New York Times Today: “Why Kids Can’t Write”

This morning I logged into the New York Times and noticed this article by Dana Goldstein: “Why Kids Can’t Write“.

Goldstein claims that the Common Core State Standards, established six years ago, could lead to better writing instruction in American public schools.

She explains:

By requiring students to learn three types of essay writing — argumentative, informational and narrative — the Core staked a claim for writing as central to the American curriculum.

I agree, the core standards could provide a solid basis for improving U.S. writing instruction. The standards are comprehensive, attainable, and relevant.

I love that three types of writing are given equal standing–it’s not just about storytelling or literary criticism. Students must be able to argue persuasively about a range of topics. And they must be able to describe and analyze things from real life. The core standards are good preparation not only for English 101, but also for voicing opinions online, and for writing lab reports.

One more thing I love–the guidelines are readable! Go ahead and try it:
Core Standards for Writing
(You’ll see an orange menu bar to access the details for each grade level.)

What’s the Problem?

The problem, Goldstein reports, is that the new standards have not led immediately to substantial improvement in writing skills. This can’t possibly be a surprise. Standards are not resources. Standards do not rearrange a school day, revamp an assignment, or improve a teacher’s personal mastery of writing. In other words, changing writing standards does not automatically ensure that teachers have the resources or commitment needed to implement new teaching techniques.

Goldstein starts to get into the true issues, when she concludes:

The root of the problem, educators agree, is that teachers have little training in how to teach writing and are often weak or unconfident writers themselves.

Unfortunately, instead of exploring why there is so little support for implementation of the new standards, Goldstein gets sidetracked.

“Process” versus “Grammar”

Perhaps to juice up the article, Goldstein creates a false dichotomy. She identifies a newer “process writing” approach, which she contrasts with an older style focused on the “fundamentals of grammar.” For example, Goldstein visits a program that trains teachers on the process method, which she dismisses as simply a time to “write and chat with colleagues.” In contrast, she visits a grammar training program, which she dismisses as too focused on “worksheets.”

She explains how both extremes fail:

… In classrooms where practices like freewriting are used without any focus on transcription or punctuation, ‘the students who struggled didn’t make any progress,’ Dr. Troia, the Michigan State professor, said. But when grammar instruction is divorced from the writing process and from rich ideas in literature or science, it becomes ‘superficial,’ he warned.

Goldstein concludes, correctly, that what’s needed is a “synthesis of the two approaches.” I agree, but that is exactly what an effective “process” approach does.

Writers’ Workshop

Historically, a focus on the writing process was developed at the college level, at institutions like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Early proponents in the K-12 realm included Donald Graves, Donald Murray, and Lucy Calkins, who made the Writing Workshop Method her mission at Columbia Teacher’s College, and is quoted in the article.

I received training on the workshop method in the 1980s, as a way to improve instruction in my grade school class. I spent a lot of time learning how to get students to write freely, about topics they love!

I also learned how to deliver brief lessons on mechanics and grammar, at a developmentally appropriate level, on skills relevant to the students’ writing projects. I learned how to fold writing into every subject area, from history to math. And I learned how to support a range of developmental stages, from writing simple words and sentences, to managing complex essays.

It was a blended approach, promoted in my district as the Ithaca Writing Project. Calkins and others were our inspiration. (As a side note, I would humbly add that I was ready to implement the workshop method because I’d already made my way through multiple writing courses, on everything from poetry to expository writing.)

Getting Back to Real Progress, Not Polemics…

One of the biggest challenges, which Goldstein glosses over, is that writing takes time–lots of it.

Students need time to think of ideas, organize their thoughts, and write. They need time to read their work aloud, and to hear the responses of fellow students. They need opportunities to practice printing, cursive, and eventually typing. They also need time to work on punctuation and grammar. Not every skill needs to be covered for every assignment. But students need a comprehensive blend of learning experiences to master mechanics, gain a “good ear” for the written word, and develop the craft of writing.

Teachers need time too. Changing instructional methods requires an intense investment of resources.

So what about this…

  • What if the two groups of teachers (the ones at the “process” workshop and the ones at the “grammar” workshop) switched, so each group took both types of training?
  • What if they returned to their schools and were paid by their districts to research core standards, prepare new lesson plans, and update instructional materials?
  • What if, throughout the year, they received encouragement from administrators, and had time to meet with fellow teachers to share information on what’s working?
  • What if teacher certification required more courses on writing and writing instruction?

Goldstein seems to loop back to a blame game, pitting one approach against another (an argument that was picked up by commenters). That style of reporting generates pageviews and commentary, but is self-defeating. Readers are left with no solutions.

I would love to see more in-depth reporting on writing instruction and core standards–but focusing more on what works. And what works, for writing, is a process-oriented approach that covers multiple types of writing, and a full range of skills.

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