If you are teaching writing with the Common Core Standards in mind, no doubt you have visited the website: www.commoncorestandards.org  And that means you are familiar with requirements for writing for your grade level–and perhaps others as well. Maybe you’ve even taken time to peruse the Anchor Standards for College and Career Readiness. But–have you had a look at Appendix A? Right–the appendix. Not the place most people begin their reading, but in this case, the perfect place to begin. Only a few pages (22 to 25) are devoted to writing, but they are gems.

Definitions

First, you’ll find extended, helpful, readable definitions of the three text types emphasized in the Standards, namely

  • Informational/explanatory writing
  • Argument
  • Narrative writing

Appendix A makes it clear that each of these “text types” embraces many different sub-genres or forms of writing. For example, informational writing could include everything from an essay on humpback whales to a police report or newspaper article or script for a documentary film. The reason this matters so much is that we often do not think creatively when assigning writing in school. We need to think beyond the traditional research report because, as important as that form is, it’s not sufficient to help students bridge the gap between high school and college or the workplace.

The Wonderful World of Blended Genres

Appendix A also points out that much of our finest writing is a blend of genres. Indeed, any time a writer strings together more than a few paragraphs, it is nearly impossible not to combine genres in some way. My favorite example of this is Bill Bryson’s remarkable book In a Sunburned Country, based on the author’s research and travels to Australia. Bryson’s book seamlessly and deftly combines travel writing, geography, history, informational writing (on countless topics, including topography, wildlife, and cooking), and wildly humorous anecdotes. It’s a book that defies classification–which is precisely what makes it such a treasure.

The Special Place of Argument

A particularly important feature of Appendix A is a thoughtful explanation of just why argument is so important–and so strongly emphasized. Argument, the Standards writers claim, encourages deep thinking. And that in a nutshell is the whole point. Whether it’s oral argument or written, students must think carefully about an issue, give just and respectful consideration to both (or all) sides, weigh evidence, analyze projected outcomes, and guide readers to a good decision. The purpose of argument is not–as is often supposed–to simply get people on your side. This simplistic view often leads students to offer emotional responses or hasty replies that have little or nothing to do with facts or evidence: e.g., Year-round school is a terrible idea because students would hate it, College is not for everyone because we’re all individuals. Note also that the writers use the word “argument” in a special way. This may be splitting semantic hairs, but it’s worth paying attention to . . .

Argument vs. Persuasive Writing

Many of us have used (and continue to use) the term “persuasive writing” in referring to what is essentially the same as the Common Core definition of “argument.” But the Core writers draw a distinction. And that distinction hovers around one word: evidence. A piece may be highly persuasive, but appeal primarily to emotion or (when all else fails) the well-being of the reader. In other words, persuasive pieces are often about passion.

True argument, by contrast, relies on evidence and logical reasoning. This means that the writer needs to do his or her research and examine various perspectives meticulously. This is not to say that the writer won’t make a forceful or compelling case in the end, but underlying all that irresistible oratory will be the heart and soul of any strong argument: reason.

Making the Reading Connection

Many pages of Appendix A are devoted to background and research underlying the Common Core Standards for reading. Though this discussion is detailed, I urge you to take time to read through them–especially considering the implications for writing. It’s no secret that the Core Standards emphasize informational writing and argument. But here’s the thing: Research cited in this discussion reveals that most students read narrative writing almost exclusively. They are not reading much informational writing at all–and what they do read often comes from textbooks. Rarely are these the finest informational models we could offer. Students will write what they read. So the message could not be clearer: If we want students to write informational pieces that actually teach readers something, we need to provide examples of such writing–many of them. Hundreds of them. If you are not reading aloud to your students from the best informational writing you can find, please consider starting. This is one of the most effective ways to create strong informational writers.

A second theme of the Appendix A section on reading: declining complexity. The texts many of our students read is just too simple. It’s been getting simpler since before 1950. What does this mean? Simpler vocabulary, shorter sentences–and in some cases (though by no means all), easier-to-understand concepts. A good argument can be made, of course, for the value of such writing for students who are challenged readers or who are learning English. Absolutely. There’s no debating this. The problem is, when students never encounter text that challenges them, makes them go back, reread, rethink, look up a word, sort through syntax, they are not preparing themselves for the demands of college-level reading. And it can hit them like a wrecking ball.

What can we do about this? We can (1) read to students–even those at primary level–from text that asks them to stretch, text with long and complex sentences and words that are likely new to them, and (2) ask students to read at least short passages that challenge their thinking, and occasionally, to restate such passages in writing, in their own words.

The totally amazing Appendix A is definitely on our recommended reading list. 

Coming up on Gurus . . .

We’ll take a further look at the art of writing a good argument, through the eyes of George Hillocks, Jr., and his wonderful new book, Teaching Argument Writing. Thank you for stopping by, and please remember: For the BEST in trait-based writing PD, please contact us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice. 

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