21 Jun As Teachers Tackle New Student-Writing Expectations, Support Is LackingJune 21, 2016
By: Madeline Will
Writing instruction may have fallen by the wayside during the No Child Left Behind Act era, as teachers zeroed in on teaching math and reading.
But now, with most states using the Common Core State Standards, students are expected to write a lot more—and to write better.
The standards include detailed writing expectations that go well beyond previous state requirements. Specifically, they call for proficiency in argumentative, explanatory, and narrative writing that draw connections from and between texts.
A noticeable uptick of writing in schools has taken place as most states have implemented the standards, said Tanya Baker, the director of national programs at the National Writing Project, citing anecdotal evidence since there isn’t a way to track the exact amount of writing occurring in classrooms.
Still, for the most part, educators say students aren’t writing as much as the standards require.
“Kids are writing single paragraphs. It’s so far from where we want for young people to be college- or career-ready,” Baker said. “The baseline has moved, but it’s still pretty far from what we want to see.”
An Education Trust study published last fall analyzed 1,500 student assignments from a two-week period at six urban middle schools and found that fewer than 1 in 10 assignments required multiple paragraphs of writing. Just 4 in 10 assignments were aligned with the grade-appropriate standard, and 16 percent required students to cite evidence from the text, which is a key component of the common core.
Joan Dabrowski, an education consultant who was the lead literacy adviser for the organization’s literacy-assignment analysis, said students across the country still aren’t doing enough writing, and what they are doing is rarely the kind of multiparagraph, evidence-based writing that is promoted in college- and career-ready standards.
Despite that discrepancy, the new common-core-aligned assessments place a greater weight on student writing. The new English assessments are more sensitive to instructional differences among teachers, especially in the middle grades, than the old tests were, found a study by the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University that was released earlier this year.
Since the past assessments focused more on reading comprehension, the new assessments should encourage teachers to emphasize writing in their classrooms, the study concluded. There needs to be more research done to identify effective interventions to help teachers with writing instruction, the researchers added.
“If students are writing often and understanding where they are as a writer, … the test will take care of itself,” said Carol Jago, the associate director of the California Reading and Literature Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English.
“Fluency does matter,” Dabrowski echoed. “It matters tremendously.”
So why aren’t students writing? Experts cite several reasons.
‘Hungry for Guidance’
“Teachers want to teach more writing,” Jago said. “They know it’s important. They believe in it.”
But they don’t always have the support or direction available to properly teach the sort of in-depth writing now expected of students.
At the beginning of the common-core implementation, the National Writing Project’s Baker said, it became clear that there were veteran teachers who had no practice in teaching the kind of writing, particularly argumentative writing, that the standards call for.
The project has tried to respond to that need with online professional-development courses, resources for teachers, and an online community of practice where teachers can connect and discuss the new expectations of writing instruction.
“Teachers are hungry for guidance,” said Dabrowski, who talked to teachers about writing instruction during the Education Trust’s literary-assignment analysis. They want examples of lessons that meet the standards, she said.
In common-core states, several recent surveys have found nearly all language arts teachers are at least somewhat reliant on materials they’ve developed or selected themselves.
But as high school teacher and common-core consultant Sargy Letuchy said, it is relatively easy to find examples of assignments, but it’s harder, especially in the upper grades, to find materials that show how to teach the English/language arts standards, particularly the sub standards for each writing style.
“It’s like being asked to run a marathon without proper equipment and training,” he said.
Letuchy, who is an English as a Second Language teacher at Bolingbrook High School in Illinois, has developed a workshop for teachers about writing instruction with the common core. Teachers have told him they feel unequipped to meet the level of rigor now expected in the common core, he said, compelling him to write a book, “The Visual Edge,” with visual instructional tools for teaching the grades 6-12 standards.
Never Enough Time
“The real challenge is teaching writing with more quantity and rigor in the same amount of school days,” Letuchy said.
With all the competing demands on teachers’ time, Dabrowski said there is a limited amount of writing time afforded to students, particularly blocks of uninterrupted time, which can be the most effective for practice.
Dabrowski said she’s heard from many teachers that they want guidance on how to best use their time, which is often highly structured.
District-encouraged curricular scripts often include warm-up and wrap-up activities that “chisel away 10 to 12 minutes at each end” of class, she said.
“When are kids actually being allowed to practice [writing]? Writers need a solid block of time to get into their writing,” Dabrowski said. “I think the work of writing … it ebbs and flows. If [students are] only given short little snippets of time, we have some structures in place that are misaligned with the common core.”
Letuchy said it goes back to the need for more guidance: Many teachers need instructional and curriculum coaching on a consistent basis to teach writing in a way that is aligned with the standards.
And teachers need support: “Many of the best practices [in writing instruction] come crashing down around what’s possible,” UCLA’s Jago said.
Large class sizes are perhaps the biggest obstacle, she said, noting that teachers who have 40 students in each of their five classes can’t grade 200 papers every day.
“Students need to write much more than any teacher could possibly read,” she said. “There are some responsible ways of dealing with that—the irresponsible way is not assigning writing.”
Instead, Jago said, students could assess their own writing and give the teacher their best work to read, along with a written explanation of why they thought that piece of writing was worthy. Or students could share their work in small groups and have the group select the best piece of writing and explain why.
“Teachers need to figure out how to multiply themselves,” Jago said. “The only audience for a piece of writing shouldn’t be the teacher.”