Enhanced English Teacher

A blog about using technology in an English classroom

Teaching Writing

August 22, 2009 by Tara Seale · 6 Comments · class assignments, English Resources, writing

I recently purchased Crafting Expository Argument by Michael Degen.  I am always looking for the magic book that will provide me with all of the answers to help me turn my students into writers.

In the “Foreword to Teachers,” Degen said a few things that all teachers of writing should note.

Too many teachers merely assign a paper, provide little instruction over the methods for achieving expectations, and scream while grading “these terrible essays.”

He admits that he unfortunately did this as well, and I too am guilty.  I can’t imagine a teacher who hasn’t done this at some point, especially early on in his or her career.  In this same section, he reminds teachers that we must always remember not to assume that our students will just know how to write by the time they reach us, regardless of their grade level.

The ability to communicate through writing develops at a much slower rate than does the ability to communicate through speech and requires much more formal instruction.

In my own classroom, I have discovered that the process of writing must be practiced and modeled by the teacher in front of the students “repeatedly,” or the students will simply not learn how to write.  Degen ends the section he titles, “Demonstrate the Writing Process Repeatedly” in the “Foreword to Teachers” by saying,

To keep assigning papers without teaching how to write them is professional negligence.

In this last statement, Degen does not apologize for rebuking teachers, and  I welcome his censure and expectations.   Knowing it is my job to teach my students to read critically and write clearly,  pushes me to continually seek out the advice of authors, teachers, and other professionals who can assist me in my endeavor.

How does Degen provide assistance for writing teachers?

Degen provides his own list of editing symbols to assist the student in understanding their own writing.  He also provides teachers with numerous examples to use as models for revising student writing.   I particularly found chapter 4, “Grammar for Structure and Syntax,” useful.  Is this the magic book that will turn me into the writing teacher that every student needs?  No, it is a tool that I will use as I develop my own writing abilities and my own strategies for modeling effective writing.  Yes, I highlighted and sticky noted the really good stuff that I will use, but I have many, many books with my annotations.  Although all of this advice becomes overwhelming at times, what I have discovered as I continually seek answers is that the strategies start becoming a part of me.  I begin the school year reviewing my favorite writing instruction books and the more I re-read the pages, the more I learn and the more I incorporate all of this advice into my teaching, which also makes me realize that I will never find the perfect book.  I will always be seeking knowledge that will help me become a better teacher.  This is my job, and as long as I am seeking and employing effective strategies in my classroom instead of merely handing out assignments, I won’t be guilty of negligence.

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6 Comments so far ↓

  • Nancy Stewart

    Thanks for this post. I have taught students with learning disabilities (and many “typical” learners, too) for more than 20 years, and I still find writing is the most challenging thing to teach. I agree that writing develops more slowly than speaking: oral language is what underlies written language. Often students who struggle with writing have also struggled with oral language. I wish there was magic book that would be “the one” to follow for writing instruction. If you ever find it let me know! In the mean time, we’ll keep highlighting, and post-it noting, and learning just like our students.

  • sinikka

    Hi Tara,
    Thank you for this post. It came at the same time as I, too, am thinking on how to improve my students’ writing this year. And ouch, did those quotes from Degen’s ‘Foreword to Teachers’ hit home hard. I have certainly been guilty of professional negligence – with the excuse of an overloaded curriculum and too little time. So poor students have had to struggle with writing assignments alone at home – with the same results again and again.
    This year I am going to give more time to process writing, which I hope will be of help to my students. Have you ever tried this (the basic stages are listed here, for example http://www.teenlit.com/teachers/process.htm)? I know I come from a totally different background from yours, since I teach English as a foreign language, but many of my students are quite advanced, some almost at native level in their writing, so the challenges are similar. My students are very lazy to edit their writing, and have a rather perfunctory attitude towards it – over and done with as quickly as possible as any old boring homework. I’m hoping that modelling the drafting and editing with process writing will give them a new approach.
    Wishing you a good school year and let’s keep seeking better and better strategies!

  • sinikka

    Hi again,

    Awfully sorry, but the link in my previous reply doesn’t work, because the close bracket and questionmark shouldn’t be part of it. It should read like this:
    Sorry for not being more careful!

  • Julie Stephenson

    Thanks for sharing this book with us. It sounds like something I’d like to read and to share with my colleagues at Ruston High. I, too, have lamented terrible essays and have come to realize that writing what I assign or at least thinking about how I would write it if I were to has informed my decision-making somewhat. Crafting specific scoring guidelines for the assignment to give to students at the time of assigning the writing keeps me honest, too. I read this post while working on lesson plans for next week, which was apropos as I am spending all of next week having my students write commentary in reaction to analysis before we ever start drafting an essay. I think that by spending this time with them, I will see better essays and they won’t experience the panic that I have induced on other unsuspecting and all-too-trusting students in the past. I wish I could apologize to them all one at a time…

  • Michael Daly


    I appreciate your sharing these thoughts and this important work. I have heard Degan’s sentiments time and again from fellow Little Rock Writing Project colleagues and most recently from a graduate professor of rhetoric and writing. I think this work could be a good candidate for a book study for any teacher of literacy (and who can say they are not a literacy teacher?). Let’s suggest this work to Nancy. If this work and Francine Prose’s work Reading Like a Writer were offered as an ongoing book study/professional development, I would be among the first to commit.

    All the best to you this semester and beyond.

    Keep Teaching,

  • Tracy Franzen

    Thanks for the mention of Degen’s book, which sounds very interesting. You are totally right about the search for the “perfect writing book”. I’ve found that you just need to learn about and absorb as many teaching techniques as you can from many different sources, try them out, and then keep what works for you. I’ve found a lot of great writing resources at http://www.dedicatedteacher.com. Good luck in the school year and happy searching!

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