How to Teach Students to Write Strong Paragraphs

LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORE[This post originally appeared in slightly different form on MiddleWeb on April 12, 2016.]

Lately I have become obsessed with the beauty and utility of paragraph responses.

When students are struggling to write clear, coherent essays or aren’t explaining their evidence enough, often what it boils down to is this: they need help in writing stronger paragraphs. Whether you are preparing them for writing on standardized tests, trying to strengthen their fundamental writing skills, or looking for a more meaningful way to assess their reading comprehension, teaching students how to build clear, coherent paragraphs is a good use of everyone’s time.

In previous blogs (most recently here), I’ve discussed six basic steps that move students from “What’s the difference between arguments and evidence?” to “How can I write an effective research paper?” To write an effective paragraph, students need to master the first three steps:

  1. Given a list of statements, distinguish the arguments from examples of evidence. If you can’t tell the difference between “argument” and “evidence,” how can you create an argument? How can you write an effective topic sentence? Without that, you won’t really have a paragraph. Just a list.
  2. Given a list of statements, identify arguments and their relevant evidence. If you can’t find relevant evidence, your “evidence” might not prove your argument and might even disprove it. You could end up proving the opposite of what you intended. (For more on how to teach this step and “Step 2.5,” see here and here.)
  3. Given arguments, support them with your own relevant evidence and explanation. If you can’t explain how your evidence supports your argument, readers will not be able to follow your “logic.” Your paragraph will lack clarity and coherence.

Today we’ll zero in on Step 3. But before we dive fully into paragraph writing, we need to explain why explanation is necessary.  Conceptually, students can understand this idea if you provide an example they can relate to. I like to demonstrate with what I call the “Mean Mom” skit. A colleague plays my “Mean Mom,” and the dialogue goes something like this:

 

Me: Mom, can I go to the movies this weekend?

Mean Mom: No.

Me: But I did all of my chores this week!

Mean Mom: So? You’re supposed to do that.

Here I pause for a meta-moment, to point out that I’ve given her facts and she is not convinced. Let me try a different approach…

Me: Doing my chores shows how responsible I am, and if you let me go to the movies, you know I will represent the family well; also, by doing my chores, I earned my allowance so I can pay for my own ticket!

Mean Mom: Hmmn….

Me: Plus, my friend Sally says if I’m allowed to go, her mom will pick me up and bring me home, so you can have a free night on Saturday!

Mean Mom: What’s Sally’s mom’s number?

I then review what happened: When I offered facts, she was not convinced. When I explained the facts, I won her over. It’s important to add the caveat that just because you explain your ideas, it doesn’t mean you will always get what you want. But you will have a much better chance of persuading your audience if you do.

This skit makes a great mnemonic device, by the way. Weeks later, if you walk past a student who is writing and say, “Oh, so you don’t want to go to the movies this weekend?” that student will know what you mean: You’re not explaining enough.

We can then move on to the “paragraph response” approach, which is simply this: give students topic sentences about whatever they’re reading—a chapter from a novel, an article to build content knowledge, or something else—and they must write the rest of the paragraph, including well-explained evidence. The topic sentence provides a lens through which to read the text, and it guides their annotation.

As with any other skill you’re trying to build, it’s crucial to model it. Here is a sample[1]:

Name________________________Date_________CHAPTER 1

Lord of the Flies Paragraph Responses

DIRECTIONS: For EACH TOPIC SENTENCE given, write a paragraph proving it, citing at least two direct quotes from the chapter. Each paragraph must be 7-10 sentences long (including the topic sentence). Be sure to cite the page numbers properly. See the model. Attach looseleaf if needed. Be sure to read the whole chapter before writing a paragraph.

EXAMPLE:

In the beginning of the story, Kenny’s mother makes it clear that she does not respect his friend Harry. When Harry shows up to invite Kenny to his party, Kenny’s mother is “furious” that Harry is in her house (82). She follows Kenny into his room to tell him why he should not be hanging around with such “basura” (82). She says that Harry acts like “the devil, tempting innocent barrio girls and boys with free drugs and easy living until they [are] hooked” (82). She goes on and on about how Harry’s behavior is wrong.   She says that people who follow Harry “pay the price” (82). She is clearly worried about how Kenny’s friends will influence him.[2]

1. In Chapter 1, Piggy, Ralph, and Jack demonstrate leadership in different ways.

In addition to modeling proper MLA format, the example demonstrates how to incorporate quotes seamlessly into an explanation. While it’s important to teach students how to provide sufficient context and explanation for evidence with “quote sandwiches” (explained here and here), we should also push them to write more efficiently. Partial quotes can improve the flow of their writing.

What I love best about the paragraph response approach is that it offers an elegant way for students to practice analytic reading and writing skills at the same time. And PS, it’s quick and easy to grade with this simple scoring checklist:

PARAGRAPH RESPONSE Scoring Checklist

___/2: Clarity

___/2: Context (for both quotes)

___/2: Evidence (2 quotes, either verbatim or paraphrased)

___/2: Explanation (for both quotes)

___/2: Length (7-10 sentences incl. the topic sentence)

___/10=TOTAL

[1] For a complete set of paragraph response handouts for Lord of the Flies (by William Golding), click on LORD OF THE FLIES Paragraph Assignments.

[2] This paragraph cites from An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio by Judith Ortiz Cofer (New York: Scholastic, 1995).

Posted in Argument, ELA Common Core Standards, Evidence, Explanation, Paragraph writing, Resources, TLC Website Resources, Topic Sentences, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

PARCC ELA Prep Checklist

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREAs a former high school English teacher who loves literature and loves to write, I do not believe in doing test prep 24/7. I believe tests are a genre, the same way that drama is a genre and poetry is a genre, etc.—and we should prepare students for them in the same way that we prepare them to analyze a play or write a poem: figure out the key features of the genre, teach students what is required to do well in working with that genre, then give them sufficient practice so that they can confidently tackle that genre in the future.

In the home stretch of PARCC test preparation, here’s a quick diagnostic tool you can use to determine if your students have a clear grasp of some essential strategies that will help them succeed with this genre.

Below is the “student” version. This PARCC ELA PREP CHECKLIST (a free download) includes both the student copy and a suggested answer key.

NAME___________________________________DATE___________

PARCC ELA PREP CHECKLIST—STUDENT COPY

Directions: For each question, on a scale of 1-10 (1=not confident, 10=very confident), FIRST rate how confident you feel about how to respond. THEN, jot some notes in response. We will discuss each item. AFTER our discussion, rate how confident you feel.  See the model.

QUESTION NOTES How confident you feel

BEFORE:

1-10

How confident you feel

AFTER:

1-10

What should you do FIRST when you start a PARCC ELA test? Click forward to the writing prompt, turn the prompt into a question, and write that question on your blank sheet of paper so that you can take notes with that question in mind. 1 10
How do you unpack a Literary Analysis or Research Simulation Task writing prompt and turn it into a question?      
How much time should you spend on 1) reading and taking notes, 2) answering multiple-choice questions, and 3) writing your narrative or essay?      
How/Why can taking notes actually SAVE you time?      
What are some useful test-taking strategies for answering multiple-choice questions?      
What kind of organizer should you create for taking notes on the Literary Analysis Writing Task? What should the notes focus on?      
Why should you put checkmarks next to items in your organizer for the Literary Analysis/Research Simulation Writing Task?      
What is the basic outline structure for a Literary Analysis compare and contrast essay? (2 options)      
What kind of organizer should you create for taking notes on the Research Simulation Writing Task? What should the notes focus on?      
What is the basic outline structure for a Research Simulation compare and contrast essay? (2 options)      
What two things might the Narrative Writing Task ask you to do (after you read the passage)?      
Why is important to pay attention to “DDAT” and “Somebody Wanted But So” when pre-writing for the Narrative Writing Task?      
On the Narrative Writing Task, what kinds of compositional risks should you use?      
The box you’re supposed to type in looks really small.   Does that mean you should only write two sentences?      
What should you be sure to do before time expires, and why?      

For more information on PARCC, see the TLC “PARCC Prep” page.

PS: Please feel free to comment (or Email me at sarahtantillo@literacycookbook.com) if you have any questions, thoughts, or suggestions!

PPS: Thanks to Anibal Garcia at Queen City Academy CS for inspiring this post, and thanks to Dominy Alderman at HoLa CS for her input.

Posted in Assessment(s), Compare and Contrast, Genre, Literary Analysis Writing, Narrative Writing, Organizing an Essay, PARCC, Research Writing, Resources, Test Prep, TLC Website Resources | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

MATCH MINIS: A Great Secret Resource!

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREIf you’re like me and you receive way too much Email, sometimes you miss important stuff. Or you notice something you want to read “later,” and four months pass before you actually read it. Today I finally opened a November 3 Email from Orin Gutlerner at MATCH Education that—I’m not gonna lie—rocked my world.

For those who may not know, MATCH began as a charter high school in Boston and has expanded to include a K-12 school for kids, a graduate school of education for novice teachers, and a new college and jobs program for young adults.

One of MATCH Education’s latest innovations is a Web-based series called Match Minis, which are “bite-sized, 3-5 minute animated videos that summarize sound practices and ideas that have surfaced from [their] work over the years.”

Orin notes: “Initially, we have cooked up a batch of Minis for use by teachers and school leaders. They cover grainy teacher moves (e.g. how to execute a “turn and talk”) and effective approaches to teacher coaching (e.g. how to set up a professional development session that actually works). Over time, and assuming more than five people actually use our website, we will crank out a lot of Minis on all manner of topics, including school operations, school culture, policy reform. For now, please have a look. And send blunt feedback.”

I just previewed the video on “turn and talk,” and it’s quick, witty, and exactly what you need to know.

Tell your friends!

Posted in Professional Development, Resources | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Tools to Help Writers Explain Good Evidence (Part II)

LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORE[This post, written with Jamison Fort, originally appeared in slightly different form on MiddleWeb on March 15, 2016.]

In Part I of this mini-series, we looked at how to help students rule out ineffective evidence when they are attempting to build arguments. The flip side of this work is to help them find the best evidence.

To give students more practice in finding relevant evidence on their own and explaining it, my friend Jamison Fort, who teaches 6th and 7th grade history, created the following organizer for students to analyze one text[1] that has multiple claims (Note: We use “claim” and “argument” interchangeably):

Directions: Find a quote that BEST supports the claim presented and clearly explain how/why your quote BEST supports the claim.

The claims Find quotes from the text to support the claims. Clearly explain how/why your quote supports the claim.
Sample:

“Habeas Corpus” is going to be the basis for future animal freedom cases.

 

Quote: “Sandra’s case will likely energize other legal efforts for other animals—in particular, 17 chimpanzees in zoos throughout Argentina. ‘Considering that they are very close to human primates, it is an absurdity that they are still in captivity in prison.’” Explanation: This quote supports the claim because it points out that this case will encourage other cases with similar circumstances. Also, it is already offering an example with chimpanzees, using language like “primates… in prison.”
Claim 1:

Sandra’s case was likely to succeed because orangutans are similar to humans.

Quote: Explanation:
Claim 2:

Zoos are basically jails that hold prisoners that have done no crime.

Quote: Explanation:
Claim 3:

Clearly, Argentinian courts are more receptive to non-human rights than the United States courts are.

Quote: Explanation:

***

The day after this exercise, Jamison explained that the ultimate goal was to make sure that by the end of the next three days, every student would be able to evaluate evidence and choose the strongest possible evidence to support a claim. Then he launched the following lesson:

Do Now: “Explain your mental process of elimination when deciding which is the best possible evidence to support a claim or answer to a question.”

Students pair-shared, then responded to cold-calling. Their answers—that the evidence must be relevant or related to the claim, or must prove a point—showed that they evaluated evidence with single isolated indicators in mind. They had a partial understanding with responses that outlined segments but missed the full process.

To expand their understanding of how to select effective evidence, Jamison turned to this activity: Students paired up and compared and contrasted the quotes they had chosen, then answered the following questions:

“Was your partner’s evidence different from your evidence?
 Ask your partner why they chose what they chose.
 How do you know you have chosen the best possible evidence for a claim?”

Once the pairs finished their responses, students shared out and had a discussion around evaluating the quality of evidence. The discussion prompt was:

“How did we know we had the best evidence with these claims?”

The class scribe recorded the responses onto a brainstorming poster. Jamison then told his students they were only allowed to keep the four most valuable characteristics of effective evidence. His students then decided what could be eliminated or synthesized and what needed to stay. Once four characteristics were determined, Jamison challenged the class to create an evidence evaluation checklist. Here is what they produced:

Evidence Evaluation Checklist:

  1. The evidence is relevant.
  2. The evidence supports the claim.
  3. This evidence is the closest/best possible support to the claim.
  4. This evidence supports my response to the question or task.

 

As there seemed to be general consensus around this checklist, Jamison decided to provoke students’ thinking further: he presented a blatantly faulty piece of evidence as “the best possible choice.”

Students became highly animated in challenging his assertion, asking him to “explain his logic.”

He told them he didn’t need to explain his logic, adding, “I just know I’m right.”

He could see their frustration; they clearly knew he was wrong but couldn’t express how they knew. This was how he pushed them to use the tool they had just created. He wanted to show rather than tell them of its value. After a moment of this student-teacher standoff, he diverted their attention back to the poster they had just created and asked them again, “Is there no one who can tell me why I am wrong?”

And then the connection was made, that “aha” moment. A girl who had taken up the role of class spokesperson said his answer was wrong because it didn’t meet all the necessary checkpoints: “It was related to the text, but not relevant to your claim.”

***

Once you’ve helped students grasp the essential characteristics of effective evidence, they can practice analyzing multiple texts, identifying arguments and key evidence. Here is a tool for that:

  Argument 1: [Either provide it or ask students to identify one.] Argument 2: [Either provide it or ask students to identify one.]
Text 1  

[Students insert evidence that supports Argument 1 from Text 1.]

 

 

[Students insert evidence that supports Argument 2 from Text 1.]

 

Text 2  

[Students insert evidence that supports Argument 1 from Text 2.]

 

 

[Students insert evidence that supports Argument 2 from Text 2.]

 

Text 3  

[Students insert evidence that supports Argument 1 from Text 3.]

 

 

[Students insert evidence that supports Argument 2 from Text 3.]

 

After developing some proficiency in evaluating evidence, students can move on to Argument vs. Evidence Step 3: Given arguments, students must support them with their own relevant evidence and explanation. For more information on that step, click HERE.

[1] “Argentine court’s ruling gives basic human rights to captive ape at zoo,” Newsela https://newsela.com/articles/orangutan-rights/id/6904/

Posted in Argument, Evidence, Explanation, MiddleWeb, Reading Informational Text, Research Writing, Resources, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

PARCC Prep: “Extending the Story” for PARCC Narrative Writing Task

PARCC Narrative Writing Tasks tend to fall into two camps: 1) write the story from another point of view or 2) extend the story. This is what the second type looks like:

8th ELA:

Today you will read and answer questions on a story about a man seeking to complete an important mission. When you have finished reading and answering questions, you will write a narrative story using details from your reading….THEN: Write a continuation of the story of Bahauddin Shah using details from the passage. Describe what you think might happen after Bahauddin Shah climbs out of the Salt Caverns. What obstacles might he face, and what actions might he take to overcome them?

10th ELA:

Today you will read a passage from a novel. As you read, pay attention to the interactions between the characters so that you can write a narrative story….THEN: After discovering that his wife has gone missing from the bicycle they were sharing, Mr. Harris returns “to where the road broke into four” and seems unable to remember where he has come from. Using what you know about Mr. Harris, write a narrative story that describes how he chooses which road to take and the experiences he has on his return journey. Be sure to use details from the passage in developing your narrative.

When reading the story, students should annotate for the following:

What has happened?

[List 3-5* MAJOR conflicts, decisions, lessons, causes & effects.]

What will characters do, and why?

[Use DDAT to identify characters’ motivations.]

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

1. X will ______ because DDAT.**

2. Y will ______ because DDAT.

For pre-writing to map out the plot going forward, they can simply use this template:

Somebody Wanted But So
 

 

 

 

     

*Note: This work mimics the use of the What Is Important ORGANIZER  from the TLC Website. We want students to identify more than 3 because a typical story will have 3-5, and we don’t want students to limit themselves to 3 and miss others.

**Note: DDAT (also on TLC) is a simple mnemonic device to help readers remember how writers develop characters. Using it when annotating can help students identify characters’ attitudes, beliefs, and motivations. Here is more information on DDAT:

DIRECT characterization:

Description:
Example: He had a great sense of humor. (No inference is required.)


INDIRECT characterization:

Dialogue:
Example: “I want to save the whales,” she explained. (We can infer that she cares about animals and maybe that she is idealistic.)

Actions:
Example: The young man studied every night and earned straight A’s in high school. (We can infer that he is hardworking and perseverant.)

Thoughts:
Example: The girl wondered if the boy would ask her to dance. (We can infer that she has a crush on him.)

 

Many thanks to my friends at Great Oaks Charter High School (Amanda Belden, Kate Piluso, Drew Schuh, and Samantha Ulloa) who contributed to this development of this post.

Posted in Assessment(s), Narrative Writing, PARCC, TLC Website Resources, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Recommended Reading: READING RECONSIDERED

Today’s entry is brought to you by my other blog, ONLY GOOD BOOKS.

Check THIS out.

Posted in Professional Development, Reading, Recommended Reading, Resources, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Help Student Writers Find the Best Evidence

[This post originally appeared in slightly different form on MiddleWeb on Feb. 23, 2016.]

No matter what grade or subject you teach, sooner or later you find yourself trying to help students write more clearly and convincingly. In one of my most-read posts for MiddleWeb, written in the early days of the Common Core implementation, I said:

One of the things students struggle with the most — and it’s relevant to every grade and subject — is distinguishing between argument and evidence. This problem manifests itself in both reading and writing… In reading, students often cannot pick topic sentences or thesis arguments out of a lineup; and when writing, they tend to construct paragraphs and essays that lack arguments.

I went on to describe roughly six steps we can use to move students from “What’s the difference between arguments and evidence?” to “How can I write an effective research paper?” That’s such an important journey, and I want to share more thoughts about it, now that we’ve spent some years in “Common Core” classrooms. But first, here’s a quick refresher about those six steps for students:

1. Given a list of statements, distinguish the arguments from examples of evidence.

2. Given a list of statements, identify arguments and their relevant evidence.

3. Given arguments, support them with your own relevant evidence and explanation.

4. Given questions, answer them with arguments and relevant evidence and explanation.

5. Generate your own questions that warrant research and debate.

6. Generate your own questions, then research and build arguments supported with evidence and explanation.

Lately, I’ve been working with teachers on how to help students write more effective paragraphs and essays. We have found that students can quickly master Step 1—applying the three rules for determining if a statement is an argument or not (it includes debatable/arguable words; it includes cause/effect language, or it raises “How” or “Why” questions). But they need more scaffolding to move from Step 2 to Step 3.

We are starting to think there may be a “Step 2.5.”

As noted above, Step 2 requires students to match relevant evidence to arguments. Handing out sentence strips and tape for “Literacy Manipulatives” is one way to practice this. We like to kick it up a notch by including some random arguments and evidence statements that do not support any of the arguments. When students know that not every sentence is connected to another one, they feel some push to look more critically at each sentence.

Step 3 gives students an argument and asks them to support it with relevant evidence and explanation. Breaking this down, it means they need to know what “relevant” means, how to select that evidence, and how and why to explain. It becomes more challenging to select relevant evidence when it appears not as a few isolated sentences but immersed somewhere in a complete text. You have to know what to look for and what to rule out.

Students have a tendency to look simply for words or phrases that seem related, and often their quest for evidence is too superficial, which causes them to select evidence that is not helpful.

As part of the new Step 2.5, therefore, we’re teaching students what to rule out – the ineffective evidence. “Ineffective” evidence manifests one of three problems: 1) it opposes the argument, 2) it’s irrelevant, or 3) it’s true but not as relevant.

Here’s a tool we’re using to teach this point: Argument vs Evidence Step 2.5

Directions: Put a star next to the evidence from the choices below that BEST supports the argument. For each choice, tell why you would or would not use it. THEN write a logical sentence that would follow from your choice, explaining how the evidence supports the argument.

ARGUMENT: Eating too much candy causes stomach aches.

EVIDENCE OPTIONS Would you use this “evidence”? Why/Why not?
1. One time my brother ate 60 KitKats and nothing happened. NO. It opposes the argument.
2. I like Hershey kisses best. NO. It’s irrelevant.
3. My sister collected three bags of candy yesterday. MAYBE: It’s true but not totally relevant. I’d have to explain it.
4. Yesterday I ate 22 Snickers bars and threw up. * YES. It clearly supports the argument.

Next logical sentence: Obviously, I had overdosed on sugar, and my stomach could not hold so much “content.”

***

Here’s a template for practice (also on the tool available for downloading):

ARGUMENT: [Teacher provides this.] ___________________________________________________________

EVIDENCE OPTIONS Would you use this “evidence”? Why/Why not?
1. [Teacher provides these.] [You should change the order, and in early practice, at least one option should oppose, one should be irrelevant, and one should be true but not totally relevant. In later practice, you can mix/double up the options so that students won’t simply use process of elimination.]
2.  

 

3.  

 

4.  

 

Next logical sentence: [Student completes this.] ______________________________________________________

***

As noted, the tool above requires students to generate an explanation that follows logically from the “best” evidence they choose. Although one choice might be the strongest, we should remind students that sometimes “perfect” evidence is hard to find and “good enough” evidence can actually work if you support it with sufficient explanation. For example, if I selected #3 above, I might write this follow-up sentence: “Unfortunately, she ate most of it in one sitting and paid the price after that.”

Stay tuned for more thoughts on how to teach “Step 2.5”!

Posted in Argument, ELA Common Core Standards, Evidence, MiddleWeb, Reading, Resources, TLC Website Resources, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Helpful Website: FreeRice.com

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREIn case you haven’t already seen it, the Website FreeRice.com is helpful on many levels.

FreeRice.com is a nonprofit that has two stated goals:

  • Provide education to everyone for free.
  • Help end world hunger by providing rice to hungry people for free.

The Website covers an array of subjects and enables users to learn vocabulary, grammar, and even other languages (and more!) with adaptive assessments (i.e., when you get a question correct, the next one is harder; when you get one wrong, the next one is easier). It features a cool graphic interface that shows you how much rice your correct answers are generating for the World Food Programme. In addition to being a clever philanthropic tool, it’s fun, instructive, and highly addictive.

Posted in Grammar, Reading, Resources, Vocabulary | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

PARCC Prep Writing Task Care Packages

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREIn the spirit of holiday giving, I have created “PARCC Prep Writing Task Care Packages” for all three PARCC writing tasks. Everything attached here is FREE. Yes, free. You’re welcome.

PARCC Narrative Writing Task

PARCC Literary Analysis Writing Task

PARCC Research Simulation Writing Task

NOTE: For additional PARCC resources (esp. re: reading passages and questions), please check out the TLC “PARCC Prep” page. To sign up for access to the 1000+ user-friendly files on The Literacy Cookbook Website for a special holiday deal, the 50%-off discount code is TLCBOOK50. If you have any questions, feel free to Email me at sarahtantillo@literacycookbook.com

HAPPY HOLIDAYS, EVERYBODY!

***Bonus note: If you haven’t seen it yet, check out the PARCC ELA Prep Checklist.

Posted in Assessment(s), Compare and Contrast, ELA Common Core Standards, Literary Analysis Writing, Narrative Writing, Organizing an Essay, PARCC, Research Writing, Resources, Rubrics, Test Prep, TLC Website Resources, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Why Students Don’t Write Clearly and What We Can Do About It

LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORE[The following post originally appeared in slightly different form on MiddleWeb on Nov. 3, 2015.]

After reading yet another piece lamenting students’ inability to write clearly, I feel compelled to share what I’ve learned about this problem and offer some potential solutions.

As for causes of bad writing, we know that upbringing can be a factor. No one emerges from the womb knowing how to speak or write coherently. Depending on your home and school environment, you may or may not be surrounded by people who speak standard English. We learn to speak by imitating what we hear, and we tend to write the way we speak. Students who have been immersed in nonstandard English will have to undo, to some degree, what they have learned. Teachers must find respectful ways to show students how to code switch.

Clear writing requires proper grammar, but it needs other things, too. Many students lack the vocabulary and practice in reasoning that would enable them to build robust arguments. As Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley discovered, some children—from an early age—are exposed to many words, while others are exposed to few.[1] In a study of forty-two families from three different socioeconomic categories (professional, working class, and welfare), they observed and tape-recorded family interactions for an hour a month for thirty months. They found that children from the wealthiest families heard over 1,500 more words each hour, on average, than children from the poorest families (2,153 versus 616). Over a four-year period, this amounts to an estimated thirty-two-million-word gap.[2]

They also found that children mirrored their parents’ vocabulary resources, use of language, and interaction styles. In fact, about nine out of every ten words in each child’s vocabulary consisted of words also recorded in their parents’ vocabularies.[3] As I noted in The Literacy Cookbook, however, the problem is not merely a word gap. It’s also an explanation gap. Exposure to fewer words means that one hears fewer examples of complex/logical thinking: fewer sentences, fewer questions, and fewer explanations of ideas or arguments.[4]

So how you’re raised may affect how well you write. But upbringing is not destiny: we can and should help students build a knowledge base that will strengthen their ability to comprehend and write.

And upbringing is not the only reason children fail to write well. The truth is, children from wealthy and well-educated families often struggle, too.

One reason this problem is so widespread is that historically, our expectations have been too low. Until recently, we did not have national standards that demand clear writing. As shocking as it might seem, until the mid-late 1990s, not all states even had standards. And in some places, the standards were not necessarily adequate. Case in point: for many years, in my home state of New Jersey and in others, the standards were framed as, “By the end of fourth grade,” or “By the end of eighth grade,” and so on. That sketchy framework put undue pressure on some teachers and left others to wonder what their responsibilities were.[5]

To be perfectly blunt, our spotty national expectations have meant that some citizens—including some who are currently classroom teachers—never received proper grammar or writing instruction. And it is challenging to teach something you never learned.
One bit of good news is that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), adopted by most states in 2010, address every grade from K-12, and grades 3-5 in particular address the most fundamental grammar points students need to know. The CCSS also emphasize the importance of supporting arguments with relevant evidence and explanation, something good writers do all the time.

Unfortunately, some students are already past fifth grade and have not learned key grammar points yet. They struggle with subject-verb agreement and are not sure what a complete sentence entails. Also, they don’t know the difference between “argument” and “evidence,” which makes it difficult for them to build strong arguments (See my earlier MiddleWeb post).

As dismal as this situation might seem, there is hope. There are things that teachers can do—no matter what grade or subject they teach—to help students become stronger writers.

Probably the most important thing we need to remember is this: Good writers write one good sentence after another. It sounds really obvious when you say it, but if you spend enough time in classrooms, you will realize that most people don’t frame writing instruction in this way. Teachers tend to assume students can write sentences, so they skip to things like paragraphs, “small moments,” and essays. There is nothing wrong with these assignments. It’s just that we need to build up to them.

Even if you start by showing students a model essay—planning with the end in mind, which is always helpful—it’s crucial to attend to the details. The first time my elementary school gym teacher taught us how to shoot a layup, he didn’t simply shoot a layup and walk away, saying, “Save yourselves!” He showed us how to jump and lift the ball and drive our knee up and flick the ball so it would hit that box on the backboard. As we tried it, he gave us immediate, specific feedback. He wasn’t evaluating us. He was coaching us towards success.

What would it look like if writing teachers saw themselves more as writing coaches?

Here’s a sentence that could be game-changing: “What do you like about that sentence?” Think about what this question implies: 1) Sentences have structures that writers create purposely, which we can analyze and admire; 2) Sentences can be written well or poorly; 3) If you figure out “what works” in that sentence, you could imitate it and write your own good sentences.

In order to be able to ask that question, though, we need great texts to analyze. Not all texts are created equal. Some are dry, repetitious, formulaic, dull (I’m looking at you, most content-area textbooks!). Others are lucid and compelling. Or, poignant. Or, they percolate with wit. They make us think and feel; they take us to a particular locale and a specific, memorable instance. We can feel the writer’s pulse. Captivating models can change how students feel about reading (eliciting, “Hey, this is funny!” or, “That’s so true!”) and in turn, how they feel about writing. If we want students to think of themselves as writers, the message must be inviting—as in, “Look: you could write like this!”

We also need to teach students how to connect sentences and ideas so their sentences will flow logically and their explanations will make sense. As Peg Tyre noted in The Atlantic, teachers at New Dorp High School realized that not knowing how to use words such as “for, and, nor, but, or, yet,” limited their students’ ability to express clear thinking.[6] They enlisted the help of Judith Hochman, who has developed a method that directly teaches such words and builds students’ knowledge of sentence structures and longer-writing structures so they can express more complex ideas.[7]

Along with focusing students’ attention on excellent sentences and how to make their writing flow, we also need to stop doing things that don’t work.

Many English teachers spend hours and hours marking up students’ papers, and when they hand those papers back, the students merely glance at the grade and do nothing with the feedback. The result is that teachers become highly skilled at copy editing and students’ writing does not improve. So here’s some more good news: you don’t have to lose entire weekends to paper grading. What do you want students to do with your feedback? If they are not going to use it to revise, then extensive notes are not necessary. Consider making brief remarks on this ESSAY WRITING RUBRIC,[8] which includes a separate section for “Self-Improvement Goals” that students can set in each subsequent paper, using your comments as a guide. PS, over-editing is also pointless because editing marks alone can’t teach grammar rules; at best, they remind students of rules they already knew.

The biggest thing we need to fix is how we teach grammar. Students often neglect to apply grammar rules in their own writing because grammar and writing are frequently taught as two discrete subjects, as in, “Today is Tuesday, so we’re doing prepositions. Turn to page 57 in your grammar book.” This is not to say that you should not teach grammar content. But as the Hochman Method suggests, it must be done in a relevant, authentic context so that students can see how and why grammar rules are useful.

Unfortunately, many educators not only teach grammar and writing separately but also rely heavily on the “Daily Oral Language” (DOL) approach, in which they provide sentences riddled with random errors and students are supposed to correct them. Reading specialist Mark Pennington enumerates sixteen reasons why DOL doesn’t work, and I agree with each one. He points out that DOL is proofreading, not sentence construction; that it tries to teach writing without actually having students write; that it uses bad writing models to teach good writing; and that it doesn’t teach the whys and hows of grammar and mechanics.[9] Requiring students to fix grammatically-incorrect sentences might be a form of assessment, but it is not instruction. Students who know the appropriate grammar rules will do fine; the ones who don’t won’t learn the rules. We have to teach before we assess.

By contrast, in Mechanically Inclined, Jeff Anderson recommends a “mentor text” approach, which involves showing students models of sentence structures they can imitate.[10] For example, you might begin with a two-word sentence—subject-verb, as in, “She laughed.”—and have students write their own. Then you could build a longer sentence—say, a three-word sentence that includes a word that describes the verb, also known as an adverb. As in, “She laughed loudly.” In the process of comparing examples with classmates, students would derive the understanding that adverbs are commonly formed by adding “-ly” to an adjective. In this way, we can teach parts of speech organically and authentically. It’s a win-win cycle: as students practice applying the rules in their own writing, they build their knowledge of grammar rules and strengthen their writing.

And once they’ve learned the rules, they can decide when to break them for creative purposes. When they need to. Not necessarily on a Tuesday.

[1] Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children (Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., 2002).

[2] Hart and Risley, 197-8. NOTE: Children from professional families would hear 45 million words; from working-class families, 26 million; and from welfare families, 13 million.

[3] Hart and Risley, 176. NOTE: Specific data: 86-98%.

[4] Sarah Tantillo, The Literacy Cookbook: A Practical Guide to Effective Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Instruction (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2012), 12.

[5] Sarah Tantillo, Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2014), xviii.

[6] Peg Tyre, “The Writing Revolution,” The Atlantic, Oct. 2012, found at: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/10/the-writing-revolution/309090/

[7] For more information on the Hochman Method, go to: http://www.thewritingrevolution.org

[8] “Essay Writing Rubric” found at The Literacy Cookbook Website: http://www.literacycookbook.com/page.php?id=87

[9] “Why Daily Oral Language (D.O.L.) Doesn’t Work,” Mark Pennington, Pennington Publishing Blog, Aug. 29, 2009, found at: http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/grammar_mechanics/why-daily-oral-language-d-o-l-doesnt-work/

[10] Jeff Anderson, Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer’s Workshop (Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2005).

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