2019

On Teaching Writing

Teaching writing is my passion. Like anything else, as time passes I continue to learn more effective methods for nurturing the young voices in my classroom. There are instructional best practices to put in place, research-based strategies to employ, writing powerhouses to learn from, and structural elements conducive to stronger learning and development. Experience in my sixth grade class has taught me new ways to mold the authors that sit before me each year, but a lack of preparation led to my ‘fact-finding mission’ years ago. I desired to become a more effective writing teacher, and prior to standing in front of my very first class ever, I had never once learned how to teach writing.

I don’t have many complaints about my teacher preparation program, or about my undergraduate experience. We had very early placements in classrooms, valuable methods courses from knowledgeable instructors, and overall a high-quality experience. The area that was lacking, as it is in most state certification programs (National Writing Project and Nagin, 2003), was a course dedicated to writing instruction.

There is no way to prepare pre-service educators for everything they will experience. No one could possibly teach you how to respond to 52 questions before 7:25 in the morning, nor could they prepare you for every single thing you may encounter. But there is an entire methods course missing from the curriculum, and our pre-service teachers are sorely unprepared because of it. In teaching this content over the past 5 years, I’ve seen the vitality of it for our students. What’s more, I realize that I was incredibly lacking in my ability when I began, and made many mistakes because I didn’t have the knowledge I needed to do it well. Without independent study and a desire to improve, I would not have gotten it. To me, that’s a problem. And it’s one that, frankly, isn’t receiving the attention it deserves in the educational field.

In an exploratory study from 2016, they studied the ways in which teacher preparation programs taught writing methods. While small-scale, the purpose reflects a desire to see what happened to writing instruction and why it has gone so unnoticed. With the influence of policy enactments like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and more recently Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the focus in public education is on developing literacy. These acts explicitly mention the need for literacy development to carry over into all content areas, to be facilitated by all teachers. While writing is a part of literacy, and a distinct one at that, it often is grouped or overshadowed by reading. And this isn’t just happening in K-12 schools. In fact, the majority of states do not have individual writing methods courses for pre-service teachers, they are embedded within reading methods courses. For a content area that is so difficult to teach, it would be reasonable to assume that one course dedicated to learning its instruction would be required. But only 28% of teacher educators reported teaching a class solely devoted to writing instruction, while 72% report that writing methods are embedded in reading courses (Myers et al., 2016). When further exploration was done into the teacher educators themselves, they shared that they often do not have adequate time within the reading methods course to tackle writing, and though the disciplines work hand-in-hand, it is hard to convince pre-service teachers of the necessity of writing (Myers et al., 2016).

Though many pre-service teachers do not see the importance of writing, it is not entirely their fault. Many current teachers and teacher educators lack confidence in the content itself (Soiferman, 2017). This creates a reluctance toward the subject, and a heavy reliance on the way we ourselves were taught. Many of us revert to our past educational experiences, those from our own careers as students, because it is familiar and simpler to replicate. I know my own response to the discomfort I felt was to borrow from my own former teachers, creating a mish-mosh of instructional methods that were not nearly as effective as I would have liked. It wasn’t necessarily because any one technique was detrimental or inherently negative, though some were better than others, but it was because I did not have a full grasp of any one method, so my class became one of checking boxes and following formulas.

While certain aspects of writing, such as the five-paragraph essay, can be formulaic and are still beneficial to learn for early writers, they do not provide an avenue for learning style, craft, or structure. They do not provide a unique, individualized approach for our students. Rarely does it lead to an appreciative, deep understanding of writing craft and purpose (Soiferman, 2017). This template-style approach to teaching writing is familiar and low-risk for teachers because it allows for ease of access—both for ourselves and our students. The majority of us who experienced any sort of formal schooling have been taught the layout of the five-paragraph essay, and as a result, it requires very little additional study to teach it. We are able to instruct, write, and assess following this common pattern, one we have a background knowledge of. It compels no additional work on our part, a welcome change from much of what we do. It’s easy. Comfortable. Straightforward.

But the fact remains: it doesn’t work.

Sure, it’ll provide a solid starting point. It will give guidelines and foundation to young writers. But following a prescribed formula will never teach them to write well, nor will it instill an appreciation and love for writing that is sorely lacking in today’s society. It won’t encourage them to find their voices or their form of expression, to craft beautiful sentences that leap off the page into the consciousness of the reader. It won’t show them the beauty that exists within the written word, nor will it allow them to deeply understand the labor of love that comes with publishing a piece, a book, a poem.

So how do we get there?

First, practicing teachers have got to get uncomfortable. This notion of falling back on the familiar must be abandoned. We must develop a knowledge of writing that exists beyond our own education, learn to distinguish the good from the great methods, and begin to give our kids room to play as writers. We’ve got to go beyond formulaic operation, and delve into uncharted territories to explore ourselves. We’ve got to let it get messy.

Second, I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again for the people in the back. All practicing teachers, not just language arts, must be writers themselves. In order to for us to fully understand the craft, we have to engage in it. To grow as a writing teacher, it’s imperative for us to write ourselves. We must have our own writing identities, because it has profound implications for our classroom practice (Cook & Sams, 2018). This identity includes our beliefs about writing, which carry over for our students. Most people who enjoy writing, including pre-service teachers, can recall a positive writing teacher from their education, most commonly their middle or high school experience (Daisey, 2009). These positive influences included an increased writing ownership and solid writing instruction, and they led to more confident, affluent writing teachers in the future.

Third, while it is important for practicing and pre-service educators to develop their own writing identities, simply being a writer does not automatically qualify someone to teach it well. We must recognize this. It is a vital foundation, yes, but being a skilled writer can often mean someone will be less effective, because they cannot empathize with students just beginning to engage in the process. It is akin to explaining simple mathematical computations—to teach them, you must be able to do more than simply provide the correct solution. For someone to be effective, they must also be able to understand and articulate the writing they are doing, the choices they are making, and why they are making them (Cook & Sams, 2018). Basically, they have to develop an understanding of writing pedagogy.

For our teacher preparation programs, the idea of writing instruction has weightier implications. While it is true that reading and writing are intimately connected disciplines, it is vital that their instruction be taught while giving the two equal importance. Standardized testing and educational policy focus heavily on reading data, but the two must be seen as equally important in the educational field. Future teachers must develop deep pedagogical understandings of each area, as well as ways to meaningfully connect the two. Without this, teachers tie reading and writing together arbitrarily, passing on this lack of connection to the students in their classrooms (Nicholas, 2017) and perpetuating the problem further.

Additionally, teacher candidates must feel an increased sense of authorship themselves. Their courses must not only focus on developing pedagogy and instructional understandings, but also on building confidence and writing identity. Because many teachers shy away from writing instruction due to their own insecurity, it is vital that we address and cultivate teacher writers from the start. We must allow pre-service teachers the room to experiment with writing processes and strategies themselves, modeling ways in which they can allow their future students to do the same.

In a national study done on high-quality writing methods courses, it was found that in addition to fostering teacher authorship, explicit teaching was also important and necessary (R. Q. Scales et al., 2019). Pre-service teachers must experience the lesson planning, assessment, and student driven development of writing instruction so that they may know how to do it before they have their own classrooms. They must be taught to use student writing samples to guide lesson content, how to use an analytic or performance-based rubric, and how to work within a content area that is exceedingly complex. Field experiences focused on how writing is taught: conferencing, observation, growth monitoring, mini lesson, etc. must be included and debriefed for comprehensive understanding. In short, preparation must guide future teachers through the reality of being a writing teacher.

While I do not have all the answers or know all of the ways to make this happen, I do know that writing deserves to be viewed as an independently important discipline, one exceedingly necessary component of an excellent education. I have seen research that our current teacher education curriculum is lacking this component. I have experienced my own discomfort and lack of preparation at attempting to tackle this incredibly difficult content, and shared this common experience with many other educators in the field. I have seen research that outlines the hallmarks of high-quality writing methods courses, providing a framework to springboard this needed reform. There may be a gap now, but the trends and discussions I’ve witnessed show an increased desire to shed light on the situation. Change is coming. As educators, we need to continue bringing writing to the foreground, bringing attention to its influence, and lay the groundwork for this change. We need to ensure we have the tools needed to help students find their voice.


References

Cook, M.P. & Sams, B.L. (2018). A different kind of sponsorship: The influence of graphic narrative composing on ELA pre-service teachers’ perceptions of writing and literacy instruction. Journal of Language and Literacy Education, 14(1), 1-25. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1175831.pdf.

Daisey, P. (2009). The writing experiences and beliefs of secondary teacher candidates. Teacher Education Quarterly, 36(4), 157-172. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ870123.pdf.

Myers, J., Scales, R.Q., Grisham, D.L., Wolsey, T.V., Dismuke, S., Smetana, L., Yoder, K.K., Ikpeze, C., Ganske, K., & Martin, S. (2016). What about writing? A national exploratory study of writing instruction in teacher preparation programs. Literacy Research and Instruction, 55(4), 309-330, DOI: 10.1080/19388071.2016.1198442.

Nicholas, E.L., (2017). Preparing teacher candidates to integrate reading and writing instruction: A conceptual piece. Teacher Educators’ Journal, 10, 99-117. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1138797.pdf.

Scales, R.Q., Tracy, K.N., Myers, J., Smetana, L., Grisham, D.L., Ikpeze, C., Yoder, K.K., & Sanders, J. (2019). A national study of exemplary writing methods instructors’ course assignments. Literacy Research and Instruction, 58(2), 67-83. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/19388071.2019.1575496.

Soiferman, L.K. (2017). Teaching high school students how to write: The importance of direct explicit instruction and teacher training. [Online Submission]. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED572369.pdf.

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