Writing Instruction for Adult Literacy Learners - Full Discussion - Reading and Writing Skills - Discussion Lists

1. Welcome and Background Information

From May 24th through May 29th, Dr. Charles “Skip” MacArthur hosted a discussion on the Reading and Writing Discussion List. The focus of his discussion was writing instruction for Adult Literacy Learners. Thanks to Chris Miller, a graduate student at Georgia State University, the following represents a compilation of the various topics discussed by listserv members while Skip facilitated the discussion on writing development for adult learners. Each topic contains one or more discussion threads arranged by questions and answers. All of Skip's questions and comments are labeled with his name, while questions and comments from listserv members are labeled with first and last initials. Most of the postings were copied and pasted verbatim, with a few words edited here and there to facilitate reading. For complete postings, along with author information, go to the Reading and Writing Archives and look at postings between May 24-29, 2010.

Skip is a Professor of Special Education and Literacy in the School of Education at the University of Delaware. A former special education teacher, Skip teaches courses on literacy problems, writing instruction, and assistive technology. His major research interests include writing development and instruction for struggling writers; adult literacy; applications of technology to support reading and writing; and, the development of self-regulated strategies. He recently completed a research project investigating instruction in decoding in adult basic education. He has published over 100 articles and book chapters, and edited several books, including The Handbook of Writing Research and Best Practices in Writing Instruction.

Skip’s discussion focused on writing instruction for adults who struggle with writing, including adult basic education and college writers. This is how he described the discussion: Writing skills are important to adult learners for employment, further education, participation as citizens, and personal fulfillment. The National Institute for Literacy's standard-setting initiative, Equipped for the Future, identified "conveying ideas in writing" as one of five critical communication skills. Yet little research has focused on writing instruction in adult basic and adult secondary education.

One way to identify potentially effective approaches to writing instruction is to look at the research that has been done with adolescents, particularly with struggling writers. Graham and Perin (2007) thoroughly reviewed the research on writing instruction for students in middle and high school. They found eleven instructional methods that had at least four studies showing them to be effective. The effective methods were: strategy instruction, summarization, peer assistance, setting product goals, word processing, sentence combining, inquiry, prewriting activities, process writing approach, study of models, and writing for content area learning. In comparison to other methods, grammar instruction was not effective.

Following the logic of testing methods that were effective with adolescents, my colleague and I studied the use of strategy instruction with adult education students who were working to pass the GED (MacArthur & Lembo, 2009). We tutored three middle-aged African-American adults in a strategy for planning, writing, and revising persuasive essays along with self-regulation strategies. All three adults made consistent gains in the quality and organization of their essays. Mean gains in overall quality for the three students were 2.7, 1.9, and 1.7 on a 7-point scale. The results demonstrated that strategy instruction, which has had positive effects with adolescents, has potential for adult literacy learners as well.

2. Suggested Pre-Reading:

Two suggested readings (both sets of readings are available at the bottom of the page of http://lincs.ed.gov/lincs/discussions/readwrite/10instruction

Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). Writing next: Effective strategies to improve writing of adolescents in middle and high schools -- A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC:Alliance for Excellent Education.

MacArthur, C. A., & Lembo, L. (2009). Strategy Instruction in Writing for Adult Literacy Learners: A Summary. (The full study can be found in Reading and Writing: An International Journal, 22(9), 1021-1032)

3. Introduction

SKIP: Thanks, Daphne, for inviting me to facilitate a focused discussion on writing and adult learners. My major research interest is writing development and instruction for struggling writers. I have worked with students of all ages, but mostly with students in middle and high school. Some years ago, I became interested in adult learners through my colleague, Dick Venezky. I realized that there was very little research on writing in adult education, particularly research on effective writing instruction.

So one of my students and I applied what we knew from work with struggling high school students to adults working to pass the GED. We taught them a strategy for planning, writing, and revising persuasive essays with considerable success. The organization and quality of their writing improved substantially. You can read a summary at http://lincs.ed.gov/lincs/discussions/readwrite/10instruction.

I think that what we have learned about teaching writing strategies to secondary students will work with adult learners, but at the same time, I know that adults differ from younger students in many ways -- motivation, experiences, and the kinds of writing they need to learn. In our small study, for example, we found that adults had stronger opinions and much richer experiences to draw on for their writing than younger students. So I hope to learn from you about your students and your instruction, as well as to share ideas from my research.

To start the discussion, I invite you to share thoughts about the struggles your students have with writing, what they want to learn, how you teach writing, and what you have found that works. Or you can start by asking questions about the strategies that we taught and how adults responded.

4. Struggles and Strategies

KA: One of the biggest hurdles with Adult Learners and writing that I have found is getting them to accept that their personal experiences are a genuine reference to their writing. Often they discredit this as a credible source for material. They also have a fear of the writing assignment as a bigger undertaking than it is, they seem to want to see it as a research paper or some much larger entity than the basic essay that we ask for. Helping them to understand that they are not being graded for content and entertainment value as much as they are for mechanics and the ability to remain on target with the prompt usually helps.

CK: My adult students who need help with writing split into about three camps. Camp 1 is afraid of writing and feel they are bad at it, when they really are fairly good writers. Camp 2 dislike writing because they don't know what to do (lack organizational skills), but once started, they write fairly well. These students also tend to need more instruction in the organizational aspects of constructing a paragraph and essay. Camp 3 have true difficulty with writing because

they lack the basic grammar, vocabulary, and/or spelling skills to allow them to produce a clear readable piece.

For those held back by fear I work mostly on reassuring them that their own voice and way of stating information is just fine. "You are not writing to please your English teacher," is a frequent statement I make, "You are writing to share what you know in the way you know it." My number one statement is, "The way you would say it really is good enough." I use minimal correcting of errors that are not hampering to holistic grading, until the student is comfortable with their own voice. Then we talk about how to punctuate the more complex ideas they are making to improve the quality of the reader's experience, not to make their writing better.

For students who need organizational skills it is more difficult. A variety of methods are used. A few we use are Venn-diagrams, free writing, bubble graphics, and outlining. The method is matched to the student's preferred structure. The bubble graphic (I am sure it has another name) is the one I use the most often. You start with your main idea in a circle in the middle. Then you think of points you might like to make about that write each down, circle it and attach that circle to the center. Then on each idea write down things you would like to say about that and repeat until no more ideas pop into your head. I like it because at anytime you can have a thought and a place to put it without the formality of the outline. We can then talk about order these ideas should go in and relationships to each other. As the student uses the bubble to write we talk about transitions between the ideas and the levels (main idea, supporting idea ...).

For the students in the group who lack fundamental skills we try to start with the skills they are lacking first. I have a wealth of grammar materials that seem to work with most students. Gaining vocabulary is much more difficult and though I have material on it the time it consumes usually causes the students to lose interest in the program, because they tend to come to us needing the GED right now. I do introduce them to the website http://www.Freerice.com because it is an easy vocabulary program to use; will level its self to their appropriate vocabulary level, available anytime you are able to get on the internet, and it is free. Making gains in spelling is incredibly difficult except where the issue is recognizing vowel sounds. I have some success with students who have difficulty spelling because they are unaware of how to differentiate the individual sounds of vowels, not the blends. We work with making the sounds and recognizing where in the throat and neck the sound occurs. We then practice with words. An example of words would be: red, rid, rad, rod. Beyond that, the time it takes to make significant enough gains causes us to lose students.

LH: I have had great success dispelling the fear of writing by using dialogue journals in my adult ESL classes. These second or third semester beginners objected at first but now say that the journals are the best thing about class and the technique yielding the most learning. When I began I started with prompts based on recent vocabulary in class, but as we progressed each journal dialogue became more and more personal and I didn't try to direct the conversation. I only had a small percentage of more advanced students who wanted corrections made, but for the majority I would only rephrase in my response to show correct grammar and spelling and still assure them that I understood the content. I am so pleased with the project.

LH: Anxiety about writing is certainly a big problem with struggling writers. I’ve worked mostly with students with LD, and anxiety and motivation are half the battle. It is important to reduce the stress by accepting what students write and focusing first on what they have to say. Journal writing is one way to do this. LR, it sounds like you are having great success with dialogue journals. As originally described by Educator Jana Staton, dialogue journals were private confidential conversations between teacher and student, but there are many variations on this theme. A key feature is, as you note, avoiding correction but rather modeling correct language in the response. I think the point about accepting learners’ personal experiences as a source of ideas is important to keep in mind, particularly with struggling writers. Of course, they need to learn to use ideas from a variety of sources, but personal experience can get them started. It was also noted that it is important to let the students know that it is okay to use their own voice. Perhaps, the most important antidote to anxiety is success. One of the positive features of strategy instruction is that it gives students a procedure to follow that breaks the process down and gives them a tool to use. Then once they start to experience success, it is important to help them see that progress to improve their confidence, or self-efficacy. We want students to replace beliefs that they can’t do it with more positive beliefs that they can, or could, do it if they have the right strategy.

5. Questions about the Study

HM: THANK YOU for conducting research with adult learners! I'd like to start with a question about your study: I know revision was one of the topics covered in the instructional sessions. Did the participating students have opportunities to revise the essays they wrote for pre/post scoring?

SKIP: The directions for the pretest and posttest essays were consistent. We gave the adults a copy of the prompt and read it to them. We encouraged them to do some planning before writing and to revise and edit afterwards. We also told them that it was not necessary to re-write a clean copy; they could just mark any changes or additions on the paper.

CM: In your study, were the essays graded by a person or using software? Did the students have an opportunity to revise the essays using feedback and was the helpful? Do you think that immature self-regulation and a lack of learned cognitive strategies are the bigger challenges? In your study, you said that you would like to examine the writing of struggling adult learners in a more systematic way, how would you do this? In the future, would you want a larger group of learners? Do you think that it made a difference to the learners that the tutor was not their regular tutor?

SKIP: The essays were rated independently by two raters on a 7-point scale with pretty good reliability. The students received feedback on the revising process during instruction but not on the pretests and posttests. I can’t really separate self-regulation from the cognitive strategies because they were taught together. Checking use of the strategy, evaluating their own writing, and acknowledging and coping with difficulties all involved both self-regulation and the specific strategies. Some research has compared task strategies alone to task strategies plus specific self-regulation strategies, but we didn’t do that here. I’m not sure whether the outside tutor made a difference except that she was well prepared to teach strategies; most of the instruction in the program was providing 1-to-1 so that was not unusual. Yes, we would very much like to do a study with a larger group of learners so we could track individual variation.

DP: You say that the adults you researched had "stronger opinions and much richer experiences to draw on for their writing than younger students." What kinds of modifications or supports do you think are needed to augment writing strategies developed for children and adolescents, to help adults learn most effectively?

SKIP: This comment was strictly anecdotal, but I was struck by the feeling that the adults brought to the topics they wrote about. We used adult topics that we had checked for interest with other adults, but we do that with teenagers, too. As for modifying the writing strategy, we didn’t do much modification in this study. The strategy worked because we were preparing them for the pretty well defined requirements of the essay on the GED. I think of two types of modifications that may be necessary depending on the adults and setting. First, it’s critical to consider the goals of instruction – in particular the types of writing that the particular adults need to learn. Unless they are preparing for the GED or postsecondary education, they may not need to learn to write persuasive essays of this sort. Second, I think we should be considering whether to teach very task specific strategies as in this study or more general self-regulation strategies, such as task analysis, goal setting, strategy selection, monitoring progress. The decision may depend on the current skill level of the students.

PM: I know you have done this in other contexts -- I found the suggested reading about your research to be really accessible and interesting -- but I wonder if you would be willing here to paint a picture about the teaching and learning that happened during your research process. I'd like to be sure I understand an apparently successful activity like task strategy instruction with a grounded sense of the actual teaching practices involved.

When your colleague taught the task strategy of persuasive writing, what specifically was she teaching the student to know and do? If I had been observing the actual instruction over the course of - 12 weeks, was it? What would I have seen the teacher doing? How about the students -- what were they asked to do by the teacher, and how did they respond?

SKIP: The summary of our article that is posted on the discussion includes several pages describing the sequence of instruction. I encourage you to read this. But I’m not sure either the article or my comments on key elements provided enough of the ‘picture’ that PM is asking for. So here I will try to give you some of the flavor of one key element in strategy instruction – think aloud modeling. We tutored students individually but the modeling is much the same for a group though the interaction involves more people. This is kind of long for an email post, but I hope that you find it helpful.

Imagine that in lesson One we talked about persuasive in general and the various purposes of persuasion. We also taught the student the organization of a typical persuasive essay, giving them a mnemonic to remember the parts, and identifying those parts in a good essay and a not-so-good essay. (This foreshadowed later self-evaluation of an essay.) Then we gave a brief overview of the strategy.

Here for your reference is a brief description of the strategy.

EXPLAIN THE STRATEGY: Writers use many different strategies to plan their work. Planning and revision are both extremely important parts of the writing process. This is a specific strategy that has helped many students to improve their writing and it includes five important steps.

  • Brainstorm: (Display handout “Looking at Both Sides” which has columns for reason on both sides). Brainstorming is a way to generate ideas for writing. It can help us to collect our thoughts and ideas. The worksheet is an example of one way we can organize our ideas and write some notes about the topic. Some or all of the ideas written in the brainstorm will help when we begin to write the first draft of an essay.
  • Take Sides: Once the brainstorm is complete, look over the information and decide which position you want to take when you write your essay. Consider what evidence is available for this position. You may choose the side you feel strongly about, or the side that may be easier to defend.
  • Get it Together: Look carefully over the notes on your brainstorm. Is all of this information useful? Which thoughts or ideas will be the most convincing? Which ones will you be able to support with evidence? You can mark or highlight the information you wish to include in your essay. [Here we are asking students to evaluate their ideas.]
  • Compose: Now you will write your essay. Use “The Parts of a Persuasive Essay” sheet to guide you. The first paragraph should have a good hook and a strong position statement. All of the other main paragraphs should include a clear topic sentence. Use the information collected during the brainstorm to help you write.
  • Evaluate/Revise: Writers always re-read their work so they can evaluate it, find the strengths, and areas that need improvement. We will use a rubric to help us evaluate the essays that you write. The rubric is a guide that lists all of the parts a persuasive essay must include so we can check to see if they are all there. The rubric also helps us to rate each item so that you can give your essay a score. Then you will revise the writing using the information from the rubric.

The next day we reviewed what we learned about the parts of an essay and modeled the strategy with thinking-aloud. In modeling the strategy, the instructor did most of the work to show her thinking clearly but also involved the student in generating and evaluating ideas, so it was

collaborative in content. Here is a brief sample of that think-aloud. Our lesson plans were semi-scripted, but here I have scripted it more to give you a better sense of the modeling process:


“Today we will practice the strategy by composing an essay together. I am going to show you how the strategy works by thinking aloud though each step. Please stop me, ask questions and share your ideas and comments as we go.” [Present the essay prompt and ask the student to think about it. Elicit as much reaction to the prompt as possible.]

Prompt: “There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about what makes a healthy diet. Some believe that a vegetarian diet is the best choice while others say meat eating is healthier. Should people be vegetarians? What do you think, and why?”

“OK. Let’s see. Before I begin, I need to think about who I might read my essay, my audience. I’m going to imagine that I might put this in a blog on the internet or send it to a newspaper. So anyone might read it who cared about the topic. I have to keep them in mind while I brainstorm ideas. What might they think about this topic? What questions might they pose about this topic? What do I want to convince them of? [Discuss these ideas with the student.]


“Let us see; what do I have to do first? The first step in my strategy is to brainstorm ideas on both sides. Some people might think that being a vegetarian is healthy and others might eating think meat is healthier. So I’ll write the topic at the top of my paper and make 2 columns for

vegetarians and meat-eaters. OK.

“What would vegetarians say? I just have to relax and write down whatever ideas come to my mind. Well, meat has lots of fat and that’s not healthy. I’ll just write ‘lots of fat’; that’s enough for me to remember the idea. What else? Everyone knows that vegetables are good for you; that’s what our mothers told us. [writes note] Vegetables have lots of vitamins. But they don’t have so much protein. That’s a reason on the other side; I’ll write that. OK. I’m sure I can think of some more ideas. I know, I read that vegetables have things that prevent cancer, like broccoli and spinach. I’ll write that on the vegetarian side. And vegetables are good because we don’t have to kill animals. Let’s see; I need some more ideas on the meat side. What do you think meat-lovers would say? What would they say to the idea about vegetables being healthy? Do you have some ideas? [Continue to generate ideas and take ideas from student until there are 3-6 on each side.]

“OK. We did pretty well. We came up with lots of ideas. Let’s see – 6 for vegetarians and 3 for meat eating. This really helped me think of ideas.


“What is the next step in the strategy? Take Sides/Get it Together. That means I need to decide which side to take and decide what ideas to use. What do you think? I think I’ll take the side of the vegetarians. I think that is right, and we have more ideas on that side.

“Now we have to decide which ideas we are going to use. We have to think about the people who might read this and whether the ideas will be convincing. Let’s see. Meat has a lot of fat. That seems like a good reason. No one could really disagree with that. Then we have that our mothers told us vegetables were good. That’s kind of funny, but I’m not sure it’s a convincing reason. What do you think?

“Now we also have to look at the reasons on the other side to see how we could say they are wrong. Let’s see…. [Continue evaluating the reasons, checking with the student. Mark the

reasons you are going to use on your side. Make notes about reasons on the other side that you can argue against.]

“I think we have a pretty good plan. We have 3 really good reasons for being a vegetarian and a couple of things we can say are wrong on the other side. This is really going to help when I write.

Model Composing the Essay

I then continued think-aloud modeling as we used the plan and our organizational mnemonic to compose the essay. This is long so I am not scripting it out here, and it was interactive. We asked the student about the parts of the essay and thought aloud about selecting ideas from the plan. We thought aloud as we generated sentences – sometimes generating a couple of sentences orally before writing one down, especially for difficult topic sentences and introductions.

We saved modeling the self-evaluation and revising for another day.

Notice that we referred to the steps in the strategy as we modeled. Notice also that we included some simple self-regulation statements like, “Let us see, what do I have to do next?” (strategy planning) or “I think we have a pretty good plan.” (self-reinforcement)

CM: Thank you for sharing this vivid description of how to implement this lesson. In adult education classes, the class may meet only once a week. Do you backtrack and review the previous information taught. If so, how much time do you spend on this? At what point, do the students write independently? Do you recommend homework with adult students?

In your introduction, you talked about the differences in motivation between middle/high schoolers and adults. Could you please elaborate on this? Are you talking about internal and external motivation? Did you think about increasing motivation in the way you planned your experiment? Did you notice differences in self-control, processing and memory?

SKIP: We take a mastery approach to strategy instruction. Once we start to teach a strategy, we try to stay with it until all students have demonstrated basic understanding of the strategy and have improved their writing as a result of using it. This is key to motivation, I think. Students of all ages who have struggled with learning tend to think that they “can't do it,” often because

they simply don't have the ability. We need to change those motivational beliefs to the more positive, “I can do it if I just have the right strategy.” It is essential that students see their progress and attribute it to using the strategy.

We review everything that we teach to make sure students understand and remember. We use mnemonics or visual graphic organizers to support their memory (With graphic organizers, we make students draw them themselves so they are not dependent on teacher-supplied ones.) We model and explain as often as necessary, trying to do it collaboratively. When particular aspects of the strategy or other aspects of writing are difficult, we model those parts. Students work collaboratively with the instructor and each other, and we try to get them working independently as soon as possible. One of the most difficult aspects of strategy instruction for the teacher is assessing the students' knowledge of the strategy and deciding how much support to give. This is an informal process involving asking students to explain their thought processes, listening as peers collaborate, and collaborating with students directly.

I don't have a really good answer for what to do with classes that meet just once a week. I know that this is a problem in general in adult education. Learners who need the most intensive work get just a few hours of instruction a week. Homework might be important in this situation, though we have not typically used it. It would be important to ask students to explain how they approached the tasks done for homework to give feedback; this might be done by students in pairs.

6. Grammar Instruction

CM: How do you teach grammar to adults? Thinking back to my own k-12 experience, learning grammar rules and conjugations were boring and seemed endless. How do you make it interesting?

KA: I know it seems a little out of the box, but when teaching some grammar (pronouns, adjectives, conjunctions, etc.) I use the SchoolHouse Rock DVD. Printing off the lyrics and playing the video not only triggers the childhood memory of some of my students from watching them play on Saturday mornings, but also gives them the written instruction from the program.

I think triggering the original introduction of the material from the long forgotten memory helps bring things back into focus, not to mention its fun. Breaking up the monotony of textbook instruction is a nice change of pace and once the students relax and start to enjoy the music the learning barrier seems to be less a struggle. (Note: SchoolHouse Rock clips are available through http://www.youtube.com)

PM: In my experience as both a teacher and learner (I remember a good bit of K-12 boredom, too!), I have found that the most effective way to engage students with "grammar rules" is to teach any rules in the context of an actual, meaningful writing task with a real purpose and audience being addressed. I think about the goal of the writing, and then decide which "rules" the writers will need to apply in order to accomplish that goal. And that's how I decide what to teach, and what I will expect the writers to learn. That is also how learners can answer the age-old question of "why?" -- by getting the opportunity to apply their learning about grammar and so come to understand why they had to learn it in the first place!

I have tried to translate my learning from experience into the writing-related professional development activities I currently plan and facilitate with teachers. I place "grammar rules" into a slightly larger box that includes other things like spelling, capitalization, etc., and call it "writing conventions". And I really try to encourage teachers to plan writing instruction so that 1) it focuses on their students' authentic writing goals, purposes and audiences, and 2) it integrates teaching of the writing conventions that are appropriate to those goals, purposes and audiences. In fact, I have sometimes gone so far as to say that "grammar rules" -- or any writing conventions -- are meaningless outside of the context of real writing for a real purpose (scandalous, I know -- but honestly, why would I care about grammar rules unless I wanted to write to someone about something, and wished to be understood?).

HK: I agree that formal grammar instruction is fundamentally negative (and I remember it, personally, as intimidating and dull, almost destroying my love of language). I would like to offer a neurological explanation as to why this is so. The probable fact is that our brains do not use rules as a learning or performance mechanism. We almost certainly do not learn, say, grammatical, or spelling, rules (which are, in themselves, absolutely devoid of meaning) and then search for, read and apply them. (It would be horrendously expensive and unreliable, apart from anything else.) Our brains are almost certainly pattern-learning devices, which learn systems like spelling and grammar much less consciously and much more holistically by much more ineffable means.

We should, therefore, focus students' minds on purpose, meaning (and joy) and leave the systems and the data with which they are 'populated' to be learned however it is we really do it. We should admit that we don't know this for sure and leave the mind to its own, marvelous devices. Consciousness should be for meaning, the unconscious is where all else belongs. Grammar contains no inherent meaning (or joy!), so is for the unconscious to assimilate (as mine did). The time, if at all, for grammar is after fluency has been achieved.

HM: According to the meta-analysis conducted for the Writing Next report, "traditional grammar instruction" was the only instructional strategy found to have a NEGATIVE effect on writing quality: "Grammar instruction in the studies reviewed involved the explicit and systematic teaching of the parts of speech and structure of sentences. The meta-analysis found an effect for this type of instruction for all students across the full range of ability, but surprisingly, this effect was negative. This negative effect was small, but it was statistically significant, indicating that traditional grammar instruction in unlikely to help improve the quality of students' writing." (p.21) For Dr. MacArthur and the group: What are some "nontraditional" ways of teaching grammar, style, and conventions that you have found (or suspect would be) successful with adults?

Dr. MacArthur, your study mentioned that one of the student writers improved in her use of conventions despite having no explicit grammar instruction. Did you find this to be the case for the other writers? Do you have any further speculations on why/how this happened?

SKIP: HM and others who have raised questions about grammar, I wish I could tell you about research-based practices for teaching grammar or helping students improve their grammar. It is not just the recent Writing Next review that found a negative effect for grammar instruction. Comprehensive reviews over the last 40 years by Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, & Schoer in 1963, by Hillocks in 1986, and, by Hillocks & Smith in 2003, found the same negative effect. Presumably, the negative effect was due to replacing more effective methods with grammar instruction. It seems pretty clear that traditional grammar instruction with a focus on teaching rules and practicing corrections does little to improve the overall quality of students’ writing, though it may help them pass multiple-choice grammar tests. However, our students have significant problems with grammar, and those problems will affect others’ judgments of their writing and overall achievement, so we need to do something.

In general, I agree with approaches to teaching grammar in the context of students’ writing as several of you have suggested. A number of authors have developed approaches with this common thread, though none of them have been tested in research. These approaches downplay teaching grammatical terminology and rules in favor of teaching how words work in sentences. You might check out books by Weaver (1998, Lessons to share on teaching grammar in context); Noguchi (1991, Grammar and the Teaching of Writing: Limits and Possibilities); and Fearn & Farnan (2001, Interactions: Teaching Writing and the Language Arts).

Another promising approach is sentence combining. One of the reasons that students have difficulty with grammar is that the syntax of writing is so much more complex than oral language. Sentence combining helps students experiment with generating more complex sentences. Quite a bit of research has shown that sentence combining instruction has a positive impact on syntactic complexity. Hillocks’ 1986 meta-analysis found a positive effect in four studies on writing quality as well. More recently, a study with struggling elementary school writers by Saddler & Graham (2005, Journal of Ed Psych) found that sentence combining, compared to traditional grammar instruction, resulted in better sentence writing skills and had a positive impact on quality. I think it is important to have students take an exploratory approach to sentence combining – generating alternative sentences and seeing how they sound. It’s also important to have students apply it to their own writing.

HM asked specifically about my observation that one of the adult students we worked with improved the grammar and conventions in her writing despite the fact that we did not teach grammar or sentence editing at all. I do think that when we help students to organize their ideas and focus on saying them clearly that it helps them write better sentences with fewer errors. When they self-evaluate and ask whether they stated their thesis or reason clearly, they sometimes improve their grammar. We also did teach them to use transition words, which may have also helped with sentence writing.

Has anyone used the "sentence composing" books by Don Killgallon with adult students (or in other contexts)? I discovered these through the National Writing Project website, http://www.nwp.org/. Killgallon's approach combines aspects of sentence combining with providing model sentences from a variety of literature sources. It seems to me that they also capture some of the "exploratory" side of writing. What I like least about Killgallon's books is their titles: Sentence Composing for Middle School and Sentence Composing for High School (there is also a college book). Also, while I can see the sequenced workbook activities working very well over, say, the course of a full school year, I wonder how well that would transfer to the different schedules typical in adult ed. (usually fewer hours/week; classes often last a "semester" or less; many classes cycle students in and out through open enrollment).

KM: I HATE to teach grammar to my adult students, but often find when I take over a classroom that the only texts for writing are Steck-Vaughn pre-GED workbooks filled with exercises on present perfect and dangling participles.  I don't use them at all.

LH: For individual tutoring I found that editing exercises were a good way to focus on grammar. The student's writing was not "at risk" but together we could focus on particular punctuations or grammatical constructs. I have not had much success with the grammar worksheets either. There is a lack of transference from the exercise format to incorporation in writing. I've seen that in my own children's learning experiences as well. I think you have to develop "an ear" for grammar which probably comes through repetitive exposure in reading and listening.

CK: I am in the minority here; I love to teach grammar to people. I also agree that you must be able to generate writing fairly easily before you begin to discuss grammar in the context of the student's own writing. Grammar is the language with which we discuss the improvements in

communication. Not having grammar is like having no terms for the processes used in math. For my adult students I admit I use more "tricks" than terms. We have very few students who are not fluent English speakers. I teach about commas, periods, clauses and phrases by taking exaggerated breaks. We learn about semicolons by recognizing a period could be used, but that we really want the person to see the connection. I teach proper pronoun choice by eliminating the pairing (i.e. He laughed so loud Susie and I could not hear the next lines.). I believe grammar education became more meaningful when I had complex things to say.

EH: I teach an adult beginning literacy class and have found that grammar is essential to reading comprehension. Without those pauses, or with pauses in inappropriate places, the sentences make no sense. I also incorporate writing activities and stress consideration of sentence structure and proper punctuation. I completely agree that a student must become comfortable with writing, but mini lessons in grammar and building sentences seems to enhance reading skills.

AC: I agree with you. I also enjoy teaching grammar, and, my students want to know grammar structures. In their very beginning stages of English language learning, they need to know how to put words together for phrases and phrases together for sentences. As they advance, we incorporate grammar lessons through their writing. However, I find that by teaching grammar, my students are also able to understand what they read more because they are aware of grammar forms.

GL: I do and don't like teaching grammar. I like to put groups of students together after teaching a few grammar rules and giving them some good examples. I get to know who the strong students are and mix them with the middle and low level students (as I usually have a mix of students) and have them work together as I move about the classroom and facilitate. I DO pay close attention and listen to different students explain how they understand the rules. I then have one of the students (rarely the high level one) explain how they did the exercise (when it is corrected) to the rest of the class. I am a die-hard believer in learner collaboration in almost all settings when I teach (online and in class).

SG: Does anyone teach old fashioned diagramming anymore? As we are trying to be more knowledgeable about learning styles and differences in our classrooms, couldn't it be helpful to both visual and tactile learners? By seeing the sentence organization and putting everything in its place and good for critical thinking skills as well? Does anyone know of a good ABE/GED textbook that includes diagramming?

LO: You asked if anyone taught old-fashioned sentence diagramming anymore, with the idea that it might be an aid to visual learners. A student of Latin, Greek and Anglo-Saxon, I can say that old-fashioned diagramming was of great help to me in negotiating reefs of uncharted genitives and shoals of rugged conjugations -- but that was ancient language in a strictly academic setting.

However, I did trot out this dusty compass to use in tutoring a learning-disabled special education teacher who just couldn't pass the state writing skills test required to complete her certification. Visual representation was a strategy no one had ever tried with this learner before. Here's what happened: Diagramming WAS actually effective for her in forming a fundamental understanding of sentence elements. There were places to put things in, she put them there, and they made sense.

However, as we progressed to more complex sentence structures, the usefulness of diagramming began to break down. The construction of the diagram itself became a chore. But our process transformed itself. We began simply "marking up" sentences with the words in their real positions: We circled subjects and boxed verbs, captured phrases that went together inside brackets, drew arcing arrows connecting modifiers to the words they modified. Basically, we devised a personalized form of "horizontal diagramming" that left the sentence intact. In fact, if the question we had related only to one of the grammatical elements in the sentence - subject/verb agreement, for example -- we needed only to connect the subject with its correct very and not bother with making any other visual analysis.

I am eager to dip my toe into this kind of sentence analysis -- when it seems appropriate for a particular student or group of students in my ABE classes next year. I also really resonate to the possibilities of sentence combining. If students don't desire a conscious understanding of how a sentence works, operating on the subconscious level of patterns seems to have great potential.

SKIP: Educator Suzanne Carreker advocates a system of teaching grammar to school-age

students with learning disabilities that involves color-coding the parts of speech. This could be another visual alternative. I don't know of any evidence that it works, however.

BG: I just caught the mention of Suzanne Carreker's Multisensory Grammar & Written Composition. I have used it with adults who have learning disabilities. It works well. I highly recommend it. If interested, go to http://www.neuhaus.org/attachments/contentmanagers/62/MaterialsCat.pdf , scroll down until you see the book. There is a "5" in a red box at the bottom right of the screen just above it - just to give you a landmark! It is $25. Another great resource is "Grammar Dice Kit". Go to
http://www.vcedconsulting.com/VCEdCatalog.pdf and scroll down to "Writing Tools" (page 12). The order # is C003. It is well worth the $55. I haven't purchased the "Grammar Builder Sorter Cards" for $68, but I suspect they would be a great addition to the kit. V.C. Educational Consulting has many terrific resources.

TPS: In English as a second language methodology we refer to this color-coding as using Cuisenaire rods or blocks. This comes from a method called the Silent Way which never really caught on in its complete form, but the idea of using colored rods or blocks to teach all sorts of structures has continued to be a part of many language teachers' repertoire. These rods and blocks can be bought, but many teachers use colored index cards in a similar way. Since this method has been around for so long, I assume there must be some research on its effectiveness. A quick Google search of Cuisenaire rods showed that such a method was used to teach math before it was used to teach language. It also shows there a number of places where you can buy these rods or blocks.

SG: Yes, I also like to use the color coded index cards. I have the students moving around, so it seems more like a game, or an activity, instead of a grammar lesson. They can associate the color of the noun words, the action words, etc. in their minds for future reference. Again, it appeals to the visual learner, and the cards are manipulative for the tactile learner. Any student with ADD appreciates the chance to get up and move!

VY: I have found it most helpful for struggling readers as well as to teach grammar, to color-code the TEXT with green for nouns and red for verbs. The structure of a sentence is immediately clear, and the terms “nouns” and “verbs” mean something. Unfortunately, there are no published books like that that I know of except long ago a children's book about Hansel and Gretel, so I had to print out single copies of text suitable for my readers.

I use color-coding for other purposes too, e.g. for beginners the main characters may be in a different color. Another way is to put in color every new word as it appears. Then readers are reminded that all the other words have appeared before. It is a good morale-raiser, as it makes reading seem easier. A third way . . .) Cuisenaire rods were used in math in the seventies, but they held students back when they were used beyond Pre-school and Grade 1.

JJ: Interesting about grammar being a negative force in the teaching of writing. It could be deadly if taught as a body of knowledge (a separate subject) instead of in the context of both creative and expository writing.

Jigsaw is a good group activity for teaching and reviewing the rules of grammar. I like teaching grammar, too, but the best way to hold interest is the piar share or jigsaw, making the kids think they are "experts."

SM: Some of you know that I do support what is often called “traditional” grammar instruction because tests still demand that participants adhere to the standard rules. It is funny to me when I read that studies don’t show direct instruction of grammar as being effective since anyone in America past age 45 received direct instruction and did pretty well grasping it. But I digress. What I know does work incredibly well is using sentence combining techniques ONCE a teacher has presented the 5 basic sentence options (3 for coordination and 2 for subordination). This works with my native as well and my non-native speakers, and success begets success. Also, students seem okay with making the mistakes we want them to make so that we can illustrate the patterns in context. I do not know of a technique that works better than sentence combining to help students get at the basic sentence patterns. Learning sentence structure pays off for the GED Multiple Choice portion as well as college placement tests. Regarding the GED Writing subtest, I find that some teachers focus more on the essay because it is easier for them to teach its simplistic format. The multiple choice portion requires more critical thinking and deeper skills because students must replace and revise chunks of sentences, and most of them cannot do this well without solid practice.

BG: Sentence Mastery by Edgar H. Schuster, Levels A-C provide excellent practice in sentence combining.

VY: Another way for students to look at this is reading sentences with clauses and putting them into single sentences. The matter seen in reverse. This has the benefit of taking away the fear of reading long multi-clause sentences.

SKIP: Once students have some practice with sentence combining exercises, it is fun for them to create their own. Start with sentences from a text you are reading or from students' own writing. Have them take apart sentences into short kernel sentences. Then give the kernels to their peers who put them back together in different ways. Then compare to the original and talk about which version sounds best and is clearest (easiest to understand).

BC: Have you discovered that certain persistent errors in a student's writing point directly to certain lapses in their reading comprehension skills? Example: In written work a student consistently fails at subject-verb agreement in simple present tense.  This student can identify and circle the correct verb in a practice grammar exercise, but when she free writes, she hardly ever gets it right.  Why doesn't this skill transfer from exercise to free writing? 

I usually conclude that she's writing the way she speaks?  She doesn't pronounce the “s” on the 3rd person singular simple present, therefore she doesn't write it.  But maybe it is really a reading issue:  she doesn't know or doesn't pay attention to whether she's reading about a singular or plural subject - which is a comprehension issue that should be addressed.  If so, I should be changing my thinking and teaching! Like my students, I'm looking for some quick keys to improve my work.

SM: I am currently working with students bridging from an ESL program into college transition, and we work on 3rd person singular issues regularly, and yes, we do address pronunciation--but this goes across the native and non-native student spectrum, I've found. I don’t attribute it to a reading issue so much, esp. given that these students are strong readers--I would say that it's part of a trend that began when we stopped teaching the underpinnings and structure of grammar a generation ago--so rules seem so isolated and dare I say, irrational--which of course, in English, they often are--but that said, it ain't rocket science, and rules can be taught, practiced, and ultimately memorized so that they do become automatic. How many teachers, do you suppose, actually do enough direct instruction so that students truly internalize these rules?

MG: One perception that has been articulated by students is that they don't inflect the 3rd person singular in the simple present because they associate the final "s" with plurality, meaning they confound the function of that final "s" relative to nouns vs. verbs. Once the two different parts of speech are clearly established in the students' minds, their accuracy (both in judgment and usage) appears to increase.

MB: I have to jump in here. The third person "s" is one of the last things acquired (although often taught early!) by English Language Learners. It is arbitrary and carries no meaning. You already know who the person is doing the activity without the "s" because in English we have to put the subject in - so you know it is Mary, or she; or Tom, or he; or the chair, or it. The "s" doesn't carry any additional meaning.

It's likely not to be the case then, that it is lack of practice or instruction by the teacher that is keeping adult English language learners from using that "s", but rather, as MG says, they will use it when they are ready to do so.

And, the final "s" in third person singular is a bit counterintuitive if you look at other uses of final "s" in English. It's a sign of plurality or (with apostrophe, of course) a sign of ownership with nouns. When used with verbs it is just a grammatical marker for the third person, singular subject - not needed for comprehension.

MG: There is much in English that is rather arbitrary, both in grammar and in spelling (albeit from an etymological and historical phonological perspective not really arbitrary):

Two examples immediately come to mind:

  • Grammar: Do you smoke?  Why not Smoke you?
  • Spelling: Enough.  Why not enuf?

Notions of "proper" language are entirely sociopolitical. From the perspective of expediting language and literacy development (both for native and nonnative speakers), we appear to be placing unneeded roadblocks in front of the learner.  Applied linguistics as a science would certainly not find any reasons to object.

VY: Much of students' learning is the arbitrary exceptions to rules in both grammar and spelling. Without these exceptions learning would be much faster and surer.

  • Grammar: Why not 'smoke you'? Too easily confused with the accusative. c/f difference between 'Do you kill', and 'kill you'.
  • (albeit from an etymological and historical phonological perspective not really arbitrary): Some spellings are hard for us because we have changes in phonology historically, e.g. Grimm's law about vowel changes, and dropping a sounded final 'e', but an enormous number of unnecessarily difficult spellings are due to dubious etymology (e.g. 'ghost') or changes from original simplicity, e.g. 'scissors' and 'feather'. 'arbitrary' is much closer to present pronunciation than 'arbitrary'.
  • We appear to be placing unneeded roadblocks in front of the learner. Applied linguistics as a science would certainly not find any reasons to object. I thoroughly agree.

MG: Your raise a valid point with the accusative, plus I'm reminded of Chomsky's syntactic structures. In Spanish, a pro-drop language, we would merely ask, literally translated, smoke? 

 So: actually, we could ask, you smoke? The inflection would give give away whether it's a question or statement.

In either case, a consideration of the accusative still could open the door for more than one semantic interpretation in English: Do you kill? is rather clearly object-oriented, whereas Kill you? would likely not be interpreted as suicide in the absence of the reflexive pronoun, yourself. Or are you suggesting a third possible interpretable meaning in the accusative (like in, Q: Do you want to kill me?  A: Kill you? Hmm...)

In any case, the do/does and did auxiliaries could clearly be regarded as redundancies in English, just as the progressive, which is, as a formation, (in actual usage or altogether) non-existent in French, German, Turkish, or Hungarian (and many other languages) with the progression versus the  generality, habituality, or factuality of an action becoming apparent in context.

For example, if the speaker knows a person smokes, the hearer will typically understand now if asked whether he or she smokes (i.e. is smoking).   On the other hand, if the speaker doesn't know, the intended semantics will be "simple" (or progressive if the speaker smells cigarette smoke).

That's my understanding at least of this facet of the English language.  Oddly enough, the more I think about language, the less meaning it seems to carry.)  

7. GED Preparation

HM: A note on the multiple choice section of the GED Language Arts, Writing Test: Several years ago, when Virginia was developing a training in writing instruction, we took a look at our data and noticed that more students were able to write a passing essay than to pass the multiple choice section, which requires students to revise both sentences and longer passages (which are typically not 5-paragraph essays -- the selections tend to be business letters, how-to passages, etc.). That's one of the reasons I encourage providing students with opportunities to practice writing and revising different types of documents.

CM: Being unfamiliar with the GED, I have a couple of questions. Are there specific questions about grammar that test takers will have to answer? Will implicit instruction and background knowledge be enough?

MG: The multiple-choice part of the GED Language Arts Writing test involves making grammatical judgments.  Further, some of the questions relying on reading comprehension require familiarity with the grammar that helps create the meaning.

EA: HM, I was interested to read in your post that your study found that more students were able to write a passing essay than to pass the multiple choice section on the GED writing test. This contradicts my (subjective and anecdotal) experience. I have never seen a student fail the writing test purely because they did poorly on the multiple choice portion. I see students who fail the writing test because they can't write an essay and don't do well on the multiple choices, or can't write an essay and do well on the multiple choices. In my experience, if a student can write an essay that will be judged as a 3 or 4 (out of a possible 4), than they will pass the writing test. And I often tell teachers and students this, as a way of emphasizing that we need to teach students to write, not how to put commas in the right place. Am I wrong in what I have been saying? (I am in strong agreement that we should be teaching student how to revise writing.)

HM:  EA, I think the data on this issue varies from region to region and from time to time. We haven't had a chance to look at Virginia's test data for the writing test in several years. (Different states also have different standards as to what constitutes "passing" a subject test or what overall scores are needed to receive a credential for the GED Tests as a whole.)

What we found (and it was no surprise) is that what students stress most about, and what teachers think of first, when it comes to the GED Language Arts, Writing Test is that essay. However, whenever a student receives a numerical score for the Language Arts, Writing Test, it means that the student wrote an essay that earned at least a passing score of "2". At the time we looked at Virginia's data, more non-passers were receiving actual numerical scores than were receiving the asterisks that GEDTS uses to indicate non-passing or off-topic essays. That said, increasing a student's essay score from a merely passing score of "2" to a "3" or a "4" also adds points to the overall score and can make a big difference to the test total.

SM: I asked GEDTS for an answer to this, and yes, students fail the Multiple Choice portion far more frequently than they do the essay portion-the hoop is incredibly wide when it comes to what passes for a 2 (minimum score for passing the essay portion) on the essay [it can in essence be a longish paragraph]-far too wide when you see the dismal Accuplacer scores for GED Ss transitioning into college. We do our GED preparatory students a vast disservice when we give short shrift to grammar/usage/mechanics skills because it hits them hard when they have to pay for so many developmental courses.

SKIP: Thank you for checking on this. I found this discussion very interesting.

KA: My main focus in GED is teaching that 5 paragraph monster because it is the most efficient way to pass the section of the test, but my main focus personally is transition to post secondary for my GED graduates. So, in the past I have worked off the clock with graduates to give them resources and a heads up of what to expect in college. We will be working on a transitions curriculum over the summer to follow up with our graduates.

LR: Perhaps because our GED Preparation as well as our Transition to College programs are associated with my community college, we pay a lot of attention to both the multiple choice and the essay parts of the GED test. Our classes do a "Daily Edit”, which is a paragraph with 10 grammar errors each class. We discuss rules involved. Have you seen what a passing essay (a score of 2) looks like? GEDTS should be ashamed! And yes, if a GED program lets their students take the GED test based on a practice test of 2 they are not giving the student enough writing skills for future educational endeavors.

MG: LR, You are so right - and it has never even occurred to me - that I have not seen examples of essays at different scoring levels. GEDTS should definitely, and even be ethically bound, to make such essays public so that they may more properly inform instruction, both to pass the test and also for transition to college, work, or whatever else. Shrouding assessments in mystery is indeed entirely unacceptable!

GL: I just completed my coursework toward my Educational Doctorate degree in Educational Technology at the University of Delaware. I hope to defend my Executive Position Paper Proposal in late summer or early fall. Earlier this spring, before I presented at a Florida Literacy Coalition Conference in May, I asked my advisor to give me a concise comparison between an EPP and a dissertation and a PhD and an EdD. This was his response; he is much more concise than I am. The goal of a Ph.D. is to generate new knowledge through generalizable research. The goal of an Ed.D. is to apply existing knowledge about what works to solve problems in local settings and document the conditions under which researched best practices work (or not) in different situations. The Ph.D. dissertation documents the conduct and findings of a research project. The Ed.D. Executive Position Paper (EPP) documents the conduct and results of an improvement project.

My EPP is based on my work in Correctional Education and I am working on researching "best practices", primarily in reading and writing, for moving adult learners in corrections from the High Intermediate ABE level into GED classes and then (of course) to pass the OPT and the GED. I will be interviewing Correctional Educators about what "best practices" they use for this purpose. I will also be using research, of course.

When I have taught reading to ABE/GED and college students in correctional settings, I struggled with teaching them that they need to both respect, and honor, their own VOICE as writers, BUT, to in order to pass the GED, they must learn a pattern or a strategy that is very specific for writing the essay. I am currently not a GED teacher. I am the Media & Technology Specialist at the prison. I have been at SCI almost 20 years. But, for my EPP, I did start a "Fast Track to GED" class in my computer lab and had great success preparing men to move into GED class and many also passed the GED in significantly less hours than our ABE/GED teachers had been teaching other students. I am considering moving to an ABE class when a teacher retires this summer - so I can continue to see if my Fast Track "best practices" do in fact continue to increase our program outcomes.

How do you, the facilitator, and other readers --- find the line between teaching the students to recognize/respect their own voice when they write and teach them to understand the strategies needed to write a good GED essay?

MG: GL, your post invites my considerable interest in the fast track to the G.E.D. you mention.

GL: MG, both you and Skip asked the same question. I am at work now - at the prison where I have worked for nearly 20 years. I would be happy to share more about the Fast Track class and the work I am doing on my EPP (proposal and the actual paper). It is geared toward correctional students but I will be using research from all ABE/GED reading/writing (and some numeracy) PLUS technology for determining "best practices" for moving our students from High Intermediate (and even high level Low Intermediate) ABE to Low Adult Secondary levels - in less time - so that they are able to get into our GED class and earn the diploma.

Delaware, as many states are, is experiencing a major economic crisis. It is a small state, but there are so many men/women out there on probation (my husband is a probation officer) and/or out of prison - looking for work and are up against others without prison records for even menial jobs.

The GED is one document that will help them prove that they have some job credibility in the market and can continue in the community college network and/or the vocational schools available in the state. At SCI, as I was working on my EPP (since one of my primary duties is to enter and manage all the program data) I realized that for 3 ½ consecutive years our ABE students were NOT completing the High Intermediate level and NOT moving into the ABE class. Beginning in January 2008, I began some data management reporting to the teachers that significantly improved those numbers for the second half of that fiscal year. Then during the next fiscal year, those numbers skyrocketed.

Soon after sending out the new report I started the Fast Track class. I had not previously taught academic classes in my computer lab. I had taught inmate students who had a GED or HS diploma to use MS Office, our adult HS students who needed a computer literacy credit, some college students who I taught a 101 writing composition class, etc. I began researching "best practices"... practices my co-workers were not using...and again saw amazing results. Students made the level changes in less hours, passed the OPT and GED - and many are now in our adult High School Program (Delaware has an adult high school program that provides the same rigorous course of study as any day HS program would and goes well beyond the demands of the GED - James H Groves Adult High School http://jhgroves.homestead.com/ This is an old link, but it will give you an idea of the Groves program. The program has gotten more difficult in the past years.

VY: GL's Fast Track Learning is a very valuable contribution. Students are often keen to go faster than seems possible. I have been trying to get publishers interested in Fast Track books

1. Books with 2-3 levels on the one page. Macdonalds used to have adult reading books like that, with coffee-table pictures. Everyone in the class can use such books, to raise their standards or to go back for revision.

2. Books that have the first page at the easiest level and each page is harder until by the end it is full adult reading. Heinemann has math books with each page like that. But reading would be invaluable as a challenge to individual students to go faster that you might think possible.

3. Books that have line by line 'cribs' in Spelling without Traps. For example, that sentence would have underneath it in a paler color, 'Books that hav line bi line cribs in Spelling without Traps.' The beginning of the book would hav the key to the crib, including 'silent e after long vowels' and 'final vowel spelling patterns' Students would be reassured that most of the standard print had no traps.

Has anyone seen any published books like these?

SKIP: GL, Thanks for writing. Before answering your question about voice and structured writing, I'd like to invite and encourage you to tell the discussion list more about your Fast Track to the GED. I would be interested and I'm sure that others would as well.

I'm not sure that I have a very good answer to your question about voice and structured writing. Perhaps, others with more experience with adults will chime in. Here are a few thoughts. Voice is a complex and rather vague term that can be used to refer to many aspects of writing, or communication. When we talk about respecting and honoring students' voices, we might mean that we are interested in what they have to say - their ideas and experiences. We might also mean that we accept their styles of communication and language as valid in their settings. At the same time, in order progress in school and have access to better employment, they will need to learn new voices in order to communicate in different settings. Perhaps, it helps to convey to students that we want to help them communicate their ideas to new audiences. For example, the persuasive essays that adults in our study wrote very much convey their ideas, but they are organized so that others can understand their arguments.

AW: I am a new ABE/AEL instructor, and teaching GED class is my second, but favorite job.

The question about voice versus audience reminds me of what I tell many young people, "It isn't what you have to say so much as how you need to say it." Adjusting to your audience does not mean you have to lose the message or your voice in your terms, but take into consideration the ears of those with whom you are communicating. It is something that people do every day. We do not speak to our bosses the same way we might speak to our children or a life mate. Taking into consideration who the essay is being prepared for is one of the lessons in writing to add along with grammar, punctuation, format and style. I think it can be included when discussing the purpose of writing a persuasive piece or a summary. When I address the GED essay, greater emphasis is given to structure. I explain that the purpose of the essay is to pass the GED, and that this is what will make it more likely for them to write a passing essay.

GL: How do you, the facilitator, and other readers --- find the line between teaching the students to recognize/respect their own voice when they write and teach them to understand the strategies needed to write a good GED essay?

KM: This is a great question.  I am currently teaching an ABE class to young men and women who are either on probation or parole.  Many of them spent time in prison.  I agree with you in that it is extremely important to teach students that writing in a particular way, does not mean that they have to exclude their voices.

The way that I teach specific writing for work readiness and GED is to teach American Standard English as transparently as I can.  I explain that ASE is a language that people use when they communicate formally.  We use it when we write cover letters, on job interviews and whenever we communicate with someone who is either of higher standing (boss, teacher, banker, doctor) or embedded in a professional setting.

We then use a prior piece of writing that they have done in class and "translate" it.  The most sucessful GED writing class that I taught was to young adults who had left high school.  There, we examined the kind of questions students had to answer on the test.  The biggest complaint was that students had either no experience with the subject of the essay or couldn't care less about it.  In this class we worked on lying.  If students didn't have the experience or opinion the prompt asked for we would pretend.  Really, truth is not on the rubric, but good writing is.  Students found it freeing and wrote longer pieces with more details.

DP: Bottom line -- what kinds of writing do our folks need to be able to do well in order to successfully make those transitions? And how do we help teachers to help students get there?

In preparing students for postsecondary education, you might be interested in the following reference: Bridgeman, B., & Carlson, S. B. (1984). Survey of academic writing tasks. Written Communication, 1(2), 247-280.

Abstract - Questionnaire responses from faculty members in 190 academic departments at 34 universities were analyzed to determine the writing tasks faced by beginning undergraduate and graduate students. In addition to undergraduate English departments, six fields were surveyed: electrical engineering, civil engineering, computer science, chemistry, psychology, and master of business administration programs. Results indicated considerable variability across fields in the kinds of writing required and in preferred assessment topics. In terms of frequency per semester, the top 4 writing assignments (see Table 2 in the article) were exams with essay; expository/ critical writing; lab report; and brief summary of article.

MV: If this is worth sharing, will you please forward it? Thanks. One day the entire class was writing five paragraph GED essays. I thought this student was doing so as well. Instead she handed in this very personal statement about her frustrations. It was written in prose, but we turned it into a poem. I have her permission to share it without her name.

Have you ever tried to write an essay?

I took a look around and saw everyone else was writing

And their paper is filling up with words,

And I look at mine and I’m stuck.

I don’t like to write

Because my mind goes blank

And my sentence doesn’t come out right.

Don’t ask me why

Because I don’t know.

As I write I think in my head

What I want to say

But as I begin to write it on paper,

It comes out like this:

My first sentence should be my second sentence

And my second sentence should be my last

And my last should be my first.

Why is that?

I’m not even supposed to be writing this,

But it became so much easier to express how I feel

I can’t get my words out onto the paper.

I feel like my thoughts are not corresponding with my brain.

This is why I can’t write an essay.

I cry inside because I can’t.

SKIP: Thank you for sharing this; it captures a great deal. What a wonderful positive idea to turn it into a poem.

J: KM has a good idea with GED writer on underlining ideas in a text and arranging them in sequence. For some classes, reading and understanding should precede writing. I collected essays from the internet or from any source I could find for that modeling purpose, from narratives and persuasives to short research essays. Reading, highlighting for any purpose, understanding, discussing the effectiveness of...all are a kind of prewriting that assists students in their own trials.

SKIP: Daphne suggested that we talk a bit about the study that we did with adults working toward their GED teaching them a strategy for writing persuasive essays. I thought I would make a few comments about strategy instruction and ask whether anyone has tried similar approaches. When I explain strategy instruction, I usually try to separate “What strategies to teach” and “How to teach the strategies”.

So, first, “What strategies?” Strategies are based on our understanding about how proficient writers think while writing. Every strategy includes (a) some knowledge about text and (b) some thought process or procedure. So for example, in the persuasive writing strategy, the text knowledge was knowledge about how persuasive essays are organized. This sort of knowledge about text organization is common in writing instruction. Sometimes it is taught by using graphic organizers. When we teach revising strategies, the knowledge is about criteria for evaluating writing. The other part is the planning or revising process. For example, writers think about their audience and purpose, brainstorm ideas, uses their text organization knowledge to help generate and organize ideas, etc. Often this process knowledge is captured in steps in the strategy. There are a lot of strategies out there.

The more difficult aspect of strategy instruction is “how to teach the strategies”. There are a number of different approaches that vary in emphasis, but nearly all of them involve explicit explanation of the strategy, think-aloud modeling to show students how to do it, and guided or scaffold practice involving lots of interaction between teacher and students and among peers, and gradual development of independence. A key part of explaining strategies is thinking aloud. Because strategies are cognitive processes, we make them visible by thinking aloud. We talk through the entire process from planning through writing and revising. Then we do it again but collaboratively with the students. When students try it on their own, we listen and talk to them about how they are using the strategy (sort of thinking aloud by the students) and give them feedback on how they are using the strategy as well as on their writing.

Another important part of strategy instruction is self-regulation. All approaches to strategy instruction aim for independent self-regulated use, but some, like Graham and Harris’s Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) model, emphasize it more. Self-regulation includes setting goals, selecting strategies, monitoring use of the strategy, time management, coping with difficulties, self-reinforcement, and self-evaluation. In writing, I think it is especially important to teach students to evaluate their own writing. Without the ability to self-evaluate, it is hard for students to make progress through practice writing. They practice but don’t know whether they are doing it right.

I wonder if you have any thoughts on any of these key elements of strategy instruction? Have you tried think-aloud modeling? What experiences do you have helping students learn to evaluate their writing? Have you tried strategy instruction and what successes and problems have you encountered? I’m very interested in your thoughts.

DD: When I taught writing, I started with exposition and worked toward persuasion, because there were lots of good strategies about how to do expository writing, and I thought persuasion was harder. I vividly remember how jarring it was for students who really just wanted to be expressive, just to howl. Now I think I wouldn't push the students into academic writing, but I would use expressive writing to teach the strategies for explaining and persuading. For example: The 5 Ws (who, what, when, where, why) is a strategy for newspaper reports. Science fiction gains power by withholding the answers to the 5Ws. The audience gets no answers to the 5Ws in Becket's Waiting for Godot. Every professional writer knows that one sentence paragraphs stand out. And sentence fragments! Persuasion and exposition are deeply rooted in cultural beliefs, so as Globalization proceeds, we need to work towards a "common market" around how we explain and persuade and discourse, in general. We need to prepare our students for what is to come, not what is now.

Skip, LD students need clear directions, and that's why strategy instruction is so helpful to them. Would you be concerned about letting students feel the power of writing that comes from breaking the rules or the procedures?

SKIP: At this point, there are not detailed materials on strategy instruction for adult learners available. However, there are some good sources based on work with elementary and secondary students. Here are a few references for practitioners that you might find helpful.

  • Graham, MacArthur, & Fitzgerald. 2007. Best practices for writing instruction. [This is an edited volume with chapters on many aspects of writing, including chapters on planning strategies and revising strategies.
  • Steve Graham & Karen Harris. 2005. Writing Better: Effective Strategies... [This explains their self-regulated strategy development approach.
  • Harris, Graham, Mason, & Friedlander. 2007. Powerful writing strategies for all students. [This has lesson plans for particular strategies.]

All are available on Amazon and elsewhere.

SG: I'm not a professional reader, and my thought processes are rather simple. The first thing I do when I read an essay for the Official Practice Test (OPT) is to hold it at arm's length to see if the writer understands that paragraphs should be indented, if the essay has a title, and the length of the essay. I look to see that the essay has a good "flow" to it, transitioning between paragraphs, with an effective introduction and conclusion, etc. We have been told that the readers for the actual GED test spend less than two minutes on each essay--so they aren't analyzing the content. They say it's holistic scoring. I also emphasize to the writers not to count words, although they are instructed to write an essay of approximately 200 words. My thinking is that no one else counts them, so the writer shouldn't use precious time doing so either.

KA: It is funny that you mention the word count, if we would just say "about a page long" it is so much less intimidating. GED testers usually have such anxiety over the essay, they don't realize that in its vagueness it is really the easiest part of the test to pass.

JJ: Is the RAFT paper still around? I had almost forgotten what RAFT stands for, essentially students read a novel or story and choose a "persona" or person they would like to be from the story. They write a biography, or description of that person and the role (the R) he/she played in the story. They select an audience (A) for their writing. They then write in a format (the F) which could be a script, narrative poem, epitaph, essay, personal journal, etc. for the audience, covering a "topic," which could be the entire story or a significant part of it. They then share their work with small group "audiences" or the whole class, reading and illustrating their bios or anything else they might want to do to bring their "experience" closer to the audience. This is creative writing, but also requires reading comprehension, empathy, description, and writing for an audience. It could be used as a springboard for other expository skills. I did this with the class as a "Titanic Journal" when we were reading the story of the sinking of the Titanic, beginning with the iceberg collision to the final rescue. These papers also prompted some research on the episode, on the ship, and on the subsequent marine efforts collect and preserve the artifacts and follow the lives of some of the survivors. (NOTE for RAFT Information: http://olc.spsd.sk.ca/DE/PD/instr/strats/raft

MG: The essay is generally the most difficult part of the GED test for non-native English speakers (in my experience).

SG: MG, I agree. The ESL students I have had are ready to test in the other areas before the Writing test. They may have good content knowledge and reasoning, but find it difficult to write in complete and proper sentences! They want to write the way they speak. Would any of your non-native English speakers benefit from taking the French or Spanish versions of the GED? I know you deal with people from many different countries and languages.

MG: The few students I've had from France here in Hawaii are highly educated (including PhDs).   As for the Spanish speakers, those who do not have HS diplomas appear much better off preparing for the GED in English because of all the English language development that occurs in the process.  To prepare for and take the GED in Spanish might leave them with little additional English proficiency - not a good idea necessarily if they are attempting to maneuver and find a niche, including work, in an English-dominant society, in my opinion.

DG: Some of us have been using the term "GED" and I have been contacted with the question of what is the GED. Due to the fact that some of you may want to know the answer to this question, I am posting my answer below:

The GED stands for a type of diploma that students can get if they do not earn a high school diploma. The GED stands for: General Educational Development. There are many different websites that you can go to in order to learn about the GED. An example is:

SG: Having taught ABE/ GED classes for almost twenty years, I find it hard to realize that some educators are not familiar with it! Please also note that the GED program is available in every state and is geared toward adults who never finished high school for a myriad of reasons.

To achieve the GED, the adult must pass a 7 hour long test, consisting of five sub-tests which include writing skills. The writing skills test includes both a multiple choice section (grammar and usage), and essay writing of an assigned topic. So a good knowledge of grammar, writing conventions and organization skills is important. I feel like I always have to teach on the "fast track” and the 5 paragraph essay is part of that.

RE: Writing Topics-- As educators, you need to remember that many of our students come from unhappy/abusive backgrounds and a lot of drama in their daily lives. Yes, writing about personal experiences is great, but writing on "The Most Memorable Day of My Life" may open a can of worms for some people. While writing can be therapeutic, you need to decide if that's what you want to do. When I taught in a corrections program, I always wanted to make sure the class provided a positive experience. (I also learned a lot, such as "How to Fix a Ghetto Steak"!)

SG: I think this will help you better understand the GED writing tests (from the official GED website.)


CSA: Two suggestions - KET's Web site has a course explaining the writing portions of GED Tests to educators. - http://www.ket.org/ged2002/writing/

Check out the GED Testing Service site at http://www.acenet.edu/Content/NavigationMenu/ged/about/faq.htm

You will find answers to the following questions:


8. Writing for Personal Expression

KA: Letter writing for personal and business purposes is a skill that adults need. I do a lot of exercises in writing cover letters for resumes and then turn the lesson to an essay with a prompt that expects my students to address what qualifies them for a position, or what steps a person would take to achieve a particular goal. This way I have addressed Persuasive essays without putting a heavy label on it.

LO: I find that there is a significant contingent of adult learners who shy away from revealing personal experience in essays, and this reluctance is a barrier to increasing their writing practice. Do any of you use strategies other than relying personal experience: for example, describing complex pictures or walking the reader through a process like what they do at work?

VY: At all levels there are people who shy away from writing about personal experiences. Elementary schools, I know, are full of essays which are basically 'I went to my Nana's and had chips'. My daughter aged seven had a common solution - she made it up. Our family was terrible - this oppressed youngster made breakfasts for everyone, rescued her brother who fell thru the ice, etc.

Teachers I have observed who had good writing responses from their classes, at any age, offered learners both choice and freedom. They offered a range of non-fiction topics, fantasy, personal experiences, describing their work, observing the nature around them - and also the option of “whatever you like”. If writers did not want classmates to read their essays, that was okay. All these are just as creative as personal experiences. There are teachers who have two levels for writing - the first draft, and the final, in which the teacher has helped with grammar, spelling, etc. That is a different climate from 'correcting' which makes the learner feel awful.

KM: I use two methods to teach writing.  When I teach "academic" writing, I work very explicitly with students.  Before we begin, I talk with them about the difference between learning to write and writing to learn and how academic writing is the latter while the GED essay is the former.  We start with a text; discuss our purpose for reading (in this case writing a response or summary) and read out loud while underlining parts of the text relevant to our purpose.  I will then walk students through collecting those underlined pieces and arranging them in a sequence (keeping some, discarding others etc.).

At this point we talk about the value of note taking and how important it is for comprehension.  Once we have our sequence, I will demonstrate how to take those notes and turn them into a paragraph.  Then I give students another piece of writing about the same subject, but written at a higher level in order for them to see how their work has increased their ability to comprehend more difficult texts. 

From there, students begin to gradually take over the process in groups, and finally alone.  In ABE, students are only asked to write a paragraph, but what I see is that students gradually write more and more without prompting.  Students enjoy the fact that they can write strong pieces and use the vocabulary from their reading. 

SKIP: KM, I think it is very interesting that you are combining reading and writing from the very start. You have given a great example of how reading and writing are mutually supportive. Starting with summaries or brief responses to reading makes a lot of sense. In fact, summarization is one of the eleven effective practices for improving writing identified in Writing Next. Research also strongly supports summarization as a way to improve reading comprehension.

GL: KM, I particularly agree with the reading aloud part of your response. How successful have you been with having small groups of students come together and reading their work aloud to each other as you move about the class? I have, throughout my really diverse career, been a solid supporter of collaboration with most all forms of teaching/learning/facilitating. I believe that most of my students have taught me at least something; some have taught me more than I taught them.

You also wrote how much the students enjoy it when they see that their reading and writing has improved. I make sure that I keep their work in a portfolio of some type - so they are able to go back and see their progress.

I teach in a prison, and I have taught a few 101 level Composition Writing Classes - and now that I am almost finished with my Doctorate (I have completed my coursework) I am hoping to teach them more regularly at our Boot Camp again. When I taught them before, I used my computer lab for the night school college classes, and would give them opportunities to keep a PowerPoint Portfolio of their writings. I would provide them with music and graphics to add to it near the end of the class to jazz it up a bit. It became very clear evidence that their writing HAD improved - in many cases - quite dramatically.

I gave them their grammar assignments (that came with instructions) as homework. They needed a certain reading score to enroll in the college courses - and we would do the old "exchange paper" drill and check the papers quickly at the beginning of class - and then go over whatever the students' primary difficulties were. I also would make copies of all students' first drafts of each assignment, and that is how I decided to pick particular grammar issues to address after that - at the beginning of class.

They also had to write half page in a journal each night - on either a given topic or a topic of their choice and I browsed them during class nights while they were watching this awful video tape that was required for the course. It was not graded (but it had to be done) for accuracy, but it gave me ideas for assignments for creative writing, descriptive writing (describe the chow hall at breakfast), process writing (write a recipe for a "boona" - that is what they call one of the meals they make from the food they can buy at commissary - for instance one was made with tuna fish, cheese curls, ramein noodles, water - all mixed up in a plastic bowl and heated in a large metal coffee pot - as it was the only way they had to heat food they made).

They also had to write a 5 paragraph essay AND a 3-5 page essay for that 12 week course. I enjoy teaching it, but have stopped for a while since I have been so busy working on my doctorate.

  • I agree very much with having them read aloud
  • I think it is a great idea to keep a portfolio of their work, so they are able to go back and see their progress
  • I find that by looking at their first drafts, I can figure out what are the best grammar skills to teach to the class and/or small groups

Using adults' experiences is ALWAYS the best way to go.

One more thing! I have just completed reading a great book by author Mike Rose. The book is Lives on the Boundaries: A Moving Account of the Struggles and Achievements of America's Educational Underprepared. I read it for one of my last Doctorate courses. Mike Rose, this wonderful man/writer, rose from very, very poor and humble and underprepared beginnings to become an incredible writing teacher/professor. He used many, many materials for stimulating students to write and "break from monotony of textbook instruction."

VY: I will add Mike Rose to my collection. I am collecting stories of heroes from everywhere, because many of the bios make good reading for struggling readers and disadvantaged learners. Some people think this is not a good idea, but I find it works with many students, who have no heroes in real life that are helpful to them. There are children's books on Explorers, Scientists, Reformers (Florence Nightingale etc) but for adults we need other stories too. I would like suggestions.

DB: One place to find books about heroes suitable for adult literacy students is in the Eureka book database. If you go to this link http://mercury.educ.kent.edu/database/eureka/eurekasearch_booksonly.cfm

click on "list of keywords" and scroll down to the topic "Heroes and Heroines" in the left hand column, you will be able to click on subtopics on mythological heroes, well known heroes, and "ordinary people" heroes. Once you click on the topic link, a list of books will come up with summaries and teaching ideas for each book. The books are available in the local public library so you don't have to buy them unless you want to. Many of the books are picture books but have been reviewed by a group of adult literacy practitioners and are not childish. In fact, many are sophisticated and have beautiful illustrations that support and extend the text. Yes, I work on this project’ so this is a shameless plug. If you get a chance to take a look or use the books with your students, I would love feedback.

MG: What immediately comes to mind is the use of acting in writing - treating non-fiction as fiction. When speakers or writers take on fictitious identities, the ice is often broken...

DS:  Students don't always want to use the content of their lives as the material for their writing. Lately, I've been questioning whether personal experience is always an appropriate and useful starting point for essay writing. I have been experimenting with using very simple community research samplings, where students will interview people they know and/or don't around a particular topic such as educational history, health and illness, etc., or look at case studies and then gather information and then write about it. I also rely heavily on text, movies, experiences that are not always about their own stories and then create activities so that they can engage in those texts in any manner they want--personal, or as anthropologist or historian, giving them tons of options on how they are relating to the material. I love the idea of students thinking carefully about why and how they use their personal narrative, and I have found over the years that very often students will write personal stories when they're given room and support to be reflecting on a myriad of topics that may or may not have anything to do with their lives, as they see it. I've even been playing around with fiction and poetry, reading and writing creative work in the classroom, and emphasizing the freedom of creating personas or narrators that tell story or bring metaphor into writing in first, second, or third person.

This is not to suggest that I think personal writing is not central or important to the writing classroom. I've just found different ways (then I used to in the past) to let it emerge with some safety, self-pacing and authorial consciousness, i.e., why am I writing personally now, what purpose does it serve--and many a times it does seem to serve a fundamental expressive need. The whole conversation about the importance and necessity of writing form personal experience is a real important one, I think. Especially as students prepare to succeed in higher education settings or move into careers that demand all kinds of writing and/or move more deeply into their artistic/creative writing lives. I remember reading that Nabokov once wrote (and I pathetically paraphrase), if you want to get to know me, i.e., my mind, read my novels. I can't remember what happened in my life, so in way, I had to invent my memory (i.e., my memoirs.) This even asks us to consider what is personal experience--but that's for another conversation... Thanks for this wonderful question and insight. It has my mind a' reelin.

SKIP: I don't really have anything to add to what you have already said so well. I just want to acknowledge you for reminding us that about the wide range of possibilities for writing in ways that are personally meaningful.

CK: When it comes to passing the GED or the Nevada Proficiency Exam essays I tell them to lie! I point out that no one cares if the essay is really about him or her, and that it is graded on his or her ability to relate the information clearly in an orderly and interesting fashion. To supplement details they don't wish to share we use the lives of characters from shows they watch, books they have read, and friends or others they know. If they have none of those, we use their imagination of how they would have liked it to be. For those that don't want to reveal personal information we practice lying, but at the same time they are getting to picture the kind of experience they would like to have and sometimes talk about how their life could become more like what they wish. Sometimes the first step to improvement is to visualize it happening.

LP: I encourage my high school students to tell a story.  The story does not have to be a true story, that's why we have creative writing.  The students feel less pressure when they have the opportunity to be creative.  I usually start off the school year with them writing about what they did on their summer vacation.  This makes for some fun conversation.  Writing is like any other skill, practice, practice, and more practice!

9. Writing to Learn vs. Learning to Write

PM: I am a Senior Research Associate and Training Specialist at the Center for Literacy Studies, University of Tennessee. How do you define “writing to learn” as distinct from “learning to write”? As I was reading the background pieces suggested for this discussion, I was also reflecting on my past work in assisting with the development of the Equipped for the Future (EFF) adult content standard, Convey Ideas in Writing and its Performance Continuum and Curriculum Framework, and also on my more current work of developing and facilitating ABE practitioner training on standards-based writing instruction (in-person and online). As I digested the information in Writing Next about the two distinct but complementary roles of writing, I was thinking that my work with teachers and adult learners has been pretty clearly focused on “learning to write”. I have dealt with writing primarily in its communicative role (as you pointed out in an earlier description of this discussion, the EFF writing standard is categorized as one of the Communications standards).

I've certainly urged teachers to offer students lots of opportunities to do things like journaling and free writing, and I do think about such activities as writing to learn -- about oneself, one's own ideas and prior knowledge. I didn't get the sense that this is what the report meant by "writing to learn". So I started wondering whether I had been missing something fairly major about the connection between writing and content learning! I'm especially concerned about this because I'm currently doing a good bit of research and professional development around the writing that adult students need to be able to accomplish in order to successfully transition into post-secondary education and work -- some content-rich contexts! But then I thought some more; if the writing that we teach students to do is “writing to learn”, isn’t it still serving a primarily communicative purpose – isn’t it still writing that conveys evidence (to someone) that learning is happening? Otherwise, without that communicative purpose, why would the student writers need be concerned with genre, text features, conventions – all those things we teach them because an audience needs to understand what they are trying to say? Now here’s a twist: as I was doing all this reading and thinking, I was also doing what I guess would be considered a form of “writing to learn” – cutting, pasting, reorganizing and editing text from the 2 background readings purely as a strategy to aid and solidify my own understanding of what I was reading. And being a bit compulsive, I was making sure everything was nicely organized and grammatically correct, even though it was just for me. I am so well trained!

But seriously, back to my question: is “writing to learn” truly a distinct role for writing? If so, what distinguishes it, and how is teaching it different from teaching so that our students successfully “learn to write”? It seems to me that the answer has some pretty major implications, not only for teaching, but for assessing writing development as well. I can't help feeling that, the more closely we connect writing to content learning, the more difficult -- and important -- it becomes to pull out and analyze evidence of writing skills as distinct from the other skills needed to produce the writing (in the EFF framework, those might include the standards Read with Understanding, Listen Actively, Learn Through Research, Use Information and Communications Technology, etc.). It gets complicated! And by the way, I have often heard and used the complementary phrases, “writing to think” and “thinking to write”. Somehow I have much less difficulty figuring out what I think distinguishes them – I think of the former basically as using writing (journaling, brainstorming, free writing, note-taking, etc.) to generate ideas, and the latter as reviewing, selecting and organizing ideas in preparation for generating text. What do you think? I'd welcome your thoughts and those of anyone else on the list. Thanks so much for this opportunity to reflect and learn.

JZ: In response to PM’s questions on "Writing to Learn," I share with her the intrinsic ambivalence in that phrase. I have taught high school English on all levels for 38 years and have recently retired. I will be teaching adult ESL students to write English sentences and paragraphs, and I am interested in any techniques that will work in that area. However, the above term seems to imply a certain level of writing skill that can now be applied in the content areas of various subjects and in research. Another angle to the phrase is that through journaling and freewriting, summarizing lesson content or literary content, written interpretation (essay paraphrase and personal editorial) of lesson and literary content, a student may discover meaning and problem solve by loosening the mind in words. I associate "learning to write" with writing skills such as unity and coherence, sequencing, supporting ideas, adequately addressing the topic, citing sources, when and how to use figurative language in description (and when not to), writing

complete sentences, punctuation, grammatical skills, diction. Teaching writing is the most difficult strand of the English curriculum. Thanks to all for resources and ideas.

BG: I am sure that many of us on this discussion list have found ourselves "writing to learn" as we write a grant proposal and suddenly realize that we really didn't think a certain part through, thus hindering the writing process. To me, "writing to learn" is the process we go through when trying to write pushes us to think, to return to the data, the reference book, the discussion, the day dreaming that preceded the writing until we really know what we want to say.

SKIP: PM, This is a great question that, I think, is connected to questions that many of us have about the purposes of writing and how those purposes vary depending on the context. One of the ways that writing instruction differs for adults and school-age students is that the contexts for writing are often quite different. Thus, the purposes and types of writing will be different.

But first let me try to answer your question, even though there is no simple answer. One definition of writing to learn is applied in studies that use writing tasks in courses and then test content learning. Bangert-Drowns and his colleagues reviewed this literature in 2004 in Review of Educational Research. But I think you are also right to say that a lot of writing involves learning, as in your example of how much you learn by assembling and organizing ideas and evaluating whether they make sense. This type of learning by writing is what Bereiter and Scardamalia referred to as “knowledge-transforming”. As we generate and organize our ideas and think about whether they will make sense to some audience, our ideas are refined and we may come up with new understandings. Such writing is still designed to communicate, and in some cases, consideration of audience is important in refining our thinking. It goes beyond reporting what you already know. This knowledge-transforming writing is the sort of learning by writing that I think is valued in academic settings.

Now in the world outside of school, much writing is neither learning to write nor writing to learn. We write for a wide range of communicative purposes. If we learn something about writing or content in the process, great, but it’s not the main point. In school, however, learning is the point. I don’t think that we can clearly distinguish between the two purposes in school writing tasks. If we assign meaningful writing tasks, they will engage students in learning something in addition to writing – if only to understand their own ideas better. Conversely, when the main point of a writing assignment is to learn content, teachers still need to help students learn appropriate forms of writing.

To the extent possible, I think it’s good to assign writing that learners see as purposeful. This brings me back to my own questions about the types of writing and writing purposes that are important for the adults we teach. I have a pretty clear idea of the kind of writing required for success in secondary schools or to pass the GED, but adult settings are more varied in the types of writing required, and that will affect instruction. So let me throw the question back to the group. What kinds of writing do your adult students find meaningful and what kinds of writing do they need to do?

PM: Thank you, Skip, for this very informative and helpful response to my wonderings! I will definitely take a good look at the resources you cite. Meanwhile, some of your comments are amplifying for me what I'm seeing as issues in professional development for teachers who are preparing students for transition to post-secondary education and work. Bottom line -- what kinds of writing do our folks need to be able to do well in order to successfully make those transitions? And how do we help teachers to help students get there?

My concern is that the little I'm seeing that actually deals in what/how to teach writing for transitions seems to treat post-secondary education and work as "one big context". While I do think it's possible to establish a standard for competent writing performance across contexts (which is what the EFF standard is designed to do, by describing a purposeful, integrated writing process), I also think that we need to pay way more attention to how the standard can be applied to specific writing purposes and audiences for/at school and for/at work. It seems like that approach holds the greatest promise to clarify what writing strategies need to be taught and learned in an effective ABE "transitions" curriculum. And I'm pretty sure I agree with you that writing for school is often quite different (where, as you say, "learning is the point") from writing in other contexts. So -- what do we tell teachers about teaching?

Let me be clear -- I don't mean to complain or criticize. In fact, I find these questions really engaging -- having to do this much thinking makes my work a lot more fun! And I do appreciate your insights along the way. I think the example of your research project is an excellent one, insofar as you and your colleague apparently paid attention to a very well-defined writing purpose, audience and context, and then taught and assessed a particular strategy that was appropriate to that purpose, audience and context. And it certainly didn't hurt that you engaged the students by asking them to write about content that was meaningful to them! I think your process as you describe it offers a worthy model! Thanks for the opportunity to think and for the resources to explore.

10. Conclusion 

SKIP: I want to thank you for engaging in the discussion this week. I think that I learned at least as much from you as you did from me.

DG: On behalf of the Reading and Writing Skills List subscribers, I would like to extend our heartfelt gratitude to Skip for reading, thinking about, and responding to our posts. It was an honor to have Skip as part of our community, and we appreciated his leadership in guiding our discussion.

11. Further Resources