Assign more writing but avoid burnout

Assign more writing, grade less, and ensure students won’t trash your feedback

The importance of teaching writing

  1. According to a study from Time magazine, college grads (from prestigious institutions) can’t find work because they “can’t think critically and creatively, solve problems or write well.” Our college grads aren’t knowledge-lacking. They’re deficient in all the skills you get from . . . writing.
  2. The number one way to improve student writing is to get them writing more.
    1. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” —Stephen King (It, Carrie and dozens of other thriller novels)
    2. “It doesn’t really matter what you write, but you must keep up practice. Writing is like a sport, you only get better if you practice. If you don’t keep at it, the writing muscles atrophy.”—Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson series)
    3. These points are repeated by almost every major author throughout history to the present.

Four major problems about teaching writing

    1. Teachers don’t have time to assign more writing. In 2002, the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE) assumes teachers spend 20 minutes grading each paper. A study published in 2006 did the math: at an average of 4 pages per essay, 7 min per page, 25 student per class that’s 11.5 hours per grading cycle—for ONE draft! That’s 23 hours for two drafts. The average college writing class assigns four papers. We’re up to 92 hours of grading for the semester, which is about 6 hours a week. But that’s for ONE course! With an average teaching load of four courses, you’re grading 24 hours a week! And that’s a class dedicated solely to writing. What about “kitchen sink” English classes where teachers are also grading spelling, vocab, literature, and firemaking? In short, teachers don’t have time to assign more writing.
    2. Composition studies show little evidence that students remember solutions to errors from one paper to another. If you mark run-on sentences in Jaron’s project 1, for example, he will still make run-on sentences in project 2.
    3. Students (and parents) tend to focus only on the grade, ignoring the marks and comments on their papers.
    4. Since World War II, college English departments have tracked a steady decline in college freshmen writing abilities. Decades later, we are still faced with the same problems.

Bad solutions to the problems

    1. Intensification—Teachers fill up papers with even more comments and increase frequency of grammar drills.
      1. Increasing intensity and frequency of ineffective methods is just more of the same
    2. Avoidance—Teachers procrastinate on grading or say writing can’t be taught
      1. With the increasing acceptance of moral relativism, some writing teachers have recently said that writing can’t be taught, avoiding grading altogether.
      2. Avoiding grading does a disservice to students. Look for a solution.
    3. Shame—Out of frustration, some teachers have resorted to harsher methods of getting results
      1. One report of a teacher attaching McDonald’s applications to failed papers
      2. One of my students was told by her teacher, “Did you go to a public school or something? Your grammar is horrible.”
      3. Read bad papers in front of class
      4. These methods destroy writer confidence. Confidence is the first resource tutors build in struggling writers.
    4. Reduction—Assign less writing or give shorter assignments
      1. The average essay in the early 1900s contained 162 words. Today, that has jumped to 1500. Students in the 1900s wrote one or more essays a week. College students write 4 in a semester. High school students may write 1 a quarter. Elementary students have far fewer opportunities for bigger writing assignments.
      2. All the research agrees that increasing student opportunities for writing has a great impact on student performance, so reducing amount of writing doesn’t follow
    5. Efficiency—Teachers have developed a number of strategies for grading writing faster:
      1. Mark only presence of problem, don’t solve it for student
      2. Respond to example papers in class
      3. Checklists, and rubber stamps, codes
      4. 1-1 or small group conferences
      5. Peer Review
      6. Audio comments
      7. Respond only with praise, no negativity
      8. Self-evaluation: students grade themselves in an essay explanation
      9. Respond to only a few issues on each paper
      10. Teach writing as a process, using portfolio grading
      11. (This list is not exhaustive)
      12. New problem: how do you choose the most effective method?


Apply a tutoring worldview to your teaching

The tutoring worldview is not new, not complicated, not some bizarre, untested theory. It’s a simple shift from a bottom-up to a top-down approach to writing, and it emphasizes the writer. It’s grounded in writing center theory, but it is easy to adopt into elementary, secondary, and post-secondary classrooms.

Here’s the worldview:

“Our job is to make better writers, not necessarily better writing.”

—Stephen North

An illustration

All teachers received this essay excerpt at the beginning of the session:

I reach for the call button and I find it and I push it and I wait and thirty seconds later an Attendant arrives. How can I help you? Where am I going? You don’t know? No. You’re going to Chicago, Sir. How did I get here? A Doctor and two men brought you on. They say anything? They talked to the Captain, Sir. We were told to let you sleep. How long till we land? About twenty minutes. Thank you. Although I never look up, I know she smiles and feels sorry for me. She shouldn’t.

Teachers were asked to find all the errors. The passage brought many grammatical frustrations into discussion.

But, what if I told you this was part of a larger essay with the same errors all the way through? And what if that essay was many many pages long, so long, in fact, that it was book length? And what if I told you it was famous?

Well, it is. It’s from A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, a (slightly fictionalized) autobiography of the author’s recovery from drug addiction. You see, the entire piece is stylized to make you feel disoriented. All the errors are intentional: no quotation marks make you feel disoriented—exactly as he felt under the influence of drugs.

We often assume that our student’s writing contains errors, and we approach their essays with an attitude of correcting mistakes, but this is the wrong worldview.

Remember, our job is to make better WRITERS, not better writing.


Four tutoring strategies that allow you to assign more writing, grade less, and ensure students won’t trash your feedback

  1. Higher Order Concerns (HOCs) vs. Lower Order Concerns (LOCs)
    1. HOCs
      1. Thesis—Do they have one? Is it clear Does it match the rest of their paper?
      2. Audience—So what? Why does their main point matter? Who does it affect?
      3. Purpose—Does paper follow instructions? Is it consistent?
      4. Organization—Clear? Match thesis?
      5. Development—Evidence/show instead of tell? Thorough?
    2. LOCs
      1. Spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax, format (MLA, APA, etc.)
    3. Focus on HOCs because this is the root of the problem
      1. Imagine perfect grammatical paper. Student made little to no grammar mistakes. They even used a semi-colon . . . but it doesn’t meet assignment guidelines. Grammar didn’t matter to them.
      2. Or, take creative writing, what if the writer works on the perfectly worded scene . . . but ends up removing the scene later because it doesn’t flow from the previous scene or push the conflict?
    4. LOCs can become HOCs
      1. In tutoring, we are trained to see but ignore error—unless, it becomes a pattern. Then the LOCs become HOCs.
    5. When to focus on LOCs.
      1. Challenge your advanced writers by marking all of their HOCs
      2. ESL and international students need LOCs more than HOCs
      3. Each student is different. Learn their patterns. (This is one reason grammar drills aren’t effective. Grammar instruction needs to be individualized and specific to a paper)
      4. Force yourself to ignore most mistakes! You are allowed to mention one or at most two LOCs if you just can’t help it.
    6. You are NOT a proofreader. As students improve their HOCs, they will take on more ownership and be ready to understand LOCs. Because writing is top-down, not bottom up. Learning linguistics does not necessarily make you a better writer.
    7. Teach these concepts in context. Use 10 minute or less lectures, and have students do LOTS of practice papers. Circulate the room and ask them questions.
    8. Increases impact of writing assessment by hitting most important details first. This helps students think like actual writers. It also reduces your workload because you are NOT going to mark everything, only the top HOCs and maybe a LOC or two. Plus, your students will have stronger papers, which will make you less frustrated, and you might find yourself not even noticing the grammatical issues.
  2. Improving takes lots of practice—assign LOTS of writing
    1. Sketchbook—daily entries
    2. Start class with a prompt
    3. Required word counts
    4. Multiple drafts (3+)
    5. Shorter assignments
    6. Assessment
      1. Peer Review
      2. Self-reflections based on rubrics
      3. Ungraded teacher responses
      4. Conferences
      5. Portfolio—compile best work
    7. Assigning more writing gives students more time to practice what they are learning. It forces them to become a writer. It actually reduces your workload because they are learning through process more than feedback. Did you catch that? Your feedback is less important than their practice.
  3. Successful conferences
    1. Break the ice
    2. Set the agenda
    3. Read the paper aloud
    4. Make marks
    5. Share paper, student owns
    6. You talk 30% or less; they talk 70%
    7. Use silence
    8. Pos, Neg, Pos
    9. Pitch all suggestions as questions
    10. Review
    11. Requires time, but it’s easier to reach consensus and learn in the one-on-one. Do this in class and vary time. Sometimes 1 minute, sometimes twenty. Develops personal relationship and creates a direct connection that will make students internalize your feedback. It takes less time than writing down all feedback.
  4. Asking good questions
    1. React as a reader: “I’m confused” “I think you mean __. Am I right?”
      1. Builds audience awareness
      2. Discovers weak areas
    2. Request info: “Can you tell me more about…?”
      1. Learn author’s train of thought. May help organize paper
      2. Helps them think it out
    3. Request clarification: “What are you trying to say?”
      1. Develops topic
    4. Develop critical awareness: “So what?”
      1. Develops higher order thinking
    5. Refocus: “How would someone who disagrees respond?” “How does this relate to …?”
      1. May help expand papers
    6. Prompt: “What happens next?”
      1. Get them talking
      2. Help elaborate
    7. Asking questions gives students prompts for expanding and revising papers. It focuses them on HOCs. It reduces your workload because you put the burden on them to answer the question.