The chapter addresses effective practices for teaching writing in middle and secondary schools and offers a framework for thinking about writing assignments through content, design, and language conventions, with emphasis on purpose, audience, and idea development. The chapter will enable readers to understand school-based writing assignments by asking, “In what ways do people in my content area write, and how can in-school writing assignments best provide real-world opportunities?” The chapter makes an argument that for students to attain meaningful outcomes related to writing, they need to develop their skills within a community of writers.
After reading this chapter, readers will be able to
- establish language used by educators for discussing the teaching of writing;
- describe ways that written genres make communication possible;
- highlight the importance of purpose, audience, and idea development when teaching writing;
- discuss writing as an activity requiring students to be motivated to reach specific outcomes through tools, rules, division of labor, and community;
- identify several effective practices for writing instruction.
A wise writing teacher in Syracuse, New York, Mark Austin, tells students, “Writing is a foreign language to everyone” (personal communication). Mr. Austin teaches in a diverse high school where multiple languages are spoken. Many young people arrive to his class with varied communication skills, and more often than not, they are not the traditional language skills valued in standard curricula or assessments. Although most people are born with the potential to communicate and to express their ideas, writing is indeed a foreign language to everyone because it is not instinctive and must be learned. This is especially true for the ability to write in school settings, which serves as an important gateway to achievement in the Western world.
In the words of cultural critic and historian Henry Louis Gates (1986/2006), writing has “stood alone among the fine arts as the most salient repository of ‘genius,’ the visible sign of reason itself. In this subordinate role, however, writing, although secondary to reason, is nevertheless the medium of reason’s expression” (p. 217). In other words, those who write have the power to influence others, including employers, supervisors, teachers, business leaders, politicians, and financial agents. Being able to write well is a form of empowerment. Teaching written communication, then, helps young people to participate in a world of divergent opinions, varying interpretations, conflicting viewpoints, and multiple perspectives. It may be said that he or she who writes effectively is also he or she who “rights” and “wrongs” the world.
Students in middle and high school classrooms are not born journalists, novelists, historians, scientists, poets, bloggers, tweeters, or musicians. They are, however, born within social, historical, political, and cultural traditions that help shape an innate desire to communicate with others (Prior, 2006). Another way to look at this is that writers arrive at who they are because of their lived experiences, and because of the ways writers before them have written about the world.
All of us who read learn from texts. All of us who write texts gain entry into the communities in which we hope to belong. As discussed in Chapter 1, texts include diverse modes of communication such as books, videos, billboards, and clothing. The term “texts” in this chapter is also used broadly to include essays, novels, news articles, poetry, movies, scripts, reports, proofs, or even instant messaging. Reading and writing texts are interconnected like yin and yang—the Chinese philosophy—complimenting one another fluidly. We become writers through the experiences we have as readers. Similarly, we gain authority when writing effectively for others to learn what we have to say. The written word is documented definitively because it is a commitment and testimony to the page.
As Mr. Austin (personal communication) noted, none of us is born a writer, even if we are born to express our needs to others. Babies begin life by making basic sounds and performing simple gestures that are rewarded and celebrated by doting adults. Thus, particular forms of communication are encouraged, and the language-acquisition process begins. Soon, the sounds a child utters become conditioned to represent words that are recognizable and have meaning to others. The child begins to associate words with wants, needs, and ideas. In Western cultures, the oral language may eventually move to marks on paper. Children marking their world with crayons and doodles in the United States is a progression toward more sophisticated acts of writing. Scribbles that seem random to an adult are often a first step in a child’s development as a writer.
Once in school, children’s language advances through learning vocabulary and sentence structures. Their innate need to communicate is met with formal rules. Over time, the rules become more aligned with traditions that are valued by particular cultures such as academic essays, editorials, on-demand responses, formal emails, and personal narratives. Beyond school, individuals write in the ways of their fields. The lawyer learns to write as a lawyer, the accountant learns to write as an accountant, the novelist learns to write as a novelist, and ultimately, a citizen learns to write as a civic participant. To participate and gain authority, one must write in the ways that are valued by his or her communities.
The National Writing Project is one of the nation’s most celebrated writing networks for teachers and promotes written communication as being essential for learning and democratic participation (Whitney, 2008). A core principle promoted by the organization is, “There is no single right approach to teaching writing; however, some practices prove to be more effective than others. A reflective and informed community of practice is in the best position to design and develop comprehensive writing programs” (National Writing Project, 2015, Core Principle #4). Teachers of writing can become more effective by reflecting on their own writing processes, as well as by becoming active readers, listeners, and consumers of knowledge. They should participate in professional communities and design lessons that help students write for college and career readiness, and support the ways individuals write to learn (Shanahan, 2004).
Readers of this chapter should understand what it means to be a teacher who instructs students in the traditions of specific academic communities. Such teachers encourage readers to think about assignments that are “real world” and audience-driven so that students have the opportunity to see themselves as apprentices working toward mastery in a particular subject area.
A Shared Language for Teaching Writing in School
Kelly Gallagher (2011), a teacher and author of several practitioner texts, states that writing “can be used as a vehicle to express ourselves as we negotiate the journey through our lives” (p. 24). Because numbers of ideas are infinite, so are the ways humans express their ideas in writing. In everyday conversation we say random things, shout out opinions, ask silly and profound questions, gossip, and declare information in the form of statements and affirmations. Committing ideas to a laptop or paper, however, can be more anxiety-provoking. Yet composing for others in written forms is important because it makes the ideas we have more permanent, even if the process feels more intimidating. Writing records history, demands action, and shares stories. It is a negotiation of how we think, and as will be highlighted in this chapter, usually has a purpose, an audience, the development of thought, support for claims, awareness of genre, and knowledge of language conventions (Lunsford, Ede, Moss, Clark, & Walters, 2012). In other words, what is written depends on what it is we want to say, who it is we want to say it to, where it is we want it to be said, when it is we want it to be read, and why it is we feel it is important. A shared language for teaching writing is provided in this chapter. Such language allows educators to communicate effectively with one another by providing the vocabulary for discussing classroom objectives and goals and for conferencing with students about their own writing development.
In the section that follows, the terms for teaching writing—content, design, and language conventions—are discussed in depth to provide an overarching framework for the language commonly used by teachers. Within each frame, additional terms are provided.
Within any school day, a tremendous amount of content instruction occurs. In a Physical Education class, students might learn the intricacies of playing badminton while thinking of ways to strategize against their opponents. In an English class, a teacher might highlight the Greek suffix meaning “fear” in the words agoraphobia, claustrophobia, and omphalophobia, in anticipation of a quiz on Friday. Down the hall, a World Civilization teacher might create a complicated web to demonstrate the entangled politics that led to World War I. Meanwhile, a math class might graph slopes and intercepts on calculators, while a science class is midway through a lab that involves making homemade yogurt during a study of bacteria. Knowledge (and there is much of it to be covered!) is content. In the simplest sense, content is the material and information instructors provide.
Content is often learned through what we read and write. For readers, content is the information that is gathered from reading new information. For writers, content is what is composed and shared with others—a distribution of the knowledge that a writer knows. Without content—specific knowledge and details within any field—there is no reason for reading or writing. Content is a necessity, and for a writer, it is the specific knowledge to be used to establish a purpose for communicating with an audience through the development of ideas.
A lament heard in classrooms all across the country is, “Why are we doing this?” Although many teachers cringe when hearing these five words, the inquiry is natural and spot on. If students do not understand the purpose of an assignment, teachers stand a chance of losing their engagement. Therefore, it is necessary to explain to students exactly why a lesson is taught and help them to see the relevance it. Writing needs to have a purpose. Students need to know what is expected of them and why they are engaging in writing before they set out to compose.
Purposes vary, but all writing has at least one. For example, the purpose for writing this particular chapter is to provide a shared language for teaching writing for beginning teachers and to provide a heuristic or model for looking at writing assigned in classrooms. Even short pieces of writing have purpose. For example, my niece, who was graduating high school last spring, tweeted an inquiry regarding when I would be traveling to attend her party. The prose was short but fulfilled her purpose. Through a tweet she prompted me to pinpoint an exact date and time for my arrival. This initiated me, however, to also purchase a gift for the celebration and to call my sister to see what else I needed to bring for the party. At only 140 characters long, my niece’s written text accomplished its purpose, and even motivated me to arrange my travel, check my bank account, and let my sister know my willingness to help.
Of course, most purposes for writing in school are more substantial than a simple tweet. As previously stated, writing assignments require teachers to be clear about why they are given. One purpose for writing is to communicate information quickly, such as asking students to write responses on an exit slip, compose a short notebook entry, or complete a quick quiz. Another may be to help students think through or show what they know. Such a purpose might be featured in assignments or activities such as taking specific notes, writing a lab report to synthesize findings from an experiment, or writing freely about pet peeves. Additional writing assignments with the purpose of showcasing what a student knows and/or has learned include writing a biography of a historical figure with references to primary sources, or drafting an editorial to highlight findings from a statistical survey. Teachers can readily prepare young people to become better writers by helping them understand the purposes for which they write.
Another word important to the language of writing is “audience.” In addition to having a purpose for writing, students should be asked to consider an audience for whom they are composing (Lunsford, et. al, 2012). Envisioning potential readers helps a writer to anticipate the kinds of questions a reader might have. For example, when authors composed chapters for this textbook, we imagined a demographic for our readers—individuals thinking about a career in teaching—so we could better shape the researched practices we desired to share. Versatility in communicating to a variety of audiences in school better prepares students for the work they will do as adults in a diverse society. Typically, students write just to get a grade and writing becomes a guessing game of “what does this teacher want me to say?” A more effective practice, however, is to have students write for larger audiences beyond school.
One way to highlight the importance of writing for different audiences is to ask students to write down a basic sentence that makes a request. They may write, “Can you pick me up after work?” “Go get the mail,” or “Would you let me borrow your pen?” After, a teacher shares images on a large screen that depict a variety of characters such as a nun, a punk rocker, a child, an elderly man, a police officer, and a wounded soldier. Students are then asked, “How does your request differ depending on the audience it is intended for?” Students then turn to one another and make their requests as if they are delivering them to each character.
Another activity to sensitize students to the importance of audience is to have them think about something they are passionate about. Next, have them think about this passion and how they would write about it for a variety of audiences, such as elders in a nursing home, an irate crowd with rocks in their hands, or a congressional representative. Although their passion stays the same, what they write and how they write it depends on who it is they imagine as recipients of their words. Discuss other examples, such as writing a comic performance for an audience who wants to laugh, or creating a TedTalk for an audience who desires inspiration, or a speech to persuade peers to take action. Helping young people to realize the importance of audience can influence how they use language in specific ways to communicate with them (Lunsford et al., 2012).
Idea development/supporting claims
Once students have a purpose for writing and an audience in mind, they then need to develop ideas to support claims they will make. This is the task of choosing which content is suited for communicating their purpose to their chosen audience. Brainstorming, or the act of listing possible ideas to fulfill a particular purpose, is an effective practice for choosing content (Lassonda & Richards, 2013), and modeling this for students is also important. The teacher should introduce a writing topic to his or her students and then demonstrate how to structure a response through modeling the act of brainstorming with them. The ways ideas are generated will vary depending on the purpose and the audience, yet effective teachers model their thinking in front of students (Lassonda & Richards, 2013). Students can contribute to a list of ideas, create an outline, or even draw thought bubbles above a stick figure.
Most school-based writing requires young people to make claims that can be defended through the knowledge students acquire, often with content from classroom instruction, notes, assigned reading, and independent research. Teachers play an important role in helping students develop ideas based on content as they coach students to formulate their thinking. Posing questions is one way to help students to elicit ideas to support their claims. What do you think right now? Why do you think this way? Where else can you go to find support for this thinking? What have others said? What evidence is there that your thinking is on track? What other sources might you consider for helping your thinking? Such questions help young writers to develop good ideas and to support claims.
Like content, design offers teachers a framework for discussing writing practices. In writing, designs arrive as genres, which are specific writing forms and features unique to disciplines. Genres allow a writer to communicate in particular ways because they provide structures commonly used in a field. Herrington and Moran (2005) describe genres “as social knowledge” (p. 247) and Beach (2000) refers to them as “social glue” (p. 17) because they situate and bind knowledge within communities. The spoken word artist communicates in a genre of oral poetry and performance, while the journalist writes in the genre of a news article. A scientist shares through lab reports, while the mathematician showcases knowledge through proofs. Genres unite people within communities—ones that are entwined with their own history, traditions, and structures. Each content area has its own genres for writing, and a teacher should reflect often on what those genres are.
A genre (see Table 1) is organized with familiar patterns to bring unity among readers through customary sentence structures and uses of media (Freedman, 1993). The genre becomes the design that allows an individual to communicate with others according to specific traditions and disciplines. For example, a restaurant menu is a written genre that is used to offer prices and descriptions of food selections to customers. A person who composes a restaurant menu must understand the purpose of a menu, as well as reasons for using it. Likewise, a family who eats at the restaurant must understand what a menu does in order to effectively use it for selecting food. Thus, something as simple as a menu accomplishes the complex task of creating a relationship between writers and readers. The same principle holds true for genres used in school and within specific fields of study.
|Writing to Learn||Digital|
|Note. Genres can span multiple categories.|
Every genre has its tradition of how language communicates specific ideas to others and offers hints at how writers are to organize their thinking. For schools in the United States, teachers commonly introduce the 5-paragraph essay, which includes an introduction, a body of three paragraphs, and a conclusion. Although the 5-paragraph essay provides an organizational structure that can be helpful to new writers, some argue it is not helpful for writing in the real world (Campbell & Latimer, 2012) because real-world writing is rarely organized in a 5-paragraph manner. For example, an English teacher might highlight personal narratives or short stories that require more development of thought, and a history teacher might discuss biographies or opinion pieces written for a local newspaper that have their own format unlike the 5-paragraph essay. No matter the genre, the teacher should ask, “How is information organized? What are the patterns of the genre? How can awareness of these patterns allow us to write in the traditions of such work?” Paying attention to such design will benefit student writers when they set out to write on their own.
Coherence and unity
Equally important to the ways writers organize thoughts within a genre is how coherent their ideas are so that they make sense to readers. Coherence in writing typically refers to the flow of sentences and paragraphs with one another to create internal consistency in the writing, whereas unity means the ability to stay focused on a particular purpose for a sustained time to create a sense of wholeness to the writing piece. Given the fast-paced, highly stimulating nature of 21st century information, assisting young people to write with unity can be a monumental task, especially since the opposite of unity is disconnectedness, and our technological, ever-changing culture too often rewards the unpredictable. Even so, successful writers maintain a focus that brings readers with them. Genres can bring coherence and unity to readers by offering familiar patterns and forms, and teachers who assign writing should share models with students to point out qualities of effective writing, especially in reference to unity. For example, teachers could highlight the use of transition words such as “first” or “in addition to” and discuss with students how such words help keep the reader focused and move information forward in an organized way.
Quality writing instruction requires students to read like writers and write with specific readers in mind. In other words, a teacher asks students to think about the style of writing as they are reading and then has them use similar techniques in their own writing. Composing in this way requires drawing attention to the various ways sentences are constructed (Hillocks, 2005). Research demonstrates that teachers who spend time analyzing sentence structures of various published writers are able to better assist young writers with learning how to effectively structure their own sentences (Applebee & Langer, 2009; Graham & Perin, 2007). A method for teaching students about structure is to offer them a set of tools for varying sentences. As an illustration, if a writer uses colons proficiently, a teacher might highlight this and state, “Notice how the author used a colon here before listing important items. This could be an effective style to use in our own writing.” Another practice teachers can model is how to effectively combine several short sentences into a more complex (and more interesting) sentence. For example, the sentences, “The United States is diverse. The United States is a democracy. The United States is heterogeneous. The United States is always changing.” can be combined to read, “The diverse and heterogeneous United States is a democracy that is always changing.” Another combination might be, “The United States, a diverse and heterogeneous democracy, is always changing.” Sentence combining exercises demonstrate how writers use language in a variety of ways and that varying sentences lead to effective writing.
Also important to design is the use of media when writing in particular genres. Using media has long been part of the composing processes (cave drawings, a form of media, were some of the earliest pictographs used to communicate with others). For additional examples and discussion on media, please see Chapter 10 of this textbook. Current technologies allow a writer to embed illustrations, videos, photographs, and tables in written documents. Highly advanced uses of media allow writers, such as those who create and manage blogs, to include recorded audio from a cellphone, to link websites that influence the ideas of what they are communicating, to upload videos, and to utilize hyperlinks to enhance what they intend others to know. Media includes everything from tables and graphs to embedded videos and referenced resources. The use of media is often genre-specific, too, and sharing models of genre-specific media will help young people use multimedia to share information and further develop claims they want to support. Programs like Prezi, Glogster, and PowerPoint, which are all digital tools, can help visually organize content in colorful and animated ways that enhance written and spoken communication.
Teachers in all content areas must pay attention to the characteristics of genres in their field so they can effectively work with students on writing within such designs. The curriculum should help students create unity in their writing, vary sentence lengths and structure for effect, and use media to enhance communication. Teachers should make themselves aware of the ways that genres in their particular discipline communicate information to specific audiences. The more familiarity students have with how professionals communicate in real world ways, the better prepared they will be to write within such communities as they move beyond school.
Weaver and Bush (2008) write, “Grammar can be a way to enrich student writing—a way to make writing better, more complex, more exciting, and overall, more rich and interesting” (p. xi). Grammatical conventions for language, which are the standard rules, methods, and practices, can also be fodder for debates, insecurities, and frustrations. Rules for how to properly use language conventions were once a primary concern of teachers (see Chapter 6 for more discussion and critique about teaching decontextualized language conventions in writing). Even today, national assessments like the SAT place much importance on language usage, yet the use of emoticons and other abbreviated semiotics (i.e., the study of signs and symbols) has become a concern among teachers who find “text” in their students’ classroom writing. The mere red-penning of incorrect usage, however, is an exercise in editing rather than establishing dialogue about the various conventions of written expression, and where and when they are acceptable (Hillocks, 1984). Teaching a student to write takes more than correcting a student’s errors.
Today, adolescent writing instruction focuses more heavily on content and design over the emphasis of conventional rules (Applebee & Langer, 2013; Graham & Perin, 2007). Grammar, usage, and documentation are best taught in context of the writing students produce, and although language conventions traditionally fall within the jurisdiction of English and foreign language teachers, writing instruction belongs to all content areas (McKenna & Robinson, 2014). Content area-teachers should feel comfortable hosting mini-lessons on grammar, usage and correctness, especially in the context of their field.
Grammar and usage
At the most basic level, grammar is the systemic and structured system for using language, arranging words and phrases, and creating meaning in recognizable forms. Grammar provides rules to effectively communicate with others. Similarly, usage is how individuals typically use words and phrases. More whimsically, UrbanDictionary.com—an online site popular with youth that offers alternative definitions—defines grammar and usage as “a form of writing or speaking which is hard to learn and hence is ignored by the general populous [sic]” (Severian, 2006). Rules for written language are often debated. Even so, a common goal for teachers who teach writing is to teach and model the use of Standard American English, that is, the English language used in professional communication in the U.S. and taught in American schools. Thus, it is the responsibility of teachers to know these (and perhaps other) language conventions, and if they have a question about language use, they should model for students how to resolve it.
In addition to having adequate knowledge of language conventions to write well, students need to know the meanings of a lot of words, they need to spell words correctly, and they need to understand how and when to cite references consistent within academic disciplines (e.g., the Modern Language Association for English and American Psychological Association for Psychology). Such protocol allows young writers to join in professional communities beyond school. A lack of knowledge for how to write well may cause individuals to be rejected by particular communities. Rightly or wrongly, a student runs the risk of a rejection from professional writing communities if his or her writing strays too far from what academic institutions value. Teaching conventions is important because it assists writers with the most effective ways to communicate, given the purposes of their communication both within and beyond school (Freeman & Freeman, 2009). Language conventions, like design and content, are part of the package for instructing young writers in school, and all three together provide a framework for how teachers talk about and assess writing (Calfee & Miller, 2007).
In this section of the chapter, I offered shared language for teaching writing in middle and secondary schools, including content, design, and language conventions. No matter the content area, students need a purpose for what they write and an audience with whom to communicate. Teachers should be familiar with the genres used in their field and teach young writers so they, too, design through recognizable traditions. This includes how writers organize thinking, bring unity to their work, and vary sentences. Students should be mentored to use proper language conventions as well, including grammar, usage, word choice, spelling, and documentation. To accomplish these important goals, teachers need a shared language for teaching writing, and effective practice requires teachers to be aware of their own writing processes including genre-specific designs that enhance communication within a discipline. In the next section, I provide a heuristic, or model, to assist how teachers might help students achieve written outcomes desired in specific disciplines.
Writing as Activity Within a Classroom
It is 7:50 a.m. and the buzzer sounds, signaling that students have exactly four minutes to get themselves to where they are scheduled to be. Imagine yourself as a teacher, in the hallway sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup, making sure your backpack is on your shoulder, your keys are in your pocket, and you remembered to grab the cellphone from the front seat of your car. You did not sleep well last night because you forgot to plan for your elective class, administrators said they needed to see you during your preparation period, and you stayed up a little too late reading a book. Grogginess is still in the corner of your eyes as you reach your classroom, the gymnasium, the band room, or a lab or studio. You unlock the door for 32 sleepy, active, enthused, unenthused, anxious, apathetic, studious, rebellious, whimsical, confused, and frustrated learners assigned to your first period class. Today begins a new unit for you to help them develop written communication through an assignment important to your content area. You turn on the lights knowing that what happens in this room today will be essential to the outcome of what students produce tomorrow. There is not a second to waste, and every activity matters. Yikes. Teaching is a lot of responsibility.
Teachers are extremely busy, yet know that to teach writing effectively they need to be attentive to all of the components discussed throughout this chapter: content, design, and language conventions. Still, teachers also think about how a classroom environment influences the writing students do. They wonder what their role should be, what instructional tools they should provide, and which rules they should emphasize for students to follow.
Understanding Writing as an Activity To Reach a Written Outcome
Writing activity genre research (Russell, 2010) and activity theory (Engeström, 2015) provide a helpful model, or heuristic, for thinking about the delivery of writing instruction. Scholarship in this area situates learning as an activity within a classroom system that is enhanced by teachers thinking aloud about their own practices (Smagorinsky, 2002). It is important for teachers to pay attention to the classroom system, or the environment provided that helps a student to learn (see Figure 1). Seeing a classroom as an activity system helps a teacher to map out pedagogical choices to enhance student learning, including how they communicate in writing. Classrooms are complex and contain individuals with varying opinions, experiences, and histories that may or may not be in line with local, state, and national standards required of teachers to teach.
Thinking of a classroom as an activity system can benefit the choices a teacher makes, especially when paying attention to students (subjects), the purposes a student has (motives), and the products (outcomes) a student produces. Also important are the tools provided to a learner, the rules they are expected to follow, how labor is divided in a classroom, and how a community is established for all. Together, subjects, motives, outcomes, tools, rules, division of labor, and community encompass a writing activity system (Engeström, 2015 & Russell, 2010). Thinking about our classrooms as a system for activity can also help us to think about the complexities of teaching writing. To enhance the outcomes of what students in our classrooms write, it is important to pay attention to every part of the system. This includes, of course, the language for discussing writing with students (as discussed in the previous section): purpose, audience awareness, idea development, support, genre, organization, and unity.
Many experienced teachers are first to declare how there is no learning without building relationships with students (Moje, Overby, Tysvaer, & Morris, 2008). Before a child can learn in a classroom, trust needs to be established, as well as recognition of student individuality. In a writing activity system, it is important to know each student (subject) as an individual. Early in the year, a teacher should inventory students’ interests, talents, ambitions, and fears to help guide the instruction of the classroom. Teachers should also get to know who their students are both inside and outside the classroom. Although effective teaching requires strong content knowledge, it is also paramount for teachers to see their students as people first. Knowing each student as an individual will assist supporting their purposes and motivations as writers.
Most books published on the teaching of writing promote a six-letter word that is extremely important to the writing classroom: choice. Choice is important because it is the foundation of what motivates a student to want to write. If you think about your own history as a learner, you probably recall that you put more time and effort into projects that interested you. Assignments that offer choices to learners provide flexibility, and flexibility allows individuals to find a motive (purpose) to participate in writing activities. When students are motivated to write, they naturally become more invested in the outcomes they produce. For example, a teacher may wish to help students gain a deeper understanding of the Civil Rights movement from 1954-1968. As content is gained through notes, discussions, assigned readings, and documentaries, students may be given a choice to explore a humanitarian issue that is important to them. While they explore that particular era in U.S. history, they might also be assigned to write their own OpEds (i.e., opinion editorials) where they argue for or against a cause and/or take a stance on an issue they care about. In essence, effective writing teachers harness the motives of students to produce stronger writing by providing choice in writing assignments that are aligned with the content they also wish to deliver.
To facilitate a written outcome within a writing activity system, a teacher must also provide numerous tools for students to reach their goals. Tools might include the lessons provided, the models used, the notes shared, and the materials read. Tools can also be conversations, homework, visits to the library, and adhering to writing processes such as brainstorming, drafting, conferencing, rewriting, editing, and revision. Other tools include watching movies, building vocabulary, and even taking tests and quizzes. Writing activity systems that offer writers a variety of tools effectively help writers reach important written language outcomes. These tools can be material (e.g., a dictionary, a model of the genre being taught), mental (e.g., guiding questions, opportunities to brainstorm), and social (e.g., discussions, performance). The more tools teachers have, the better suited they are to provide instruction that can work for students.
Because classrooms are social environments where many personalities are brought together within the same space, it is important to establish rules within this activity system. In addition to establishing normal procedures and day-to-day routines (rules), as discussed previously, it is also helpful to work with young writers to establish how to communicate in particular genres (see the previous section on designs), which are also rules. Featuring models of writing can help young people learn to understand the rules of a genre. Rules establish traditions and provide frameworks for others to follow. Rules, too, are meant to be broken, but before this can occur, an understanding is needed of why rules were created in the first place. As rules are established, conversations about them will help students to think about what they are writing and when breaking a given rule makes sense. When looking at a genre, for example, students can point out characteristics they notice, and these characteristics can serve as guidelines or rules they follow in their own writing.
Division of labor
Although students spend much time writing alone, writing is rarely a solo act. A teacher who instructs students about what writing is supposed to be, without allowing them time to develop writing skills, is less likely to receive quality writing from students. Instead, the labor of writing requires roles within classrooms and should be viewed as a social activity where everyone participates. As a class, students can brainstorm ideas together, or teachers can model their thinking in front of students. The next day, students might share their drafts with classmates. Although the labor for writing typically falls on students, many others share in helping students compose a written piece. Encouraging students to think about writing together, allowing them time to write on their own, and providing space to share writing with one another can have a positive effect on the outcomes they produce. For example, I wrote this chapter alone, but through sharing drafts of the chapter with friends, colleagues, and the editors, it was shaped to what you read today. Writing may look like a solo act, but outcomes are a result of collaboration, including this volume of work. All writing is a community act.
In addition to building relationships, creating community among young people enhances the written outcomes in an activity system. Communication and community both begin with “com,” the prefix meaning together and with. A teacher’s job is to help students come together as a community of writers who are willing to communicate with one another. Further, writing in genres used by professionals provides a location for young people to practice writing in the ways of a professional community. If adolescents view themselves as young scientists, they will more likely write like young scientists. If they view themselves as artists, they will fashion writing in artistic ways. If they learn their opinions are valued and supported, they will be more confident to share their opinions with others. A teacher who promotes effective writing practices creates an environment where students are willing to take risks and try new things. As a community, they share ideas, ask questions, and feel safe to explore thinking together. They do this by discussing models of writing unique to particular communities.
The outcome in a writing activity system is the product created by the student. Outcomes arrive when teachers pay attention to all parts of the activity system rather than simply assigning writing tasks to students. If school is an arena for apprenticeship, then assigning real-world writing and providing mentoring are essential. Sharing examples of writing from students, published authors, and teachers better prepares students to reach important outcomes. Offering models and discussing them can enhance the quality of writing students turn in. The outcome is the result of all the parts in the activity working together, including the coordination of subjects, tools, rules, divisions of labor, and motives that create a writing activity system.
An example of a well-coordinated writing activity I once observed involved a teacher who spent a week teaching students how to approach writing the college essay. On the first day, she asked students to highlight personal achievements and interests. She used this information to first learn about her students as individuals (subjects) and as a way to assist them on narrowing a topic from which to write. The students were motivated to write the essays because they wanted to attend college and needed to be successful to achieve acceptance. On the second day, the teacher shared models of college essays (tools), and her students discussed the ones they thought were more effective. The teacher highlighted what experts have to say about college essays, and after reading the models they listed effective characteristics of the genre (rules). The teacher did not dictate what was best; instead, she worked with her students and listened to their contributions (division of labor). The classroom walls were covered with posters of several colleges and universities, and as a senior English class, materials supported the work of the room. The classroom, on the whole, was geared toward the success of all students (community). By the third day, students read first drafts with one another and made suggestions. On the fourth day, the teacher brought students to a computer lab to revise and edit their work. By the fifth day, they had a college essay to submit for a grade and also for a real-world audience—the college of their choice (outcome).
By viewing classrooms as activity systems involving subjects, motives, tools, rules, divisions of labor, and community, teachers can help students learn to write and apply their writing skills to accomplish important life tasks, such as getting into college. This can be accomplished by exploring content, design, and conventions used by writers in each of our disciplines as we prepare students for college and career readiness.
An aim of this chapter was to provide a common language to discuss the teaching of writing. Through a frame of content, design, and language conventions, the chapter highlighted the importance of purpose, audience, and idea development, with specific emphasis placed on genre. Writing is an activity requiring a subject to be motivated to reach a specific outcome through tools, rules, division of labor, and community. Effective teachers of writing assign writing that apprentices students into the genres of their field and involves well-coordinated activity systems where students can learn to communicate effectively using the written word.
Questions and Activities
- What do you read in your discipline, and how do you write about what you read?
- For what purposes and for what audiences have you had to write? Explain how you learned to develop your ideas in reference to purpose and audience.
- Where did you learn about language conventions, and how have they been used to influence your own writing processes?
- Think about a piece of specific writing you have done. Why did you write it, and what does it say about you as a writer? Describe the tools and rules that helped you accomplish your writing goal(s). What role did community play in reference to this writing?
- What genres do writers in your field use to communicate knowledge? Discuss the conventions of writing associated with these genres. How do these conventions help establish a community of writers?
- What genres of writing do you think you would assign your students? Describe the procedures and rules for writing your plan to teach your students.
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