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Good Writing Instruction Is What’s Needed (The Council Chronicle, Sept. 05)

NCTE Task Force on SAT and ACT Writing Tests Releases Report

The NCTE guideline, “NCTE Beliefs about the Teaching of Writing,” makes this point: “To say that writing is a process is decidedly not to say that it should—or can—be turned into a formulaic set of steps. Experienced writers shift between different operations according to tasks and circumstances.”

According to this guideline, learning how to write effectively in many different situations is a key component of good writing instruction. The new report from NCTE’s Task Force on SAT and ACT Writing Tests, “The Impact of the SAT and ACT Timed Writing Tests,” similarly emphasizes the importance of comprehensive writing instruction.

The report criticizes the admissions tests’ timed essay component as having the potential to limit the range of writing that is taught.

Task Force Chair Robert Yagelski, of the State University of New York at Albany, says, “I support the College Board’s desire to send a message about the importance of writing, but the new timed writing component of the SAT also sends troubling messages about writing and may actually undermine our efforts to improve writing instruction at the secondary level.

“No matter what the College Board tells schools, parents, teachers, and students about the need for broad preparation in writing, what will matter most to students is performing well on the specific kind of writing task on the new SAT. Inevitably, in preparing for that test, other vital kinds of writing will be ignored or devalued.”

Accomplished English teachers know what good writing instruction looks like. In the following vignettes, educators share their views:

Writing in High School

by Matt Copeland
Dean of the English Department
Washburn Rural High School, Topeka, Kansas

As teachers, we must avoid presenting ourselves to students as masters of written communication and must instead model for them the very struggles and processes we desire to see in their writing; teaching writing and assigning writing are two entirely different endeavors. We must not stand over our students’ writing with red pen in hand; we must sit alongside them and collaboratively dirty our hands in the process and the glory of the written word.

I see this reality confirmed time and time again in my own classroom. Recently, a student of mine came to me with a piece of writing she was struggling with—a piece describing the growing sense of turmoil she felt in her older sister’s leaving home to attend college. As we sat down and explored her ideas and discussed ways to convey those ideas to an audience, the piece began to take a form much different than a five-paragraph, persuasive response to a standardized prompt. The piece became something the student wanted to share and something she felt others would desire to read.

But most of all, the piece helped her to explore what her sister truly meant to her, to imagine what she must also mean to her sister, and to explore the value their relationship will hold in the future. In her mind, the process of writing was not a means of communication but a means of self-exploration and discovery, a way of approaching and making meaning of the world around her. To me, that is what teaching writing at the high school level is all about.

At the high school level, writing instruction is more than merely teaching the rules and procedures of standard communication. Teaching writing is a process of teaching critical thinking and helping students to develop knowledge and understanding both for themselves and for others. Regardless of form, genre, and audience, all writing should require students to examine and explore the world around them and their relationships within it, expanding their sense of perspective and personal relevance. As we prepare students for lives beyond the walls of our classrooms, the ability to both construct meaning and share meaning with others in clear and concise manners with an awareness to the needs of the audience is crucial.

Writing in the Two-Year College

by Sharon Mitchler
Chair of the National Two-Year College English Association
English and Humanities Associate Professor
Centralia College, Centralia, Washington

Writing tasks at the two-year college cover an extensive range of activities. Because two-year colleges are multi-mission institutions, students who attend may be completing skill-specific certificates, one-year credentials, two-year terminal degrees, or two-year transfer degrees. There is not just one kind of writing task that works for all of the programs on a campus, but there are attributes which most programs want students to exhibit in their writing.

The purpose and audience for each text define writing tasks. Because tasks are not uniform, students need to have the ability to write in multiple genres, formats, and styles. Two-year college programs need students to be proficient in making the appropriate choices for writing in business language and in academic analytical language, as well as in formats from brief memos to 20-page reports or papers.

In most college programs, students need to write both individually and in teams. They need to identify their own strengths when writing, and they also need to support or improve the areas where they have consistent challenges. Instructor knowledge becomes paramount because the students have such a diversity of experiences, ages, proficiencies, and support structures for their educations.

Writing in College and University

by Doug Hesse
Chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication
Professor of English
Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois

Good college writing instruction teaches strategies for analyzing and coping with a variety of writing situations. It recognizes that learning to write isn’t as simple as mastering a universal set format. Rather, it means meeting the expectations of specific groups of readers—groups whose expectations may differ widely in terms of background knowledge and viewpoints, what they accept as evidence, what they find acceptable organizational strategies, tone and style, and so on.

Even within the academy, for example, there’s tremendous difference between what counts as good writing in chemistry and in history. Beyond the academy, there’s tremendous difference between writing a good business report, an essay for Harpers, or program notes for the community theatre. As an illustration, consider that writing beyond college often involves research. But relatively few situations require producing documents that look like traditional term papers. The challenge, then, is helping students develop a repertory of researching skills, the sense of when to use them, and the skill to incorporate others’ ideas effectively into their own texts. Writers have to figure out what’s appropriate for a given situation, then produce and shape language to fit.

As a result, college writing instructors develop sequences of assignments that help students build a repertory of analytic and writing skills—through practice. Students in college writing classes write several pages a week. They receive feedback, and they revise. The pattern repeats over and over again: new assignment, often with a strategic variation on a previous one; drafting; feedback; revising; until a student builds a large corpus of polished writing.

Probably the biggest difference between college writing and high school writing is the role of context. Much college writing involves reading: analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating sources. We expect students to write not in a vacuum but rather in the context of issues and ideas. For example, in one unit of a freshman writing class I taught this spring, students read several articles about stem cell research. They wrote papers that explained the main issues involved, and they wrote papers that evaluated the quality of different arguments.

However, they also wrote essays directed at readers who shared their opinion on this issue—as well as essays aimed at readers who did not. They wrote letters to the editor, and they wrote a briefing report suitable for a member of Congress needing to decide how to vote on legislation. Finally, they developed a Web page, a poster, or a one-page advocacy advertisement that incorporated visual elements to convey a viewpoint. In this disparate range of tasks, all informed by a set of current readings, for quite different audiences and purposes, I hoped students would practice the skills that will serve them in situations beyond my class.

Writing in High School

by Bruce M. Penniman 
Amherst Regional High School
Amherst, Massachusetts

Above all, good writing instruction invites and encourages students to develop ideas—to make discoveries as they puzzle over a topic or a genre. Students need to learn strategies for probing their own imaginations and worldviews: intuitive approaches like freewriting as well as systematic heuristics such as the journalist’s 5W + H. They also need open-ended assignments that will allow them to explore and invent. In general, when students ask me, “What exactly are you looking for in this paper?” I want to be able to respond truthfully, “I don’t know. What do you think would work best?”

That is not to say that students should be left to stumble about in the dark. Effective writing instruction also includes peer and teacher feedback, given early enough in the process that it can still do some good. A few years ago I learned—by accident—what has proved a valuable technique for giving feedback on major writing assignments. In an upper-level literature class I had assigned an analytical essay on Crime and Punishment, and I was planning to collect the students’ working drafts on a particular day and return them in time for the students to revise them over a long weekend. But we were running a little behind in our discussions, and it became clear that students wouldn’t have enough time to get the drafts done well by the specified date. The day before they were due, amid a chorus of student anxiety, I decided on the spur of the moment not to move the date but instead to ask for one page of the draft, enough to give me a sense of where—and how—it was going.

This procedure worked so well that I have been using it ever since for longer writing assignments. Since I collected only one page from each student, I was able to respond to everyone the next day. To students who clearly had a sense of direction, I could offer encouragement and suggestions for further development. For students whose ideas were still a jumble, I could help identify what seemed to be the center of gravity and pose some questions for further thinking. And in the case of students who were really struggling, I could arrange a conference to clarify the assignment and probe their understanding. The best part of this early intervention was that students had not yet committed a great deal of time to their drafts and were thus much more willing than usual to revise deeply—or even start over.

In retrospect, the advantages of having students submit partial drafts seemed so obvious that I was amazed that I hadn’t thought of it 20 years sooner. But I guess that’s another thing about good writing instruction—it’s always changing for the better.

Writing in College

by Carol Rutz
Director, Writing Program
Carleton College
Northfield, Minnesota
(Carleton College’s Writing Program is one of two Winter 2005 CCCC Writing Program Certificate of Excellence Winners)

Ideally, college writing is the move from writing on demand, as is common in high school, to writing out of knowledge for an audience that you want to persuade to take some specific action: you want them to understand, to change, to vote, to join, to protest, to stay the course, whatever it is.

One thing I’ve seen in both a large university and a small private liberal arts college is that high school students are often asked to do close reading and analysis. They learn how to do that, not just in English classes, but in other areas as well. What they don't have as much experience with is moving beyond close reading to synthesis, to constructing a new position, to being responsible for coherent aggregation of ideas and sorting out competing claims.

In college, students learn that to write a long paper in particular, you have to know what you’re talking about. You have to do research: read the literature, interview people, and gain the knowledge you need in order to have an informed opinion. My sense is the more students are challenged to think, to consider opposing or contradictory or confusing material, and to make sense out of it, the more they will be steeped in effective learning about the world and therefore effective writing.

In May, I spent a lot of time with sophomores who had portfolios due ( I was joking with some students that the pile of papers in front of them were largely assigned by a bunch of fascists and written at gunpoint. These student papers reflected very little personal investment and were just schoolwork—much like their high school writing. The students were surprised that I was in on that joke.

They pointed with pride to papers that required more of them. The writing that students learn to value is writing that matters, whether it matters to them to solve some intellectual or moral problem through writing, or to write for a service-learning project where some institution is going to make use of their work—that’s the stuff that begins to get under their skin and makes them care.

The fact is that students respect challenge and rise to it. I think they understand after some practice that “what I think depends on what I know and what I can defend.” They understand what evidence is, how it can vary in different situations, how to present it in persuasive ways, and how to anticipate counter arguments. Most students don’t try to get out of writing as much as they revert to what they did in high school—and that’s usually not enough.

Writing across the Grades

by Niki Locklear
NCTE Secondary Section Chair 
District Technology Resource Teacher
Kenton County Schools, Kentucky

In Kentucky, students in the fourth, seventh, and twelfth grades are required to submit a writing portfolio as part of the individual school’s educational assessment program. Although many people may describe this as high-stakes testing, the positive result is that the requirements for the portfolio have changed and improved writing programs through the state.

For most senior English writing instructors, teaching the analytical paper was the main focus of the writing program. Even though analytical writing is essential for developing mental and communication skills needed for post-graduate education, it is not the only kind of writing necessary for preparing students for the real world. The Kentucky Writing Portfolio focuses on showcasing students’ ability to produce authentic writing, writing that asks students to synthesize, analyze, or evaluate what they have learned in order to communicate with an audience beyond the teacher.

Students are given ownership by allowing them to select a real-world form suited to the purpose and the audience. Sample forms include feature articles, editorials, brochures, proposals, memos, lab reports, speeches, letters, etc. Most of these forms were not included in the curriculum guides for all disciplines until the state incorporated the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System (CATS) to improve teaching and student learning. In addition, two of the five required pieces for the portfolio must come from another discipline other that the English classroom. The results have been astounding across the entire state! Writing scores continue to increase yearly since the inception of the portfolio assessment program.

In addition to the requirement of including transactive pieces, the portfolio showcases the students’ ability to write reflective, personal, and creative pieces. By including these categories of writing, schools have the opportunity to evaluate the writing instructional strengths and needs of their students.


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Most Recent Comments (1 Total Posts)

Posted By: Anonymous User on 5/23/2011 11:29:24 PM

Hello, Writing is how a student achieves an inspirational drive towards achieving results from higher academics. Instruction from models may provide the learner with a strategy that is both evaluative and formative. Good delivery always begins with a response to the material. The aims are not always defined by the presentation of facts, as intuitive and inferrential processes guide the student to understand their research as a faculty of their involvement in humanitarian efforts. When writing reinforces the very human endeavor of participating in society and learning from others, the student begins to understand how they relate the depths of their inner world to the world in which they live. In this formation of an identity and characteristics that are based on self evaluation and self analysis, writing is the process in which one begins to understand those incentives and motives that define their being an intelligible human being. Thank You, Robben Wainer

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