The Writing Revolution
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:
- Teaching Secondary Students to Write Effectively
- Teaching Grammar: What Works and What Doesn’t
- Teaching Text Structures
Finally, visit the website for Judith Hochman’s non-profit group “The Writing Revolution”.