Back in 2003, Sam Wineburg, a history professor at Stanford, published a little essay (or quick rant) titled “Power Pointless.” I can’t find it online now, but it amounted to a plea to have students write papers instead of merely creating presentations. Bullet points can hide incomplete understandings; essays tend to reveal them.
Wineburg’s piece stuck with me because I’ve found it to be true even with well-developed presentations. I’ve attended the National History Day finals a few times, for example, and even at that high level I’ve found students who wrote papers to be much better prepared to answer questions. A focused essay with supporting details that are logically presented in well-connected paragraphs requires deep understanding and analysis, as well as writing skills.
And yet, especially with younger students, it can be difficult to determine the challenges underlying poorly written essays. Is the child still struggling with forming letters, spelling, punctuation, etc. such that she can’t express her understanding? Is she unfocused or unorganized? Or has she not developed much understanding?
Five teachers committed to improving students’ writing confronted those questions. In their classrooms, the widely used writing process is “significant, necessary, and vital,” but “not enough.” Through classroom R&D, they found that while students need to develop writing skills—from basic mechanics to sophisticated structures—problems are often grounded in a lack of understanding. Kids are asked to write before they’ve had a chance to learn much about their topic.
With over 130 years of teaching experience between them, these five teachers developed Writing for Understanding, an approach that emphasizes building and organizing knowledge as essential preparation for writing. They’ve written a terrific book that mixes cognitive science with their experiences as teachers and professional development providers. With everything from the rationale to explicit planning guidance to student writing samples, it’s a must read.
Here’s a small taste, drawn from the introduction and chapter 1:
Our work has convinced us that, even with a thoughtful question, many students fail when they write. This failure occurs … because they don’t have sufficient knowledge in the first place. No matter how thought-provoking the question is, one cannot reflect on knowledge one does not have. One cannot analyze information that is sketchy, inaccurate, or poorly understood. One cannot synthesize from nothing. It is up to teachers, then, to provide activities and experiences that give students knowledge and help them construct meaning from that knowledge….
It has long been a truism that one should write about what one knows; all writers know this, all teachers of writing or teachers who use writing in their classes know this. This truism has often led, however, to the idea that one should write about only what one already knows, or at the very least decide for oneself about what to learn and write.
One of the unintended consequences of this assumption has been that teachers have frequently not paid sufficient attention to how students actually acquired the knowledge about which they would write. In writing from personal experience, the knowledge could be assumed; after all, the knowledge was the writer’s own life events or ideas or reflections.
Because of this emphasis, the corollary to “write about what you know” has frequently not been articulated—that you should “know about what you write.” As a result, deliberate, intentional planning for knowledge building has not often been a part of the writing teacher’s approach….
Writing for Understanding is an approach that recognizes … that at the heart of effective writing, by any accepted definition, is the building of meaning and expression so that others can follow the writer’s thinking. Therefore, Writing for Understanding postulates that if students are to write effectively and with engagement—during testing, for their own personal growth, for school, for real life—they need to have certain elements in place. These elements are:
- knowledge and understanding which can be articulated in spoken and written language
- an appropriate focus for thinking about and synthesizing that knowledge and understanding
- a structure through which to clearly develop and present that knowledge and understanding
- control over conventions.
The rest of the book offers rich information for teachers on planning for understanding and supporting transfer of students’ writing ability—including the ability to learn about new topics to prepare for effective writing.
For a peek into a school that recently adopted Writing for Understanding—and some Listening & Learning domains from Core Knowledge Language Arts—take a look at these short videos: