When Giants Unite: The CCSS meet the 4Ws of writing

Feb 12, 2013
Ruth Culham, author of the Traits Writing program, discusses how we can revolutionize the way we teach writing, and how these methods can effectively meet the demands of the Common Core State Standards.. The following is an excerpt taken from her blog post on International Reading Association’s Reading Today Online Engage blog. The Common Core State Standards are on everyone’s mind these days. For me, the positive impact of the standards so far has been a renewed interest in how we improve writing instruction in every classroom, at every grade, and in every content area. It’s hard work, and I welcome the energetic, enthusiastic national dialogue about writing. To begin with, there is a harsh reality to address: What we’re doing in writing instruction now isn’t working. CCSS or not, changes need to be made. According to The Nation’s Report Card (NAEP, 2012), only 27 percent of eighth graders are proficient in writing and, of those students, only 3 percent are advanced. Consider the bigger number: 73 percent of eighth grades are not proficient. And the results for grade 12 are starkly similar: 24 percent proficient and 3 percent advanced. No improvement in four years? I’m sure you will agree that these statistics are dismal and simply not okay by anyone’s measure. The implications are huge: Everything we do in writing must be examined for its effectiveness. All of our writing cards need to go on the table, and those that are not producing desired results should be discarded in favor of those that are. Five-paragraph essays, Friday spelling tests, out-of-context word practice, excessive prompted writing–these are the types of practices that need to be rethought. In their place we should use methods that support many different learning styles, teach spelling skills in a variety of ways (using student writing for practice instead of worksheets), balance prompted writing with self-chosen topics, and so on. In other words, we should use best practices—or what I like to call, the 4Ws. Writing process: the recursive steps writers go through to generate text Writing traits: the language used to assess and teach writing Writing modes: the purposes for writing Writing workshop: the structure of the writing classroom These are quick, thumbnail definitions, of course. But my point is that the effective teacher of writing embraces all four of the Ws, not just one or two—and there is a world of studies and reports that supports this claim: Writing Next, Because Writing Matters, Writing Now, Informing Writing, The Neglected R, among others. Years of well-documented research reveal why certain methods work better than others, but sadly, for many of today’s students, their writing education looks similar to students’ of past generations, with few if any Ws. Writing instruction has been slow to change in some measure due to its inherent complexity. It is, after all, thinking aloud on paper, and there is nothing easy about that. But it is possible to embrace that complexity and teach writing well, if we choose to. I believe students need diverse and multi-faceted teaching that focuses on how each of the 4Ws can help them improve. They need opportunities to apply the writing process (draft, edit, revise) extended pieces of writing over time. This work takes place in the writing workshop structure in which teachers conduct focus lessons (or mini-lessons), and students choose topics and work uninterrupted on their pieces, conferring with the teacher as needs arise. Trait-specific focus lessons develop specific, targeted skills, one at a time, so students learn how to revise and edit their work and take it to the next level. And, students’ longer, more extended pieces should rotate between the three modes of writing¾narrative, expository, and persuasive¾so they explore full range of purposes for writing. Each of the 4Ws adds substance to the writing classroom—and when we unite them, the whole becomes much greater than the parts. So where do the CCSS fit into this long view of writing reform? The standards spell out what students should know and be able to do, grade by grade. The 4Ws are how we move students toward meeting them. To continue reading, click here.