kitchen table math, the sequel: Revolutionary writing instruction that is 'an old idea done better'

Friday, September 28, 2012

Revolutionary writing instruction that is 'an old idea done better'

Here's another case of everything old is new again.  A New York City school finds that returning to fundamentals like explicit grammar instruction and formulaic writing has succeeded in turning around the dismal performance of high poverty students.  No iPads were required.

The problems at New Dorp High School were similar to many that afflict other lower-income public schools.
... students from poor and working-class families. In 2006, 82 percent of freshmen entered the school reading below grade level. Students routinely scored poorly on the English and history Regents exams....
Students’ inability to translate thoughts into coherent, well-argued sentences, paragraphs, and essays was severely impeding intellectual growth in many subjects....
... the students’ sentences were short and disjointed.
... These 14- and 15-year-olds didn’t know how to use some basic parts of speech. With such grammatical gaps, it was a wonder they learned as much as they did. “Yes, they could read simple sentences,” but works like the Gettysburg Address were beyond them—not because they were too lazy to look up words they didn’t know, but because “they were missing a crucial understanding of how language works.
This writing skills problem is widespread.
According to the Nation’s Report Card, in 2007, the latest year for which this data is available, only 1 percent of all 12th-graders nationwide could write a sophisticated, well-­organized essay. Other research has shown that 70 to 75 percent of students in grades four through 12 write poorly. ... for decades, achievement rates in writing have remained low.
There appears to be a massive failure in learning writing skills.  What type of writing instruction is used in most public schools?
... elementary-­school students ... today mostly learn writing by constructing personal narratives, memoirs, and small works of fiction ...
... pedagogical pendulum that has swung too far, favoring self-­expression and emotion over lucid communication....
For most of the 1990s, elementary- and middle-­school children kept journals in which they wrote personal narratives, poetry, and memoirs and engaged in “peer editing,” without much attention to formal composition....
The explicit instruction of previous times has morphed into discovery learning, where students are encouraged to figure it out themselves, to "construct" their own learning.  Being creative has become more important than following formal rules.
... Fifty years ago, elementary-school teachers taught the general rules of spelling and the structure of sentences. Later instruction focused on building solid paragraphs into full-blown essays....  About 25 years ago, in an effort to enliven instruction and get more kids writing, schools of education began promoting a different approach. The popular thinking was that writing should be “caught, not taught,” explains Steven Graham, a professor of education instruction at Arizona State University. Roughly, it was supposed to work like this: Give students interesting creative-writing assignments; put that writing in a fun, social context in which kids share their work. Kids, the theory goes, will “catch” what they need in order to be successful writers. Formal lessons in grammar, sentence structure, and essay-writing took a back seat to creative expression.
Low-income students have particularly suffered from the current approach.
The catch method works for some kids, to a point... Kids who come from poverty, who had weak early instruction, or who have learning difficulties, he explains, “can’t catch anywhere near what they need” to write an essay....
New Dorp High School tried something different.

Education schools don't spend much time on how to teach writing, so it's not surprising that New Dorp teachers were unaware of their own teaching failures.  They blamed the students' poor performance on poverty, low intelligence, or laziness.  The school tried 'innovative' methods, like small learning communities and special after-school programs.  Nothing worked, until they carefully explored the missing skills and took specific steps to address the gaps.  Deirdre DeAngelis, the school principal, learned of the acclaimed writing program used by principal Judith Hochman of the Windward School, a private school for learning disabled children.

The way Catholic schools used to teach, using explicit instruction and a writing "formula"
The Hochman Program, as it is sometimes called, would not be un­familiar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950. Children do not have to “catch” a single thing. They are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones... It is, at least initially, a rigid, unswerving formula. “I prefer recipe,” Hochman says, “but formula? Yes! Okay!”
... “The thing is, kids need a formula, at least at first, because what we are asking them to do is very difficult. So God, let’s stop acting like they should just know how to do it. Give them a formula! Later, when they understand the rules of good writing, they can figure out how to break them.”
... Teachers stopped giving fluffy assignments such as “Write a postcard to a friend describing life in the trenches of World War I” and instead demanded that students fashion an expository essay describing three major causes of the conflict.
The successful results of the back-to-basics (revolutionary) writing program at New Dorp
... This spring, the graduation rate is expected to hit 80 percent, a staggering improvement over the 63 percent figure that prevailed before the Writing Revolution began.
... newfound ability to write solid, logically ordered paragraphs about what she’s learned, citing examples and using transitions between ideas.
Reading comprehension also improved.
As her understanding of the parts of speech grew, Monica’s reading comprehension improved dramatically. “Before, I could read, sure. But it was like a sea of words,” she says. “The more writing instruction I got, the more I understood which words were important.”
More schools should try this '"old" way of instruction.
The Hochman Program being used at New Dorp High School is writing instruction that offers direct and precise guidance incorporated into a systemic process, along with explicit grammar instruction and a strong focus on sentence  composition.  This is very similar to the Kerrigan method of Writing to the Point, a personal favorite of mine.  I strongly believe this type of instruction would benefit most types of students, offering better preparation for college or career than the fluffy free-for-all type of writing instruction now popular in many public schools.  Perhaps this New Dorp success story will help fuel a change with more schools following in their footsteps.

(Cross-posted at Cost of College)



Grace said...

Hainish mentioned this story in a comment yesterday, so I thought I would post this.

Julie in GA said...

The Facebook assignment made it to my 5th grader's social studies lesson over the Civil War. He had to create a "Fakebook" page for one of the important people from their study.

I found it ridiculous, especially since these kids are not even old enough to have a REAL facebook account...

Catherine Johnson said...

Thanks for posting!

I'm going to go read NOW!

Catherine Johnson said...

One huge problem is that nobody knows how to teach writing any more, even if they want to. (Pronoun disagreement intentional)

I've been going through old copies of the English Journal, College Composition, and a few others, and sure enough: nearly all useful advice about how to teach writing vanishes circa 1985.

In recent years the occasional revisionist article crops up, written by English teachers who concluded that the process method doesn't work. But these teachers often still share the premises of process pedagogy, which creates a new set of problems..

Grace said...

... "Fakebook" page ...

Oh dear, this is not what we need to have our elementary students doing to improve their writing.

6th grade teacher said...


Given your closer proximity, would you be able to offer any insight on the student population of the Windward School (identified in the article as a private school for learning disabled children)? The website for the Hochman writing program has testimonials from other private school administrators who state that students who have been through the training at Woodward are able to easily transition back into their own affluent private schools. Are the students at Windward on the severe end of the LD spectrum or are they "low average" kids whose affluent parents are able to pay for an expensive private diagnosis of some learning disability? I am not arguing that the students do not have a problem with processing language into writing. I am just pondering whether their inability to construct organized, logical writing is more a result of the "typical" constructivist flavored writing instruction that is rampant in today's schools rather than a true brain-based disability. (Just as the whole-language approach to reading approach resulted in many students with reading disabilities which could have been resolved with a firm foundation in phonics and a more traditional approach to teaching reading.) Would better, more traditional initial instruction in writing have prevented the lack of skills that resulted in the LD diagnosis?

Also, do you check your verizon dot net address?

Catherine Johnson said...

I should know lots more about Windward than I do -- I know lots of parents whose kids have attended school there, and I learned a few years back that Windward's head for many years was the mother of a close colleague of mine at the National Alliance for Autism Research! (I think she was the head... )

The kids I know who've attended Windward are what I think of as "high end" SPED, meaning: nothing like my kids! (My two SPED kids are severely autistic.)

Typically the kids have dyslexia, and my sense has been that their dyslexia is quite disabling. In terms of IQ, the kids I know are at least average and mostly likely above average.

I have the ***sense*** that Windward kids are the same population attending Morningside.

I also have the sense that they do a fabulous job.

And I've been told, by a parent, that Windward does not view Irvington schools favorably. I gather that Windward advises parents in my town to move their kids to a different school after they leave Windward.

Take that for what it's worth: that's what I've been told by the parent of a child attending Windward.

Catherine Johnson said...

I DO check my address --- cijohn @ --- did you send me something??

Can you re-send?

I periodically go 'off email' to try to catch up, so I may not have seen your email --- sorry!

Catherine Johnson said...

I just read your comment closely (SEVERE eyestrain reading onscreen these days!) ----

My ***sense*** is that Windward kids have serious dyslexia that is 'organic' and quite real.

AT THE SAME TIME, many of these kids were taught to read using balanced literacy, so their problems have been compounded by very poor reading instruction in Westchester public schools.

I have yet to look into the connection between dyslexia and writing ---- I don't know whether you read the post about my student who, I thought, read brilliantly (super-brainy student), but who absolutely could not write.

Commenters all talked about the existence of dyslexic students who manage to conquer reading but are still stymied by writing.

I know believe that connection 'intuitively,' but don't understand it.

SO....bottom line:

a) my experience of Windward students is that they have real dyslexia, meaning they have a reading problem they would have even with the best instruction
b) my experience of Windward students is that, frequently, they have NOT had the best instruction
c) I don't know how good writing instruction would factor into all this

These kids **are**, often, victims of constructivism, balanced literacy, writing workshop, reading workshop.

But the ones I know also have LD.