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The Writing Revolution

by Joan Sedita | 1 | 6 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 founder of Keys to Literacy and author of the Keys to Literacy professional development programs. 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!

  2. Oscar de la Fuente

    I completely and vehemently disagree. THAT kind of thinking is exactly what’s wrong with our educational system and the teaching of writing. Science has to come before Art. Literacy is NOT that complicated; what is missing is the science of literacy. And that isn’t hard, either. We can’t even state in a simple statement of fact the problem with the teaching of writing. So, we’re casting hope in all directions at anything that walks, talks, or moves like an “expert.” That search is in vain. How are we then supposed to provide the remedy if we can’t identify/admit the root cause (incompetent writing teachers)? Nothing works that way, ever. Chasing our tails isn’t progress — it’s chaotic, like running in place and saying you’ve run “a mile.” Writing is being taught by lecture, not by example. THAT is the other problem. Writing teachers themselves are not competent, capable writers. They’re actually afraid to write, to put themselves out there for students to examine. Why is that? Ask any writing teacher what a participle phrase is, or how to use it effectively in a sentence, and you’ll hear crickets. I get furious with so-called Ph.D. writing experts, some even writing a book or two on the subject, complain that the teaching of writing is “over-compartmentalized by process.” What utter, idiotic nonsense! Ask a writing teacher what an extended sentence is, or asyndeton, anadiplosis, or even an elliptical clause or an absolute phrase. They don’t know. (I’ll bet you dollars to donuts!) Therefore, their students don’t know, either. Sloppy grammar should be treated like sloppy math: Go to any bank and ask them to give you a dollar for 98 cents. Grammar instruction is similar. Close cannot be good enough. Grammar is the first step, the foundation. It has to be. Nobody jumps into calculus the first week of school unless algebra and trigonometry are the foundation. Critical thinking is not being sacrificed at the altar of grammar. That is exactly backwards. You don’t jump into “ideas and creativity” the first day. You cannot command anyone to be creative, to write an essay and make it interesting. That’s impossible without showing them how through grammar competency and by example. There has to be a pathway to creativity, and it’s grammar. Singing praises to creativity doesn’t make you creative any more than sitting in a garage makes you a car. My high school students were writing college level essays after I provided all the grammar directly related to effective, sophisticated writing. Grammar is the science; creativity, the art. Try not to get them mixed up like apples and pineapples. And please, when you comment, let it be from experience instead of theory . . . the way things “ought to work” is not the way they actually do. Joan Sedita has it exactly right, the science of writing (grammar) must precede the art. “None” is a singular noun, not plural; and “like” is never combined with a clause. How many writing teachers are aware of that? And, in addition, some binary writing or essay topics are absolutely inane, highly resistant to creativity. For example, Which is better, Red or Blue? Why?” Teachers who assign these topics are misplaced, incompetent, or just plain lazy and unimaginative. The profession didn’t choose them; they chose it, and they’re lousy amateurs inflicting irreparable harm, turning kids off to the most important skill they’ll need: sophisticated writing, creative, and revising skills. How can they fix something they can’t even recognize is broken? Assign essays on philosophy, history, politics, religion, global current event topics with built-in passion. Kids need to be fired up already, then turned loose. Writing is not hard. It’s fun. Students are not the writing problem. Boring, lazy, unskilled teachers are the problem. Fix them, and you’ll fix the writing problem. Teachers who have not been taught how to teach writing are now teaching writing. They were hired to invent the writing wheel, then abandoned. Writing workshops by armchair quarterbacks are like so many useless appendages. Observe any classroom and see that I’m right. Writing is taught by lecture, not by example. There are two imperatives for a teacher: (1) You’ve got to be smarter than your kids, and (2) you’ve got to be able to do what you’re asking your kids to do. In too many cases, that is not the rule but the exception. (Do as I say . . . not . . .) Ask any writing teacher for an essay on a topic you provide. The immediate reaction? Probably one of terror.

    — Thereupon, in a simple statement of fact, we will have identified THE writing problem.

    And the band played on . . .

    • Joan Sedita

      Oscar, You are clearly passionate about writing instruction, although I think you are a bit hard on teachers, especially content teachers (science, math, history, etc.) who never thought they were going to have to teach writing but now need to because so many students struggle with literacy and especially writing skills. Hochman’s book focuses on basic writing skills starting with sentences which are the building blocks of written discourse, and that’s what I especially like about her book and approach.



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