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Writing Isn't Math, But It's Taught Like It!

Updated: 4 days ago


math class

Throughout my six years as a consultant, I have worked with and trained dozens of teachers in writing instruction. In each school and classroom, teachers and students face very common challenges and issues, most of which have been alleviated after changing their approach for teaching writers.


What I have experienced during this transformation is that the main obstacle for teachers to overcome is not management or even time. The most difficult transition for teachers is changing their mindset around what writing is meant to be, and how to truly support the growth of writers.


I've spent countless car rides after coaching sessions, time spent lying awake at bedtime, discussions with close colleagues and hours preparing for training sessions considering what will assist teachers in understanding the current reality of their writing instruction and why it isn't quite what writers need.


My most recent comparison has been: Math vs Writing.


Math vs Writing: The Goals are Not the Same


Let's consider the goal of math instruction. What is it that instructors of students in math are hoping the students will achieve?


When I proposed this question to a group of teachers in a recent workshop, I was very impressed with their answers. They listed many objectives such as thinking outside the box, finding multiple ways to arrive at an answer, communicating reasoning, and more. All of their responses were fantastic! Yet none of them were what I was hoping for :(


The answer I imagined, and eventually shared with them, was that the goal of math instruction is to teach students to arrive at the correct answer.


I do agree with all of the teachers' responses. However, when you think of us using math for a career, in each instance, regardless of how an employee arrives at an answer, it must be the right one. Every single employee who works on a project must get the same, correct outcome. My husband is a director for an electrical engineering firm. When his engineers are working on restructuring a substation, the math has to be correct, or it fails.


Let's turn to the goal of writing. Imagine a career in writing, or even just the types of writing most of us need to complete within many of our job positions. Although there are techniques and structures to use within the many different modes or types of writing, the ultimate goal is to communicate in a clear, yet original manner. There is not a "right" or "wrong" answer with writing.


As you ruminate over this idea, you may be thinking that writing can be "good" or "bad", and I would agree. But that does not change the fact that there is no "one correct way" to write any piece of writing.


The Effect on Instruction


This difference in goals or outcomes for math instruction vs. writing instruction is paramount for shifting mindsets around writing in schools. If the goal for writing is to support students in becoming strong writers who are able to compose original pieces, we cannot teach them as though they are all the same, or as though they are all meant to produce the same piece. What we need to do is allow them to learn and create writing on their own and in their own unique way.


The problem is that teachers aren't quite sure how to do so, especially due to the components of grading and report cards that have such an impact on the way we teach. Education has been altered to be shaped around what brings the expected results, what produces high test scores and what can be "subjectively" graded. I am careful to use the word "assessed" due to the fact that assessing and grading are two different practices. But I digress.


This roadblock to effective writing instruction is where a new perspective on writing is crucial to helping teachers ignore the pressures over getting the "right" outcome from their writers and focus more on growing independent writers who actually know how to write!


Let's take a look at a few common practices I often observe during writing time. All of these practices are focused on the piece of writing-the outcome being produced- not on growing writers.


  • Provided topics or writing prompts

  • Identical planners (graphic organizers)

  • Recopying of planners

  • Teacher directed/guided planning, drafting, revising and editing

  • All students working at the same pace in the writing process

  • "Checking" by the teacher before moving on to the next step


In all of the above, where is the originality? Where is the meaning or connection to writing? Where is the thinking? Where are the opportunities for mistakes or even risk-taking? Where is the voice of the writer able to shine through?


Even in math, teachers must allow time for students to work through problems on their own. They have to know how to move from one step of a formula to the next. That is often missing in writing instruction. When a teacher instructs students to "list all of the reasons you believe plastic straws should be illegal", they are inhibiting writers from practicing what to do prior to writing an argumentative piece. When they tell them to "revise with a focus on repetition" they are preventing students from choosing a strategy for revision on their own. Subsequently, the next time they are asked to write a similar piece of writing, they may not know what to do without guidance or prompting. The steps of writing include so much by way of decision-making-planning, organizing, revising- not to mention the need for confidence and connection to a writer's piece.


But where in the above list are students offered the chance to decide anything? The planner tells them what to write and oftentimes how to write it. There could then, be time for heavy revision after drafting from the planner, but that is not often the case. When the teacher is deciding whether or not the planner is ready, the draft is finished or what to do to complete or fix the draft, the decision-making and originality is taken away from the writer.


Writing therefore is turned into math. Everyone does the same steps in the same way, producing an almost identical result. And unfortunately, minimal learning occurs that supports the writers for their future work. If you were to have students in classrooms where a more traditional approach to writing is being implemented to write a piece on their own, nine times out of ten it would not look anything like what they produced with the class. Why? Because THEY didn't really do it in the first place.


We don't need to control everything our young writers do. We need to TEACH them how to use good writing practices and then let them write! That is the only way to help them learn to be writers! Writers who write in their own voice and produce their own result. Writers who plan in their own unique way and make choices that are unique to their style.


This does not mean writers are not bound to follow text structures or proper grammar. It does not mean that writers do not need to be taught techniques and strategies for writing. It only means that we as teachers need to be more of facilitators than directors. This is why the workshop model is so effective, as students must "workshop" what they learn in a way that solidifies it but also allows them to develop skills at their own pace and in their own style.


Next Steps


The first step to moving way from teaching writing like math is to find out where your students are in terms of their writing development. This can be accomplished by administering a baseline writing assessment.


The process begins with 1-providing simple directions to your writers (write a narrative piece about a true event, write an informational piece about a topic of which you know a lot about, write an opinion piece that shares your thoughts on something about which you feel strongly). The wording may vary a bit based on your grade level. 2-You would then give the class a pre-determined amount of time to complete the entire writing process (no re-writing, just revisions on the same paper). I have found that kindergarten and first grade need no more than 25-20 minutes, second-fourth no more than 45, and fifth grade and up no more than 60. You will then collect the pieces and analyze their work according to a school rubric or your chosen categories (ie; structure, focus, voice, craft, conventions, etc.) Even simply taking anecdotal notes on each student's piece and/or organizing them into groups of "high, medium and low" is helpful for getting to know where they stand as writers of that genre.


After you have assessed their writing pieces, you will choose ONE area in which you can begin to "pull back the reigns" and allow your writers to write on their own. Perhaps you will demonstrate a few ways to plan a certain type of writing and then allow them to choose one. You may have them decide when to move from planning to drafting. Consider what writers need to be able to know and do in order to be successful and go from there. Start small and add on as you are ready.


We need our writers to be independent and show us what they can do...so let's get started!




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