About Writing

Better Writers, Better Thinkers
Proactive, not reactive instruction
Not just teaching, Always learning

Writing is a complicated activity involving cognition and articulation; logic and artistry; boldness and discretion. Many teachers find it difficult to systematically and effectively teach a concept that requires skill, talent, resolve, abstract thought, and concrete syntactical accuracy coupled with precision of diction. In 1963, Braddock et al. researched how teachers were attempting to manage such a daunting task. They found that, largely, they were not doing so well. For one, teachers were using multiple choice tests to assess student writing ability. This makes sense considering that they were focusing primarily on grammatical construction. Braddock et al. criticizes this approach:


     [T]he conclusion can be stated in strong and unqualified terms:  the teaching of        formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some                      instruction and practice in actual composition, even a harmful effect on the                improvement of writing.  (38-9)


While many classroom teachers were ignorant of or ignored these 1963 comments, others sought reform. Their efforts are reflected in the 1986 work of George Hillocks who identifies a variety of modes that teachers use to give writing instruction. Of these, he identified the “environmental mode” as most effective as it links teacher, student, and resources. He describes how instructors teach writing by sharing “concrete materials and problems, the working through of which not only illustrates the principle but engages students in its use” (122). Further, he lauds this model of teaching because through it, teachers taught students principles for students to respond to each other’s writing. Thus, Hillocks recommends classrooms that involve active learners and collaboration.

            However, the standardized testing movement that began in the mid-1990s had more effect on writing instruction than Hillocks’ 1986 research. Indeed, by 2002, Hillocks laments, “In every state, when teachers have little knowledge of writing, the testing system tends to become the knowledge base for teaching writing” (Hillocks 102). Unfortunately, this knowledge base has led to unwelcome consequences. Scherff and Piazza find that teachers emphasized product instead of the process that Hillocks had advocated in 1986, and further they write that “little class time was used for writing conferences or peer review resulting in revision of multiple drafts” (293). Brimi also finds that teachers limit the scope of their writing instruction and the amount of time they devote to multiple modes and genres. Sloane and Kelly describe the possible effects on student motivation that derive from product-oriented approaches, suggesting that students could become flustered and discouraged to continue writing. Hillocks further condemns the effects of standardized writing assessment, citing the emphasis on form at the expense of content and showing how some state assessments lead teachers to give students inaccurate information.

            Schools need to not only break away from teaching for the sake of writing assessments, but they need to employ best practices. This includes writing across the curriculum. Young writers need practice, and English teachers alone may not be able to provide an adequate amount. Hanstedt portrays the advantages of writing across the curriculum in this regard, invoking Ronald Kellogg’s “10,000 hour” rule for mastery of a skill:


     Needless to say, very few students arrive at college with 1,500 hours of highly          motivated individual practice in writing under their belts, much less 10,000                hours. And needless to say, thirty-nine hours of first-year writing, while helpful,        likely won’t be enough to give students the amount of practice they’ll need to            satisfy their second-, third-, and fourth-year instructors. What writing across the      curriculum recognizes, then, is that students need more practice and more                instruction in composition in order to become the writers we want them to be.         (48)


If students write in all classes, they can come closer to mastery. Furthermore, as Ruskiewicz informs, there is “an interdisciplinary nature of any writing course” (8). If this is the case, should there also not be a writing element of a course in any discipline? When students write about material in any discipline, they increase their knowledge of it and realize its applicability (Ruskiewicz; Hanstedt).

            This can be arduous for some teachers, though. Consider the old football coach who teaches biology and lacks the time and, possibly, the incentive to learn to be a writing instructor. Instead of giving him a pass, allowing him to continue without adopting elements of writing, there are other alternatives—for him and for others whose training has not prepared them to be writing instructors. The strongest option lies in the writing center.

            Writing centers serve all in the school community. They serve teachers in addition to students by providing mini-lessons and staff development (Farrell, et al.) While some instructors may view the writing center teacher as serving a “policing” role, “the [writing lab faculty] view their position as an assessment opportunity that can be advantageous to faculty. By gathering data about ways of thinking within disciplines, the writing center provides a resource and forum for discussion about students' understanding and interpretation of classroom objectives that cannot be measured through usual academic evaluations” (Mullin and Farrell-Childers). Mullin and Farrell-Childers add that “collaboration serves as the heart of any writing center and writing across the curriculum program. Faculty members, who operate mostly in isolation within their classrooms, begin to collaborate with each other on their mutual goals and methods. The writing center director's interaction with students is translated to faculty, and that interaction in turn benefits students.”

         These facilities and their staff also contribute to best practices as Hillocks describes. They emphasize process. They emphasize collaboration (Ede). Farrell, et al. discuss several benefits for students: “individualized conferences” during which “[s]tudents hang out in a comfortable setting and chat about their ideas and their writing”; “focus on the writing—not the grade” (because “writing center staff members don’t assign a grade, the writer is free to focus on the words on the page without worrying about the reader’s judgment”); and “an environment where writers can bounce their ideas off others, questions can lead to new ideas, writing for self or publication can blossom, and resources on writing abound.” In fact, the students even have the opportunity to write with faculty and for publication. Jordan mentions such a program that Childers had described to her via e-mail:

        The close connections with writing and faculty members in the writing center also present additional opportunities for the student tutors, as Pamela Childers points out that students at the McCallie School get their work published and even collaborate with faculty members to write articles. These are valuable writing and learning experiences made possible by a writing center. (54)

        These valuable experiences arise since students see the importance of writing to their teachers beyond the classroom and since they, themselves, write for an audience beyond the four walls of that classroom.

        Students need these experiences for high-level writing, but they also need a way to combat the stress that comes with writing for a grade. Mullin and Farrell-Childers address this aspect of the writing center in terms of consultations between students and center staff. Grades, though, are an especially important factor to ELL students and serve as a factor in writing anxiety. Writing anxiety is the top barrier to performance for ELL students in writing classes (Wu & Lin). Ge remarks that his ELL students became more tentative in their writing when they knew it would be held up to scrutiny. If writing centers can help ELL students see writing as a process, then they may be able to combat this fear. Furthermore, if there is no grade on the line, as Mullin and Farrell-Childers indicate as a strength of working with writing center faculty, then students are less inclined to be influenced by extrinsic motivation. Tsao et al. note that their ELL students, when extrinsically motivated, dismissed or simply neglected to read comments meant to improve their writing. Working in the safer environment of a writing center, ELL students are more likely to take heed in such comments about their writing. Williams & Severino address the value of receiving feedback and add to it, advocating that ELL students benefit from collaborating on their writing with native speakers.

            This collaboration, though, may seem problematic for some teachers. They may see “collaboration” as a euphemism for “plagiarism.” Language, though, and how we use and adjust our use of it, derives from social influences. Ede reminds us that writing, itself, is a social practice. Kucer, too, recognizes the social nature of language, and offers examples from Heath’s study in which that researcher found that students from homes that used literacy models similar to those at school were more successful than those from homes that did not. In short, Heath found what should be apparent: if students lived in a home where parents and siblings used language the way teachers use language, then those students were more comfortable in and more adept at school. Since language has this social element, it is even more important for students to learn to write for legitimate audiences (as opposed to graders) and to work with people more fluent in a variety of audiences (general, academic, etc.) as they develop their own skills.

            With this in mind, teachers should welcome collaboration amongst writers. Theories of intertextuality show that even our most revered writers “borrowed” to a certain degree from the influence of previously written texts (Porter). With this in mind, one concern for high school teachers is whether their students can write in the manner expected of academics. After all, if students are to advance through college, they will need to be able to appeal to the audience of professor. As Bartholomae writes, “They must learn to speak our language” (5).

            But learning to speak the language of an academic is only one reason for teachers and writing center directors to push students towards better writing. Employment beyond menial labor demands it. Hanstedt writes,


    Indeed, given that employers regularly cite writing (along with oral                             communication) as the top skill they look for in employees (Hart Research                 Associates 2010), and that most of our students were raised in the age of Twitter     and Facebook, where an “extended argument” equals all of 140 characters, an         emphasis on developing writing skills has become all the more important. (48)


Goo concurs in her Pew Research report in which over four-fifths of college graduates (and three-quarters of all respondents) cited “writing” as a skill most important for “success in the world.”

            The argument is clear. Writing centers can help students become better writers. They offer instruction based on best practices. They assist teachers in developing their skills as writing instructors. They allow for collaboration amongst writers, both an historical hallmark of good writers and an aid to ELL students. Furthermore, our society values people who can write. If writing centers can help students write more effectively, then high schools should allocate resources to include them.