The truth is, there is no road map to more effective teaching of writing. But there is a compass – and the north point is understanding the difference between writing and teaching writing.
The journey to better writing instruction begins with understanding this one thing:
There is a difference between what students do, which is write, and what teachers do, which is teach writing.
As you move through the long and winding road of writing improvement in your school, this fact is the north compass point to which you would be well advised to keep returning. It follows that the best way for a teacher to internalise this truth is to do what students do: write.
What do students do when they write?
Faced with a blank page, students communicate what they understand about the content with the writing tools they have at their fingertips. They are confronted with what Samuel Taylor Coleridge calls ‘the tyranny of choice.’
Students are communicating their thinking and ideas. It is worth remembering what American writing coach John Warner says in his book Why They Can’t Write, “The basic unit of writing is the idea and not the sentence.”
If you sit down to write a piece you have set for your students you might be surprised how quickly the content bubbles to the surface in the act of writing. How well do you understand the nuances, detail and technical knowledge of the content? What evidence are you drawing from? Are you going to quote, paraphrase or summarise a source? If you are going to quote, which part of it are you going to use and how does it add to your argument? How well have you captured the idea in a summary? How are you going to express an understanding of a graph or a photograph or a speech? What order are you going to put the ideas in? How well have you integrated the key terms and concepts, in context?
The content is the drive shaft of writing.
At the same time, students are massaging their ideas with the writing tools at their disposal. They might think about paragraph structure to contain a thought or stay on point, select precise vocabulary to evaluate an idea or transition to another section. They may either consciously or intuitively keep an eye on their sentence lengths for rhythm (but they are almost never driven by a knowledge of simple, compound and complex sentences). They may have a range of cohesive devices and use precise language to signal tone, direction and nuance. Some may be aware of the architecture of an argument and be able to structure their piece around claims, counterclaims, qualifications and concessions.
The point is, we need to adjust what we mean by writing to acknowledge that while technical skills are no doubt necessary, for students they don’t come first. If we can shift the weight of our instruction back into the texts and ideas students are being asked to write about, they will have a much better chance at expressing their ideas with clarity.
Clear thinking equals clear writing.
Why do so many school writing programs run out of petrol?
Many schools start their writing improvement journey with a best guess.
Let’s look at what happens when a school attempts to build their writing program around a paragraph structure such as PEEL (Point, Evidence, Explanation, Link) or some other variety such as SEAL or Hamburgers and so on.
There are two good reasons why PEEL provides an initial sugar hit. First, students can now contain their ideas within a single paragraph. That is a big win. Second, teachers from across the curriculum develop a language for talking about writing. They can identify a point sentence, how to include an example, provide strategies to explain and then help students link back to the question or a transition to the next paragraph.
They’ve kicked off the training wheels and they are starting to ride. Teachers love it and principals celebrate what looks like great strides in the right direction.
But if you are not ready to move on from PEEL fast, students come to loathe it. It congeals into a writing program that is boiled down to the ugliest four words to the adolescent ear, ‘Let’s Write a Paragraph’.
PEEL can become an attempt to sanitise the writing process. And since writing is an expression of thinking and learning, it can’t be white washed. It becomes a straight- jacket for more capable students whose ideas do not easily fit into a formula. Worse, schools can become so convinced of the idea, that they jam it into a marking criteria and unwittingly reinforce a habit of mediocre writing.
This view is not an attempt to criticise structure. Of course, students need to contain their ideas in a paragraph and write in discipline specific forms. It is just that structure does not come first. Ideas do. The problem is not the structure. It is the misplaced belief that writing is just about sentences, punctuation and structure.
All the structure in the world is not going to help students who can’t capture the ideas in a source, spot the relevance of a case study or graph for an argument, identify a perspective or choose from a wide range of vocabulary to control their response.
A large part of writing instruction is found in our response to the texts we are asked to write about. PEEL will not help students understand the development of recombinant DNA in the humble tomato, the importance of Pericles to the Athenian effort in the Peloponnesian War or the effect of the inverse yield curve on global bond markets.
The only way to find this out as a teacher is to do what students do: write.