Posts for August 2016

Thoughtful Learning Blog

The Thoughtful Learning blog features articles about English language arts, 21st century skills, and social-emotional learning. Insights come from the teachers, writers, and developers at Thoughtful Learning, who have been creating top-notch instructional materials for more than 40 years.

Teacher showing paper to teenage girl during examination in classroom
Tyler Olson/

Why do the new standards place so much emphasis on multi-paragraph writing? Because multi-paragraph writing helps students develop fluency in building arguments, explaining ideas, and telling stories—thinking skills they need for college and career.

Yet we often struggle to get more than a paragraph at a time out of our students. A recent study found that fewer than 1 in 10 writing assignments in urban middle schools produce multi-paragraph responses, and just 16 percent include evidence drawn from sources. The middle school assessments for the Common Core require this rigor, but how can we create a writing program that fosters this kind of writing and thinking?

Step 1: Make Time for Writing

Make Time for Writing

The first barrier to rigor in writing instruction is time. Multi-paragraph writing requires time. Students can't write at length and think deeply if they write for only five minutes at a time. Just as we have traditionally carved out time for reading, we must also do so for writing.

Writing is like weight lifting. The only way to build writing muscles is to do it routinely and purposefully. The very act of crafting words develops thinking skills. And just as every weight lifter is consciously working to get stronger, every writer should be consciously writing to get smarter.

Illustration of student with pen in ear
© Thoughtful Learning

With the new school year beginning, make it your goal to help your student writers accomplish and/or experience the following things.

We’d like students to . . .

  • Establish a regular writing routine to develop their writing fluency.
  • Know that improvement is a certainty if they make a sincere effort.
  • Feel good about writing because it gives them an opportunity to explore and shape their own thinking.
  • Understand the value of pushing their thinking to the brink of confusion, if need be, to form their best ideas.
  • Write about topics that truly interest them.
  • Participate in a writing workshop with students and teachers writing and learning together.
  • Interact comfortably with one another about their writing.
Broken Chain

We ask students to develop arguments, problem-solution essays, and literary analyses because we believe they promote higher levels of thinking. However, by making these assignments, we may be restricting their thinking.

Isn’t building an argument, in essence, an exercise in following a formula—making a claim, backing it up, countering the opposition, and so on? Of course, there is thinking going on during the writing, but not the kind that is truly mind-expanding. Instead, the writer focuses on making sure that all of the parts of the argument are stated effectively and arranged in the best way. The same is true with a problem-solution essay. What’s so intellectually stimulating about stating a problem, providing background information, discussing possible solutions, and highlighting the best one? As Thomas Newkirk says in Critical Thinking and Writing: Reclaiming the Essay, “When essays become formulaic, they hinder rather than foster critical thinking.”

Of course, students need to learn how to build academic essays. But really, how many problem-solution essays do students have to write before they get it? The same holds true for building arguments or shaping explanatory essays. In today’s English or composition classes, such essays are often assigned because of state standards and/or to help students prepare for district or state writing tests. But a steady diet of this stuff can be mind-numbing. How much enjoyment and intellectual stimulation do students really get from composing yet another process or comparison essay? It’s like facing a diet of the same things meal after meal. Tuna casserole again?