Teaching writing vs. Assigning writing: How do we know the difference?

In my early years of teaching, I was a writing teacher who was often (unknowingly) simply assigning writing. I assigned research papers, narratives, argument essays, poetry, analysis papers. Although I always worked with models and felt like I was clear in how to reach the end goal, I ran into the same frustrations: I never stopped repeating the same directions, all of my students seemed to be making the same mistakes, and I simply didn’t understand why they were making the mistakes they were making when I had shown such great models. 

I remember one lesson I taught where I painstakingly color coded a research paper model for things like topic sentence, evidence, commentary/explanation, paraphrasing, transition sentences, and more. Did my students learn how to write as a result of that? No. It’s because I wasn’t teaching them the skills of crafting a piece of writing – I was teaching them how to copy someone else’s paper. 

Then, I became involved with the National Writing Project (NWP) and learned about the College, Career, and Community Writer’s Program (C3WP). It was while I was observing a lesson from C3WP that I finally had the lightbulb moment of how this program teaches students to identify and practice writing skills. Our thinking partner from the NWP had created a mini-lesson on using signal phrases to separate students’ words from the experts’ words. The intention of this focus was to highlight the “how / why” of source-based argument writing. Students need to be able to use sources to support their argument, but in order to do this, they need to be able to identify the ways that writers use language to integrate source material. 

As a coach to the teachers, I had reviewed the materials and felt like I knew what the lesson held, but as I sat and watched the actual learning unfold, I realized that I was finally experiencing the shift between assigning writing and actually teaching students how to write. 

In this mini-unit, the students were asked to annotate for a different purpose – to “read as a writer.” The slide (shown below) highlighted the fact that most often when we are annotating a text, we’re acting like a reader who is trying to understand the text and identify important information. But when you’re reading a text through the lens of being a writer, you’re looking for something very different: you’re working to examine the moves that writers make when they craft a piece of writing. For example, what types of phrasing does the writer use to indicate that they are referencing an expert? How does a writer use language to incorporate facts and statistics? What are those moves that are made throughout a piece of writing? 

After providing this specific purpose for reading, the students were able to shift their focus from reading the content of the article to identifying the ways that the writer was integrating source material into their writing. The first activity was reading through an article together, annotating where the writers were signaling that an expert voice was coming in. The teacher modeled this by doing a think-aloud. To explain briefly, a think-aloud is when the teacher literally speaks aloud their thought processing as they go through modeling the activity, showing how (and why) to annotate for students. She read a chunk of text, then did a think-aloud of her annotation, showing her act of identifying the signal phrase and annotating on her paper, which was projected on a document camera. 

After the teacher continued the think-aloud annotation model of the first few paragraphs, the students were released to annotate the second chunk in partners, which was discussed as a whole class before they were instructed to work independently on the third chunk. I watched in awe as the students worked with little to no confusion, both in partner work and independently, easily identifying the signal phrases in the article. Next, the students worked to try out writing their own signal phrases. The results were quotes and paraphrases from the article and the experts within, but this time, these words were separated beautifully from the student commentary. 

In my observation of this class, my teaching brain completely shifted. I immediately saw everything that I hadn’t been doing to actually teach my students the HOW of writing. They couldn’t identify the moves that writers make because they weren’t in the mindset of reading as a writer. 

This simple act of swapping the “reader as reader” for “reader as writer” changed the game for me and for the teachers who participated in that mini-lesson series at that school. 

Providing a written sample text isn’t enough – you need to dig into the text and have students truly explore the ways that writers use language if you want them to write effectively. When students are given model texts, if they don’t know what they’re looking for from a writer’s perspective, they can’t just pick up those writing skills. When students are given the insight that comes with a teacher think-aloud of reading and annotating a text, and when they are given the time to work through examining a model of writing with the focus of identifying how a writer crafted that piece, this is where they are able to learn and practice the skills of writing.