As students come to the table with less and less reading and writing facility, educators provide less and less guidance. It’s a perfect storm. We know that we’ve been on the wrong track in terms of how we approach writing instruction. Authors Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler have given us a path to ameliorate this problem.
The Writing Revolution (TWR henceforth) is a regimented system of explicitly teaching writing. Focal points are expository writing, sentence structure, and grammatical concepts. TWR goes against the conventional wisdom in education, where the five paragraph essay is frowned upon. Our chaotic approach to teaching writing is especially ill-suited to students who don’t come to the table with much in the way of writing ability. TWR is the 180 degree opposite of the free-spirit approach to writing, and instead embraces formulas, granular writing tips, and structured outlines. Published in 2017, TWR also has time-tested, plain-old good writing advice.
Writing about Content
We often ask students merely to write about their personal experiences and opinions. This represents a “wasted opportunity to boost their learning” (11). Students’ writing lacks substance when they are spinning their own wheels on an essay that asks only for their opinion. We may try our best to coach them, but an adolescent does not do his or her best writing by spitballing from their random musings.
The solution, according to TWR, is to ensure that students write about content. In this way, we give students more substance to their writing while also teaching them the relevant content. We show them the relationship between learning content and writing. This is how subjects other than English can integrate TWR methods as well. The writing strategies work hand in glove with the content students learn.
TWR provides concrete steps to construct sentences and paragraphs and uses grammar terminology to describe these steps. Appositives will help students vary their sentence structure; coordinating and subordinating conjunctions and sentences stems (such as but, so, because, although, etc.) add complexity to the students’ written expression.
TWR refers to “level 1” and “level 2” students. In education, students are referred to as “tier 1” and “tier 2”; so we shall use the “level” terminology for now. How to address students’ zone of proximal development is more relevant to their level rather than their grade, especially in the context of Title I schools, where there are frankly many learning deficits.
Interestingly, TWR advises to avoid using grammar terminology such as “subordinating conjunction” or “dependent clause” with level 1 students. This is sound advice. Level 1 students are simply not ready for this grammar lingo quite yet, and so one’s time is better served to instead teaching them the relevant grammatical concept without necessarily using the technical names, such as “independent clause,” and so on. Likewise, for level 1 students, TWR recommends avoiding the terms “subject” and “predicate” which they feel would only serve to confuse them. As much as I personally relish using grammatical terms, I must concede that they are probably correct.
Sentence Level Work
One of the insights of the book is that we ask students to jump into essay writing, while neglecting the very basic instruction of how to write a sentence:
“...a writer who can’t compose a decent sentence will never produce a decent essay–or event a decent paragraph” (10).
“Sentence-level work” is an emphasis of the book. In this view, we have too quickly shifted the focus to essays and meandering personal writing while neglecting the art of writing eloquent sentences. This is not to say we shouldn’t teach essays, but rather not to put the cart before the horse.
Sentence level work includes having students fix fragments and run on sentences. Fragments can be attacked in isolated exercises and embedded in texts; in both cases students turn the fragment into a complete sentence.
Run-ons likewise can be addressed by giving students examples and asking them to fix the run-on sentences. For example, the teacher can suggest that students replace “and” with a period mark if necessary. Any English teacher knows that run-on sentences are a stubborn problem.
Hochman and Wexler further recommend that students are taught the different types of sentences: interrogative, exclamatory, imperative, and declarative. Teachers can in turn use these sentence types to have students write about the content in various disciplines.
Sentence combining gives students a chance to avoid writing simple declarative sentences, and instead mix it up with some subordinating conjunctions, creating complex sentences. For each of these exercises, TWR offers several examples for each content, as is typical for pedagogy books. These sections of TWR can be skimmed more or less.
Another way to draw students out in their writing is to have them answer “who,” “what,” “where,” and “why.” This helps students be more specific, a perennial challenge for English teachers:
“When they’re writing, students often assume that a reader has extensive prior knowledge of the subject matter they’re covering. Although that may be true for you–the teacher–students need to learn to anticipate what an unknown reader may ned or want to know to better understand what they are trying to convey.”
Outlines Are Back
We assign essays but no longer teach students how to write them. We skip outlines in favor of dubious brainstorming exercises. Then we simply increase our demands of students, to write longer argumentative essays without explaining how. The Common Core took a step in the right direction by requiring more expository writing, but it did not explain how to do that; certainly teacher colleges are not helping either. TWR’s outline templates go some way towards rectifying this situation.
Whatever happened to the lost art of outlines? Never in any professional training, education class, or book on teaching English are outlines extolled; though as a public school student in the ‘90s I seem to recall using outlines. The benefits of writing outlines is clear enough. In fact, writing an outline can be an end in itself, even if the students never get around to writing an essay. Simply, it helps them organize their ideas and construct an argument.
Perhaps outlines call back to a more traditional way of teaching English–which is why they are out of favor. Instead, teachers are urged to have students do freewriting to generate ideas for their essays; or even more futile, to “turn and talk” with a partner about ideas for their essay. Word webs, brainstorming, and other whimsical strategies are common. These processes are good for writing down random thoughts, but not for defining the structure of a piece of writing.
Even the format of an outline might be too open-ended for level I students. This is why TWR recommends including prompts within the outline. For example, for a summary, one can include the prompts “who” “where” “when” and “why.” The templates included in TWR are invaluable and ready to be applied to a teacher’s practice.
In sum, free form and collaboration has taken precedence over the most obvious step to building a coherent essay: constructing a plan.
“Call them what you will–thought webs, brainstorming webs, bubble maps–these frequently used devices may be helpful for vocabulary instruction or helping students grasp certain concepts, but they don’t provide an effective template for transferring those ideas into a coherent piece of writing” (85).
The notion that students need less structure in their writing process and not more is madness! Because it’s so nonsensical, one can only attribute it to ideology; namely, progressive education and contructivism.
Summarizing: Not a Low Level Skill
TWR extols the benefits of having students make summaries. Because summarizing is considered a “low level” skill according to Bloom’s fallacious taxonomy, many educators are under the impression that it isn’t a valuable use of class time. When you summarize, you have to “figure out how to get to the essence of whatever you’re trying to summarize” (140). Maybe because summarizing is such a tried and true teaching technique, it is scoffed at by progressive education advocates, who, again, think of it as a lower level skill. TWR helpfully provides a template for summary outlines, with topic sentences, supporting details, and a conclusion. This structure will go a long way towards helping students with the skill of outlining.
Simply put, The Writing Revolution will improve a teacher’s daily practice. A teacher may relearn the importance of having students turn fragments into complete sentences, fixing run-on sentences, and more. Additionally, the provided outline templates are a welcome resource.
For a trade book, TWR is a pretty long read, at over 200 textbook size pages. But the book’s mission is ambitious, and the vision of the authors, that schools adopt it as part of the curriculum, is equally ambitious. This is especially so considering how contrary TWR is to the zeitgeist in education.
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