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The Work of Writing

School is about to start for most students in the United States. It’s that time of year when learners and teachers alike prepare for the work ahead, excited about opportunities for intellectual growth. That learning and growth alway include writing. For some, no problem. For others, dread sets in at the very mention of written assignments.

Most people don’t think about the work involved in writing. Instructors often don’t consider the full challenge for some students to produce words on a page. Parents know very well how a child’s writing assignment can become a family project. Why is writing such hard work for some people?

If we stop to think about all of the different skills needed to produce a single sentence, we might be able to identify several potential pitfalls in reaching the goal of a complete sentence. Expanding to an essay brings more complexity. Multiple sentences need to be in an order that makes sense. Paragraphs should be formed in ways that help the writer support ideas. The overall piece needs to make sense for the reader, who has no idea what was really inside the writer’s head before the writing started! Putting all of these components together, it’s easy to see how a writing task asks a great deal of the writer. Let’s break down the skills to better understand some of the roadblocks.

To begin, there are physical demands. Can the student write with a pen or pencil and paper if that is required? Can the student type if that is the expected medium? Our youngest students can use a keyboard, but that doesn’t mean they can type in a fluid manner that allows them to easily record their thoughts. The demands of actually producing the final piece can create disruption and fatigue before the work of transcribing ideas is complete.

If the physical demands of writing are easily managed, what about the subject matter that is being addressed? Does the student have a full grasp on the content? What if there is confusion or misunderstanding of the purpose of writing a paper? Did the assignment include clear explanation of why the student is writing? Did all students understand the assignment in the same way? Do the students have enough knowledge to expand their writing to meet the requirements of the assignment?

Maybe the content is understood and the student has no challenge in knowing what is expected. There might be other challenges. Writer’s block. What is the most important thing to write down? Every first sentence can seem “wrong,” leading the writer to scratch it out many times. Getting the first sentence “just right” can be the biggest challenge for some writers. Without that opening about which they feel confident, some students have great difficulty moving ahead in the essay.

For some learners, writing is not just work. It’s hard work. Getting the right words in the right order in a sentence that conveys the right thoughts can feel impossible. Consider the student who is not a native English speaker and is struggling with grammar or word choice. What about the child who has challenges with spelling? Does that young writer seek alternate wording to avoid spelling errors? Probably. Then add the ultimate show stopper for some readers – poor grammar! When a student fears the “grammar police,” writing can be stifled.

Writing really is work for many people. Maybe we all need to appreciate how many different faculties are at play when young people are asked to write. They don’t all enjoy that work, but they do need to know how much we appreciate their ideas. Let’s remember to continue  encouraging efforts students take to put words on paper. Let’s read their ideas with enthusiasm and a spirit of getting know more about these eager learners.

Here’s to a great school year!


Rigor of Common Core Writing

Sample assessment items related to Common Core writing that are now available put students in a difficult position. If you are an expert writer, you understand the difficulty presented by a task that requires cross-textual analysis. You understand the potential pitfalls of guessing exactly what is to be examined in the multiple texts and how that examination will be accepted by the reader.

Samples of Common Core performance tasks for students in Grade 4 require students to read a poem and an excerpt from a story. The task is to compare the actions of the subjects in the two pieces using evidence from the texts. Even a student in Grade 10 would wonder exactly what it means to only compare two subjects. Some teachers would argue that comparison is only looking at those features that are alike and not to point out features that are different. Others would argue that comparing inherently requires contrasting. So where does that leave the Grade 4 writer? Who has defined “comparison” clearly and how will the work be assessed if the reader has a different interpretation of the task than the writer does?

What will become of the current rubric against which this writing is expected to be assessed after piloting the items with real students in real classrooms? Looking at the expectations which are actually written by adults, there is room for a fair amount of criticism. Teachers need to find the continuum of skills and determine how to move students forward in their writing development. Using an adult “guesstimate” of Grade 4 writing can be dangerous. Using student writing collected across a large sample size is the only way to know if we are working with reasonable, yet rigorous, demands for student work.

What is writing?

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Everyone is a writer. So why even ask this question if we all know what it means to write.

As a means of making our thinking public, writing can expose the beliefs and ideology of the author. The words committed to the page can have much greater impact than the writer may have intended. The care and concern needed to produce writing that accurately expresses ideas takes time and reflection.

Understanding how one’s own words will be interpreted by another person requires a good deal of thought and an ability to think as someone else. That skill is difficult to develop. Asking good questions about words, word combinations, and descriptors in text can be a good starting point in growing a sense of a third-party reader. Writing, then, is a much more profound activity than most of us realize.

Welcome to everything writing!

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This site is intended to connect people who are interested in learning more about how and why we write.

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