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06.29.16Michael Laser Guest Post: Writing Instruction – Seeking Remedial Help

Michael Laser writes novels for adults and younger readers, and teaches at a state university in New Jersey.   He recently wrote to reflect on the low state of writing skills among his students… and to ask what to do about it.  He’s identified an issue that’s critical to me and my team: the weakness at the fundamental building-block of sentence formation.

 

A friend of my wife’s teaches psychology at a nearby college. She once commented, “My students can’t write. They’re all required to take a year of freshman writing—but I don’t know what goes on in those classes.”

Two years ago, I landed a job at the same college, teaching freshman writing. I’m a novelist, and have taught creative writing to adolescents and college students, but I had never taught expository writing before. Remembering that professor’s remark, I prepared diligently.

What I found in the first batch of homework upended my plans. In the three semesters I’ve taught so far, I’ve had only four students who could consistently write competent sentences. Most of the others had good ideas, but their written English ranged from mildly awkward to barely comprehensible. (My first semester’s classes were remedial, I should point out.) And though it hurts to admit this, very few of my students improved significantly—at the sentence level, at least—by the time they handed in their final essays.

You may assume I’m an incompetent novice. That would explain my students’ slow progress—but it doesn’t account for all the students who have completed other freshman writing classes and gone on to frustrate and dismay their professors. Or, you may consider me foolish for expecting my students to learn in one semester what they failed to learn in the previous 12 years. That’s a fair criticism; but I don’t think it’s right to throw up my hands and give up. A writing instructor should be able to teach college students to write better sentences than these:

Because now in today’s age if it were opposite and it was a group of males in a store shirtless and a male manager walked in he would 9 out of 10 times ignore it and say that they weren’t doing anything stupid or unnecessary, holding women to a different standard.

The similarities among the speakers and their author are illustrated differently through their speaker’s separate tones. 

The money in the household shared between the Nora and Torvald contrast the idea of a happy marriage. 

I could supply hundreds of similar examples.

I’m not writing this simply to call attention to the problem: I want to ask for help from experienced teachers. Before I explain, though, I’d like to give you more background.

The focus of the freshman writing program at my college is on essay skills (developing a thesis and supporting arguments, for example) rather than sentence-level skills. It’s my understanding that most colleges have a similar orientation. I agree that college students need to learn these skills, but we’re dodging our responsibility if we ignore the fact that many students arrive without basic writing skills, and hope they’ll improve simply by writing essays. No matter how well we teach them to craft an argument, these clumsy sentences will hurt their future grades, and their success at work.

Here’s where it gets complicated. Teaching students to write competent sentences is harder than it sounds. I asked other instructors for advice, and the most common suggestion was to teach mini-lessons, as needed. They warned me, though, not to expect dramatic progress. My experience confirmed what they said: very few of my students managed to apply what they learned in these mini-lessons to their own writing.

I’ve read books and articles on integrating grammar instruction into a writing curriculum, and have adapted the strategies that seemed most promising. I’ve also invented lessons of my own, including “Recognizing Awkward Sentences” and “Improving Awkward Sentences.” But even students who seemed to get the idea when we practiced usually forgot the lessons when they wrote their essays.

Experts in writing instruction say that errors and awkward passages often occur when students reach for new complexity of thought, or strive for sophistication. It’s an ongoing process: the further they reach, the more mistakes they make. We should encourage their brave attempts, not police their grammar, these experts say. It helps to understand this. But I know from my own experience that polished writing is exactly that: writing that has been polished. I expect awkwardness in a first draft, in student writing and in my own; but I know that I can clear up most of the problems by going back and revising. That’s the skill I’ve tried to teach my students. So far, I haven’t found a way that works.

Frustration has led me to rethink my search. Instead of trying one teaching strategy after another, I want to find teachers who have gotten better results and ask how they did it.

Research has identified effective general strategies for writing instruction. I’m after something more specific, though: lessons that will help students who write complex, misshapen sentences, or who can’t seem to master the basic rules of grammar.

What this problem really calls for is a nationwide search for teaching methods that have significantly improved the writing of struggling students. Until that happens, though, we may be able to collect some valuable ideas right here.

English teachers: have your students’ grammar and style improved noticeably between September and June? If so, please share some of your sentence-focused methods in the Comments section below. Or, if you know other teachers who have accomplished what I’m trying to do, please encourage them to respond.

The more specifics you can provide, the better. For example, teaching revision strategies is considered an effective way to improve student writing—but which revision strategies do you teach? And how do you deliver the lessons so that students actually use the strategies when they write?

Skeptics will say I’m searching for something that doesn’t exist—that, for students who have gone through twelve years of school without learning to write a solid sentence, no one-semester intervention will get the job done—or, that what’s really needed is a rethinking of how we teach writing in K-12 classrooms. Both objections ring true; but I remain optimistic that a few master teachers are already delivering the skills I want to teach my students. I hope they’ll share their methods here.

Note: When I first wrote to Doug to ask for help and advice, he suggested I look at a strategy he calls, “The Art of the Sentence,” which he describes in Teach Like a Champion 2.0. This activity asks students to summarize a reading (or express an idea the class has been discussing) in one well-crafted sentence… and then to revise and improve it. I plan to try this next semester, every time my classes meet. I know that my students have been overwhelmed by the prospect of revising an entire essay; I hope that practicing in a more limited, focused way will make a difference.

Another Note: Many writing specialists believe that an emphasis on correctness crushes confidence, stifles creativity, and produces less capable writers. For decades, they have sought to engage students by assigning topics that matter to the writers, encouraging students to flesh out early drafts with more detail, and overlooking most errors. They have worked to overturn students’ belief that I can’t write—a belief that results from finding their best efforts bloodied with red marks, repeatedly. These insights are important. Still, it seems to me that, in the reaction against oppressive teaching methods, basic skills have been lost. If students graduate and go on to write emails, letters, and reports that are as awkward and error-filled as the papers they’ve written in my class, they’ll be judged harshly. As Linda Christensen wrote in her article “The Politics of Correction”: “Failing to learn these skills handcuffs students. Their lack of fluency with the language of power will follow them like the stench of poverty long after students leave school…”

I don’t want to throw out the more progressive traditions in writing instruction. As a teacher, I prize my students’ insights, and want to encourage their thinking and exploration. The challenge is to build confidence and engagement at the same time that we teach students to write graceful, grammatically correct sentences. If you’ve accomplished that, please take the time to explain how.

One last thought. I wish I could convince Doug to compile a new book: Teach Writing Like a Champion. Perhaps your contributions will become the first draft.

To learn more about Michael Laser visit michaellaser.com.

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12 Responses to “Michael Laser Guest Post: Writing Instruction – Seeking Remedial Help”

  1. June 30, 2016 at 3:36 pm

    I never thought I’d be writing this, but I suggest you try sentence combining. It was all the rage when I went to grad school at Miami of Ohio (Sentence Combining: A Rhetorical Perspective by Don Daiker, et al). They claimed it improved writing, but I think it primarily improved syntactic fluency/maturity and sentence-level grammar.

    • Doug Lemov
      June 30, 2016 at 4:29 pm

      I agree with Karl’s suggestion. It’s a good one and I and might even take it a step farther. Judith Hochman has done some outstanding work on ‘sentence expansion’ as well. I blogged about it briefly here: http://teachlikeachampion.com/blog/hochmans-sentence-expansion-activity/ But the common theme is, I think, the fact that the sentence is overlooked. We don’t really teach the creation of precise and expressive sentences–and the revision towards greater clarity, expressiveness and precision–in any systematic way. Sentence combining is a very good exercise that gets at that. So is sentence expansion. So are the activities in the Art of the Sentence technique in TLaC 2.0 (also discussed in Reading Reconsidered). Another name for a sentence is a complete thought, and students need to hone and develop skills to write complex, nuanced sentences that capture complete and complex thoughts with fidelity.

  2. Doug Lemov
    July 1, 2016 at 2:00 pm

    By the way, here’s one more response that reader Margie Kirstein left on our facebook page.

    When I taught 12th grade English, I used to require students to write an entire essay using only simple sentences. When they did this correctly, they were allowed to use compound, then complex sentences. They learned sentence grammar and developed the ability to express complex thoughts simply, clearly, and sequentially.

  3. Cat Garland
    July 1, 2016 at 7:38 pm

    Hi!

    I used to teach Introductory Astronomy at the college level and the course was designated “writing intensive.” I experienced the same challenges as you, but here are three things that seemed to help:

    1. I know drafts are supposed to be rough drafts, but sometimes they are a lot rougher than they need to be because students did not leave themselves enough time. I would set intermediate deadlines to keep them from procrastinating too much. So I would have due dates for things like topic chosen, information gathered in bullet form, outline plan, information divided into different sections of outline, rough sentences. This is a lot of scaffolding and does need to be faded away eventually.

    2. I found that students could often recognize and fix their awkward sentences when I had them read them out loud. I only ever used this during office hours, but I feel like there could be ways to have students do this in class. I definitely encouraged them to do this on their own as they edited.

    3. Before getting to an assignment as complex as #1, students would write paragraphs on index cards that I would collect like exit tickets. They would have a prompt and were instructed to respond in “three to four beautifully crafted sentences.” I think this is similar to the idea behind TLAC’s Art of the Sentence? This was something that happened in other introductory courses as well and I think it helped.

    4. They also had early writing assignments where they had to write for a “lay audience” or for their Father etc. This may have had the same effect as Margie’s suggestion about starting off with simple sentences.

    5. I used scoring rubrics that both emphasized accuracy of information being conveyed as well as “clarity of expression.”

    Their enthusiasm and interest in the material (astronomy, often topics of their own choosing) definitely helped keep them going!

    Cat 🙂

    • Doug Lemov
      July 1, 2016 at 10:19 pm

      Great ideas, Cat. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Argie Campbell
    July 5, 2016 at 1:53 pm

    Hi Michael,

    This might sound stupid and obvious, but as a writing teacher–not an ELA teacher, but strictly a “writing” teacher according to my school–the same dilemma you’ve been facing has plagued me for the 4 years I’ve been teaching. I’ve tried everything, just like you have mentioned.

    The real success became noticeable when I very specifically, very strategically mapped out exactly what masterful writing should look like…and then tracked it. Again, this is a no brainer, but so often in the past I would be too overwhelmed by the volume of papers turned in by my 100+ 6th graders that I would get loosey-goosey with the tracking of specific data. Finally, I realized how much easier it is to just assess for something specific with each assignment.

    Here’s the kicker, though: students need to be in on the process and made aware of exactly what they are expected to do. This includes teaching and using a common vocabulary so they can understand the feedback on the rubric when their assignment is given to them. This also means giving several “at bats”–so maybe their first draft is turned in and assessed for using complex sentences that are written correctly; when they get their drafts back with the feedback rubric, they should be able to know what that feedback actually means and collaborate with one another to make the necessary revisions. This could last anywhere from a day’s lesson to a whole week of this writing-feedback-revision cycle. And, like you mentioned with Lemov’s AOS (Art of the Sentence) strategies, it involves chunking students’ writing process into smaller bits. This makes it manageable for you and for the students–but also incredibly effective. You see growth, and most importantly the students begin to see their own growth!

    Long live writing instruction. 🙂

    • Doug Lemov
      July 6, 2016 at 12:45 pm

      Thanks, Argie. Great ideas. There’s a lot from cognitive science to back up your observations. Just finished reading Anders Erissson’s Peak. He says that for feedback to accelerate performance in deliberate practice recipients have to be focused very intently on something very specific. They can’t just be trying to get better at writing. They have to focus on something clear and limited like: i am I am trying to get better at using dynamic verbs…

  5. Martha Lyon
    July 6, 2016 at 12:38 am

    Mike:

    How refreshing to know that someone is genuinely interested in students learning to write well. What I suspect may be the best answer to your question illustrates why it’s such a huge mistake for educators, reformers and others to jump on this 20th-century-methodology-is-too-old-and-antiquated-to-be-useful bandwagon.

    Notwithstanding the need for better principals being given the authority to hire their own staff and a host of other issues contributing to our inadequate public education system, the primary reason it all went to h*** in a handbaskst is because, instead of tweaking a system that had been working well so it would be even better, reformers replaced what was working with a host of “new” ideas as if “new” always means better, and, because most of those reform ideas were NOT consistent with what is known about childhood development and how children learn, they failed.

    Of the methodology and curriculum they should have kept, the most critical are: 1) recess because children’s capacity for learning is improved with physical activity; 2) NO HOMEWORK in K-6….those who received their K-6 education prior to 1966 received a superior education SANS HOMEWORK…like not a single assignment…than anyone has received since despite mounds of nightly homework in K-6; and 3) the solution to your dilemma…..sentence diagramming.

    Everyone has decided that all rote learning is bad, bad, bad, but people are dynamic beings, so we respond to variety. The freedom to explore and learn on their own can be just as bad for students as rote learning if that’s all they’re doing. Students need a balance. Some things are learned better and more thoroughly through a rote process while other matters are learned better another way. They claim the “old” way is bad because it was a one-size-fits-all, but, in the end, their insistence on going in the opposite direction creates a one-size-fits-all of a different type.

    In evaluating the possible sources of my knowledge of language, my reading comprehension ability and my skill with the written word, along with being exposed to articulate parents, listening to articulate, knowledgeable people on the Phil Donohue show when my kids were little, and reading the good writing of others, the only thing in my background to which I can attribute the development of these skills is the rote activity of sentence diagramming.

    It forces the mind to pay attention to where words and phrases go in a sentence, because, as you know, they can’t go wherever one feels like putting them. About 15 years ago, a local reporter wrote an article about the prosecution of some criminal except one of his sentences was written in such a manner that he had the judge going to jail instead of the convicted criminal merely because he wasn’t paying attention to where he placed his words.

    I’m one of the few people who would ever notice this, because I’m one of the few whose brain has been trained to recognize such things. Because people expect to read that the convicted person went to jail, they assume that that’s what they’ve just read when, in fact, it was not what they’d read.

    I’m sure you can see why this activity is so helpful for improving one’s reading comprehension ability. This matters because standardized tests are predominantly reading comprehension tests. Even many of the math problems are presented as word problems.

    Everyone seems baffled about the poor performance on these tests, when I think the reason is obvious. Junior and senior high students left elementary school without having developed these skills, and, quite honestly, if one doesn’t get it by 6th grade, it’s unlikely that person ever will. I wasn’t the perfect writer at age 20, but, because I had such a strong foundation and a mastery of language through sentence diagramming, I was able to improve my writing by investing minimal time and effort. In fact, it was the typing of the excellent writing of a boss I had in my early 20s that resulted in the greatest improvement in my own writing.

    There’s always the chance that I’m wrong, but I honestly don’t think so. Last year I met someone whose daughter was unable to write an essay for her college application. Effort after effort failed miserably until….UNTIL…her mother sat her down and taught her some sentence diagramming. After those lessons, she was finally able to write her own essay. It’s only one person’s experience, but it speaks volumes.

    As for how to teach it, there are examples all over the Internet, so one need only invest a little time in some searches to have all that’s needed to understand it and teach it to others. They may complain it’s boring and tedious. Well, so is learning to type, but, if one shows up and does the typing, it isn’t long before the effort pays off. Good luck. Look forward to hearing how it goes.

    • Doug Lemov
      July 6, 2016 at 12:49 pm

      This is a great observation:

      The freedom to explore and learn on their own can be just as bad for students as rote learning if that’s all they’re doing. Students need a balance. Some things are learned better and more thoroughly through a rote process while other matters are learned better another way. They claim the “old” way is bad because it was a one-size-fits-all, but, in the end, their insistence on going in the opposite direction creates a one-size-fits-all of a different type.

      what we think of as opposites are just as likely to rely upon each other or work in synergy.

      Thanks for your comment, Martha.

  6. July 6, 2016 at 9:37 pm

    Only a few instructors are using it, but there is a different way to teach expository writing at the freshman level. I call it the Readable Writing Method, though what it will be called when it’s widely used is unknown. This is an effective method of step-by-step instruction and deliberate practice of very specific skills. What’s different about it? Two things. First, it has the single and unique theme of “readability” running through the whole course and every activity. Second, it attacks that theme by teaching a unique set of writing behaviors, some of which are unconventional and look strange, even to experienced teachers.

    By “readability” is meant the quality of a piece of prose that makes it easy to understand by everyone. This concept was brought to a high level by Rudolf Flesch, the grandfather of American readability studies. He invented the Flesch reading-ease score many know from the small panel that pops up after you do a spell-and-grammar check in MS Word. Anyway, Flesch explained very clearly what makes prose readable in his famous The Art of Readable Writing. Readable writing uses short words, fairly short sentences, and a high proportion of human interest words; Flesch did the research with panels of readers that proved it. Dr. Flesch, a real intellect, with a German doctorate and a position at Columbia University, assumed that his insights on readability would become the foundation of new kinds of college writing courses. In the 25th anniversary edition of his famous book, he bemoaned the fact that such courses had not appeared.

    While Flesch wanted his insights to be the basis of a course, he never invented that course. He knew what readable writing was when he saw it, and he knew why it worked, but exactly how to train students to do it he left to others. No one picked up the baton. After a number of decades, the job seems to have fallen to me.

    What I do in the Readable Writing Method is directly teach writing in the style that Rudolf Flesch would consider to be readable.

    The one-semester course is set up like this. In the first eight weeks, students learn five sentence-level behaviors that really impact readability: writing with concrete nouns, people and active verbs; controlling sentence length; and using short words wherever possible. The governing theme is “How can you make what you wrote more interesting and readable?” The students are taught one skill at a time, and then taught to combine them. At every moment in the course they know what skill they are practicing. In the second six weeks, the topic is putting those strong sentences together into organized short essays.

    I do not subscribe to the idea that all styles are equal, and every student has his or her own style. At the freshman level, students need to master the classic plain style that is direct, dramatic and clear. Maybe far in the future they can write like Faulkner, but as freshmen they need to be given something they can do, and it’s the classic plain style.

    For more, see readablewriting.com. I recommend the two web articles listed as essays. The method is described in a small book called John Maguire’s College Writing Guide.

  7. July 8, 2016 at 3:44 pm

    Doug Lemov,

    My recent post in response to Michael Laser’s material has not appeared. I assume that means you have not approved it. I’m writing to ask whether I accidentally violated some rule of your blog. Perhaps it’s not permissible to mention a book not published by John Wiley? It would be kind of you would clarify here. If it’s the mention of my own book, I can and will redo the blog replay with that excluded. I am really interested in getting the word out to teachers that you can build a course based on readability, as Rudolf Flesch defined it. Many folks these days have forgotten about Rudolf Flesch, or not even heard of him. but he was a brilliant student of language, reading and cognition. And his books, as you might guess, are highly interesting and readable, even now.

    By the way, it was Michael Laser, your guest columnist, who invited me by email to post here–that’s why I took the time to do so.

    Sincerely,

    John Maguire

  8. Mike G
    July 14, 2016 at 5:57 pm

    Hi there Mike L,

    The year before I launched a charter in Boston, I taught a term of freshman comp at Long Island University in Brooklyn. I wanted a sense of where things were at the college level, in order to map back to what high school should be.

    I encountered everything you describe.

    So I would zoom out farther than your narrow question on sentences.

    My advice: don’t create a course. Don’t. The amount of time/energy it will take you to build this course using the (excellent) advice listed here….1,000+ hours.

    Instead,

    1. Simply have Doug introduce you to those who teach 9th grade at Uncommon in NYC, at Achievement First — and take the best teacher’s writing curriculum WHOLE. Those kids are starting at the same point as your college students. You should be able to find an outlier – someone who is in the top 1% of all teachers facing kids with extremely low writing levels.

    Time investment: 20 hours in September, seeing different teachers in action, find the best one. Interview him/her.

    2. Then: take a “Curric in a Box” from that teacher. May involve some beer, etc. That course is probably the result of 2-3 hours of planning per day, x 180 days, x 3+ years. Tons of trial and error. That course is gold, Jerry, it’s gold.

    3. Then: sculpt the “Curric in a box” to make it your own. Target specific units that seem particularly high yield.

    The teacher from whom you borrow the course likely has 180 hours a year of contact time; I’m guessing you have 45 hours per semester. But their 180 hours likely is “English” and yours is “Writing” – so you may be able to make these match up reasonably well.

    Good luck Mike L!

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