This is the first of several posts I hope to write about writing—why it is important and how despite our best intentions, I think we can teach and practice it better.
Some context: I’ve visited a series of better-than-average and mostly-very-good schools recently—perhaps ten in at least three states—and afterwards I find myself thinking most of all about writing.
The good news is that in “better-than-average” schools—high and high-ish performing schools serving kids of low socio-economic status—there’s a lot of writing going on. That’s good and critical.
But it’s often poor quality writing, and often I suspect it’s not getting much better. It tends to be one-dimensional. And I’ve started to realize that these things are connected.
Typically I will enter a classroom and watch students writing industriously, answering prompts about the texts they are reading. As I observe I will note that they are producing diligent but often non-sensical writing—a hodge-podge of phrases and words strung together in largely inchoate ways. Kids are earnestly trying to respond to a complex prompt but they have very little Syntactic Control, which Bruce Saddler defines as “the ability to create a variety of sentences that clearly express an intended meaning” and which we sometimes adapt in our workshops as “the ability to use a variety of syntactic structures to create a variety of sentences that clearly express an intended meaning.”
I see, as Judith Hochman puts it The Writing Revolution, a lot of writing assigned but not a lot of learning to write.
To help explain why I think this happens, I want to distinguish three different kinds of writing: Summative Writing, Formative Writing and Developmental Writing.
Summative Writing is writing that uses an explicit structure to explain and justify a final fully-formulated idea—or, as a wise colleague put it a tiny bit more cynically: It’s writing in which students are proving they have learned a skill by employing a process we have taught them.
It involves questions like:
- How does the author characterize the dust storm in chapter three? Use evidence from the text to support your opinion.
- “What was the author’s purpose in writing this passage? Explain how her specific diction demonstrates this.”
To complete these tasks a student must have a clear argument and then employ a structure involving different types of sentences to build a cogent and formal argument.
It is a valid and worthwhile activity. But there are potential problems:
What if I don’t yet have a strong, clear opinion about the text? What if I am still deciding what I think? [This does not just apply to students. I insert a small plea here for the importance of not knowing your opinion about something right away. I very often read something and think—“It’s too early to decide what I think about it. I don’t have enough context.” But I’m struck by how often writing or discussion activities rush students to judge].
What if I can’t yet build sentences of different types with clarity and complexity?
When those things happen Summative Writing breaks down. You get low value or disorganized sentences in pursuit of ill-formed ideas. I’ll come back to this idea in a moment.
Formative Writing is writing in which students try to develop their ideas instead of justifying and explaining a fully formed idea. It is an interim step they learn to use writing to decide what they think.
It involves questions like:
- Did Esperanza make the right decision in giving away her doll?
- Why do you think she gave away her doll?
- Or even: How would the sentence have sounded different if the author had described Ralph as “dirty and with unbrushed hair” rather than “with filthy body and matted hair” as he does?
Formative Writing is still about the text. It’s not, “Describe a time you gave something away,” but it is focused on developing thoughts more than justifying them. To answer, students do not need to yet have a cogent and complete argument. They are supposed to use the writing as a tool to help them get there.
Reflecting in writing helps students to decide upon what they can later seek to support and justify in Summative Writing. It can engage students more emotionally and help them see how writing helps them clarify their thinking. And it can be lower-risk—a space where you can begin to explore without having to know your thesis yet.
[An aside: This post is an example of Formative Writing; I am using it to clarify this vague notion I started with that there are three different ways to write. I did not have a thesis when I began.]
But you still must seek to refine ideas in syntax. And this in turn helps build the skill of precision in expression that Summative Writing requires.
Let me be clear: Neither Formative nor Summative Writing is ‘better.’ Students need to do both. In fact they are synergistic in a hundred ways. For example Formative Writing helps me engage in and care about the text so that I understand why I would want to sustain an argument about it in Summative Writing which helps me to understand what I should seek in my Formative Writing.
But I don’t always see a balance of the two in the classrooms I visit. In the schools I’ve been visiting lately I’ve seen Summative after Summative after Summative prompt. And the result is that students are often asked to defend an idea they don’t fully hold yet and this exacerbates the general sense that their writing lacks precision. They are throwing words at the page because their syntactic control is weak but also because they don’t know what they believe yet.
But even if I strike the perfect balance between Summative and Formative Writing, I still face the challenge of poor syntactic control.
Even students who know what they want to say struggle to say it in writing and this gets back to Judith Hochman’s observation. Taken as a whole our writing prompts usually assign writing without teaching it. Especially at the sentence level—how do I capture a complex idea with a nuanced and complex sentence? So students need most of all more of the third kind of writing: Developmental Writing.
Developmental Writing is writing designed to teach students how to write—to expand their syntactic control.
It includes sentence expansion activities like “But, Because, So” and other similar exercises that Hochman describes in her book such as expanding sentences via appositives or sentence combining exercises. It includes writing and revising single sentences via Art of the Sentence and Show Call, sometimes using prompts that cause students to learn to start sentences with introductory prepositional phrases, say or adverbial phrases. And then using single sentences as fodder for study, re-crafting and revision via Show Call. It means a sequence of exercises—deliberate practice—designed to help students master the tools of syntactic control.
But I almost never see that in classrooms. And the other types of writing won’t work unless A) they are in balance and B) there is plenty of Developmental Writing. [A key caveat here. As Hochman points out Developmental Writing must be embedded in the content you are teaching so students have plenty to say and are driven to express something with their sentences. Ask: “Is Jonas right to take Gabriel. Begin with an introductory preposition such as, “In the end…” rather than “Write about something you did this summer. Begin with an introductory preposition such as, “In July…”]
Anyway, I’m going to write about this again later this week but for now my recommendation is to read:
- The first 68 pages or so of Hochman’s The Writing Revolution.
- Art of the Sentence and Show Call from TLAC 2.0
- Writing is Revising and Art of the Sentence from Reading Reconsidered.
- Possibly Fearn and Farnan’s Writing Effectively
And then set out to ensure that students write a ton—both Formatively and Summatively and both after and as you invest deeply in Developmental Writing; it is this third kind of writing that is the foundation of the others and that is by far the least often assigned.