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Common Core Expository Writing – Part 2 of 2

A deeper dive on writing standard 2 for secondary students:

W.6.2 asks students “to write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.”

What are the most important elements of this standard? To begin, there has to be a subject matter that students have had sufficient opportunity to investigate and consider if they are to produce text that examines the topic. One of the greatest pitfalls in classroom writing assignments is their design around the topic selected for the writing task. For example, students may be asked to develop a full essay that explores the relationship between two characters in a novel. Performance of standard W.6.2 using that topic and the given novel might not be possible. Most writing teachers would argue that students can examine the relationship of two characters in a novel by looking carefully at the text. Further, students’ writing can express ideas and information by using sections of the text that support a thesis about the relationship of the two characters. Finally, the way that students choose to organize the essay and select textual evidence can meet the needs of proving a thesis. By using strong analysis of evidence from the novel, the resulting essay might be sufficient for this standard.

Look at the same standard for Grades 9-10:

W.9-10.2 asks students to “write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.”

The standard is basically the same. The level of performance is not the same. The expectation is defined by the use of the modifiers complex, clearly and accurately, and effective. As a writing teacher myself, a few years ago I probably would have put a checkmark next to that standard and felt completely satisfied that my students were demonstrating their ability to produce written text that met this standard. After all, they had read The Catcher in the Rye and examined the sibling relationships between Holden and his older brother and between Holden and his little sister. The relationships were discussed in class, explored from the perspective of personal life connections, and even investigated for the importance that each relationship had on the development of Holden’s own personality. But now I feel very differently about the writing my students did after reading that novel. Is the text under study, whether an independent selection or a class requirement, really enough for students to demonstrate mastery of the standard? Today I would argue maybe not.

The language that requires students to “write to examine a topic” in itself tells us that simply using the novel being studied might not be enough. The topic of relationships cannot be fully explored in one novel. Students who are learning about life cannot possibly include any level of depth about relationships without more information. Granted, using our old paradigm about reading, it would be perfectly fine to ask students to respond to the relationship between two characters by using their own life experiences, previous readings, and stories they know from the world around them. In other words, asking students to make connections to their reading could be considered sufficient.

But to really comment, to fully investigate a relationship, shouldn’t we ask students to read about relationships? Wouldn’t it be helpful to ask them to read expository texts on such things as birth-order personality types or sibling rivalry if the novel they are reading relates to those types of relationships? How can a baby of life dig deeper into the realities of relationships without being more informed?

So is the Common Core asking students to respond to a novel around a topic that is assigned by selecting relevant portions of the text as evidence for a thesis and then organizing an essay in a way that is logical? I would argue that the Common Core is asking students to “convey ideas, concepts, and information” about a topic that they have worked to deeply understand. That deep understanding is indicated by the specific words that students should “examine a topic.” Examination of a topic does not mean responding to a topic by making connections to one’s own experiences. Examination of a topic does mean looking at it from multiple aspects, perhaps even using scientific and historic lenses.

When students begin to explore topics from all angles, they also begin to see an author’s story in new ways. The language a writer uses, the physical form of the writing, or the pace developed through word choice and sentence structure can take on a specific purpose when the reader has discovered new, relevant information to apply to the text. Writing standard 2 requires students “to write to explore.” Doesn’t that mean to probe a topic from multiple perspectives? By focusing on one topic using multiple sources of information, including the literary text itself, our students will begin to learn what it means to examine a topic deeply for full comprehension. In order to meet the writing standard, they will then need to describe their examination and all of its results in their own written exposition.

Good luck to all – teachers and students – who are delving into new ways of thinking about writing under the Common Core.

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Common Core Writing

We are hearing more and more about writing and Common Core State Standards. So why all the hype?

Writing has always been an interesting topic for educators and students alike. Teachers want students to be strong communicators, using all kinds of media. At times, the emphasis has been on getting young people to write without fear of perfection. Power writing was a term used about a decade ago to get people thinking about frequent, short period of writing that would boost student fluency. As technology has forged new pathways of communication, writing has taken yet another dimension, 140 characters at a time.

Clarification is needed about writing for academic purposes. Our national trend in student achievement has been very disappointing in recent years. Some of this decline could be attributed to a decline in writing skills. If we are thoughtful about what is required for students to write well, we can understand the importance of writing in the learning process. Writing to learn is a skill that has been overlooked in favor of writing to be assessed on what has been learned. There is a major difference.

If we want to know what students know, if we really want to understand how deeply students understand, we should be building extensive writing into our curriculum, everywhere. It is not enough for students to write papers, compositions, essays, or whatever else you wish to name these products, in English Language Arts classes. It is time to return to writing for all content learning.

The Common Core asks us to rethink the writing we ask students to do. Learning through writing just might lead us back to the level of academic achievement that leads industrialized nations.

Comparison-Contrast Writing

Some argue that comparing and contrasting in the same essay makes no sense. Others would say that to compare two items completely, it isnecessary to include how the two items are alike and how they are different. The problem comes when novice writers have a need to write a thesis statement that reflects critical thinking. Flip the thinking again: to compare two subjects means that the writer will address how specific traits are similar or how the traits are different, so why label the form of writing as “compare or contrast” when “compare” covers it all! I’ve had these conversations and you probably have had them too.

How often have your read things like “the two characters are both alike and different” as the ending sentence of an introductory paragraph? And how many times have you noted something in the margin of that essay suggesting that the writer consider some key personality trait of the two subject characters that can be the main focus of the essay. Enough said.

So, how do we teach young writers to focus their composition on careful, critical review of two subjects? The subject types really don’t matter. What does matter is that the reader is led through a logical organization of ideas. Many texts that serve as writing handbooks offer suggestions for developing comparison-contrast texts. These include organizing details in one of a few ways:

1. point-by-point

2. subject-by-subject

3. similarities-differences

Here, vocabulary becomes important. Point to a trait or a detail about one of the items being described, while subject refers to the item itself. If a writer is comparing two models of cars, the cars are subjects. Each characteristic or feature of the cars that are being compared and contrasted are considered points.

Personally, I find the similarities-differendes method to be somewhat problematic. If two subjects are basically alike, or basically different, young writers find difficulty in creating different body paragraphs that are equally substantiated. For purposes of providing good structure in writing, I suggest using point-by-point, or subject-by-subject organizational styles. These two methods are fairly concrete and can be easily adapated to most writing tasks.

Point-by-Point

This method of organizing information allows students to think critically about the key ideas they hope to address in an essay. Within each body paragraph, the writer can focus on one feature, or point, to critically review. One subject’s point is described and then the next subject’s point is described, and more than two subjects can be easily reviewed using this pattern. Moving from point to point provides natural paragraph breaks. The conclustion paragraph can summarize in a way that is not at all repetitive, but that highlights the key points of comparison, or those points that are most important for the given subjects.

Using the subject-by-subject pattern is also quite simple. Each body paragraph can focus on one subject. What is important in this pattern is that the writer treat the points in the same order in each body paragraph. In other words, in comparing two cars, the writer should remember to to describe the features for car 2 in the same order as they were described in the paragraph about car 1. So, the paragraph about car 1 might describe gas mileage, maintenance costs, and cargo capacity. When writing about car 2, the points need to be addressed in the same order: gas mileage, maintenance costs, and cargo capacity. Without maintaining the same pattern from one subject to the next, the writer creates confusion for the reader.

Understanding Expository Writing

The premise of expository writing is that the text will explain something. Explanatory writing can take on so many different forms that young writers are often confused by this mode of written discourse. When writers stop and think about how they explain something in oral language, they realize that all kinds of approaches are used. A simple conversation in the classroom can easily illustrate this practice. For example, when people try to explain a new concept, they use familiar ideas to make connections.  Leading a full class discussion that asks students to describe some concept that is familar to them showcases students’ natural ability to use multiple approaches to explain their understanding of ideas.

Students naturally makes connections that assist others in comprehending a concept. A good explanation takes advantage of previous knowledge. By comparing and contrasting new with existing information a writer is clarifying ideas. Definitions of new terms are also an important part of helping a reader understand. Similarly, classifying parts of a concept can assist the reader in understand something new. These, along with other approaches to explanation, allow a reader to identify with new material in multiple ways. Each new connection increases the chances of full comprehension. Young people use all of these connections when they speak, and helping them develop strong expository writing skills can be just a matter of asking them to listen to their own oral language.

When we begin developing expository writing skills in young students, it is important for them to practice and fully understand how each one of the expository writing forms can be used effectively. Practice in each mode, in isolation, has helped my students fully develop that approach before trying to blend the modes together.  They develop a deep understanding of how to use each form, when each is effective and appropriate, and how to later blend forms together. This isolated practice draws out the purpose of each form of writing, leading to the students’ ability to appropriately apply the form in subsequent tasks.

Persuasion in written language

What does it mean to write persuasively?

Most writers would simply state that persuasive writing convinces the reader. Period.

There are quite a few questions that follow that statement. For instance, does persuasive writing simply mean that the writer is communicating in a way that builds credibility and therefore is persuasive? Some writing instructors would argue that all writing involves persuasion, that without persuading the reader of the believability of the text, the writer has failed.

Others would argue that persuasion means leading the reader to agree with the writer and possibly to take action according to what the writer is asking the reader to do. Think about advertising. A printed ad, a web ad, a radio ad — all of these use persuasive text. The reader or listener is being asked to take specific action, often action that may not have been taken without exposure to the ad. Truly persuading someone to do something requires carefully crafted language that cannot be refuted to the point of discouraging action.

So what, exactly, is persuasive language?

What is writing?

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!

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

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