Ms. Wanzer then asked the students to spend a few minutes writing anything they liked in response to the Lamott excerpt. Lyse Armand, a rising senior at Westbury High School, leaned over her notebook. She was planning to apply to New York University, Columbia and Stony Brook University and already had an idea of the story she would tell in her Common Application essay. It would have something to do, she thought, with her family’s emigration from Haiti following the 2010 earthquake that devastated the island. But she was struggling with how to get started and what exactly she wanted to say.
“What voice in my head?” she wrote in her response to the Lamott essay. “I don’t have one.”
Lyse needed a sense of “ownership” over her writing, Ms. Wanzer said. Lyse had solid sentence-level skills. But even when Ms. Wanzer encounters juniors and seniors whose essays are filled with incomplete sentences — not an uncommon occurrence — she limits the time she spends covering dull topics like subject-verb agreement. “You hope that by exposing them to great writing, they’ll start to hear what’s going on.”
Three-quarters of both 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. And 40 percent of those who took the ACT writing exam in the high school class of 2016 lacked the reading and writing skills necessary to complete successfully a college-level English composition class, according to the company’s data.
Poor writing is nothing new, nor is concern about it. More than half of first-year students at Harvard failed an entrance exam in writing — in 1874. But the Common Core State Standards, now in use in more than two-thirds of the states, were supposed to change all this. 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. It represented a sea change after the era of No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal law that largely overlooked writing in favor of reading comprehension assessed by standardized multiple-choice tests.
So far, however, six years after its rollout, the Core hasn’t led to much measurable improvement on the page. Students continue to arrive on college campuses needing remediation in basic writing skills.
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. According to Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a scan of course syllabuses from 2,400 teacher preparation programs turned up little evidence that the teaching of writing was being covered in a widespread or systematic way.
A separate 2016 study of nearly 500 teachers in grades three through eight across the country, conducted by Gary Troia of Michigan State University and Steve Graham of Arizona State University, found that fewer than half had taken a college class that devoted significant time to the teaching of writing, while fewer than a third had taken a class solely devoted to how children learn to write. Unsurprisingly, given their lack of preparation, only 55 percent of respondents said they enjoyed teaching the subject.
“Most teachers are great readers,” Dr. Troia said. “They’ve been successful in college, maybe even graduate school. But when you ask most teachers about their comfort with writing and their writing experiences, they don’t do very much or feel comfortable with it.”
There is virulent debate about what approach is best. So-called process writing, like the lesson Lyse experienced in Long Island, emphasizes activities like brainstorming, freewriting, journaling about one’s personal experiences and peer-to-peer revision. Adherents worry that focusing too much on grammar or citing sources will stifle the writerly voice and prevent children from falling in love with writing as an activity.
That ideology goes back to the 1930s, when progressive educators began to shift the writing curriculum away from penmanship and spelling and toward diary entries and personal letters as a psychologically liberating activity. Later, in the 1960s and 1970s, this movement took on the language of civil rights, with teachers striving to empower nonwhite and poor children by encouraging them to narrate their own lived experiences.
Dr. Hochman’s strategy is radically different: a return to the basics of sentence construction, from combining fragments to fixing punctuation errors to learning how to deploy the powerful conjunctive adverbs that are common in academic writing but uncommon in speech, words like “therefore” and “nevertheless.” After all, the Snapchat generation may produce more writing than any group of teenagers before it, writing copious text messages and social media posts, but when it comes to the formal writing expected at school and work, they struggle with the mechanics of simple sentences.
The Common Core has provided a much-needed “wakeup call” on the importance of rigorous writing, said Lucy M. Calkins, founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College, Columbia University, a leading center for training teachers in process-oriented literacy strategies. But policy makers “blew it in the implementation,” she said. “We need massive teacher education.”
One of the largest efforts is the National Writing Project, whose nearly 200 branches train more than 100,000 teachers each summer. The organization was founded in 1974, at the height of the process-oriented era.
As part of its program at Nassau Community College, in a classroom not far from the one where the teenagers were working on their college essays, a group of teachers — of fifth grade and high school, of English, social studies and science — were honing their own writing skills. They took turns reading out loud the freewriting they had just done in response to “The Lanyard,” a poem by Billy Collins. The poem, which is funny and sad, addresses the futility of trying to repay one’s mother for her love:
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart, strong legs, bones and teeth, and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered, and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
Most of the teachers’ responses pivoted quickly from praising the poem to memories of their own mothers, working several jobs to make ends meet, or selflessly caring for grandchildren. It wasn’t sophisticated literary criticism, but that wasn’t the point. A major goal of this workshop — the teacher-training component of the Long Island Writing Project — was to get teachers writing and revising their own work over the summer so that in the fall they would be more enthusiastic and comfortable teaching the subject to children.
“I went to Catholic school and we did grammar workbooks and circled the subject and predicate,” said Kathleen Sokolowski, the Long Island program’s co-director and a third-grade teacher. She found it stultifying and believes she developed her writing skill in spite of such lessons, not because of them.
Sometimes, she said, she will reinforce grammar by asking students to copy down a sentence from a favorite book and then discuss how the author uses a tool like commas. But in general, when it comes to assessing student work, she said, “I had to teach myself to look beyond ‘There’s no capital, there’s no period’ to say, ‘By God, you wrote a gorgeous sentence.’ ”
Mrs. Sokolowski is right that formal grammar instruction, like identifying parts of speech, doesn’t work well. In fact, research finds that students exposed to a glut of such instruction perform worse on writing assessments.
A musical notion of writing — the hope that the ear can be trained to “hear” errors and imitate quality prose — has developed as a popular alternative among English teachers. But what about those students, typically low income, with few books at home, who struggle to move from reading a gorgeous sentence to knowing how to write one? Could there be a better, less soul-crushing way to enforce the basics?
In her teacher training sessions, Dr. Hochman of the Writing Revolution shows a slide of a cute little girl, lying contentedly on her stomach as she scrawls on a piece of composition paper. It’s the type of stock photograph that has probably appeared in a hundred educators’ PowerPoint presentations, meant to evoke a warm and relaxed learning environment, perhaps in one of the cozy writing nooks favored by the process-oriented writing gurus.
“This is not good writing posture!” Dr. Hochman exclaimed. Small children should write at desks, she believes. And while she isn’t arguing for a return to the grammar lessons of yesteryear — she knows sentence diagramming leaves most students confused and disengaged — she does believe that children should spend time filling out worksheets with exercises like the one below, which demonstrates how simple conjunctions like “but,” “because” and “so” add complexity to a thought. Students are given the root clause, and must complete the sentence with a new clause following each conjunction:
Fractions are like decimals because they are all parts of wholes.
Fractions are like decimals, but they are written differently.
Fractions are like decimals, so they can be used interchangeably.
Along the way, students are learning to recall meaningful content from math, social studies, science and literature. By middle school, teachers should be crafting essay questions that prompt sophisticated writing; not “What were the events leading up to the Civil War?” — which could result in a list — but “Trace the events leading up to the Civil War,” which requires a historical narrative of cause and effect.
“Freewriting, hoping that children will learn or gain a love of writing, hasn’t worked,” Dr. Hochman told the teachers, many of whom work in low-income neighborhoods. She doesn’t believe that children learn to write well through plumbing their own experiences in a journal, and she applauds the fact that the Common Core asks students to do more writing about what they’ve read, and less about their own lives.
“I call it a move away from child-centered writing,” she said approvingly, and away from what she considers facile assignments, like writing a poem “about a particular something they may have observed 10 minutes ago out of the window.”
“I don’t mean to be dismissive,” she continued, “but every instructional minute has its purpose.”
Her training session lacks the fun and interactivity of the Long Island Writing Project, because it is less about prompting teachers to write and chat with colleagues and more about the sometimes dry work of preparing worksheets and writing assignments that reinforce basic concepts. Nevertheless, many teachers who learn Dr. Hochman’s strategies become devotees.
Molly Cudahy, who teaches fifth-grade special education at the Truesdell Education Campus, a public school in Washington, D.C., said she appreciates Dr. Hochman’s explicit and technical approach. She thought it would free her students’ voices, not constrain them. At her school, 100 percent of students come from low-income families. “When we try to do creative and journal writing,” she said, “students don’t have the tools to put their ideas on paper.”
There is a notable shortage of high-quality research on the teaching of writing, but studies that do exist point toward a few concrete strategies that help students perform better on writing tests. First, children need to learn how to transcribe both by hand and through typing on a computer. Teachers report that many students who can produce reams of text on their cellphones are unable to work effectively at a laptop, desktop or even in a paper notebook because they’ve become so anchored to the small mobile screen. Quick communication on a smartphone almost requires writers to eschew rules of grammar and punctuation, exactly the opposite of what is wanted on the page.
Before writing paragraphs — which is often now part of the kindergarten curriculum — children do need to practice writing great sentences. At every level, students benefit from clear feedback on their writing, and from seeing and trying to imitate what successful writing looks like, the so-called text models. Some of the touchy-feel stuff matters, too. Students with higher confidence in their writing ability perform better.
All of this points toward a synthesis of the two approaches. 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.
Considering the lack of adequate teacher training, Lyse may be among a minority of students exposed to explicit instruction about writing.
In Ms. Wanzer’s workshop, Lyse and her classmates went on to analyze real students’ college essays to determine their strengths and weaknesses. They also read “Where I’m From,” a poem by George Ella Lyon, and used it as a text model for their work. Lyse drafted her own version of “Where I’m From,” which helped her recall details from her childhood in Haiti.
Lyse wrote: “I am from the rusty little tin roof house, from washing by hand and line drying.” It was a gorgeous sentence, and she was well on her way to a moving college application essay.Continue reading the main story
Part I: Introduction--What inspired my argumentative response?
For decades, too many high-school teachers have been instilling persuasive writing skills by teaching students the five-paragraph essay. You know it:
Introduction with three reasons
A summary of all three reasons
It's bad writing. It's always been bad writing. With the Common Core Standards designed to shift the way we teach students to think, read, and write, this outdated writing tradition must end. If you're teaching it--stop it. If your son, daughter, niece, or nephew (or a young person you care about) is learning it--prepare to engage with the teacher to end it.
The five-paragraph essay is rudimentary, unengaging, and useless.
If I were using five paragraphs to convince you, based on the argument above, you wouldn't need to read any farther. Instead, we should use the original argumentative form Aristotle promoted but that somehow got watered down into the ordinary structure we, unfortunately, were likely taught or may currently teach.
Aristotle became one of the godfathers of rhetoric by creating structures for persuasive writing and speaking that--if taught to young people today--would transform writing instruction and facilitate the implementation of the Common Core, proving that students--when guided appropriately--can succeed with critical thinking in the 21st century.
Part 2: Background--What preceded my argument and / or what needs to be clarified?
Teachers know that, in the 90s, state standards were developed to guide instruction. Some teachers liked them; some hated them. Each state, though, had its own. A few years ago, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers began work on national standards to increase consistency. These new national standards are challenging--and necessary.
According to the Common Core Web site, the "standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers."
Besides allowing for instructional consistency among states, the states help align instruction vertically so one grade's instruction leads to the next.
The Common Core site also states that "these standards define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs. The standards:
- are aligned with college and work expectations;
- are clear, understandable and consistent;
- include rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills;
- build upon strengths and lessons of current state standards;
- are informed by other top performing countries, so that all students are prepared to succeed in our global economy and society; and
- are evidence-based."
If high-school students and teachers are to succeed with Common Core Standards, the five-paragraph essay cannot be part of instruction. Too many times, this ordinary format is the default mode for expressing thinking in English, in history, in science, in P.E., and even in math. The problem is this format doesn't encourage thoughtful persuasion. It promotes low-level summary that nobody really cares about.
Aristotle rightfully promoted five parts to effective writing and speaking. Eventually, because of low expectations, because of poor literacy training, because of convenience or some combination, these five parts became five paragraphs. And writing became boring and predictable.
Part 3: Confirmation--What supports my argument?
The thesis or argument in the traditional five-paragraph essay doesn't lend itself to debatability or originality. It's a trap that students can never escape. A few years ago, I got the chance to be an AP English reader for the College Board. Over and over, if a student used the rudimentary three-part "argument," there was no way he or she could demonstrate success in the analysis essay--even though we were all supportive readers. Students were trapped into only writing about three aspects of the text instead of starting at the top, ending at the bottom, and going through the text with a critical eye that revealed an insight to the reader.
In competitions such as history fairs, students cannot compete with the rudimentary three-part argument. When I started a Writing Center at a selective-enrollment high school a couple of jobs ago, the history teacher came to me and said she needed something to help students succeed. Over and over, she was getting arguments with blank, blank, and blank.
Together we came up with this structure for arguments, which has served me and students well:
specific topic + debatable view + significance to the audience
- Example A: The longer school day in Chicago next year does not guarantee that students will be productive in classes, reminding us that young people need to find learning meaningful.
- Example B: The longer school day in Chicago next year does guarantee more learning opportunities, resulting in increased student success.
If students want to get really fancy, they can use a subordinate phrase at the beginning to de-emphasize common beliefs:
- Example C: Despite its widespread use, the traditional five-paragraph essay does not allow students to express ideas engagingly, proving that this structure limits students' writing development.
The image above is the handout I use with students thanks to the conversations with my mentor Robin Bennett, a fondly remembered theater and history teacher.
Another damaging aspect of using five paragraphs is that students find it almost impossible to do anything but write in expository paragraphs. If we use Aristotle's original form instead, students are able to incorporate compare/contrast, cause/effect, definition, or analysis paragraphs as appropriate. We'll have more modes to teach; students will have more options.
Aristotle's form, however, is not a one-size-fits-all approach. This form doesn't work for science lab reports. For that, we should follow the example of the science tradition. Lab reports are not argumentative.
This form should also not be the form for a narrative essay. For that, we should follow the example of NPR This I Believe essays. While personal essays do carry a subtextual argument, they are not intended to persuade. They are written so we can experience what we have not or find solidarity through what we have.
Aristotle's form works only for persuasive essays--which need to be part of our educational system more often. We just need to make sure that we are presenting students with persuasive prompts that have more than one reasonable response.
Part 4: Refutation--What challenges my argument?
I know. I know. I'm hearing, "But how are students going to learn organization without learning the five-paragraph essay?" My response: they're not learning an organizational pattern that will help them succeed outside of your own classroom.
Effective cover letters aren't written in five-paragraph essays. We don't expect a news article to follow a five-paragraph format. Quite simply, there aren't always three reasons to prove our point.
Students need to write for a specific rhetorical context. The College Board promotes the SOAP format to help students understand guidelines and expectations:
Subject: Who or what are you writing about?
Occasion: What idea or incident is inspiring this need for persuasion? How much time to you have to write this?
Audience: Who will read this? What do they believe about the subject? Are they a supportive or skeptical audience?
Purpose: What is the job of this essay? What specifically do you want the audience to realize?
Students and teachers can use this to deconstruct prompts. Finally, the SOAP format, when combined with Aristotle's form, can help students write one or ten page essays effectively. The five paragraph essay limits students into about 1 1/2 pages.
Part 5: Conclusion--What are the benefits of accepting my argument?
Aristotle called the last part of the persuasive event the epilogue. Unlike the five-paragraph essay that begins with "As you can see . . ." and leaves the reader thinking, "Why are you telling me what you told me a couple minutes ago? I'm not stupid," Aristotle, in The Rhetoric, tells us a good writer should do this in the conclusion: "make the audience well-disposed towards ourselves and ill-disposed to our opponent." One way to achieve this is to explain the benefits if the audience accepts our view. It's a good opportunity for students to make inferences or predictions.
If teachers and students move away from the rudimentary, unengaging, and useless five-paragraph format, students will be able to think for themselves and understand that writing can really challenge people's views. Students will create persuasive essays that incorporate information in un-identical ways to everyone else. Furthermore, rhetorical limits won't be obstacles; they'll become guidelines for success.
Finally, students will learn that their persuasive abilities, when used responsibly, will have value outside of the 46 minutes they were given to write.
I'm adding this link to student essays that use Aristotle's form to help readers understand how they work. These were essays written by two of my students.
Due to the popularity of this post since May, in October I wrote about strategies for effective narrative writing--especially for personal statements--that avoid the traditional five-paragraph form.
What strategies have you used or seen that help students develop writing and critical-thinking skills?
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