First Thoughts . . .

If you’re like most educators these days, you’re probably receiving information on the Common Core ( almost daily. And you may find yourself asking, “Do I know how to teach writing in a way that will help my students meet Common Core standards?” In fact, you may be more prepared than you think. Don’t let anxiety over tests and standards overwhelm you. Trust your own best instincts as a teacher—and above all, don’t give in to formulaic approaches that promise quick success.

Remember, much of what is in the Common Core (use of technology aside) is not all that new. Good writing teachers have been focusing on main ideas and details, strong research, well-documented evidence, easy-to-follow organizational structure, and effective word choice for decades. And second, thanks to people like Donald Graves, Donald Murray, Katie Wood Ray, Tom Romano, Peter Elbow, Tom Newkirk, Georgia Heard, Lucy Calkins, Jeff Anderson, and many others, we know more about the teaching of writing than ever before. The notion that we have to start from scratch every few years is a myth. But here’s something that’s not a myth—and it lurks over our heads once again right now: all shortcuts weaken (and potentially undermine) any approach to writing instruction. Shortcuts lead to formula—and formulaic writing fosters reductive thinking.

Shortcutting Writing Process  

No approach to writing instruction is immune to the devastating effects of shortcuts and formula—including writing process. Perhaps you weren’t even teaching yet in the early 1980s when Donald Graves (Writing: Teachers and Children at Work, 1983; A Fresh Look at Writing, 1994) first shared his groundbreaking research on writing as a process (or set of processes). This gentle man, with his insatiable curiosity and extraordinarily keen eye for observing writers at work, spent many hundreds of hours watching writers, talking with them, and interpreting their actions and responses to his questions. Through his results, he helped us see that writing is more than moving a pencil over paper, that it takes thought and reflection, and that such thought and reflection occur in a continuous cycle as a writer reflects, plans, drafts, revises . . . then plans and drafts some more, and revises yet more deeply. Imagine his dismay when his vision of writing-as-thinking was collapsed by some (Let’s simplify this!) into planning on Monday, drafting on Tuesday, revising on Wednesday, publishing on Thursday. What happened to reflection? To going back? To tapping imagination, experience, and memory, talking with a trusted friend, then re-visioning? What happened to thinking?

Shortcutting Writing Traits

In the mid 1980s and 1990s, the six traits of writing came on the scene, and caused quite a stir. The idea behind the traits was that if we helped students understand the qualities that make writing work, they could apply that understanding to their own writing and revision. The only way to do this is by teaching the concepts behind strong ideas, organization, voice, and so on. Of course, this takes a long time. Students need to read, rank, and discuss samples of writing—lots of them, all styles, all genres. They need to read voraciously from the finest literature they can get their hands on, asking which voices move us, which writers use words effectively, why some pieces are easier and more fun to read aloud, why details matter or how writers make their thinking clear on paper. They need to design their own rubrics and checklists, out of their own thinking. But—who has time for all this reading and analyzing and discussing? Enter the shortcut: pass out rubrics and have students memorize them. I was horrified when I heard some people were doing this because it’s a recipe for disaster. Such shortcutting caused some people to take a rather dim view of the traits—and who can blame them? What an opportunity lost. The traits were never about rubrics. But fear of the test coupled with an insatiable craving for quick results (The test is coming! Quick! Grab your rubric!) undermined teachers’ faith in a sound instructional method that invites students to figure out for themselves what makes writing successful, then use what they learn to become skilled, independent revisers.

So—More Shortcuts or a Serious Vision?

Now we have the Common Core Standards of Writing ( And once again, we are poised at a crossroads, with a chance to do better—but with many still clamoring for shortcuts: Hurry—give me six ways to teach informational writing. What are the three secrets to good argument? When will we learn? There are no good shortcuts. The Common Core gives us something to aim for. But we still have to figure out how to get there. The secrets to good writing instruction, whether based on process, workshop, traits, standards, or some combination of these, remain these—

  • Time. Time for reflection, for identifying topics, for extended writing, revising, and document designing, for talking with other writers, and even starting over when that’s appropriate. Time to write in all areas of the curriculum, including math, physical science, social science, art, music, or any elements that curriculum comprises.
  • Choice. A chance to choose personally important topics and coaching in how to do so. An opportunity to reach across genres, to be reporters and poets, story tellers and advocates.
  • Modeling. Multiple opportunities to see others (especially the instructor) come up with a topic, write and revise, and share secrets to solving writers’ problems (how to get started, how to find information, how to manage too many details, how to make sentences sing, how to clarify fuzzy writing, etc.)
  • Reading. Access to great literature and other writing from every genre. Opportunities to learn from the best writers of our time—and the past. A chance to read aloud, hear others read aloud, identify and discuss favorite passages, and talk about how professional writers draft leads we can’t resist or conclusions we can’t forget, create vivid images, clarify information, find words that make movies in our minds, craft sentences that flow like lyrics, use conventions creatively to bring out meaning and voice, condense mountains of research into a meaningful message, generate language that thrills us or reshapes our thinking—and more.
  • Quality feedback. A chance to share writing within a community of other writers who share common goals and know how to offer comments that are both supportive and useful. Opportunities for conversations about writing, whether through comments or conferences. Timely, sensitive responses from instructors—responses that encourage next steps, and that happen while the writing still “lives” in the writer’s head, and while there is still time for further planning and revising (i.e., before any final grade or score is handed out). And above all, genuine respect for and encouragement of self-assessment.

Formula In = Formula Out

In Oregon, home of the traits, you might think that writing is under control and students are simply tearing through writing assessments, accumulating high scores like red squirrels stocking up pine cones. Unfortunately, this has not been the case of late. A friend shared the following article with me, and I urge you to read it:

As you do, you’ll notice a couple of things. First, the article offers several good suggestions, among them that (1) we need to spend more time on writing instruction, (2) future assessments will be more demanding because (partly as a result of the Common Core) students will need to do a better job of demonstrating thinking skills, and (3) it’s vital for our students to write across the curriculum, not only because it stretches their exposure to informational writing, but also because it’s literally the only way they get to write enough to become good at it.

Second, the article presents a sample student essay on voting rights. (You need to scroll down quite a long way to come to it.) Please take time to read and assess it. You might use a rubric, or grade it, or simply write a comment—whatever form of assessment you prefer. Write down your own response before you see how it was scored. I assessed it based on the Teacher Writing Guide from my new book, Creating Writers, 6/e (scheduled for release in October). I’m guessing that Writing Guide is different from the rubric used here—but in any case, you’ll notice that the essay (incredibly) received scores of 4 across all traits. I would have scored it differently, particularly on Ideas and Organization, the two traits most emphasized in the CCSS.

The Ideas are said to be “clear and focused.” Do you agree? I would find this a hard assessment to defend.  The writer suggests that teenagers should not vote because (1) they don’t pay attention to politics, (2) they wouldn’t make wise voting decisions, and (3) they don’t have enough education to understand the voting process (though what this actually means is unclear). Let me suggest that these are not really three separate reasons, but three ways of getting at the same issue: teenagers aren’t sufficiently informed to vote. These claims are not backed by evidence (a major requirement of the Common Core), nor are they developed. Keep in mind that a score of 4 essentially says, “You’re on the right track here.” Is that the message you would wish to give this writer? Based on the writing guide from my book, I would place this essay somewhere between a 2 and 3 on Ideas. It is light on content, repetitious, and leaves many readers’ questions unanswered.

But here’s the trait that concerns me most: Organization. This trait also received a score of 4, essentially because the introductory paragraph contains a “thesis” and “three supporting details.” It’s a masterpiece of formula—though I suspect this student is doing precisely what she was taught to do. The thesis states that the law restricting the voting age is “in place for a good reason.” This is surely not a forceful thesis—nor even a very clear one. The so-called “supporting details” are the writer’s opinions, unsubstantiated and undeveloped. So, the formulaic pieces are all in place: thesis + the magic three. (For some reason, we’re infatuated with the number three.) Each of these “supporting details” is repeated in one of the following paragraphs—then (unbelievably) repeated again in the closing paragraph. This repetition—which wouldn’t be tolerated by any editor worth her salt—is  apparently considered an organizational strength. Because it’s so obsessively predictable, formulaic writing is almost unbearably tedious to read, but it does simplify scoring. In fact, formula is specifically designed to help assessors. But it has little to do with thinking—or real writing. When we encourage it, we do our students a grave disservice. Good organization, by contrast, begins with a dynamite lead that pulls us right into a discussion, continues with details introduced strategically, systematically to build our understanding, and closes with comments that show why this information matters. A genuine effort to enlighten readers is missing from this essay—which is a long way from the demands of the Common Core. But here’s the really disturbing part: This probably isn’t at all representative of what this writer can do. In fact, I’d bet the ranch on it. More on this in a moment . . .

The essay also receives a 4 in Voice, which says much more about the assessor than about the writer. Can you spot any read-aloud moments? That’s one of my tests for voice. This writer seems bored to tears by this topic. In fact, I sense she was relieved when she was finished. The voice is described as “appropriate,” but that’s a tricky word. Sometimes, I think by appropriate, we mean appropriately quiet, appropriately reserved. And probably we don’t want a J.D. Salinger or Jerry Seinfeld kind of voice (though comic relief can be welcome on a topic like voting). What I’m listening for is honesty mingled with a sense of conviction: an “I mean what I say” kind of voice. I don’t hear that.

 The 4 in Word Choice is, I think, the only score with which I agree. However, it troubles me that the words are described as “accurate and specific enough.” For what? For purposes of an academic essay? When are we going to stop treating academic and on-demand writing as some sort of special case? As if it doesn’t need to be very good because after all, who will see it? or publish it? We should want our students to write all the time as if someone, out of the blue, might pick up that writing and say, “Oh, my. I read your essay and it moved me to tears.” Or rage—or utopic joy. Or perhaps this: “Your essay on voting really got at the heart of why teenagers don’t get more involved in politics—and you helped me see why some voters aren’t ready to make good choices.” At the same time, this writer uses language with reasonable ease, and has no trouble making herself understood on a general level. And that’s the problem in a nutshell: general level. We never get inside her head—and don’t look now, but getting inside the writer’s head is one of the main reasons we read.

I don’t agree with the scores for Fluency or Conventions, either. I would actually score both traits higher. The Fluency is easily a 5—yes, there’s that one awkward sentence, but in the overall scheme of things, that’s minor. This is very readable writing, which is one reason this writer seems to say more than she actually does (This same strategy works for public figures all the time). The Conventions need a little attention, yes—but the flaws are small and easily remedied (I’m guessing this is a pretty good editor who was rushed to finish). I’d give that trait a 5, too.

Our Message to the Writer

Notice that the original scores (reported in the article) create a kind of flatline view of this essay; they’re all identical, which defeats the purpose of analytical scoring. A barrage of 4s doesn’t say anything more than “Overall, your writing actually kind of works at times.” Be still my heart. Such lackluster assessment will (I predict) have no impact whatsoever on this student’s future writing. If we vary the scores (and of course, accompany them with some comments), we offer more useful feedback. The message to this writer should be—“You write very fluently, your writing is easy to read, and your conventions are strong. You have a good ear for language, and chose some words—priority, apathy, investigated—that were not only well suited to your topic, but also precise. Three things could be stronger: content (What’s your message?), organization (This was a bit repetitive), and voice (I don’t hear YOU).” Given a well-written writing guide, thoughtful scoring will convey this basic message.

But now let’s suppose that we had the luxury of conversation with this writer (I know—this isn’t possible in on-demand writing, but let’s pretend for purposes of practice, because in the classroom, we can do this). Here’s what I’d like to say that I can’t say with scores alone: “Your writing is so readable that I breezed right through it. Except for one little hiccup (can you spot it?), your sentences are very smooth. Given how little time you had for editing, I felt you were in control of the conventions—and I’m betting you could finish editing this in about two minutes flat. Am I right? However, I didn’t detect any passion for this topic. I didn’t feel you were deeply invested—so let’s talk about that . . .  Also, I’d like to see you explore the voting issue more deeply—and then share what you really think, because I sense you have a lot more to say. You pointed out that teenagers are apathetic about voting. That caught my attention—and I really wanted to hear more. Why do you think that’s true? Is there any way to change it? Are any voting issues important to teenagers? And aren’t older voters sometimes apathetic too? You also say that if they were more informed, they could make better choices. That sounds right—but what do you mean exactly? What’s your idea of an informed person? One who watches TV news—or is there more to it? You also suggest that once teenagers are educated, they will vote more wisely. Convince me. Should schools educate people to vote? Or do voters wind up educating themselves?” You might ask very different questions—but you get the idea. We can’t just toss prompts to students and think they’ll take off. We need to engage them in conversation until they can do this for themselves, in their own heads—even in the ridiculously short time allowed for on-demand writing. Then we need to be extremely interested in what they have to say—something that’s much easier to achieve if we allow them to have their own topics because then, of course, they might also be more interested in what they have to say.

Moving Closer to the Common Core

Writing isn’t a mechanical act, and teaching a barrage of mechanical strategies (Mention all three of your supporting details in the first paragraph) won’t help anyone write better—though it can, sadly enough, affect test scores (for now). Shortcuts and formulas will never—not ever—make you a strong swimmer; but they can keep you treading water. Somehow, we don’t seem to see the irony in this. Our time for getting by with shortcuts may be coming to an end, though, for they won’t take us one centimeter closer to meeting the very real, very high demands of the Common Core. To do that, we have to help students think. One way to encourage thinking is to let students talk before they write—even in on-demand writing. This isn’t cheating; it’s exploration. The only way to cheat in writing is to have someone else do it for you (Truth be told, when we hand students a formula, we come very close to doing just that).

 The good friend who sent me this article suggested that if students had more time for research (in on-demand situations), their writing would be stronger, and this would make our assessment more fair. Yes. I couldn’t agree more. Too often we impose prompts on students (e.g., we give them 50-word bios of famous people they may never have heard of and ask for insightful commentary on how those people have  influenced civilization) that simply cannot be addressed reasonably and creatively in a 30-minute essay with no research or preparation. Understandably, they struggle. Then, we arrogantly conclude from their responses that they cannot write well, when we should conclude that prompts demanding research are better handled in the classroom.

 Even an uninspiring prompt won’t keep a good writer down for good, though. The student writing on voting raises some intriguing issues about apathy and education. She simply has not spent enough time poking around in her own thoughts to give us much depth or insight—yet. She has more to say, however, even without research. Just a little between-the-lines analysis reveals this. This is a capable writer, and we’re letting her slip through the cracks by patting her on the head with 4s, pretending we perceive meaning where there is none, pretending we hear her voice when it isn’t there, pretending that because we can follow a formula we handed her, she is guiding us through a discussion. Let’s not do that. Instead, let’s do a better job of recognizing what she does well—and pushing her to think harder, deeper, and longer about her topic. We might love reading the result.

Tips for further research—

      1.    To hear teacher Adam Babcock offer innovative comments on evading formula and prompting thinking among our young writers, check out the following video—


      2.      For ideas on providing excellent, meaningful feedback to students, see—

           “7 Keys to Effective Feedback” by Grant Wiggins. Educational Leadership, September 2012 (Vol 70, #1, pp. 11-16).

       3.      For further thoughts on making feedback effective, check out Kim Marshall’s wonderful Marshall Memo (If you don’t already subscribe,  check it out online—this very useful summary of current educational articles is a must for busy teachers and other educators); in particular, see MarshMemo451, from September 10 and MarshMemo 452 from September 18, 2012. Look online under—  (and be sure to get your complimentary issue)

       4.      To explore strategies and resources useful in teaching even very young students to think philosophically, see—

                  Little Big Minds by Marietta McCarty. 2006. Tarcher. (Available on Amazon)

       5.      To see what kinds of instructional shifts are demanded by the Common Core, see—

Coming up on Gurus . . .

We’ll explore the connections between the Common Core and the trait of Organization, taking a close look at literature you can use to teach leads, transitions, conclusions, and the effective flow of ideas—all elements of both the Common Core and six-trait writing. Thanks for stopping by, and please visit us again. Remember, for the BEST in workshops that combine standards, traits, process, and workshop, phone 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.