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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Writing in English

Introduction

One important way we study written texts in the English language is to reproduce and revise them for personal, social, and vocational purposes. In English studies, teachers can often draw upon students’ personal writing interests (texts, blogging, email, college essays, graffiti, spoken-word poetry, etc.) as a motivating bridge into formal academic forms of writing. Teachers can also help students enhance their writing in the genres that interest them.

Career-Focused Writing Instruction in English

As noted in the previous section, people with a strong background in English studies often hold positions such as social media manager, technical writer, lawyer, grant writer, librarian, editor and content manager, or nonprofit executive director. From a writing perspective, these positions emphasize the ability to narrate, describe, request, explain, evaluate, and argue in writing. They require mastery of different genres of writing, from personal to formal, from presentation to administration. Note that the narrative form of writing is still very important. Many other professional positions also require good writing skills. Almost any managerial position requires employees to write incident reports, orientation letters, summary reports, etc. Paramedics, police and security guards all need skill in the type of writing that is most often taught in English studies.

Reflect: List the types of career-oriented writing that you assign to your students. List three or four additional selections that you could incorporate in the future.

WRITING WITHIN, ACROSS, AND BEYOND THE CLASSROOM

The online world of gaming, social media, and mobile technology has increased the amount of writing we engage in, although not the amount of academic writing. Sometimes this causes consternation. Is the current explosion of text speak “dumbing down” writing? Rather than resist this nonacademic type of writing, we can see it as a student strength or interest and build writing instruction from there. For example, when students informally complain about another teacher, administrator, or parent, we can ask them to write that person an email. The act of writing often distracts students from the way they are feeling; the email becomes an opportunity to practice writing about cause and effect, argumentation, or reasoning. Teachers can also consider how the traditional correspondence now offers more opportunities to write letters of inquiry, appreciation, or complaint and send them via digital means. In the world of social networking and social marketing, businesses invite consumers to contribute their written thoughts on sites such as Yelp and LinkedIn. Blogs that students begin to express a special, personal interest are another opportunity for writing development.

Apply: If you are currently teaching, ask your students what types of writing they engage in outside of school. Compare their responses to the writing you assign. How can you craft your writing assignments to more closely connect to the kind of writing that interests your students? Reflect on this in a short essay.

WRITING STRATEGIES

Writing is often difficult for students, even those who are proficient readers. The following strategies develop and refine students’ ability to determine, organize, and interpret important information in order to communicate their ideas in writing.

Contrastive Analysis

A contrastive analysis strategy can be used to contextualize and analyze written samples of English language in informal, community dialects or from ELLs alongside samples in academic English. Teachers should introduce authentic language experiences that highlight these differences for students in creative and contextual ways, giving students opportunities to practice the academic versions of the expressions.

Reflect: How do you take time to learn about the ways your students’ languages (English and other languages) are written and spoken? How do you use that information instructionally?

Sentence Starters or Sentence Frames

Often, students find it helpful to be given the initial words or phrases to use at the beginning, middle, or end of a paper. Some teachers find it helpful to provide various options. Words and phrases can be provided on handouts, overheads, or “word walls” that are present at all times in the classroom. Sentence starters or frames can be especially helpful for English language learners. However, they should be used as a scaffold and not as a crutch or formula for response. As the school year progresses, the teacher should expect to see students use more nuanced language that is independent of the initial frames.

Video and Reflection: Watch Analyzing Anecdotal Evidence to see an English teacher’s strategic use of sentence frames. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: What tools and strategies do you use to successfully begin your students’ writing?
  • Watch the video: How does Mr. Guerrero combine sentence starters and frames with other tools to help his students begin their writing?
  • Apply: How might you use sentence starters to advance your students’ writing? Write five sample sentence starters to help your students write a thesis statement.
Student-Created Dictionaries
This popular activity got its start at California’s Berkeley High School, when students were asked to create a dictionary of slang words. A number of similar efforts have occurred over the years. Because language is always changing and has regional and local lexical nuances, this activity is timeless. The teacher analyzes the parts of a dictionary entry (word, syllables, pronunciation, part of speech, historical uses, entry, etc.). Students choose a theme for the dictionary (computer terms, literary terms, slang terms, etc.) and then research, compile, and edit their work.

INSTRUCTIONAL FORMATS

Instructional format considers the shape and function of writing instruction in English. As with reading instruction, instructional format for writing should be purposeful, dynamic, stimulating, and ritualized. Motives, rationale, and goals should be explicit and transparent. Change, nuance, and enrichment should be a guiding principal and an actual practice. Teachers can change the format, vary internal elements, and offer opportunities for students to have new experiences. Teachers may also wish to have a broader ritual of practice so that students feel that they are participating within a familiar structure that allows for novelty.

Large-Group Instruction
Large group instruction should happen in small chunks. Teacher talk should be supported by visuals. Teachers can and should write with their students as often as possible and share their writing as models or as examples for discussion of writing techniques. Teachers should also share writing that is completed as well as in progress along with writing from outside of class that is noteworthy or exemplifies some instructional point in a current or previous lesson.

Reflect: List some instances when large-group instruction could be useful for teaching some aspects of writing. Provide reasons why a large-group format might be worthwhile.

Small-Group Discussions 
As noted before, teachers should have a specific academic purpose or task for grouping students in a particular way. For example, initial discussion could be to inspire students to take positions or create ideas and topics for writing. Then, discussion might be about critiquing the content or clarity of the writing in progress. Later, small groups can simply provide an opportunity to share a final piece of written work. The grouping should be flexible so students don’t feel stuck or tracked, especially if the temporary grouping structure is based on ability level. Group structures should vary from pairs, triplets, and quads. Purpose and activity should also vary. Although writing is a process with clearly defined stages, those stages do not always occur in the same order all of the time. And there are many different ways to move from one part of the process to another.

Beyond the ways in which this social engagement in small groups can support later academic work, oral language development plays specific and complex roles in written language development. And similarly to when grouping students for reading tasks, students should also be given explicit instructions and roles in small-group work focused on writing.

Reflect: List some instances when small-group discussions could be useful for teaching some aspects of writing. Provide reasons why a large-group format might be worthwhile.

Blended Learning
As noted in the previous section, blended learning mixes live teacher instruction with online tutorials, simulations, WebQuests, and other kinds of work on computers. In terms of writing, this could simply mean providing regularly scheduled class time for writing and researching information on computers. Students also may read and listen to an analysis of writing samples, or they may practice isolated skills needing attention based on earlier drafts of their writing.

Project-Based Instruction
In project-based learning, writing is ongoing and is used for multiple purposes and with different levels of formality. In each instance, the writing needs to be assessed not simply for conventions and aesthetics, but also for its ability to address the problem identified.

Video and Reflection: Watch Writing for New Media to see students immersed in a long-term project for which they are creating podcast stories about their community.  The students are engaged in a number of reading, writing, speaking, composing, viewing, and listening skills and other technical practices. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Make a list of the skills and different literacy modes (such as those listed above) that you facilitate for your students in a project-based or inquiry learning assignment.
  • Watch the video: What kind of advice does Ms. Cunningham offer students at different stages of their project and in different modes to help advance their work?
  • Reflect: When the production is complete, it will be available to authentic audiences in and out of school, well beyond the traditional individual teacher. How do you ensure authentic audiences for your students’ projects?

Series Directory

Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Credits

Produced by WGBH Educational Foundation. 2015.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-906-4