ERIC Identifier: ED446338
Publication Date: 2000-11-00
Author: Smith, Carl B.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading English and Communication Bloomington IN.
Writing Instruction: Current Practices in the Classroom. ERIC
Over the past forty years, the emphasis in writing instruction has shifted
from product to process. A companion ERIC Digest entitled "Writing Instruction:
Changing Views over the Years" gives an overview of this development during the
period from 1960 to 1999. The present digest focuses on the experiences of
individual teachers as they searched for ways to put the principles of process
writing into practice in the classroom.
Teachers have found that writer's
workshops are effective in helping students master the principles of process
writing in particular. "The term 'writer's workshop' refers to an environment
conceived to encourage written expression." Because writing is difficult and
risky, "children need to know that their environment is a predictable, safe
place for them to take risks" (Bunce-Crim, 1991; cited in Bayer, 1999, p. 8).
Even first-graders can benefit from writer's workshops. Fisher (1995) says
that "writing workshop is an essential part of the curriculum in my first grade
classroom, and almost every morning the children are involved in self-selected
writing endeavors." This lets students know that writing is important and that
they can count on "daily opportunities to pursue their own topics, work by
themselves or with friends, and begin a new piece every day or work on a story
or book over time" (p. 1).
With young children, a systematic organization of materials is essential.
Furthermore, a predictable routine helps children get organized first thing in
the morning. Fisher also reads aloud to the class during the day so that
children can hear different models of written language. Also, frequent
mini-lessons are used to focus on specific areas of writing such as procedures
(using a folder), strategies (such as using books to inspire topics), qualities
of good writing, and skills (p. 2).
Bayer (1999) evaluated a first-grade class to find out whether or not
students actually became more confident, proficient writers after participating
in a writer's workshop. Children actively participated in the workshop two or
three times a week, and each session began with a mini-lesson that focused on a
specific topic such as sentence structure, correct capitalization, punctuation,
and grammar. After the mini-lesson the actual writing began, with the teacher
modeling her own writing along with the children. The teacher worked with
individuals as needed, helping each child focus on the appropriate step in the
Before beginning writer's workshop, students were asked how they felt when
the teacher said it was "writing time," whether or not they liked to write,
whether they preferred to pick their own topics, and how they described
themselves as writers. The same questions were asked during the final weeks of
the workshop. The results showed that to a great extent "writing workshops
improve the feelings and attitudes that first graders have about writing, as
well as how they feel about themselves" (Bayer, 1999, p. 6). For example, the
percentage of children who looked forward to writing time almost doubled, and
the number of those who said they liked to write jumped from 25 percent to 71
QUESTIONS ABOUT WRITER'S WORKSHOPS
Although the preceding
comments suggest that children can benefit greatly from writer's workshops,
there are questions and potential problems that need to be considered. Sudol and
Sudol (1991) discuss some of the questions that arose during the adoption of the
process approach and during a writer's workshop in a fifth-grade classroom
taught by Peg Sudol.
In the first place, there is the question of time. Although some recommend as
much as an hour of writing each day, it is difficult to devote this much time
when other subjects must be taught as well. Also, curriculum requirements may
make it difficult for students to choose their own topics because teachers are
required to teach specific kinds of writing (Sudol & Sudol, 1991, p. 294).
Another problem relates to pacing and deadlines. It is true that all students
should not be expected to work at the same pace, but a few students may have
difficulty ever completing any project. In addition, students are often put off
by workshops devoted to assigned writing types.
In general, the experience of Peg Sudol was positive in spite of the problems
encountered early on. "In the main, her children enjoyed the writing. (Now they
moaned and groaned whenever the workshop was canceled.) They wrote more than any
of her previous students, and the quality of their writing was better" (1991, p.
299). Among the most productive parts of the writer's workshop were the
mini-lessons, in which students could address problems such as run-on sentences
within the context of their own writing, not in abstract textbook lessons.
Routman (2000) points out that journal
writing is a good way to begin implementing a writing workshop because journals
can "promote fluency in reading and writing, encourage risk taking, provide
opportunities for reflection, and promote the development of written language
conventions" (p. 233). However, the advantages of journal writing can be lost if
teachers fail to monitor students' work and to let them know what is expected.
All too often, children's journals are flawed by sloppy, careless writing and
frequent misspellings of easy words. Furthermore, they seldom show clear
improvement over time because journal writing is too often used as a time
filler, not as something the children feel is really worthwhile. In many cases,
teachers do not provide any guidance for journal writing. They also tend to
assign topics rather than letting students choose their own. Unfortunately,
students come to accept sloppy writing and bad spelling as the norm for journals
since they don't seem to matter. Finally, teachers too often assign journal
writing as an activity separate from writing workshop, which makes it appear
that journal writing is not as important as "real writing."
Routman suggests that journal writing can become more worthwhile if teachers
encourage students to write for several days on a topic they care very much
about and if they teach students how to write with detail and voice.
Furthermore, students should realize that journal writing is only one type of
writing they are expected to do, and they should maintain high standards for
legibility and neatness (adapted from Routman, 2000, p. 235).
WRITING INSTRUCTION IN THE UPPER GRADES
Gustavson (1999) analyzed writing instruction in the upper grades by
interviewing some high-school students from a large urban school and others from
a private suburban school. They were immediately "struck by the modernist
picture that the students painted of their schools" (p. 3). The modernist view
is based on the belief that "there is a 'natural order' or 'best way' on which
all methodology is based. Once discovered, this best way should be, indeed must
be, followed" (Doll, 1993, p. 45; cited in Wartchow & Gustavson, 1999, p.
In both schools, analytical writing was stressed above all else, with
emphasis on the customary pattern: introductory paragraph, three body
paragraphs, and conclusion. "Once the students write their five paragraph
essays, often choosing theses created by the teacher, the teacher can easily
grade them because there is an identifiable structure" (Wartchow &
Gustavson, 1999, p. 5). This forces students to accept the format and procedure
prescribed by the teacher. Furthermore, students come to rely on the teacher for
topics and motivation; they are not shown how to develop and explore ideas on
their own. They are also put off by the "simplicity and pettiness of their
writing assignments" and the knowledge that teachers "only expect a sentence or
two" when students respond to various readings (p. 7).
As for personal or creative writing, many students question its worth because
it is given no value in school. They also believe that creative writing must
necessarily lack coherence because it does not follow the five-paragraph
pattern. Finally, some students realize that teachers view creative writing as
chaotic and therefore worthless because it does not fit into a "required body of
quantifiable, systematically constructed knowledge" (Wartchow & Gustavson,
1999, p. 11). When asked what kinds of creative assignments they would prefer,
students provided some valuable insights. One told of rewriting the end of a
Shakespeare play and then performing it for the class. Another was challenged by
exploring what might happen if "Wuthering Heights" were set in the present day.
Students also suggested that assigned topics could be turned into thesis
statements, encouraging students to argue their points and take a more active
approach to writing.
Students also find it difficult to reconcile the conflict between what they
are required to write in school and what they want to write for themselves. Time
constraints often cause students to "go through the motions" to complete a
school project according to a prescribed procedure. Also, students realize that
they can be intellectually lazy as they churn out school writing according to
the required format; on their own, their writing leads them to probe below the
surface and try to think things through.
As a result of the findings summarized above, the authors have been led "to
argue for an aesthetic, post-modern orientation in the teaching of writing.
Within the students' frustrations and desires lies the question: Why do many
English teachers not engage their students in a discourse on the aesthetics of
writing?" (p. 20). A modernist writing curriculum fails to encourage proficient
writers because it does not allow students the chance to experiment with various
approaches beyond the five-sentence paragraph structure. In addition to
advocating a clearer connection between the process and the product, the authors
"also strongly believe that the power for understanding writing lies in the
actual doing of the art, not in the exclusive observation of it" (Wartchow &
Gustavson, 1999, p. 20).
"Too often in English classrooms, teachers expect students to critique the
writing they read with little or no understanding of the craft, the historical
context, or the personal nature of that writing. Essentially, students must
write about an art of which they have no experience" (p. 20). By encouraging
students to move beyond convenient structures and to enter into the intricate
process of creating what goes into those structures, teachers can help them
discover that what they have to say is important and that there are many ways to
organize their thoughts to form convincing, coherent arguments.
Bayer, R. A. (1999). The effects of a first
grader's participation in a writer's workshop on their ability to become more
confident and more descriptive writers. Kean University: Master's Research
Project. 41 pages.
Bunce-Crim, M. (1991). What is a writing classroom? "Instructor", 17(1),
Doll, W. (1993). "A post-modern perspective on curriculum". New York:
Teacher's College Press.
Fisher, B. (1995). Writing workshop in a first grade classroom. "Teaching
PreK-8", 26, 66-68.
Routman, R. (2000). "Conversations: Strategies for teaching, learning, and
evaluating". Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Sudol, D., & Sudol, P. (1991). Another story: Putting Graves, Calkins,
and Atwell into practice and perspective.
Wartchow, K., & Gustavson, L. (1999). "The art of the writer: An
aesthetic look at the teaching of writing". Paper presented at the Annual
Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Montreal, Canada.