Write to think, think to write
Students can do everything asked of them in school, yet fail to meet grade-level standards, charges TNTP’s new Opportunity Myth report. Assignments are too easy.
High expectations aren’t magic, writes Wexler. When students lack background knowledge, vocabulary and academic skills, teachers need to know how to “scaffold instruction” to help them “access grade-level work.”
About five years ago, I volunteered to help students at a high-poverty high school who were enrolled in an advanced American history class, part of the International Baccalaureate program. My job was to work with them on their writing, but that was nearly impossible—not only because their writing was riddled with mechanical problems, but also because they weren’t grasping the material in the book they were supposed to be reading. One day, I spotted a version of the book for “young readers.” Why not just give students that version, I asked the teacher? Oh no, he said—it was only for emergencies. This was, after all, supposed to be a college-level class.
Scaffolding “is a complex skill to master,” the TNTP report acknowledges. Most teachers don’t have the training or resources to do it well.
Writing is the most powerful teaching tool — if “it’s explicitly taught, beginning at the sentence level,” argues Wexler.
If they haven’t yet learned how to construct decent sentences—as even many high-schoolers have not—and teachers nevertheless ask them to write at length, they’ll become so overloaded by the mechanics that they won’t have the cognitive capacity to absorb and analyze the material. Not to mention that their writing is likely to be incoherent.
New Dorp High School, a low-performing high school in New York City, raised achievement by teaching students how to write sentences, notes Wexler. Graduation rates and passage rates on AP tests soared.
The school where she’d volunteered adopted the method. “After a few years students did so well on their writing-heavy International Baccalaureate tests that one education columnist could hardly believe the results.
Many years ago, I interviewed a testing expert on the utility of “teaching to the test.” He said it was a waste of time. The way to raise test scores — in math as well as English Language Arts — was to teach writing, he said. Writing improves math because it teaches logic, he said.
Writing clearly requires thinking clearly.