This post is written by member Deborah Dean.
“What do you do when you need to write something and don’t know how to start?”
“What do you do when you are writing and get stuck, don’t know where to go next?”
Students who have not been taught a strategic approach to writing have a difficult time answering these questions. If they answer at all, they give a fairly uniform answer: “I ask someone.”
On the other hand, students who have been taught a strategic approach to writing have a variety of answers to these questions: they make a list, they look at a mentor text, and they talk. One student even said she sometimes takes a short break, sits on her roof, and listens to music for a few minutes to clear her mind. Strategic writers learn that there are many strategies possible for writers to use as they move through their writing projects. They understand that writers adapt strategies to their individual needs and the writing task at hand. They learn that they can develop their own strategies for dealing with challenges during writing.
Harvard’s Project Zero has been working on thinking protocols that help develop students into independent, lifelong learners. Many of these principles are evident in a strategic writing approach: thinking about what we do when we write, what we might do, and how those choices help us all develop independent writers who can adapt their writing abilities across genres and situations. As Project Zero notes about their purpose: “We are trying to demystify the process of thinking by making it visible” (Schwartz, 2016). A strategic writing approach makes the writing process—including the thinking and processes involved in writing—visible to students. By making the process visible, students have control over it and can use it for their own purposes instead of seeing it as steps they follow for an English class. Instead of a fake process that students tell me they often see as artifacts without meaning—a web, a messy copy, a neat copy—the writing process itself becomes a tool for strategic writers. When do I really need to prewrite? When does revision matter? If I do need to write before I draft, is a web the best way to make sense of my ideas? Or is a storyboard better? That is the thinking outcome of strategic writing.
So what constitutes a strategic writing approach in a classroom? Not a list of strategies to learn and memorize. Not worksheets. Not whole classes using the same strategies each time they write. Instead, a strategic writing approach involves thinking about what might help a writer through a specific writing project. Do teachers present strategies in mini-lessons? Yes. Do all students try them out? I ask students to try a strategy at least once, just to see how it works for them, and to consider whether they can adapt it in a way that might work for this or another writing task. As they use a variety of strategies, students begin to develop their own—individualized—list of strategies, ones that work best for them. Trying out new strategies, even ones they might not use again, means they also have strategies in reserve that might work on occasion when the regular ones are not doing what they need.
In a class that teaches writing strategies, students write for a variety of purposes and in a variety of genres: formal and informal, digital and traditional, personal and public. As writers move among purposes and types of writing, they begin to see how strategies are useful in different ways and how strategies differ from user to user and even from task to task for the same user.
Beyond regular writing, an essential aspect of strategic writing instruction is reflection. Students need to think about their thinking, about their processes, about how and why a strategy works for them or not. Reflection is essential, and, as Pianko notes,”the difference between able and not so able writers from their initial writing experience onward” (qtd. in Yancey, p. 4). By reflecting on the strategies they use as they write, students bring to conscious levels the answers to the questions listed at the beginning of this post. They know what they do, what they can do. They do not have to be stuck. They are ready to be independent, life-long writers of more genres than we can possibly imagine because they have the tools to know how to do just that.
Strategic Writing, second edition, provides teachers with more strategies for all stages of the writing process along with the teaching plans to help students become strategic writers. The revised book clarifies the differences between strategies and activities and shares student responses to a strategic writing approach to writing instruction.
Deborah Dean is a former secondary teacher who now teaches preservice teachers at Brigham Young University. Find her on Twitter at @debbied1204.
Schwartz, K. (2016, 31 Mar.) When kids have structure for thinking, better learning emerges. KQED News, Mind/Shift. Retrieved from https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2016/03/31/when-kids-have-structure-for-thinking-better-learning-emerges/
Yancey, K. B. (1998). Reflection in the writing classroom. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.
Note: Strategic Writing will be available for purchase at NCTE Central, located outside of the Exhibit Hall at the 2017 NCTE Annual Convention in St. Louis.