Coming to Know Students Well to Better Support Their Writing

Writing is about so much more than mechanics or strategies. As the teachers in the case, "Conferring with Students: Examining Our Practices," discover through careful observation, reflection, and analysis of student work and of their students at work, writing is fundamentally about communicating ideas. It is also a useful tool for clarifying thinking and, yes, strengthening student writing has been shown to improve reading (Langer & Applebee, 1987), which originally was one of the reasons these teachers focused their professional development on writing.

It was heartening to see the group move away from a more mechanistic and technical view of writing to one of understanding it as a way for students to express themselves, and coming to recognize their need to talk about their ideas as a prewriting activity.

Also impressive was the teachers’ persistence in seeking to understand the root cause of student difficulties in or disengagement from writing, and their openness to examining their instruction as they turned to data (e.g., videotapes) to confirm or refute what they thought their reflections had revealed about student learning.

I would also like to note several organizational factors that likely contributed to and supported the teachers’ productivity:  1)  district support in the form of a capacity-building professional development format that provided regular and extended meeting time for inquiry (e.g., Guskey, 2000); 2) the collaborative nature of the new format, which the teachers in the case took to heart, even meeting beyond the set aside time (e.g., Fullan, 2007); and 3) the stance of the literacy coach and university “expert” as peers working alongside the teachers to co-construct their analyses and responses (e.g., Hord & Sommers, 2008).

Certainly there’s value in constructing one’s own knowledge and devising approaches to meet the needs these teachers were identifying. I couldn’t help but wish that, in addition, they had had the advantage of spending some of their professional development time on reading and discussing literature on some of the key areas with which they were struggling, for example, information about the link between discussion and reading and writing achievement (e.g., Adler, 2005), or the value of peer interactions and feedback in fostering literacy and thinking (e.g., Vygostky, 1986) . Such discussions could have strengthened their conceptual understanding of literacy development and supported the improvements they were making pedagogically (Grossman, Smagorinsky, & Valencia, 1999).

As they go forward and continue their efforts to improve writing instruction, I assume they will continue to open up opportunities for students to explore and write in genres other than personal narrative. I encourage them to extend the involvement of peers to peer editing. By modeling and providing scaffolds, they can teach students to read or listen critically to one another’s writing, asking questions that lead to improvements both in expression and proper use of conventions (Day, 2002; Collins, 2007). As they have been doing, examining student work and observing students while working will show them which conventions and strategies need more direct instruction and practice.

Another area they can tap to strengthen writing—as well as thinking and learning—is the rest of the curriculum. In addition to focusing on writing itself as a subject of study, integrating writing into the curriculum provides multiple opportunities for students to write.

Such writing can be “quickwrites” that get students in the practice of capturing their ideas on paper. “What are you wondering about after viewing the video about why some trees lose their leaves in winter?”  “What do you think was the most important thing that happened to [name a character in a story]?”  Some writing prompts can be answered by students having a “silent conversation” in which a pair of students exchange papers, each writing a sentence or two, and the other responding.

Ideas generated in this way can be further developed depending on the area of study—an annotated map or imaginary diary in social studies, word problems in mathematics, step by step observations from a science experiment, an imaginative piece about how a particular piece of music or art makes them feel. The possibilities are endless, and the same kind of peer discussions the teachers found helpful with the narrative assignments can also help here, as all students bring their resources to the discussion, enriching the learning of all. Such practices actively engage students in learning the curriculum while developing strong literacy skills that further support learning.

As another commenter has suggested, moving away from teaching predominantly narrative writing is not only a requirement of the Common Core State Standards, it also provides opportunities for engaging students in real world kinds of writing and representation. In addition, by carefully scaffolding lessons, these teachers have the potential to support their students to use writing to clarify their thinking, using all aspects of literacy—speaking, listening, writing, and reading—to develop strong and engaged thinkers with a full complement of literacy skills.

Adler, M. Rougle, E. (2005). Building literacy through classroom discussion: Research-based strategies for developing critical readers and thoughtful writers in middle school. New York: Scholastic.
Collins, J. J. (2007). Improving student performance through writing and thinking across the curriculum. West Newbury (MA): Collins Education Associates.
Day, J. P. (2002). "We learn from each other:" Collaboration and community in a bilingual classroom. In R. Allington & P. Johnston (Eds.), Reading to learn: Lessons from exemplary fourth-grade classrooms. New York: Guilford Press.
Fullan, M. (2007). The new meaning of educational change (4th ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.
Grossman, P. L., Smagorinsky, P., & Valencia, S. (1999). Appropriating tools for teaching English: A theoretical framework for research on learning to teach. American Journal of Education, 108(1), 1-29.
Guskey, T. R. (2000). Evaluating professional development. Thousand Oaks (CA): Corwin.
Hord, S. M., & Sommers, W. A. (2008). Leading professional learning communities: Voices from research and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Langer, J. A., & Applebee, A. N. (1987). How writing shapes thinking: A study of teaching and learning. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Vygostky, L. S. (1986). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Janet I. Angelis is associate director of the Albany Institute for Research in Education in the University at Albany’s School of Education, State University of New York.  With Kristen C. Wilcox, she is coauthor of Best Practices from High-Performing High Schools: How Successful Schools Help Students Stay in School and Thrive.