Teaching Writing (and to What Extent)


One of the archived Bookends columns in the New York Times asked whether or not writing can be taught. My short answer: yes. My long answer: not completely. Much of my job revolves around writing, whether it's teaching kids the basics, working with them to take their current skills up a notch, or analyzing the writers of the works we're studying. I'm nowhere near an expert, but every year I get better and add more strategies into the mix. 

Analyzing the Prompt/Assignment
My kids in regular English often made the mistake of glancing over the prompt and then getting started immediately. In order to break this habit we looked at it together, determining if there was ant background information, locating the particular task, and analyzing the verbs. 

I'm really lenient on what sort of pre-writing my students do, but I do strongly encourage that they take a small chunk of time to do some. My preferred mode is the classic outline, but many kids "these days" don't know how to do that. Instead, they make something called "t-charts," create flowcharts, or just jot down ideas. 

When my students are analyzing passages I advise them to do something called color-blocking, which calls for the reader to find different trends in the text. For each pattern or significant feature the student shades the area of the text a certain color, and then includes that in a key at the bottom of the page. For example, when the writer uses diction related to violence someone might shade it blue, while metaphors pink. It is incredibly useful and I wish I would have been taught to do it as a student (especially with poetry). 

The Thesis 
This is one of the toughest tasks for writers, at all levels. What are you trying to prove? What are your arguing? You must point something out, otherwise the essay is going to be a summary. I tell my students that their theses must be arguable, can't be "listy" ("the author uses symbolism, foreshadowing, and juxtaposition to show differences between the farmers and merchants"), or vague. 

One activity that I have done is a class evaluation of student theses. I have them email me their working thesis the night before and I take several and pop them into a PowerPoint (without names). In small groups they'll evaluate the thesis based on the components we've talked about and will score it. We then regroup as a class and discuss their findings.

Many teachers have mixed feelings on peer-editing, as do I. I think the biggest issue is that many teachers turn the kids loose without a lot of guidance, simply instructing them to trade papers and correct them. But what if a student is a weak writer? Then the other kid isn't going to get a lot of helpful feedback. What if the two partners are friends and plan to screw around the whole time and talk about whatever social drama is currently happening? My solution isn't perfect, but it helps alleviate some of the concerns.

On the days we peer edit students arrive with their rough drafts and appointments clocks, a way we set up partners in my class (when I say "meet with your seven-o-clock appointment" they know who their next partner is; this is from the AVID program). They also receive a worksheet that has a list of editing areas on the side, a column for comments, and then a column for the partner to write their name (the sheet stays with the essay). For example, the first ten minutes will be dedicated to evaluating the thesis and determining if the essay stays true to it. They read each others' papers, write comments and discuss if there is time remaining. Then they'll go to their new "appointment" and evaluate for a new editing area, like organization, sticking to the prompt, evaluating literary devices, etc... (many of the categories match up to the rubric I use to score their essays). This way, their papers are read by several students and they get to move around the room several times.

So Much Writing...
I firmly believe the best way to become a better writing is to write often. Students do short assignments constantly, but they do timed essays in class every other week (they write for a full period). Each novel we read requires one process piece at home, and often a creative writing assignment as well. They keep notebooks where they do quick writes in class and they also do a few explications for each work we are studying. Grading is tough, and I'm not the type of get an essay back in three days, but I feel the practice is the most important thing.

Students are allowed to rewrite timed-writes in class. Sometimes I reread them, sometimes I just check over them to make sure there are changes and give them five or so extra credit points. Kids who take advantage of this are the ones that improve. Simple as that.

Criticizing Curriculum
Our school/district has adopted a curriculum for writing that is incredibly formulaic. It teaches writing like it's an equation and doesn't promote style or voice. It's fine for establishing a foundation in the primary grades, but I've had to undo so many of the things it's taught the students, like excessive transition words, "listy" theses (see above), and strict guidelines for writing five paragraphs. If students went to a university using many of components this program teaches they'd be scored low.

Rubrics and Checklists
When I grade essays my students get two pieces of feedback. The first is a checklist that includes twenty or so common problems that I frequently see. I check off five or so that I want them to work on (anything from "not using textual support" to "grammar problems" or "no thesis"). The check marks are made in one of two columns, indicating the severity of the issue. The second piece of feedback I give is the IB rubric, which critiques them on whether or not they understand the text, if they responded to the prompt/question, the level of literary analysis, their language, and their argument. 

I do not edit essays- in fact, I make very few marks on them. This is for three reasons. The first is that I have over 90 students; if each essay takes me four minutes to read and grade, that's six hours of grading right there. If I were to mark up papers that time would easily double. With the amount of writing I assign this isn't feasible at all. Secondly, I allow students to rewrite their essays, therefore editing their writing would simply be doing their work for them. And lastly, they frequently don't read the comments past the first page. 

The Original Question
Back to that original question about whether or not writing can be taught. The fundamentals? Definitely. But voice and style? That's where it gets trickier. Some components of writing correspond to intellect and creativity. Some people are just natural writers, and some aren't.

I think there is definitely a place for creative writing programs and English departments, of course, as they're places for those with potential and desire to sharpen their skills. I don't think someone without any sort of talent can enter an MFA program and exit an author on their way to winning a Nobel or Pulitzer. 

How did you learn to write? Do you think it can be taught? Did you read this entire post? If so, I'm sorry.


  1. I think the basics of writing can definitely be taught. The craft itself is easy to learn - forming sentences, discussing ideas, learning the format. What is the hardest like you said, is having your own voice and style. Those are what will set a writer apart from all the others.

  2. I 100% think writing can be taught. I think voice takes time to develop and like you said, kids need to write regularly. It's tough when there are so many other things we have to do/teach/be accountable for. (I still can't figure out why reading gets top billing over writing, at least in my state.)

    If you haven't already, you should check out Abydos/New Jersey Writing Project. A lot of what you mentioned is in-line with their philosophy.