Revolutionary writing instruction that is ‘an old idea done better’

by Grace

Here’s another case of everything old is new again.  A New York City school finds that returning to fundamentals like explicit grammar instruction and formulaic writing has succeeded in turning around the dismal performance of high poverty students.  No iPads were required.

The problems at New Dorp High School were similar to many that afflict other lower-income public schools.

… students from poor and working-class families. In 2006, 82 percent of freshmen entered the school reading below grade level. Students routinely scored poorly on the English and history Regents exams….

Students’ inability to translate thoughts into coherent, well-argued sentences, paragraphs, and essays was severely impeding intellectual growth in many subjects….

… the students’ sentences were short and disjointed.

… These 14- and 15-year-olds didn’t know how to use some basic parts of speech. With such grammatical gaps, it was a wonder they learned as much as they did. “Yes, they could read simple sentences,” but works like the Gettysburg Address were beyond them—not because they were too lazy to look up words they didn’t know, but because “they were missing a crucial understanding of how language works.

This writing skills problem is widespread.

According to the Nation’s Report Card, in 2007, the latest year for which this data is available, only 1 percent of all 12th-graders nationwide could write a sophisticated, well-­organized essay. Other research has shown that 70 to 75 percent of students in grades four through 12 write poorly. … for decades, achievement rates in writing have remained low.

There appears to be a massive failure in learning writing skills.  What type of writing instruction is used in most public schools?

… elementary-­school students … today mostly learn writing by constructing personal narratives, memoirs, and small works of fiction …

… pedagogical pendulum that has swung too far, favoring self-­expression and emotion over lucid communication….

For most of the 1990s, elementary- and middle-­school children kept journals in which they wrote personal narratives, poetry, and memoirs and engaged in “peer editing,” without much attention to formal composition….

The explicit instruction of previous times has morphed into discovery learning, where students are encouraged to figure it out themselves, to “construct” their own learning.  Being creative has become more important than following formal rules.

… Fifty years ago, elementary-school teachers taught the general rules of spelling and the structure of sentences. Later instruction focused on building solid paragraphs into full-blown essays….  About 25 years ago, in an effort to enliven instruction and get more kids writing, schools of education began promoting a different approach. The popular thinking was that writing should be “caught, not taught,” explains Steven Graham, a professor of education instruction at Arizona State University. Roughly, it was supposed to work like this: Give students interesting creative-writing assignments; put that writing in a fun, social context in which kids share their work. Kids, the theory goes, will “catch” what they need in order to be successful writers. Formal lessons in grammar, sentence structure, and essay-writing took a back seat to creative expression.

Low-income students have particularly suffered from the current approach.

The catch method works for some kids, to a point… Kids who come from poverty, who had weak early instruction, or who have learning difficulties, he explains, “can’t catch anywhere near what they need” to write an essay….

New Dorp High School tried something different.

Education schools don’t spend much time on how to teach writing, so it’s not surprising that New Dorp teachers were unaware of their own teaching failures.  They blamed the students’ poor performance on poverty, low intelligence, or laziness.  The school tried ‘innovative’ methods, like small learning communities and special after-school programs.  Nothing worked, until they carefully explored the missing skills and took specific steps to address the gaps.  Deirdre DeAngelis, the school principal, learned of the acclaimed writing program used by principal Judith Hochman of the Windward School, a private school for learning disabled children.

The way Catholic schools used to teach, using explicit instruction and a writing “formula”

The Hochman Program, as it is sometimes called, would not be un­familiar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950. Children do not have to “catch” a single thing. They are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones… It is, at least initially, a rigid, unswerving formula. “I prefer recipe,” Hochman says, “but formula? Yes! Okay!”

… “The thing is, kids need a formula, at least at first, because what we are asking them to do is very difficult. So God, let’s stop acting like they should just know how to do it. Give them a formula! Later, when they understand the rules of good writing, they can figure out how to break them.”

… Teachers stopped giving fluffy assignments such as “Write a postcard to a friend describing life in the trenches of World War I” and instead demanded that students fashion an expository essay describing three major causes of the conflict.

The successful results of the back-to-basics (revolutionary) writing program at New Dorp

… This spring, the graduation rate is expected to hit 80 percent, a staggering improvement over the 63 percent figure that prevailed before the Writing Revolution began.

… newfound ability to write solid, logically ordered paragraphs about what she’s learned, citing examples and using transitions between ideas.

Reading comprehension also improved.

As her understanding of the parts of speech grew, Monica’s reading comprehension improved dramatically. “Before, I could read, sure. But it was like a sea of words,” she says. “The more writing instruction I got, the more I understood which words were important.”

More schools should try this ‘”old” way of instruction.
The Hochman Program being used at New Dorp High School is writing instruction that offers direct and precise guidance incorporated into a systemic process, along with explicit grammar instruction and a strong focus on sentence  composition.  This is very similar to the Kerrigan method of Writing to the Point, a personal favorite of mine.  I strongly believe this type of instruction would benefit most types of students, offering better preparation for college or career than the fluffy free-for-all type of writing instruction now popular in many public schools.  Perhaps this New Dorp success story will help fuel a change with more schools following in their footsteps.

(Cross-posted at Kitchen Table Math)

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4 Comments to “Revolutionary writing instruction that is ‘an old idea done better’”

  1. That NCLB style of testing may change slightly with the new Common Core standards. I don’t object to some “packet writing” for test prep, but I agree it is overdone. Overdoing it seems to be a way our public schools treat many otherwise reasonable practices.

    Speaking of local schools, my child’s high school English teachers told parents that they were going to stress writing according to a formula and grammar this year, in specific ways that sounds appealing to me. I don’t think there’s a danger they’ll go overboard on this, but I’ll keep a look out. So far the initial assignments don’t see to be lacking in promoting “creative” expression, including one homework that required an illustration to accompany the paragraph!

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  2. I recently unearthed some of my old writing assignments from about 8th grade, and I was impressed with how well l wrote at that time! I think I got a good grounding in writing (Catholic school K-8) but I don’t remember high school very much. In looking at those old writings, I had a sinking feeling that my writing skills had actually declined over time. Seriously!

    I’m with you about the personal narrative – students are being asked to share too much personal information. Not only do some kids have difficult backgrounds, but many others are simply shy and not interested in the Dr. Phil style of spilling your guts to the world. Katherine Beals has written about this on her blog, and how this instructional practice might be particularly harmful to gifted STEM-oriented students, including those on the Asperger part of the autism spectrum. The classic example is assigning “what I like about math” essays in math classes, often a huge turn-off to gifted math students.

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  3. Joanne Jacobs has a post on the problems of the personal narrative, with some very good comments.

    How self-expression hurt my students — http://www.joannejacobs.com/2012/09/how-self-expression-hurt-my-students/#comments

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  4. I’d like to see creative writing de-emphasized, too. But I’m fine with including creative writing as part of the core curriculum. I don’t feel strongly about the personal narrative, but I wouldn’t object to getting rid of it. But then how would the kids get practice for their college essays? ;)

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