How Children Learn To Write

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Are children being taught how to write in school? Not really, notes Catherine Gewertz in Education Week:

“Students still spend little time writing in school. Teacher surveys by Steve Graham, the author of Writing to Read, and colleagues show that students spend less than half an hour writing each day in elementary school, and much of what they write is lists and fill-in-the-blank answers to questions. Even at the high school level, seven in 10 teachers reported that their preservice training had not prepared them adequately to teach writing, and nearly half did not assign a single multiparagraph writing task per month.

‘What we have, typically, is kids not writing more than a paragraph of text, all the way through high school,’ said Mr. Graham, a professor at Arizona State University in Tempe. ‘It’s not very promising for writing or for writing instruction.’

Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reflect correspondingly lackluster writing skills. The report issued in September, for the 2011 exam, shows only one in four middle and high school students writing at the ‘proficient’ level or better.

The national picture of student writing led the authors of the common standards to elevate its role in literacy instruction and to tie it closely to reading, not only in language arts classes but across the curriculum. Assessments for the standards, being designed by two groups of states, are expected to reflect those connections as well, with tasks that combine research and writing.

The idea, said Susan Pimentel, one of the lead authors of the standards, is to reduce writing ‘opinion untethered to evidence’ and ‘decontextualized’ writing—writing not based on the reading of a text—in favor of writing that requires students to read, comprehend, and respond to text, grounding their interpretations in evidence found there. That shift reflects what young people can expect in college and work, she said.

‘In faculty and employer surveys, the kinds of skills that score high are the argument and evidence-related skills, developing ideas with relevant details and reasons,’ Ms. Pimentel said. ‘Telling stories scores very low. Expressing one’s feelings, very low.’

Increasingly, educators are seeing the need to make explicit connections between writing and reading and to teach genre-specific types of writing, said Barbara Cambridge, the policy director for the National Council of Teachers of English.

‘Writing hasn’t always been taught, especially outside of English/language arts classrooms,’ she said. ‘We know writing helps reading. But avid readers aren’t necessarily good writers. This stuff has to be taught.’” (Read more here.)

Two obvious but often overlooked points here: Kids have to be taught how to write, and they’ve got to do a lot of writing to get better at it (and not just writing about their own lives).

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