The problem of writing 

In Australia, the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) are a series of tests that take place in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. The writing component requires students to write either a narrative or a persuasive piece in response to a prompt. Although there is an Australian Curriculum from which, conceivably, prompts could be drawn, they tend to be banal and assume no specific knowledge. For example, students might be asked to write about whether the city is better than the country.

I think this misses an opportunity to write about topics that are more worthwhile but I do think this kind of assessment is valid. After all, one important outcome of schooling should be that students can develop an idea at some length in writing.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure we know how to prepare students for this kind of assessment. Preparing students for a maths test is relatively straightforward: just teach them how to solve all of the different kinds of problems on the test. But writing is a complex performance that integrates different forms of declarative and procedural knowledge. What do you do?

Rehearse and hope

One obvious strategy is to ask students to rehearse the final performance a lot. You can give them past prompts and ask them to respond.

If we do this then what is the mechanism by which we expect students to improve? It looks a lot like ‘talent spotting’ rather than ‘talent development’. You could spend hours writing feedback at the end of each piece but this is a highly inefficient form of teaching. Students are only likely to be able to take one or two points on board.

This also assumes that any errors draw from a lack of knowledge. A student might make a grammatical error but this might be because her attention is fully occupied in formulating her ideas rather than because she lacks that grammar knowledge. Feedback on grammar would therefore be redundant. As writing expert Ronald Kellogg explains:

“Composing can place severe demands on working memory because the task requires temporarily maintaining numerous mental representations in planning ideas, translating sentences, and reviewing the results. The verbal protocols collected by Flower and Hayes (1980) indicated that: ‘A writer caught in the act looks … like a very busy switchboard operator trying to juggle a number of demands on her attention and constraints on what she can do.'”

Writing Instruction

It is much better to actually teach writing. One of the reasons why we don’t always follow this approach is that it can be hard to see how to break writing down into its components. We have a romantic preference for viewing writing holistically and, in contrast to maths, we also have a great deal of choice in how to break it down.

If we take a superficial approach then we run the risk of teaching writing tips and hacks. For instance, we might teach a, “Firstly, secondly, thirdly,” structure, the elements of a narrative arc or that students should include at least one complex sentence in each piece. There is nothing essentially wrong with these ideas, although repetitive structures can be limiting. The main issue is that we are teaching some of the surface features of good writing. It is then easy to fool ourselves that we have substantially improved students’ writing because the internal rubric we have developed is likely to prioritise these features.

A sophisticated approach will deconstruct writing in a more thorough way, starting with the planning process and working through lots of components skills.

For instance, imagine that we decide to give some explicit instruction on topic sentences. We would need to model the construction of a few topic sentences with the teacher thinking aloud to the class. Then we could give the students a list of sentences and ask them to identify which ones are the best topic sentences and why. Then would could ask them to construct topics sentences themselves. At each stage we can connect the teaching to the student responses and refine it as needed. There is no need to take lots of marking home.

This kind of explicit writing instruction is effective but it is also quite generic. I have seen units developed with the title of ‘narrative writing’ or ‘persuasive writing’. It is as if the contexts are interchangeable and yet we know that they are not.

Purposeful writing

It is vital that we teach the components of writing but we must not neglect what students are writing about. Think about the city versus country prompt. I would imagine that most Australian students would address this prompt in terms of their own town or city. A context that might stand out and be better able to support a sophisticated argument might be about the advent of the first cities in Mesopotamia or the relationships between certain cities and their surrounding areas over time.

What distinguishes these more sophisticated responses is the use of world knowledge. The more sophisticated our world knowledge, the better we may respond to these banal prompts. Writing instruction offers the opportunity to vary the topics and themes that we write about in a systematic way, enabling students to grow their vocabulary and ideas about the world while also gaining experience of using this vocabulary and these ideas in written pieces.

I am going to introduce two definitions that I think may help. They are unlikely to stand up to hostile scrutiny and the terms are used differently in other contexts. Firstly, I am going to define a ‘domain’ as:

A limited body of knowledge that shares a common vocabulary and set of concepts

The idea of it being limited is extremely important because it defines the edges of the domain. We know what is included and what needs to be developed and we know what to exclude. This allows for a deeper analysis of the domain itself. Another way to think of this definition of a domain might be: Something you could draw on a concept map.

A novel would certainly fit this definition. ‘Adaptation in Australian animals’ would potentially work well. You could also describe a domain through a question such as ‘How did Rome come to dominate Europe?’ Admittedly, there is potentially much more to these than could fit on a simple concept map but you could capture key ideas and events in this way and define a limited domain in which students could write.

Topics that would not count as domains under this definition would be examples such as ‘relationships’, ‘narrative’, or ‘apples’. All of these would need to be more tightly defined.

Two problems arise with the idea of writing within these domains. How can we practise narrative writing? Shouldn’t we let students choose their own topics for narrative? I don’t think so; not all of the time. If a student chooses his own topic then he is likely to keep returning to the same concepts and vocabulary; tell the same story over and over again without building a repertoire. It is quite possible to write a narrative within the Roman context. Oddly, this probably happens in a superficial way in many history lessons – “Your homework is to write a diary entry for a Roman centurion” – and yet it is English teachers who have the knowledge to improve narrative writing.

The second problem is that English teachers may themselves not be familiar with the domains. Tough luck. Choose the contexts strategically, choose them well in advance, make a reading list and put in the grunt work.

My second definition takes this idea further. I am going to define a ‘powerful domain’ as:

A domain that feeds forward into future learning by providing knowledge, concepts, idioms or analogies.

The focus is now on domains with leverage; domains that we can return to and reuse. Given the limited curriculum time available, it is better if we can kill two birds with one stone. Think of rich sources of powerful knowledge: The Holocaust is essential to an understanding of post 1945 Europe and the Middle East; The Gospels and Greek Myths are sources of ideas and idioms such as ‘no room at the inn’ and ‘labours of Sisyphus’; and Orwell’s 1984 introduced new vocabulary such as ‘doublethink’ and the idea of ‘Big Brother’.

Such lists will tend to be dominated by the works and doings of white European men and so I believe that we also need to positively discriminate in order to ensure diversity and balance. A particular novel may not fit the definition of a powerful domain but it might be written from an important perspective and address key themes.

Teaching purposeful writing

If we decide to teach writing in the context of domains, whether they are powerful or not, then we need to think about the teaching sequence. A key idea for developing such a structure is something we might call the “Sherlock Holmes” principle of deductive reasoning; eliminate the impossible. At each point of assessment, we want to know exactly what we are assessing.

For instance, if we assess students’ grammar knowledge by asking them to complete a grammar test or correct the grammar in a faulty passage then we can deduce that if they make similar mistakes in their own work then it is not because of a lack of this knowledge. We can rule this out and avoid redundant feedback. It might be better to build in specific proof-reading time into the lesson.

A unit of work needs to start with contextual knowledge: First teach that knowledge and assess it (have students even read the novel?). We can then take this off the table as a cause of any later issues . We also need to teach key themes and concepts; how the ideas connect; different interpretations; and then assess these. Then we can move into the stage of explicitly teaching the component writing skills. If we know that students have a problem using evidence from the text then we might explicitly model that process before giving them practice and assessing what they can do. Finally, we move into the complex task. By this point, teachers should be able to focus on the integration of the different components.

No short cuts

Teaching writing is complex because writing is complex. It requires a systematic approach. There are no short-cuts.

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7 Comments on “The problem of writing ”

  1. Felicity says:

    At my previous school, we’d identified that lack of general knowledge was affecting student writing, and started having students read the Sydney Morning Herald website to broaden their perspectives. (Although I think, in retrospect, something a bit more targeted might have been more effective – too much celeb gossip on the SMH home page.)

    Thanks for writing about writing. English is complex and inherently subjective – and that’s part of its beauty – but I think the clearer we can make its component parts for our students, the better. So any insights you have are *very* welcome.

  2. Mike says:

    I still think Genre Theory has a helluva lot to answer for in this area. Roughly around the mid-nineties, at least in NSW schools, it became unchallengeable dogma that drilling students in the difference between recounts, reports, persuasive texts etc. was a panacea for writing problems. The academics loved Genre Theory, of course, because it had its origins (I believe) in critical theory and structuralism and all the other trendy obsessions of the day. But anyone with any sense could have realised that this obsessive focus on form over content would lead to, at best, a stilted, rigid and anal writing style.

    From a layman’s perspective I’ve always thought that the best way to improve kids’ extended writing skills is simply to have them read often, and widely. There’s a parallel here in second language acquisition: an “immersion” approach (which has its problems, admittedly) familiarises students with the common structures and cadences of a second language very quickly, and although formal grammar/vocabulary instruction then still plays a role, it becomes a supporting role rather than the focus. Likewise, I think that by reading a wide range of texts regularly and carefully, students are much more likely to internalise the “rules” of good sentence structure, the development of an argument/narrative, etc. than if they are simply fed a bunch of How-tos for different “text types”.

  3. bloggersnotebook says:

    Thought about skimming and scanning, got to end and thought, ‘Yep, there’s no short cuts indeed when it comes to teaching writing.’

  4. […] I wrote about some of the things we have learnt here. […]


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