Note from Dave: This post and its pyramid of writing priorities has been polished, improved, and incorporated into the writing chapter of my best-selling book, These 6 Things: How to Focus Your Teaching on What Matters Most. If you like my blog, you'll love the book — it's a condensed and coherent version of all that I've been recommending for the first decade of my blog. Learn more here.
If we could institute only one change to make students more college ready, it should be to increase the amount and quality of writing students are expected to produce.Dr. David Conley, “The Challenge of College Readiness” in Ed Leadership, 2007
If you want to take college- and career-readiness guru David Conley's advice and get your courses or your department or your school maximizing how much and how well students write in your setting, I know of no simpler and saner approach than the “Writing to Learn” chapter of The Core Six by Silver, Dewing, and Perini.
In the chapter the authors introduce a way of thinking about writing that has greatly clarified for me how to approach Conley's challenge. Over the past several years of speaking to fellow teachers about Silver et al.'s ideas, I've come to conceive of them like this:
Let's imagine a social studies department that is doing no writing at all — zero words written per semester.
This department's first objective should be to incorporate daily provisional writing. Provisional writing is only for the purpose of learning. It does not need to communicate to anyone but oneself. This would include written warm-ups, written exit tickets — even notes based on reading or listening activities. In adding this, the department goes from zero words written per semester to thousands (assuming an average of 100 words written during each lesson).
Next, the department seeks to build on this foundation with readable writing tasks. In this case, student writers are writing for an audience, but that audience is likely limited to peers or the teacher. The prime example of readable writing would be single-paragraph responses to questions about key content knowledge in every course. At this level, readability is important, so skills like clear topic sentences, capitalizing proper nouns, using evidence to support arguments, and so on are important to A) model with exemplars, and B) provide periodic, focused feedback on. Because the teaching and grading/feedback demands are higher for readable writing, the objective at the end of the project would be to master the art and science of students completing one readable writing assignment per week, on average. Compared to the incorporation of provisional writing, this is an in-depth project. It is my estimation that very few schools have successfully built this into their social studies classes, so upon completion of this task, the social studies department would really be doing standard-setting work.
Finally, the department would enter world-class status when, on top of the work above, it begins teaching and expecting students to produce one polished piece of writing per month. This was not uncommon in my college history courses, but it's exceedingly uncommon in high school social studies classes.
If you want to know how monthly polished writing can be done in high school, then don't ask me — I am still working at the readable writing goal. Yet despite not having reached the top of the pyramid yet, last year my ninth grade AP World History students almost doubled the percentage of students who wrote in the top quartile on the free-response section of the national exam. (See Figure 2 below.) How did they do it? Not through outrageous innovation, and not through a teacher willing to sacrifice his family life on the altar of student success. No — they leveraged noncognitive factors (e.g., they worked hard, had great attitudes, and monitored their beliefs) to make much of my plodding attempts to work my curriculum up the Pyramid of Writing Priorities, one assignment at a time.