Over the last couple of years, I have had cause to work with English teachers and to read some of the literature on English teaching. I have become convinced that writing is mostly taught backwards.
Typically, students are asked to write something. Once they have written it, they hand it in to a teacher to mark. This eats teacher time because there are so many things to comment upon in the piece of writing. Teachers have discussions about how to handle this. They may create a coding system for spelling and grammar and restrict comments to other features of the piece. Nevertheless, it is still unmanageable and virtually all of these comments are never fully understood by the students. Partly, this is because the comments themselves are unhelpful and vague; the equivalent of telling a sprinter that, in order to improve, she must try to run faster. Partly, this is because written comments are a poor way of teaching. Interactive explanations are far better because the teacher can ask questions to check understanding and can pick up on subtle cues from the facial expressions of students. If it was easy to learn from written comments then we could replace schools with books (I now have visions of a 15th century Tedde Talke where some guru explains that schools will soon be replaced by printed material).
So typically, we ask students to do something that we haven’t taught them how to do and then, when they fail to do it, we spend hours writing to them about this. Which is all backwards.
Instead, it might be better to teach a skill first, to all of the students, in class. Students can then practise the skill. Once we are sure that they can do the skill in isolation, we can ask them to demonstrate it in a more complex task where they need to synthesise a number of skills, again focusing on the application of the one we have taught them. Once we have had a look at their responses, rather than writing to our students, we could use what we have learnt to design a plan for a new lesson where we correct misconceptions or further develop the skill. This would be teaching writing forwards.
That would seem sensible, right?
So why don’t we do this? The answer is that most people know good writing when they see it but few of us have spent time analysing it in order to break it down into component skills. So we don’t really know where to start. Instead, we ask students to write and then sort-of see what happens; the backwards approach.
If you are interested in teaching writing forwards then I can recommend “The Writing Revolution” by Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler. Alternatively, you can check out the Direct Instruction “Expressive Writing” courses. I am sure there are other approaches out there but these are the two I know. You can adopt one of these models wholesale, adapt it or draw on its principles to develop your own approach. If you are currently teaching writing backwards then this may be the best thing you ever do.