Ruth Culham and Libby Jachles are the co-authors of Modes in Focus, a K–5 writing instruction program that provides support to teach narrative, informational, and opinion modes of writing. In this blog post, Ruth and Libby discuss the importance of teaching writing for long term student success.
Writing is the golden thread that connects what was taught to what was learned. It’s a critical literacy skill that has not been a focus in many schools, especially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There is no need to provide reasoning for this. We’ve experienced the rarest of rare circumstances that have challenged everyone to seek the best options for children and teachers in their communities. We’ve done the best we can. Now, as light begins to dawn on the pandemic, it’s a good time to think about teaching writing again and with a fresh eye about what works and why. In short, we need to teach our students how to write well.
For over thirty years, the traits of writing, which include ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions, have provided a foundational set of tools to understand writing and a roadmap for how to teach it. The traits are the common language that writers use to build cohesive text, regardless of the purpose.
Along with traits, however, writing teachers instruct students on how to create text for different purposes. These are modes, which include narrative, informational, opinion/argument writing. Students learn that plot, character, and setting, for example, are elements of narrative writing and exist in all narrative genres. The purposes for writing give students range to write with different intents.
Traits and modes work hand-in-hand. Traits are HOW we write and modes are WHAT we write. We need knowledge of writing with skill and purpose to write well.
Writing well: the end game for every writing teacher and student writer. When we teach writing, it can and often does feel overwhelming. Here is one simple guideline to simplify: “Squeeze it once and let it go.” Take one writing-related skill at a time, teach it well, give students multiple ways to understand and apply the skill, then move on. Learning accumulates. If you don’t address every single thing a student needs to learn every time he or she writes, it’s okay. In fact, it’s preferable. After all, areas of focus will likely show up on the next piece and you may choose to address a different one at that time. Pick something from the spiraling set of skills based on the trait model, (visit www.culhamwriting.com for examples) and do your best to help all students learn more about that one skill than they knew before. Don’t expect young writers to master it—just keep pushing forward. Then be wise. After four or five instructional days, move on to something new, knowing students bring with them the knowledge about writing they just acquired as they learn more. It’s a process.
Imagine the writing power that we’d be giving young writers if every single year they learned new information about the same writing skills through the grades, deepening their understanding of how to write over time. This is, after all, how everyone learns complex skills. If you also teach math you know this to be true. We begin with addition and then move on to subtraction, multiplication, division, algebra, geometry, and calculus. We can’t fathom how anyone would teach all these mathematics processes simultaneously and expect success. They build, one upon the other. Why, then, do we teach writing by throwing all the traits and modes at students at the same time and expect anything to stick?
To this end, we’re proud to share resources that help teachers break down writing traits and modes to make them teachable and manageable at the same time. In addition to Modes in Focus, our new resource for K–5 writing instruction, we’ve offered Trait Crates Plus for grades K–5 over the last several years to provide literature and lessons built with a spiraling scope and sequence of trait key qualities to support writing instruction
With these resources, books, and lessons that incorporate writing in different subject areas, it is our hope that students and teachers, in person or via remote learning, will find it powerful and rewarding to pull the golden thread of writing through their learning and teaching for long term success. We’re learning to work smarter when teaching writing and it’s making all the difference.
Photo (c): Deyan Georgiev/Shutterstock