Teaching for Good Composition Writing

Teachers and home schoolers: How do you teach good writing skills without writing the paper for the child? I guess teachers at least can use examples from their students’ papers to discuss openly. As a homeschooler, it is hard to find the balance between teaching by example (giving general examples to avoid putting words in her mouth) and (although highly tempting) rewriting the paper myself?

Maybe someone could recommend good websites that teach by example?

What age(s) are you teaching?

There is one way, and one way only, for a person to learn how to write.


Have her read stories (at the appropriate level) and ask her about the process of narrative. Then ask her to tell you in writing a story (fictional or factual) using the same type of process as that used in the book she just read.

Then have her read some more.

Really, I teach English to students of all ages, and the weakest writers are those who read very little and regard it as a chore, while the best writers are avid readers. There’s almost a perfect correlation between reading and writing skills.

Isn’t that only half the battle? The other key to learn to write is…to write! Absorption and emission. You take in as many good examples as you can, and then you try to emulate it.

I definitely agree with you that reading is absolutely essential. But writing is, like any form of exercise, improved by practice.

Ray Bradbury said that the first million words anyone writes are garbage. I’m terribly afraid he was right.

The OP is talking about compositions. So you would have the student read a lot of stories and then expect him or her to know how to write a composition? You see the disconnect in that?

This is a common problem with many traditional writing classes: little or no modeling of the target discourse.

You scaffold, and at first you scaffold to the point that you really do feel like you are writing the paper for them, but those few little things that you leave them to do are hard when you are new to writing. And then each paper you do less and less until they are doing it on their own. Throughout the experience, you talk about process, not just this one example, so that they understand about applying the skills they learned on this paper to the next one (this is NOT intuitive for kids: they think you are telling the how to write this paper right here and so don’t automatically retain/file the information.)

Schaffer method is a pretty good framework for emerging writers: the model is “Assertion, evidence, commentary”. You can make it as rigid or as flexible as you want, but the basic idea is to teach kids that they need all three of those–you have to answer the question, support your answer, and explain the connection between the evidence and the assertion.

I like to write crib sheets where I give step-by-steps for thinking about a particular type of writing: not a formula for how to write, but an organized way to approach it. And I let them use those while they write.

I read their writing back to them a great deal. This really helps, but is painful for everyone. Kids do not naturally reread their own stuff, and they usually think their vision of what they intended to write is what turned up on the page. You can also give check-lists for self-evaluation.

I could say a great deal more, but I have to go to work!

One other thing: you mention rewriting. There is a school of thought that every composition should be revised until it’s perfect. I think this is stupid. It puts the focus on the product, which doesn’t matter, and away from the process, which is everything. Kids get sick of prompts and want to move on. So don’t be afraid to “rewrite” a whole composition for her, pointing out weaknesses and strengths and showing alternate ways to do it (and giving her opportunities to make her own suggestions as well), and then go have her write something else completely new, applying those same skills. Not getting too focused on this paper right here is really important.

The best teacher I ever has was my ninth grade English teacher. He had us, every day for a solid semester, churn out a simple five paragraph essay. We practiced that structure until we could do it in our sleep. We had it so ingrained in our brains that we became incapable of writing a poorly structured essay.

After the basic form is mastered, it’s a lot of “show, don’t tell” and “I don’t know what this means, you have to explain it.” Just keep at it, line by line if you have to, until using illustrative examples and giving context become natural. The trend these days is to want citations from whatever text you are working off of for every assertion, so try to drill those in as well.

And before any of this, make sure the student understands the purpose of an essay. It is always, always, always an argument. It’s not on opinion, or an explanation. It’s an argument for a specific point, and the student should always be able to identify the argument that they are making.

Other than that, it’s a matter of practice and feedback. Drill the simple ones until they are second nature, then drill more sophisticated techniques. Memorize and use transition words. They will sound stilted at first, but soon the student will get more savvy with them and they wi become valuable tools.

The age you’re teaching is of critical importance: teaching writing to a five-year-old, as I do with my daughter, is fundamentally different from teaching it to a nine year old, as I do with my students, which is turn is fundamentally different from teaching writing to a twenty-year-old, as I did as a college writing tutor.

Desert Dumpster’s advice is pretty far off, in my opinion. It’s like saying the best way to learn to play piano is to listen to a lot of music. Certainly that’s part of the process, but it’s only part.

My five-year-old needs to learn the idea of expressing thoughts. She needs to learn the joy of putting symbols on a page and having someone she loves read those symbols and know what she was thinking. She needs to become comfortable with letter formation. Right now, the organizatoin of her thoughts is almost entirely immaterial. We give her lots of opportunities to write in ways that she enjoys, from sitting on our laps as we type letters to her grandparents, to giving her lots of construction paper and glitter and markers with which to make Valentines for her classmates.

My nine-year-olds are past that. They know how writing works at this most basic level, but their organization is not great; the primary writing focus of the year is figuring out how to write decent connected paragraphs. I give them a lot of writing assignments in which I tell them, “In the first paragraph, introduce your story with a hook. In the second one, describe the setting and the main character…” or, “In the first paragraph, introduce yourself to the mayor, congratulate her on her victory, and explain what you’d like her to do.” My goal is to get them accustomed to the idea of organizing complex thoughts into paragraphs.

My college students mostly knew how to do that. For them, I worked on difficult points of conventional grammar and how to cite evidence, on clarity and precision of writing, on how to choose and develop a thesis that was neither obvious nor stupid.

What level are you working on students with?

My wife and I did not do any writing for our kids. We did spend a good deal of time reading and gently questioning what they wrote. At any time in the writing process they could bring the product to one of us to read. We would then probe with comments like “Explain what you mean by…”, followed possibly by “OK, I see. What I thought you meant when I read it was … How could it be made more clear to the reader?”.

It is time consuming, but any time you can get the student involved in the correction process learning increases exponentially.

My ninth grade English teacher was a goddamned beast - she had us writing these incredibly rigidly structured 5 paragraph essays, and when we turned in some bad ones she actually had us number our sentences and label them saying what they were doing. She was also a bear about really antiquated stuff like never saying “you” and forbidding the use of the singular “they” and urrrgh.

And after a year of Essay Boot Camp wherein your topic sentence came at the end of the first paragraph and you lined up three examples for each assertation and blah blah blah, we came out stellar essay writers who, in college, knew the rules so we could break them. There’s definitely something to be said for rigidity when learning something initially.

Plus I could fart out a “_____ As A Tragic Hero” in my sleep.

Structure is for chumps. Some idiots are so stubborn they can’t be taught to write well, but by god, it’ll be structured – and then the teacher gets to claim that as a victory.

“Read” is correct. Yes, you can improve your writing through writing, but only reading helps you level up.

Second to reading is giving a shit, and this is so often overlooked. I read professional corporate emails everyday that are written in text speak. They know their coworkers and bosses think less of them, and they don’t give a shit. One of the best things a writing teacher can do is instill a fear of being perceived as an idiot and the flip-side of that – being perceived as “in the club” of literate, intelligent people all through one’s writing.

As a layman, thinking of my own experience, I agree that if you want someone to learn how to write a particular sort of composition, they need to read some good examples of that kind of writing. My biggest complaint about my own high school English classes is that, though we read plenty of poetry and fiction, I don’t remember reading many models of the kind of thing I was expected to write.

When I was a college writing tutor, we had weekly meetings that were basically a bonus course on how to be a good writer. For one meeting, the prof/supervisor brought in an essay from the New Yorker as a model; our job was the find the essays thesis.

It blew our minds: the thesis was, we eventually decided, explained in the third paragraph, the fourth paragraph, and the final paragraph (something about comparing OJ Simpson’s car chase to the sacrifices of symbolic kings in ancient Greece, I think). We’d all been taught to have the thesis statement in the first paragraph, but here we were reading an absolutely beautiful essay in one of the premier publications of essays in the English language, and not only wasn’t the thesis in the right place, it wasn’t even in one place.

So yes, I definitely agree: reading quality, authentic work in the appropriate genre is key.

HOWEVER, A COUNTEREXAMPLE! A few years ago I was teaching students to write fantasy short stories, and one of my best writers in the class turned in an absolute mess of a story, a bunch of disconnected scenes with new characters showing up all over the place and no plot that could be followed. I talked with her about it and learned that she was so smitten with our most recent readaloud, the marvelous Tale of Despereaux, that she’d decided to emulate its complex structure of four interlocking storylines.

Point being, when teaching from quality, authentic models, you need to be careful that they’re appropriately structured for your students’ ability level.

It’s also really important that kids have something to say. Too often I think we try to teach kids the symptoms of good writing, and not the causes. So we spend a great deal of time on things like strong introductions, transition words between paragraphs, meaningful conclusions. But over the years I’ve become more and more convinced that if a kid has something to say–not just a vague plan, but understands a complex (for that age level) idea, sees why it is complex, understands how one idea feeds into another, and understands why it is significant, you start seeing all those other things with hardly any instruction at all.

The trick is helping them develop the complex idea. This is where I think it can feel like we are “writing it for them”, but I honestly think you have to filter that through the lens of “kids are not adults”. What to you sounds like a blatant “Write about this” to a kid is a vague hint, because they misunderstood half of what you said, making the other half confusing, and they are going to have to do a lot of mental work to beat it into some sort of shape that they can use.

A thousand times this.

Count another in the ‘read more’ camp.

Are you talking about being able to vomit out 5para essays like a zombie with each sentence in exactly the right spot in each para? Or are you wanting the kid to recognize and understand what makes GOOD writing in many forms, and the ability to master these individual variations and be confident moving between them for their entire adult life?

If the former, then practice writing. If the latter, spend all the time you think you should spend on writing on reading excellent works, and talking about what makes them excellent - varied and precise vocabulary, use of show don’t tell, management of reader expectations, understanding of the subject, ability to keep a reader’s attention, etc…

And then, after they’ve gotten so they can recognize the craft of good writing, find some nasty writing. Bad, dismal, ineffective, uninteresting writing, and have the kid try to make it better. It’s always more fun to edit someone else’s words, and this also reminds them that it’s harder than it looks.

Finally, once they read because they love reading, easily recognize good (and bad) writing, and can perform basic improvements and editing, then they need to find something they’re passionate about (or at least passionate enough they can write about) and then they write.

It won’t be a perfect 5para school essay to put into your folder, but it will be much better for the kid, and isn’t that the actual point of all this?

I did the same thing when I taught freshman comp at UCLA, because I’ve always been annoyed at how the promotion (usually by high school English teachers) of the traditional “5-paragraph essay” formula with the thesis always in the same place is essentially telling students that they have to be boring expository writers.

I think at heart, though we don’t like to admit it, we all know why high school English teachers engage in this formulaic approach to writing pedagogy. It’s because one of the few cognitive challenges more daunting than academic (or expository) writing is the teaching of it. To really engage with developing writers in a way that can benefit their writing requires intensive dialog–intensive back-and-forth inquiry grappling with the content of their ideas. It’s really hard work, but this is what eventually leads to coherence and cohesion–after that the mechanics and whatnot become much easier to address. For developing writers, the social dimension of the writing process is extremely important. (Experienced writers internalize it, and don’t have to engage in actual dialog as much, if at all.)

Of course, how many high school English teachers have the willingness–let alone the time or resources–to actually do this? No many, so it’s not surprising that they fall back on such formulas.

Writing instruction shouldn’t end with the formula. The formula is a foundation. The point of drilling is to make it so that students understand the basics of “introduce, back up, summarize” so that they can move on to more interest and complex writing. Gotta walk before you can run.

Well, that’s the convenient analogy that they would have us accept unthinkingly, but I don’t believe it is apt for this situation. You’ll find that many of the most highly regarded essayist in the English language never wrote five-paragraph essays in their lives, or had to force themselves to put a thesis in a certain place before they could “run.” The reason we’re so convinced that we need to learn this convention is simply that so many writing instructors are asking us to do it. It’s become institutionalized because it makes it easy to evaluate large amounts of writing (for the Subject A, for example) by using it as a gauge.

Summarizing, paraphrasing, providing support, etc. – all of these skills can be developed (often inductively) by reading and paying close attention to well-written expository or academic writing which demonstrates them without following such a formula. But they usually don’t emerge from the developing writer within the short span of a semester. We want to have this laboratory where the teacher explains the rules, the students try to follow them, and if they have been good students, they will demonstrate their knowledge of the rules by the end of the term. But truly developing writing skills usually isn’t that neat–it’s a more circuitous, sometimes messier, more long-term process, that typically doesn’t demonstrate so itself so quickly for the sake of a grade.

I don’t think the formulas are necessarily bad–just kind of delusional. They’re more the historical by-product of the U.S. being the first nation to take on the wholesale public education of its people. They provide a sense of comfort and security when faced with such a monumental task.

There is a middle ground between formulas and the pure inductive approach. Both have significant weaknesses: the formulaic approach leads to predictable essays filled with boring ideas; the inductive/whole language approach works really well with the kids who would have been good writers regardless, but is less effective in moving a writing-resistant kid from “can’t put together a sentence” to “can write a functional email”. It also, in my opinion, focuses much too intensely on the writing task in front of the student instead of building a toolkit for how to write.

What I focus on is providing systematic ways to think about texts, and to construct essays. So, for rhetorical analysis, it’s “Start with the context. Who is speaking? To whom? When? Ok. Now think about purpose. Ok. What rhetorical challenges is this author going to have to overcome to accomplish that purpose? Ok. What are some methods he uses to accomplish that? Where? How do they work? Ok. Now, your essay. You need to establish that context in your introduction, and you need to have a thesis that more or less answers the basic questions–what is he trying to do, and how does he do it? Otherwise your reader will get confused (and you will too!). Ok. Now you need to talk about the different ways he does it. Each section of the passage needs its own paragraph. Work through the passage. That’s easier for the reader to follow, and you won’t confuse yourself. Make sure you explain how things work, don’t just give me the grand tour of the passage.”

I find that this sort of approach works. They don’t need a formula for what to say–because that can’t be formulaic, it’s different every essay–but they do need a formula for what questions to ask themselves, and what tasks need to be done.