Reading To Write & the Common Core State Standards

Posted on November 11th, 2014 by Anthony Petrosky and Vivian Mihalakis

English Language Arts is Bigger Than the Standards

We begin by saying the obvious: the CCSS are standards, markers in a big universe of teaching and learning. They define spaces in which essential aspects of teaching and learning occur. But they need to be built into something bigger: disciplinary curriculum.

The ELA/literacy curriculum must encompass the writing standards, but it should ask more of students than the standards. Many people have said this, including the authors of the standards.

That said, we would like to focus on one best practice in ELA that's not featured in the standards. This practice invites students to write in the genres in which they read. This means that when they read essays of various types, for example, they write about and like them.

Writing about and like what we read offers many opportunities to learn. Students can analyze and interpret ideas with the help of cognitively challenging tasks, or they can pose their own text-based questions. They can speak with or back to authors. They can test authors' ideas against other cases. They can imitate authors' sentences. They can work in the spirit of authors to gather and use information and sources as they do. They can use and transform authors' methods.

But dangers lurk if we turn reading selections into templates to slavishly imitate. The same is so with poetry, drama, short stories, speeches, epistles, letters, and so on. There's much to be learned from writing about and like the texts we read in and across genres, and although the writing standards don't ask for this type of work from students, there are good reasons for it to have a substantial presence in any ELA/literacy curriculum.

Writing About & Like Texts

Two key issues underlie this argument for genre-based writing about and like. The first has to do with the poor range and quality of essays that are placed before students in traditional ELA anthologies. Many of the essays have been sanitized to avoid difficulties and controversies. Editors gravitate to ease and safety over complexity and controversy. The essays that we've read and studied in these anthologies offer little cognitively challenging work for students. The picture brightens somewhat for stories and is particularly bleak for poetry.

The CCSS draw our attention to the need to put engaging and challenging readings, especially essays, in students' hands, so that they can see that writing ranges far and deep in its subjects and methods. Nonfiction essays have suffered more than poems and stories at the hands of textbook editors, so the CCSS draw our attention to essays more than to stories and poems. We must put engaging essays in students' hands, so that they can see that serious writers compose with repertoires of methods and sentences; that serious writers do not compose three and five paragraph essays with thesis statements; and that serious writers don't work like Rapunzel in the Template Tower churning out essays in enormously limiting forms.

Writers research; they interview; they play out muddled thinking in all sorts of sentences; they follow leads; they talk with others; they read a lot in the genres in which they write; and they let their subjects and methods, their ways of gathering and using sources, determine the shapes of their writing.

Second, when students read engaging, challenging essays that offer them windows into possibilities, they have the kinds of models before them that they need to expand their repertoires of reading and writing for college and careers. When they get to college composition seminars, for example, they're lost if all that they know how to write looks like these three and five paragraph templates prompted by dull-headed sentence starters or predetermined outlines and rubrics.

Our composition seminars at the University, for instance, offer students sequences of challenging texts to read and write about. Our goal is to arrange students' work to highlight their relationships as writers to the past and to the words of others, to history, literature, and culture. Our students' intellectual engagement benefits from seeing those relationships across multiple texts that take on similar subjects from different perspectives as interesting, surprising, and productive.

To our thinking, these meetings between the past and the present in students' readings, between someone else's words and ideas and their own, represent the basic scene of writing instruction. They are the workplaces, the laboratories, the arenas of what is called a "liberal" education. Writers learn to write from reading, from pushing themselves to experiment with ideas and methods, from appropriating and transforming the ideas and methods of others, and from struggling to articulate their reasoning for others to understand. They learn from extending other's projects and imaging their own.

Templates, on the other hand, are not engines for the interesting, surprising, and productive. Templates deceive students into thinking that their job as writers is to fill in the blanks—whether they are sentences or paragraphs or whole essays with received and regurgitated ideas—rather than to write the essays that they are not yet prepared to write, to confront rather than erase difficulties.

From tidy formulas students learn tidy formulas. They learn to furnish the tidy house with received ideas and predictable sentences rather than with the struggles of sorting through their reasoning.

As writers, students need readers who think back and raise questions, not instructors who plod through their essays checking them against simplistic rubrics. Templates and rubrics teach students that writing is something pre-formed to templates and rubrics, disconnected from genuine reasoning and thinking; that writing is predictable and predetermined by the criteria represented in rubrics rather shaped by imaging and charting courses through challenging and often difficult ideas and language.

The Writing Standards

The CCSS writing standards focus on explanation, argument, and a specific type of narrative. To us as writing teachers and writers, the writing standards are too narrow. We understand the reasons for this. The standards' authors think students have had too little practice with text-based explanation and argument in their schooling, so the standards make these types of writing, rather than types of genres, prominent in the same way that they put the emphasis on nonfiction essays.

But even within this sort of thinking, it's a fool's errand to try to separate types of writing from each other—explanation and argument in this case. We can show you thousands of examples of good writing in which explanation is argument and argument is explanation. And rooms full of smart people could spend all day arguing over which sentences are explanation and which are argument. People have tried to make these distinctions in writing for decades, and these efforts, often represented in textbooks, have produced stilted curricula and the formulaic writing that we should disregard rather than emulate.

Our concern with the writing standards, then, has to do with the ways in which they invite us to obsess over distinctions that lead us down a rabbit hole into confusion as we try to convince ourselves and our students that there are differences that matter between explanatory and argumentative writing. This obsession plays out in instruction in formulaic assessment-like tasks that force the distinctions and that try to nail down slippery rhetorical distinctions.

The big issue embedded in this example of trying to distinguish explanation from argument in writing has to do with the purposes of the standards. To us, they are occasions to think about what constitutes good curriculum in the disciplines. Writing, like literacy, is disciplinary specific. Why wouldn't we use engaging disciplinary examples for students to read and write rather than half-baked definitions that reach for distinctions that don't matter? We should be using what we know from best practices in the disciplines as the frameworks for teaching the kinds of reasoning promoted by the standards. If we do that, we can use those disciplinary examples as our guideposts rather than the artificial distinctions between explanations and arguments.

Give the Standards Credit

All of this said, the standards deserve credit for pushing us to think about inviting students to write about texts and to use those sources in their essays. And they're right as well to push us beyond personal responses to texts and narrative memoirs. It's not that personal essays and memoirs should be kept out of school writing; it's that students have few opportunities to write about texts and, we would add, to write about the things and people and events in the world that catch their interests, that incite them to do genuine research in the spirit of journalists, historians, and scientists.

As writing teachers who may someday see these students sitting in freshman composition seminars, we certainly want their reading and writing experiences in school to include text-based essays, but we want their experiences to be bigger than just that, and we'd argue that they can be if we give up the soul numbing experiences in their steady diets of writing templates, writing that's not composing, sentence starter paragraphs, short answer test-like assignments, and rubrics. We're arguing (in this explanatory sentence) that students benefit as writers from engaging with texts, but that they also benefit from engaging with ideas, with events and phenomena, with figures past and present, more than they benefit from writing about themselves and their lives. If most of students' writing is personal, they miss opportunities to engage with ideas that situate cognition outside the self in topics that range from fashion to science, from culture to philosophy.

According to a study conducted by Arthur Applebee and Judith Langer, even in the best high school writing programs, students write most of the time without composing, regurgitate known information into formulaic templates, and complete fill in the blank and short answer exercises. Only 20.9% of all the thousands of pieces of writing that they collected from middle schools and only 17.6% of high school writing "represented extended writing of a paragraph or more." These findings don't bode well for students having even barely adequate experiences with the kinds of extended disciplinary text-based writings called for by college-level composition courses.

Our Pitch

Let's use the CCSS as an opportunity to get students writing again. They'll need to write evidence-based essays about texts, and that's a good thing. Let's not limit their writing to that though. Let's use it as a springboard to encourage more writing in the disciplines and ELA. Given the bleak picture painted by the recent research, if students actually compose substantial evidence-based essays on texts, that alone would be a huge improvement over what's going on now.

But finally, students benefit from writing in all the genres at all the grades, except for perhaps K–3 where personal narratives and stories seem to be foundational. So let's use the standards to imagine ELA as the discipline in which students can write in all the genres in all the grades. Why can't emphases shift at different grades without eliminating any of the genres?

Let's use the writing standards to open the conversation on the teaching of writing