Writing revolution: Back to the past

A Staten Island high school with mostly poor and working-class students, New Dorp High was tired of failure. After trying various reforms, such as small learning communities, Principal Deirdre DeAngelis and her faculty set a goal:  Teach students to write clearly.

When students learned to write — in history and science, as well as English — they learned to read, argue and analyze, writes Peg Tyre in The Atlantic. Test scores rose significantly and the graduation rate soared.

Nell Scharff, a lecturer at Baruch College, worked with teachers to figure out why New Dorp students couldn’t write. The poor writers had basic reading skills, but didn’t use “coordinating conjunctions to link and expand on simple ideas—words like forandnorbutoryet, and so.”

Teacher Fran Simmons asked her freshman English students to read Of Mice and Men and answer a prompt in a single sentence:

“Although George …”

. . . More than a few wrote the following: “Although George and Lenny were friends.”

Twenty-five years ago, schools of education began teaching new teachers that writing should be “caught, not taught,” says Steven Graham, a professor of education instruction at Arizona State.

Roughly, it was supposed to work like this: Give students interesting creative-writing assignments; put that writing in a fun, social context in which kids share their work. . . . Formal lessons in grammar, sentence structure, and essay-writing took a back seat to creative expression.

. . . For most of the 1990s, elementary- and middle-­school children kept journals in which they wrote personal narratives, poetry, and memoirs and engaged in “peer editing,” without much attention to formal composition. Middle- and high-school teachers were supposed to provide the expository- and persuasive-writing instruction.

Many kids didn’t “catch” writing, writes Dorp.  Pressured to raise reading scores, secondary school teachers neglected writing instruction.

The principal sent New Dorp teachers for training at Windward, a private school for children with language-related learning disabilities.

Children . . .  are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts—butbecause, and so. They are instructed on how to use appositive clauses to vary the way their sentences begin. Later on, they are taught how to recognize sentence fragments, how to pull the main idea from a paragraph, and how to form a main idea on their own.

In every class but math, New Dorp students wrote.  In chemistry class, Monica DiBella had to describe the elements with subordinating clauses.

Although … “hydrogen is explosive and oxygen supports combustion,” Monica wrote, “a compound of them puts out fires.”

Unless … “hydrogen and oxygen form a compound, they are explosive and dangerous.”

Learning parts of speech improved Monica’s reading comprehension. Before, I could read, sure. But it was like a sea of words,” she says. “The more writing instruction I got, the more I understood which words were important.”

In class discussions, students were required to use certain phrases, such as: “I agree/disagree with ___ because …”

In Monica’s fifth-period-English discussion of the opening scene of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, teacher Angelo Caterina asks why Willie Loman is so tired.

“Willie Loman seems tired because he is getting old,” ventured a curly-haired girl who usually sat in the front. “Can you explain your answer?,” Monica called out. The curly-haired girl bit her lip while her eyes searched the book in front of her. “The stage direction says he’s 63. That’s old!”

. . .  “I agree that his age is listed in the stage direction,” said John Feliciano. “But I disagree with your conclusion. I think he is tired because his job is very hard and he has to travel a lot.”

Robert Fawcett, a loose-limbed boy in a white T-shirt, got his turn. Robert had been making money working alongside the school’s janitors. “I disagree with those conclusions,” he said, glancing at the prompts. “The way Willie Loman describes his job suggests that the kind of work he does is making him tired. It is repetitive. It can feel pointless. It can make you feel exhausted.”

New Dorp is now considered a model school, writes Tyre.

Common Core Standards stress expository and analytic writing over personal narratives, she notes. But many writing experts think students will be bored by lessons in grammar, sentence structure and argument. Creative writing will motivate students, they believe.

Meanwhile, Monica DiBella is applying to college. Her Regents scores predict she’s ready.  “I always wanted to go to college, but I never had the confidence that I could say and write the things I know.” She smiles and sweeps the bangs from her eyes. “Then someone showed me how.”

About Joanne


  1. “Writing should be caught, not taught…formal lessons in grammar, sentence structure and essay writing took a backseat to creative writing…journals, personal narratives, memoirs and peer editing”

    The teacher, no doubt, is the guide on the side, while the kids pool their ignorance. Does anyone in the ed world know that, while spoken language is natural, written language is not? How many thousands of years did it take for humans to develop one? No wonder my relative’s college-prep HS freshman couldn’t identify the subject of a sentence with only one noun/pronoun. No wonder that not only college professors but law and med school professors have students that can’t read the textbooks, let alone write anything coherent.

    Please, let’s return to the days when those who wanted to keep a diary or write stories did so on their own time. Sometimes it seems as if the ed world is populated by people who liked to play school when they were little; lots of artsy stuff, lots of play and little or nothing academic. They don’t seem to realize that writing stories and personal narratives is torture for lots of kids, besides being too intrusive into kid’s lives and thoughts. Of course, it’s easier not to be responsible for kids actually learning specific knowledge and skills..

  2. New Dorp High School! I love you! THAT is how it needs to be done!

  3. “But many writing experts think students will be bored by lessons in grammar, sentence structure and argument. Creative writing will motivate students, they believe.”

    If you don’t like boredom, go join a circus. Self motivation is highly overrated.

    • Although infrequently identified as such, the Puritan/Protestant work ethic used to be explicitly taught in schools; self-control, industriousness, perseverence, delayed gratification and preparation for the future were all highly desirable traits which were expected to be demonstrated on a frequent and regular basis. That was true of my public school and the Catholic schools attended by my friends and my DH. The expectation of making everything easy and fun didn’t exist then.

  4. What are you people talking about? Are you seriously arguing that teaching writiing will improve math skills? That’s what the article is claiming.

    • Mathematics has a grammar too.  Perhaps training the brain to recognize grammar in one language transfers to others.

      • Delusional much?

        • Does order of precedence mean anything to you?  The commutative property of certain operators as analogous to the conjunction “and”?

          Now support your position.  Doing a bunch of fMRIs and showing me that grammar and math use completely different parts of the brain will do.

    • Assuming that there was no change in math instruction– and there may very well have been a change unmentioned in the article — then I would throw out the possibility that more literate students are better able to understand their math textbooks and the word problems on standardized tests.

      The progress looks promising, and I’m personally biased in favor of the changes,but we are talking about the education world. There are always wonderful results from entirely unrepeatable programs.

      • Also it is possible that the math scores didn’t change much. The numbers provided in the article are for English and history:

        Pass rates for the English Regents, for example, bounced from 67 percent in June 2009 to 89 percent in 2011; for the global-­history exam, pass rates rose from 64 to 75 percent.

        and remedial/cram classes as a whole:

        The school reduced its Regents-repeater classes—cram courses designed to help struggling students collect a graduation requirement—from five classes of 35 students to two classes of 20 students.

        More kids are graduating:

        This spring, the graduation rate is expected to hit 80 percent, a staggering improvement over the 63 percent figure that prevailed before the Writing Revolution began.

        but I find it perfectly possible that the 17 percentile point increase was entirely due to kids who were just barely scraping by in math, but were failing reading/literature/history. The article doesn’t say, and we get no numbers for math classes.

        The anecdote at the end of the article is also about English and history:

        As for Monica DiBella, her prospects have also improved. She expresses more complex and detailed ideas when she raises her hand. Whereas she once read far below grade level, this year she earned a 77 on her English Regents exam (a 75 or above signals that a student is on track to engage in college-level coursework) and a 91 in American history (“Yep, you heard that right,” Monica tells me).

        Finally, the article blurb claims “What followed was an extraordinary blossoming of student potential, across *nearly* every subject…” Not *every* subject, but *nearly* every subject. Since there are no claims for improvement in math *and* we have a good reason to believe that at least one subject didn’t see any improvement … maybe the subject that didn’t see improvement was math.

        And then we don’t have anything to explain.

    • Years ago, I interviewed a testing expert who said that teaching expository writing is the best way to raise test scores in all subjects, including math. Learning to write a coherent argument teaches logical thinking, he said. That helps in math.

  5. Are you seriously arguing that teaching writiing will improve math skills? That’s what the article is claiming.”


    • Right in the caption and throughout:

      What followed was an extraordinary blossoming of student potential, across nearly every subject—one that has made New Dorp a model for educational reform.

  6. lightly seasoned says:

    There are dozens of textbooks out there that focus on this sort of thing. I use Killgallon’s Sentence Composition series and “They Say, I Say.” The stems in the post look like they’re from TSIS. With kids with written expression issues, KU Sentence Writing is very effective.

    Do people really not know all this stuff is out there?

  7. How did Emerson learn to write? I suspect most writers learn to write by READING.

    • As goatherd learns his trade by goat
      So writer learns his trade by WROTE.

    • Unfortunately, this works for some, but not for all. This is why schools need more explicit methods than just having everyone read all day long.

    • According to Wikipedia, Emerson entered Boston Latin School in 1812, at the age of 9. He entered Harvard at the age of 14.

      So, I think one can safely assume Emerson learned to write through a rigorous classical curriculum, which would have included training in writing, rhetoric, Latin and Greek. He probably spent some time memorizing passages in Latin. He would probably have been required to compose essays in Latin as well as English.

      He composed the class poem for his graduating class at Harvard, so I suppose he learned to write fairly well.

    • Yeah, this line of reasoning explains why so many of my students plan to have careers in pro sports…ya know, because they have watched the pros do it so much on TV.