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The Writing Revolution

by Joan Sedita | 1 | 4 Comments

I’ve long been a fan of Judith Hochman’s work related to teaching basic writing skills to older students who struggle with writing. In 2012, The Atlantic published a riveting article titled “The Writing Revolution” that chronicled the experience of a New York City high school as they sought to understand why so many of their students could not write. They determined that Judith’s sentence instruction practices were a big part of the solution.

Now Judith has written a book with Natalie Wexler (with a forward by Doug Lemov) titled “The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in all Subjects and Grades.

Hochman and Wexler recently participated in a Q and A for EdWeek’s blog about their new book. Here are a few quotes that stood out to me:

  • Hochman: “Students have a lot of free-writing in journals. They have a writing period where they’re given a prompt like, “Should we have a longer recess?” and then they’re writing about that. The instruction…. is almost nonexistent. Our students write the way they speak, and they don’t really learn the difference between the structures of how we speak versus the structures of how we write.”
  • Wexler: “Schools also don’t really focus on the sentence level that much. Certainly, beyond elementary school, students are not mastering the art of crafting a sentence. And if you can’t write a good sentence, you can’t write a good paragraph, and you can’t write a good essay.”

I especially liked their responses to a question about an issue that I often hear when I am in schools providing writing professional development: explicit instruction does not allow for creativity. Here’s the question and their responses:

Q: “A criticism of the technique you’re using is that it’s too constricting, there’s too much of a focus on process, that it stifles students’ creativity. What’s your response?”

A: Wexler: “Writing is an extremely complex process, so if you’re trying to think about the mechanics and master those at the same time you’re trying to express yourself, you have less creativity left over to think about your content—what it is you want to say. But if you’ve got those tools of crafting interesting sentences under your belt so they become more or less automatic, then you can unleash your creativity and really focus your limited brainpower on what you want to say.”

A: Hochman: “We usually love what we do well. Most people don’t love what they hate to do. So the people who talk about kids loving writing, the possibility of them loving something that’s pretty widely recognized as something that they don’t do well is very remote.”

I couldn’t agree more! If students can’t apply fundamental skills automatically (such as writing sentences, organizing text, writing good introductions and conclusions), they cannot focus on expressing their ideas. That leads to frustration, which leads to avoiding writing.

More About Sentence Writing

  • One by one, sentences communicate ideas that add up to make meaning. In order to write good sentences, students must have “syntactic awareness” – the awareness of the system and arrangement of words, phrases, and clauses that make up a sentence. The way students build syntactic awareness is through exposure to complex oral language when they are young and through exposure to complex academic language through reading and being read to across all grades. Students who have difficulty learning to read will inevitably have difficulty learning to write. Sentence combining is a highly researched activity that has been shown to improve the writing ability of students across all grade levels, including in college. Visit a previous blog I wrote about Sentence Combining.  Also, Bruce Saddler’s book Teacher’s Guide to Effective Sentence Writing is an excellent resource for instructional activities that help build sentence writing skills.

Here are a few of my past blog posts related to explicit writing instruction for students in grades 4-12:

Finally, visit the website for Judith Hochman’s non-profit group “The Writing Revolution”.

Joan Sedita

Joan Sedita is the founding partner of Keys to Literacy and author of the Keys to Literacy routines. She is an experienced educator, nationally recognized speaker and teacher trainer. She has worked for over 35 years in the literacy education field and has presented to thousands of teachers and related professionals at schools, colleges, clinics, and professional conferences.

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  1. Elaine Hays, Ph.D.

    Whevnever I read How To blogs for the teaching of writing, I am always concerned that we are over-compartmentalizing the writing process. Yes, students need to write sentences and paragraphs but not at the expense of critical thinking and writing. Of course this is what makes literacy such a complex process. Students learn a variety of skills over time and will learn to write if we do not replace creativity with remote writing.

    • Paul Chambers

      I completely agree. While it is important to be grammatically correct and to have the structure of sentences and paragraphs, I have watched students shut down wonderful ideas because the teacher was more concerned about the grammar than the ideas that were being put down. Get the ideas down. In science, let them cite evidence and come up with ideas based on that. There will be time to revise and edit. The most important thing is that you get the ideas going and then you can go back and make it grammatically correct.

    • Lesley Coughlin

      I realize I’m responding two years after this comment was written, but I think it bears more consideration. I understand the position that we don’t want to teach children that writing is primarily formulaic in nature. Many students do not, however, just “learn a variety of skills over time,’ and they do not always “learn to write if we do not replace creativity with remote writing.” Judith Hochman’s method is well respected amongst teachers and researchers because it works. It provides an instructional framework that helps students organize their thoughts and ideas about what they are learning, and present them in a meaningful and easy to understand manner. The strategies and skills presented in her book foster critical thinking rather than stifle it. If you’ve not read The Writing Revolution, I would highly recommend it. Rather than giving trite formulas, it teaches students to use appositives and subordinating conjunctions, for example, to create complex sentences with nuanced thoughts. Additionally, the focus on using content that students are already studying allows them to solidify their understanding of what is being taught, and demonstrate their mastery of the content. It also offers real writing instruction to students, instead of just written assignments that are assessed, but which do little to help students gain skills or to advance as writers.

      It’s one of those books/programs that prove the adage, “the proof is in the pudding.”

      • Joan Sedita

        Thanks Lesley for these thoughtful comments. I often use an analogy with artists who paint: An artist needs to have learned the basics of color knowledge, perspective, brush strokes, etc. as a foundation. Once they have these basics they can focus on the creative part of painting. Writing is similar — you need foundational writing skills, including how to write solid sentences, to then be free to focus on the creative part of writing!