Here’s what we never talk about in student writing

Here’s what we never talk about in student writing

In the headlines about the falling standards of student writing I almost never hear one thing being discussed.

That is, the basic distinction between writing and teaching writing.

It’s a big difference, with the latter being difficult enough to mock the pop wisdom that ‘those that can’t do teach.’

As a writer of seven books, I know that putting pen to paper is a walk in the park in comparison to teaching writing in high school – which must feel more like walking the plank for the underprepared.

Think about what the writing teacher is expected to do in the classroom.

They are expected to hold in their head an intimate understanding of the qualities of the writing they want (at grade level); clearly articulate their expectations; make a judgement on a five-point scale (if formally assessed) about the level of achievement; suggest ways to improve on a skill where progress is often non-linear and with a grammatical language many are unfamiliar with.

Slicing up all those parts requires a technical understanding about assessment, task design and how students learn.

Throw in a six-year difference between the top performing and lowest performing student in the typical Australian classroom and you begin to get a sense of the diversity confronting teachers.

Research shows that teacher confidence in writing instruction is low. And even if we produce a sparkling lesson – there are thorny questions around the quality of the feedback we are giving our students about their writing.

But the encouraging news is that a body of research has emerged that outlines the practices of effective writing teachers.

For example, Parr and Limbrick (2010) identified the following characteristics of effective writing instruction;

  1. The writing aims are clear and specific – they are articulated orally and written down so that they can be referred to later.
  2. Mastery criteria is explicit and they have been demonstrated in rubrics and samples.
  3. The teaching activities reflect an alignment between the aims and the goals.
  4. There is explicit or direct teaching of what writing knowledge students need to know or do.
  5. Students are aware of the purpose of what they need to do in the lesson.
  6. Teachers give effective feedback in the lesson.
  7. Teachers make effective links between new and past knowledge.
  8. Classrooms are purposeful and supportive with high expectations.

Improving our ability to teach writing is a long conversation – and understanding the basic difference between writing and teaching writing is a useful place to start.


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