The Difference Between Assigning Writing and Teaching Writing

Teachers are acutely aware of the continuous pressures they undergo throughout the year as they work to cover the curriculum with young people who arrive in their classrooms with varying levels of cognitive development. Our suggestion: treat the writing part of the curriculum as center stage, and all of the English language arts and reading standards will fall under that umbrella. Why? Because students must be able to communicate their understanding of the standards set before them, and one important way to determine whether students have mastered a certain standard is by asking them to communicate mastery through written expression. In other content areas as well, and for students who plan to continue their education after high school, writing is not only an excellent way for students to formulate and communicate their new learning, but also an expectation for entering college. To that end, if writing doesn’t get the attention and time that it needs, it will never be taught well.

Too often, writing is assigned as homework instead of classwork, and then teachers complain that students can’t write. Assigning writing is not teaching writing. Writing well must be taught. We believe wholeheartedly that students will never learn to write well if writing is relegated to homework or avoided altogether. But what about the pressure of covering the curriculum with limited classroom time? One teaching strategy that has helped teachers to carve out more time for writing in class is practicing the flipped classroom. In this model of instruction, students watch recorded lectures for homework and complete their assignments, labs, and tests in class. Because the writing process is a thinking process, when writing is performed in the classroom, teachers can observe, monitor, encourage, and redirect faulty thinking. Students are not isolated; they have their coach nearby to assist as they strive to formulate ideas and communicate them on paper or the computer.

Furthermore, unfortunately, when writing is assigned outside of class, students sometimes plagiarize from the internet, from their friends, and from their parents. Students need teachers to monitor their work carefully—over their shoulders, in one-to-one conferences, at the moment of writing—and teach and re-teach constantly. We do allow students to write at home as they become more skilled and confident in their writing abilities. 

Another mistake some teachers make because of time pressure is assigning a piece of writing and not reviewing the prewriting steps. Students value what their teachers value. If the prewriting is not scored, students do not see the need to do it. Each step in the writing process is an important cognitive skill, and it must be given its due attention. In the first semester, I recommend that teachers allocate 80% of a writing score toward the students’ mastery of prewriting and 20% toward the final draft. As the year progresses, the prewriting score decreases and the final draft score increases. The students realize that the teacher’s job is to teach the thinking skills that lead to the written expression. Writing is a thinking process, and that thinking is taught by teaching students the questions that writers ask themselves during the process.

One Sunday afternoon, with a stack of essays to be graded, I had the television on in the background, and it was turned to the U.S. Open golf tournament. It was the third day of the tournament, and the announcer asked one of the greatest players of all time, Tom Watson, what advice he would give the players as they began the final day. His reply made me think of teachers. He explained that when golfers feel pressure, they tend to rush. And when they rush, they start making mistakes and forget the skill involved that requires precision thinking and execution. I thought to myself, “That happens to me every time I rush through a lesson with students or a training with teachers.” That pressure wreaks havoc on what I know works.

As you plan for the coming school year, remember “quality” versus “quantity.” Remember that learning takes processing time. Remember that when we rush, we mitigate our students’ learning. Try to spend more time in class working with your writers through each step of the process. You’ll be surprised how taking time in September leads to excellence in February! Talk to your administrator about homework policies and how to get the most out of homework and class time. Remember that assigning writing is not teaching writing. Let’s teach writing first.