seen the difference it has made for students. She remembers one shy freshman boy who lacked confidence and most writing skills. Now, he’s a junior in her class and she says it’s a joy to read his well-developed paragraphs that flow together and express high-level thinking. He’s also become much more confident as a learner.

“Ideally they should have learned this in elementary and junior high school,” said Lauren Salamone, who teaches sophomores Global History. “That’s your automatic reaction, but it’s not the reality.”

There’s a lot of writing on the New York Regents Global History exam, which requires students to answer several document-based questions as well as two essays covering a lot of content. Salamone didn’t resist the writing strategies because she could see early on that her students didn’t have the skills to write at the level required of them. And, to her surprise, her students were grateful to learn the code to good writing.

“They just kind of naturally grabbed on,” Salamone said. “They didn’t really question at all. If anything they found the benefit in it.”

As a science teacher, Jennifer McHugh was skeptical of the schoolwide writing strategy. She didn’t see why she should use valuable class time to teach writing when students wouldn’t need that information to pass the Regents test in her class. But, she complied with the program because she had to, and has come around to how the writing strategies improved her students’ scientific thinking as well.

Asking students to use “but, because and so” about the science they are learning has given students new tools and perspectives to discuss what they know. And, McHugh has found that the writing exercises help her see where students have gaps in their knowledge. For example, if a student uses “but” incorrectly in a sentence, it’s likely he or she doesn’t understand the relationship between the two things yet.

“It helps with their critical thinking skills because they’re thinking from multiple perspectives,” McHugh said. She’s seen her students grow over the year and they earned better Regents scores as well.

What started out as a writing program has become a way to scaffold content and improve teacher performance at John Adams. Teachers are consistently asked to dive into the data in their classrooms and try to understand where the gaps are and how they can be filled. The inquiry that staff did to find the gaps and develop strategies to fill them is ongoing. This work is pushing them to think more critically about how they teach as well.

Scharff Panero believes education researchers need to do more explicit studies on best practices to teach writing, and sees her paper as a starting point for that work. Research has already shown that improving writing also improves thinking, content knowledge and speaking skills. She’s not convinced the WIT strategies that she helped develop for New York City’s Renewal Schools are the only way to see pronounced growth in students’ writing abilities. It could just be that identifying and actively trying to fill gaps in writing, no matter how it’s done, is enough.

She’s also skeptical that a software program could find and remediate weaknesses in writing. The processes she has witnessed are very human-based, requiring a teacher’s expertise. Principal Scanlon also thought it might be hard for a computer program to yield the same results. He pointed out that software can give a teacher a lot of data, but how he or she uses that data is much more important. He believes that requiring teacher teams to do cycles of inquiry into their students’ skills, while providing them with support and ideas for closing gaps, serves the important purpose of helping teachers grow, too.

Is It Time To Go Back To Basics With Writing Instruction? 21 February,2017Katrina Schwartz
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  • jax

    It is unfortunate that, in an article on correct writing, the editor/author consistently places a comma after a conjunction.

    • Hillary Clintub

      It’s called the “Oxford comma”. You can Google it.

      • jax

        The Oxford comma, AKA the serial comma, is when you put a comma before “and” in a series of three or more items. Nice try, though.

    • Katerade

      I’m not seeing this. Can you point out an example?

      • jax

        “And, she pushes back against the idea that this approach is dumbing down expectations, arguing that short, sentence-level exercises can contain a lot of rigor and show deep thought.”
        There should not be a comma after “and”. If it were not an independent sentence, you could have a comma BEFORE “and” to separate it from the previous clause.

    • FallsAngel

      And, this “Instead, the staff had to accept the reality of where their students were at and try. . .”! One of my pet peeves; I’ve even heard doctors talk that way.

    • Ilona

      Can you give an example?

      • just a fan

        “But, she complied with the program because she had to….” Either continue the previous sentence by adding a comma, then writing, “…but she complied,” or drop with conjunction completely.

        • jax

          Yes — just a fan is correct. You never use a comma AFTER a conjunction unless there is a non-restrictive clause between conjunction and main clause.
          But I love him! –> correct
          But, I love him! –> incorrect
          But, all else being equal, I love him! –> correct

  • Karen Clancy-Cribby

    Writing is thinking. The basic premise of this is that syntax gets in the way of expression. I disagree. Unclear thinking gets in the way of clear expression. Students, as they grow as learners, should not be clear of mind. They should be grappling! Slowing down thinking by teaching exact expression does not lead to clearer thinking. Thinking, good, great, thinking is messy. Writing will often be messy, and we shouldn’t try to micromanage it. I don’t have a PhD. I have taught language arts for 25 years, and I remember distinctly never, ever understanding any structure to my own writing as I wrote and grappled with thoughts. I teach a workshop approach, and my students write every single day. I write and pose questions daily. I blog, and my students respond to that. They grapple. They struggle. They think. They must formulate their thoughts for me and others in a clear, cogent way, but I allow them plenty of practice with grappling before their voice is public. That is how students will grow.

    • carey

      But did you read the whole thing? The point of the article is that if students don’t have the foundational skills for writing or understand how the “rules” for writing work, then it can be difficult if not impossible to clearly and effectively express their thinking. It’s not about micromanaging. It’s about empowering them with the tools to express themselves well. The author of the article also pointed out that teachers felt students exhibited higher-level critical thinking skills after taking the course, which makes a lot of sense.

      • Karen Clancy-Cribby

        Yes, I did read the whole thing. You’re right though, that it did sound like I was reacting to the title alone.

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  • PAGster

    Oh, no. No no no. The basic unit of a piece of writing is not a sentence; it’s an idea. There are things to use here– of course, the students need some direct instruction on some of the bits and pieces and tools of writing. And yes– there isn’t a piece of writing instruction software anywhere that’s worth a dime. On the other hand, it is an absolute waste of everyone’s time to bother with standardized writing test results, which tell us nothing except how well the students can crank out a formulaic standardized test essay.

    • Katerade

      It sounds like this type of instruction is helping students to clarify their ideas.

    • thebreadandtheknife

      You must not be a writing teacher. If students don’t understand how to construct a basic sentence, they will never form a more complex one. It’s like any skill: you have to achieve mastery at every level like a scaffold. Without understanding how to use semicolons and commas correctly, no matter how good the ideas, a student’s writing will be full of errors. What about helping them shape their ideas that fly through their minds like a swarm of bees into a clear thesis statement so they can focus on a clear topic? Ideas are essential, but without understanding how to develop them clearly in a paper, a student will not move to the next level. .

      • ka5s

        My friend the semicolon!

        Last Year’s Poet

        Deconstructed, love unsmitten;
        Disjunctioned, all that he’s written,
        Subject to microscopy
        And semicolonoscopy,
        Septum rudely deviated,
        Verse crudely abbreviated;
        Last year’s infra-dig is dug,
        Eyebrows raised, aloof and smug.
        Now our poet’s plight is plain:
        No one wants to know his name,
        His wounded pride, extinguished passion,
        Rewards for being out of fashion.

        © Cortland Richmond 2006

  • Thomas Wright

    “Scharff Panero believes education researchers need to do more explicit studies on best practices to teach writing, and sees her paper as a starting point for that work.” Or perhaps they could start from the huge body of research that has already been done in departments of writing studies. One place to begin would be Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle.

  • Heidi Bollinger

    I teach at a community college in the Bronx and my colleagues and I have figured this out intuitively by working with our students. It is true that not all students know how to use transition words. Learning how to use transitions such as “however” or “therefore” purposefully can make a significant difference in their ability to make meaning. There is a relationship between these grammatical, sentence-construction issues and meaning-making/logic skills, absolutely.

  • ka5s

    This is not an all or nothing, right or wrong, orthodox or controversial matter, nor is it as complex as many people would have it; it is merely an extension of the process humans go through as they learn to speak.

    If I can now write sensibly, it is not because I write as I was taught. I recall getting rather poor grades in English classes – until I ignored the rules that were being thrown at me and simply wrote the way I speak.

    There’s an advantage to a quirky way of thinking; I learned at age 67 that my memory problems, which make rote less than useful for learning, are due to a hitherto undiagnosed autism condition, but much of my comment may still be applicable to those more conventionally wired.

    This is not the place to explain a career in the military, and a post-military one in engineering but, having dropped out of high school, with no engineering coursework, and never putting earned or tested college credits into a degree, how these happened deserves an explanation. At 11 I was reading my parents’ college texts in anthropology, geology, psychology; the Mahabharata, Dostoevsky and Shakespeare, Dad’s 1936 Physics 101 and his Merck manual. I’d been sent to a Montessori preschool, but in kindergarten was told not to read to classmates.

    If I can now write sensibly, if I can now assemble my thoughts to convey ideas, it is not because I was taught how to write. I can write because I learned early how to read, and grasped it as a thirsty man would water.

    If we want our young people to be effective writers, we must first teach them to become enthusiastic readers.

    I’m sitting in front of a computer in my very cluttered home “office.” Within eyesight I have Terry Pratchett’s book ‘Going Postal’, Bernard De Voto’s ‘The Western Paradox’, Guy Deutscher’s ‘The Unfolding of Language’, and (atop a stack) Kevin Phillips’ ‘American Theocracy’. These are by no means all of the books I have, the bottom of that stack is Newman’s and Spitz’ ‘The Talmud Anthology’, and I have hundreds of others covering a multitude of subjects; to paraphrase Burroughs’ John Carter, “I still read!”

    I remember having had long conversations with a coworker about the language skills of her students; she was a technical writer by necessity and a Professor of English by preference, an Adjunct working very hard to improve the writing skills of incoming college freshmen. This is by now a well-known problem, but, employed as an electrical engineer, I had noticed its other side; too many intelligent people with degrees who didn’t really understand high school physics. Both her problems and my observations have the same cause; people who it might be correct to say hadn’t been taught more than the rote skill of pronouncing words.

    There is a good deal to be said for teaching content while teaching that skill. I would say it is more in important to teach content while teaching reading – and writing – than the other way around.

    J. D. Ehrlich (Jr) was right about the disservice we do students when we teach them merely to be able to read aloud words on paper. I suspect that titling his book ‘Cultural Literacy’ may have put many people off, but I also suspect he may not have gone far enough

    I think we should teach people how to understand what they read.

    THEN writing can be easy – if we read.

    • NJOK

      And we are mostly killing students’ desire to read for pleasure, so they tend to not read. You are correct. I see that students who read a lot are better writers. In reading, they are repeatedly exposed to excellent writing skills and how grammar is used, how sentences/paragraphs, and ultimately ideas are expressed.

      • just a fan

        Who is killing students’ desire to read for pleasure? I am certainly not doing it. They come from homes where nobody reads more than a social media feed. I teach college, and I ask my students at the beginning of each semester if there was someone who read to them as children, who took them to the library to get books, not just movies. There are too many students who cannot honestly raise their hands.

        • NJOK

          So, if their parents are not reading to them, which I know is true, then their teachers (starting in HeadStart that a number of my college students experienced) should have read to them a lot – everyday, several times a day! Public school teachers should be taking them to the local library and making sure they get library cards. Classrooms should be filled with books and the children, especially in the early grades, should have “choice” time when one choice would be that they can read or be read to by their teachers. Invite community people in to read to them as well.

    • just a fan

      I am afraid that “writing the way I speak” will be fatal to many of my students. When they write the way they speak, their grammar is atrocious and their vocabulary non-existent. These students do not know how to create a complete sentence.

      • ka5s

        That’s why I told Congressman Ehlers, the one with a PhD in nuclear physics, that I wanted everybody to go to MIDDLE SCHOOL, not college; if they’re not reading by the sixth or seventh grade, they’re probably going to be behind the rest of their lives lives. And Middle School may not be early enough; there was some controversy here in Michigan a couple of years ago when because some a conservative legislator wanted to hold back children in third grade if they couldn’t read at that level before being promoted to fourth grade. That’s the best of intentions with the worst of execution; Michigan schools – outside of the very richest and well endowed districts – have been neglected for decades, and white flight has destroyed whole cities by taking away resources necessary to make them places where it was healthy to live and learn.

        E. D. Ehrlich’s point was that without a framework of knowledge to hang
        new learning on, it’s not possible to learn – and I think early reading is THE
        key. Instead of cutting off educational funds for early childhood support systems, we should be doubling or tripling them.

  • Ilona

    This is spot on. And don’t forget about teaching the basics of punctuation. I spent more than two weeks on colons, semi-colons, and dashes, and discovered my students were thrilled to learn how to use these correctly. They saw this type of punctuation as a sign of sophisticated writing, and now use these punctuation marks both accurately and with great confidence. I am so glad I “wasted” our time with these basics. Next week its defining and non-defining clauses, and we will likely spend weeks on them.

  • Carolyn Marg

    I looked up the writing skills book mentioned and found it on amazon for over $300. Does anyone know if this is the normal price or somewhere else I could find it?

    • Jim Connor

      I saw the same book listing on Amazon, it appears that the original company was acquired by Voyager Sopros based in Dallas, the book has been repackaged as part of a curriculum and although it is difficult to identify, it appears to be part of a literacy curriculum priced at approx $439 for a three grade segment, such as $439 for grades 3-5, $439 for grades 6-8. I was unable to find any reference to the original author, Judith Hochman,

      • KDF

        Dr. Judith Hochman founded an organization called The Writing Revolution, which brings the Hochman Method writing strategies directly to teachers and students nationally. Although the book mentioned above is out of print, she has a new book coming out this summer. You can learn about The Writing Revolution and pre-order the book by visiting http://www.thewritingrevolution.org.

  • Chris Blankenship

    Agreed with Thomas Wright. I checked the references in Panero’s article, and there’s an entire field of study that she completely ignores: Writing Studies. Personally, I have a PhD in Writing Studies, and there’s a ton of work out there that aligns with her research. In fact, there’s even a textbook out there doing very similar things to what she’s advocating. It’s called They Say, I Say, and it’s about making particular moves in writing, including the causality move that’s the signature example here. It always amazes me when these educational researchers are so wrapped up in the idea that they are the only ones trying to understand how students learn that they don’t bother to look beyond the books and journals most familiar to them.

    • Magpie118

      I have used “They Say, I Say” with my former AP students and more recently with my middle school students. I found it to be a very useful tool for structure in writing- right down to the sentence level. My students have definitely found it very useful.

  • thebreadandtheknife

    This is brilliant–teaching them what the words mean not in isolation but in relationship to ideas and shaping their own reactions into a clear, meaningful sentence is essential!

    Engaging students so they care enough to make connections and use specific examples is challenging. As a Community College instructor, I have been struck by how lifeless student writing can be, and assigning an article that I think is interesting can fall flat when it comes to inspiring good writing. They sit like robots in class that are only switched on when the bell rings!

    I decided to engage them directly by dropping them into a difficult situation and making them the major players who create and resolve it. These Roleplaying Assignments ask students to work in groups to prepare for a meeting or mock trial, but every student has an identity and speaks during the meeting. When they write essays about the process and the outcome, which they create themselves, their engagement pops into the stratosphere; the young man who never earned higher than a C earns an A-; energy develops inside them, and their ability to use specifics correctly and meaningfully is magical.

    Topics range from court trials to situations such as the discovery of a new species of rodent on University land owned by the city that it wants to sell to developers; they become the developers (who frequently try to bribe City Officials), university scientists, homeowners, and business owners–the decision is made by the City Council at a meeting, and some groups will not like the results. Students who have never spoken take on a role and are suddenly free to speak with power. And the papers are brilliant.

    This is at the college level. Teaching them how to shape their ideas by studying the basic sentence as the foundation of all expression and that conjunctions are bridges between themselves and the material is critically important. This program actually gives students the higher thinking skills they will need to grapple with higher concepts in high school and college. Bravo!

  • Melissa

    I am a fairly intelligent person who has done well on standardized testing and even scored into the “college” level reading category when I was in ninth grade. But I cannot write, I don’t have the skills. I wish that I could take this as a class!

    • just a fan

      You are obviously an intelligent person: you see a weakness and want to make it into a strength. A community college course in English should help you. You don’t say your age, but there have to be resources near you. A retired English teacher might be able to help you learn the basic skills that will enable you to put your ideas on paper. I bet you have a lot to say! Also, the more you read (well-written materials), the more grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary you will absorb.

  • Lisa Rodrigues

    While we’re at it, would it kill the elementary schools to actually teach penmanship? I am tired of being told a kid has disgraphia – when the truth is that he was never taught how to properly hold or use a pencil.

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  • JC888

    This is the most frustrating article I have read in long time. Parents have been saying for a decade at least that American curriculum with respect to english is totally wrong. No intense grammar no sentence structure of note. Administrators say no you parents are wrong we are innovating new ways to teach so just step off. My kids have done 12 years at the largest overseas American school with nearly 4,000 students, its in Singapore, and they profess greatly their innovation is leading the way in education. Total nonsense. This concept of PHD in education is partly to blame. It requires PhD’s fix something in order to gain such degree and these degrees have been growing like crazy so lots of innovation bring injected into to education. To read this article and how it proves there is need to go back to basics requires a loud open apology from these innovators. Instead they will just give it another name. Criminal!!!

  • Dai Chaplin

    I am left wondering why there is no discussion of why this material is not being taught in primary school. When I entered high school in 1966 in Ottawa, Ontario, the English teacher told us he would not be teaching any grammar because we had completed the provincial curriculum on the subject, and we were expected to know it cold.It should be recognized that this discussion is about remedial action for students who have already shortchanged, and should not be the basis for a permanent program. The most important discussion is about preventing this problem occurring in the first place.

  • YES, we, teachers, have to go back to the basics to instruct the writing skill. I’ve been teaching English for over 30 years and I’ve seen learners develop their writing skill only when teachers SERIOUSLY plan lessons to instruct how to produce a simple 3-word sentence and then expand it to a longer sentence worth reading. To teach writing, one must start at the beginner courses otherwise, if the other skills have developed but not the writing skill, then it’s very difficult to go down to the basics and teach writing. Not impossible, but difficult. All skills have to develop side by side and not out of proportion. In teaching L2 we follow this pattern: 1. learners are exposed to the sounds of words and phrases in context, 2. learners repeat/say what they have heard (in context again), 3. learners read what they have heard and have said (recognition), 4. learners write words / phrases in context (the teacher always creates a need for them to write). Then it’s the teacher’s responsibility to plan carefully the writing practice in class. This involves using techniques to make the learners THINK and visualise, produce simple sentences first, then combine their sentences to produce longer sentences that make sense, expand, etc. It also involves peer learning, peer correction, writing small paragraphs on an authentic experience and so on (lots of techniques are mentioned already in the article). Training teachers how to teach the writing skill is absolutely necessary and this has to be done step-by-step. Some teachers and trainers believe that the writing skill is narural. Yes, one could write as they speak. They communicate in a way. BUT
    is this writing in good structure?
    according to the L2 rules?
    does it flow?
    does ir reflect good thinking?
    is it coherent?
    is it organised from general to detail?
    Other teachers expect their learners to know how to write…and they believe that by reading, a learner can develop their writing skill. Well, whereas reading can help writing better, acquiring more vocabulary, understanding a language better, it doesn’t develop the skill of writing per se; learners need good instruction to develop this skill and this must be done at the beginning.
    YES, teachers need good training.

    • ka5s

      You are describing the methods by which most of us learn to communicate with each other; if children are learning to be effective readers, they are also learning the techniques of effective writing – by example.

      I still wonder that we think we can teach writing as a separate skill from reading. It isn’t for me.

      I’ll come back to Ehrlich; he thinks we teach reading improperly, as a decoding skill, and not to convey understanding. If that’s so, then aren’t we teaching writing as merely a coding skill?

      Make them read for understanding, and have them write accordingly.

      Imagine a pedagogical approach to tying one’s shoelaces, standardized tests, progress tracking, penalties for failure to succeed… An educationally rigorous approach to tying shoes would need instructions on exactly how to hold aglets between one’s fingertips and insert them into eyelets. We would of course need to teach vectors and forces to describe the position of aglets relative to eyelets — and the angle — as the process is carried out.

      Opposing schools of education would debate the best method and there might even be a degree for in teaching this very important skill. Perhaps it will be considered so difficult that we will import foreigners on H1B visas – or yield to Velcro.

      Not everything can be taught as a skill; we need knowledge and understanding.

      Kata

      I read about it,
      I bought the book,
      Attended courses,
      That never took.

      One day in dojo,
      I tried again
      The kata I could never get.
      I’d given up by then.

      I bowed and
      Centered my soul;
      What’s the use?
      Forget this goal!

      Moved breath into the Art,
      In, out, left, right,
      Turn, step, stop, start;
      Amazed, to see I’m done.

      And now I know
      What Buddha found
      Inside his heart,
      Unwords, aglow!

      © Cortland Richmond 2002

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  • Shante

    Does anyone know how to get Panero’s WIT strategies? Does she do training? Are they packaged somewhere where we can buy them? I’d love to have someone train my team of teachers.

    • WIT Workshops

      Hello: You can learn about WIT trainings in the New York area here: https://sites.google.com/site/witprofessionaldev/
      Or contact us to join our mailing list or tell us what you’re interested in! An introductory webinar will be available soon!

  • I just checked Amazon for Hochman’s book. It’s selling for between $350 to $700. Unfortunately that’s A little out of this public school teacher’s price range. Looks good though.

    • KDF

      Dr. Judith Hochman founded an organization called The Writing Revolution, which brings the Hochman Method writing strategies directly to teachers and students nationally. She also has a new book coming out this summer. You can learn about The Writing Revolution and pre-order the book by visiting http://www.thewritingrevolution.org.

  • Kimberly J. Haas

    Well, I agree with you. It’s time to go back with instructions for writing. We need to take that step.
    UK Essay Writing

  • John Matich

    Have you seen Mozi? http://www.coreinnovate.com/mozi It’s simple, intuitive and is a “back to basics” approach. Mozi is technology that keeps the teacher in the equation and helps, especially non-English teachers, feel confident in assigning more writing in their content areas (PE, Dance, Graphic Design, Science, etc). Not everyone likes writing about Shakespeare.

Author

Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.

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