The ability to articulate in writing one's thoughts and opinions is an essential skill for academic and professional success. Unfortunately, many students in America are not receiving proper writing instruction and as a result, are not able to write clear and well-constructed compositions. At Freedom Classical Academy we are using innovative strategies to help students not only excel at writing, but also learn to love the art of composition.
The Problem with Writing Instruction
For decades, writing instruction in America has suffered from a fundamental flaw. While reading and math are taught in specific, well-researched methods founded on correct principles of learning, writing has not enjoyed the same fate. Consider reading instruction for comparison. First, students learn the alphabet and phonics. As students progress in phonetic awareness, they then blend phonemes to form words. Students practice these skills over and over in carefully sequenced activities until they are able to read fluently. As reading fluency increases, students then begin to focus on reading comprehension (the ability to understand what they are reading). The entire process is carefully crafted and sequenced to ensure student success.
Writing, in contrast, is often taught haphazardly and often requires students to perform tasks far above their ability level. We have all felt the fear of staring at a blank piece of paper or trying to respond to a prompt that we simply do not understand. Early on we learn the writing process: prewrite, draft, revising, editing, and publishing. Unfortunately, once that process is introduced real writing instruction usually disappears. Emphasis switches to the process and not the specific skills that students need to actually improve their writing.
Sometimes in order to progress, you must look to the past. The classical schools that existed hundreds of years ago understood that like reading skills, writing skills must be developed in very small, specific steps. Instead of handing students blank pieces of paper or endlessly reviewing the writing process, they guided students through a series of exercises known as the progymnasmata. These exercises included simple tasks practiced to perfection en route to writing proficiency. Examples of these strategies include:
Rewrite: In this exercise students have to rewrite a story with their own twist. Depending on the story, students may be asked to make a hero a villain or make a weak character strong. This process helps students internalize a story and provides them with material to work with.
Finish a sentence: In this exercise, students are given the first or second part of a sentence and required to complete the missing part. This strategy can be extended by providing students with several conjunctions that their portion of the sentence must include.
Amplification: Take a small passage and make it longer
Summary: Take a long passage and make it short.
There are dozens of more strategies like those above that help students target specific skills that are essential to good writing.
Freedom Classical Academy has worked to aggregate principles of effective writing from various sources to inform our writing pedagogy. We are indebted to the work of Madeline Hunter, Mike Schmoker, Paul Kortepeter, Gideon Burton, Judith Hochman, and Natalie Wexler which helped form the framework of our writing program. From them, we have learning the following principles:
1. Content is best learned when instruction is broken into small chunks followed by a check for understanding activity and reteaching, as necessary. Similarly, writing proficiency is best obtained by focusing on small, specific skills followed by check for understanding and reteaching.
2. The sentence is the basic building block of writing. If a student cannot write a cogent sentence, they will never be able to write a cogent paragraph or composition. The path to writing proficiency must begin at the sentence level.
3. Skills are best learned when properly scaffolded. New skills should first be practiced utilizing existing work such as fables, stories, or passages written by other authors. Students may begin by identifying and underlining examples of the skill being taught in an existing passage before being given a part of a sentence to complete themselves and finally generating their own authentic work. Students should only be given a blank piece of paper after they have mastered the requisite underlying skills.
4. Writing activities should be tied to content students are learning. While prompts such as "what did you do last summer" and opinion pieces that don't require research may be fun, they do little to further a student's writing acumen. When students are required to write about academic content it reinforces the learning process and prepares them for college and career.
5. Both quantity and quality are necessary to help students develop writing proficiency. It is better to have students write frequent small quantities of writing that can be critiqued than to give them few large writing assignments. Nonetheless, having students write frequently without any oversight (eg, journals) is unlikely to help them improve and may actually reinforce poor writing habits.