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Finding Success in Writing: Why Assuming May Be Your Biggest Setback

Updated: Dec 15, 2023




When my son was 9, I wanted to start having him take care of his own laundry. Although he is an extremely bright child, he commonly lacks success with multi-step instructions, or remembering things we have told him previously. So, I quickly decided I should create a page of step by step instructions for him to use even after we went over the process. To my surprise, after one time showing him what to do, he was able to recall each step, including the dryer sheet, without looking at the directions!


This is not the only scenario when I have made assumptions about the capability or future actions of my children, and those assumptions have been wrong. Not only that, but the actions I have taken based on those assumptions have often had a negative effect on the learning that may have occurred, as well as on the trust I may have built with them, if only I had assumed differently.


I realize that I have also made the same mistakes in my classroom. There were countless times I have made decisions on the activites, projects, scaffolds and lessons I was providing my students based on the assumptions or expectations I have had that were based on previous situations and encounters. Sometimes these assumptions were really based on nothing at all.


Common Decisions Based on Assumptions


When teachers begin a writing unit or group of lessons there are many decisions to make. You must consider things such as the mentor texts being used and how often to use them, what may be modeled for students, how will you help them organize their work, what will they use to plan, and more!


What I often find is that teachers make decisions based on what they THINK students will do or what they BELIEVE they won't be able to do. In most of these instances I have also found that the mitigating factor in these decisions are the students who struggle the most, even when those students make up a small percentage of the class. Think about that! In my experience as a teacher, I can definitely say that my concerns tended to gravitate around a certain few students because they were the ones who stood out the most. This is a common practice, and a human one! We are not alone!


Let's consider providing topic ideas for writing. How often have you chosen the topic for your class, or even for a few students because you didn't think they would chose one on their own? And in those instances, can you truly say that none of your students would be capable of generating an idea? If there was even one or two students who were capable, then it was not necessary to provide a topic to the entire class.

Now let me say, I do think there are times when students may have a need to be provided scaffolds with a few ideas for topics, and there is also a time and place for students to learn to write from a prompt. However, when teaching writing in a student-centered model, we want authenticity and autonomy to shine through, which is why I believe students should chose their own topics the majority of the time.


Another example of a common decision made on assumptions is that of providing whole class graphic organizers. To me, this also falls under the issue of "teaching the writing, not the writer" because when teachers choose to use these tools it is commonly because the goal of the class is that every writer will have a very similar product. The product is the main focus. Due to the fact that each writer is on a different level of writing, teachers are aware that each writer may not be capable of producing the same product, therefore the tool is provided in an attempt to ensure that they will in fact do so.


This example is also a decision that is most likely based on the concern of a few students or perhaps even half of the class, because the teacher assumes they will not be able accomplish much on their own, or perhaps not as much as they would like them to. That is a topic for another post!


Data Driven Decisions


Using the example of generating ideas, what if we gave our writers a chance to try? Perhaps we would find a more successful outcome that we had predicted! It is also helpful to consider that providing topics for ALL students just because we feel SOME may struggle does not allow for students to become independent writers. We want them to grapple with parts of the process in order to learn how to overcome any obstacles they may encounter. We must first see what they can and will do prior to providing any scaffolds or supports that may hinder their progress with independence.

If we then observe and find there are students who do struggle with generating an idea, we can not only provide a few possible choices, but can also share strategies they may use in order to do so on their own, such as thinking of memories, feelings or people.


When thinking of providing graphic organizers to the class, we may know that our writers will benefit from having a way to record their planning, and it is important that we teach various ways in which to do so. However, there is much to be said for writers making their own decisions and staying true to their own method of planning. Each of us is unique in how we process ideas, record them in a way that makes sense to us, and use that planning to help us to draft. And, as stated above, when students write without any planning or plan hapharzadly and then begin to draft, they often find that something is missing, or they get stuck, or another difficulty arises. Wouldn't that be a perfect way for them to learn the value of planning in a way that works for them?


In keeping with the idea that our decisions should be made on data, the first step would be to obtain and/or assess data from our students, and then a decision can be made regarding which writers may benefit from use of a graphic organizer, or an alternate way to plan their writing. This can be done by having students complete a baseline writing sample in the genre in which you are having them write, as well as by conferring with students about their methods of planning. You would then analyze the writing pieces as well as your notes form student conferences in order to decide what is needed for each student. Alternatively, you could just have them start writing (and perhaps some of them will make a plan) and see what happens, and therefore, what you will teach next!


Each of us is unique in how we process ideas, record them in a way that makes sense to us, and use that planning to help us to draft.

When decisions and choices in writing are driven by data, the habit of decision-making based on a few students will cease. You will use what you have seen and heard from your all of your writers to choose supports and lessons that truly fit the needs of your students. You will also see that your writers become more independent, engaged and successful!


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