How Writing Can Weave Through A Traditional High School English Class

By Char Shryock,  Dir. of Curriculum and Instruction  Bay Village City Schools

Students need regular practice writing arguments, informational pieces, and narratives. Additionally, it is important that the writing is based on evidence students pull from the texts they are reading, listening to or viewing. The challenge is how to find opportunities for writing within traditional literature driven units.   The idea that reading and listening are the breathing in of information and that writing and speaking are the breathing out of information can help to guide the work of integrating reading and writing.  Just as it is impossible to only breath in, or only breath out, students need to be able to take in information, analyze or synthesize it, then communicate that back to a variety of audiences.  Being ready for college or careers means being able to read/listen to information in many forms, process and reflect on that information, make decisions on the validity of information or evaluate a piece of literature, and then present arguments or research based on evidence from credible texts.

A starting point is to identify the anchor texts that drive your course. What standards are you getting at through these texts?  Next, build mini- text sets that compliment your anchor text.  For example, if you are teaching Of Mice and Men, you might find articles, stories, poems or videos that deal with friendship, broken plans,or migrant farmers during the Great Depression.  There are a number of resources you can use to find existing text sets.  NEWSELA.com is a free website where you can find text sets tied to literature, as well as history and science. ReadWorks.org is another free, registration required website, where you can find existing paired texts.  Expert Packs, found on the Achievethecore.org website, include student activities and a mix of print and multi-media text.  Other websites where you can find a wide range of texts on many topics include Archive.org, INFOhio.org, and Gutenberg.org.

Once you have developed text sets around your anchor text,  your team can collaborate to develop text dependent questions and writing prompts.   I like to use the Checklist for Creating Text Dependent Questions and the Checklist for Evaluating Question Quality as my go-to tools for this step.  Remember, the Ohio Learning Standards for English state that students  should write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.  Sometimes it helps to have examples when you start to develop question sets and writing prompts.  I have found the mini- assessments on the Achievethecore.org website to be useful models.  The released test items from the Ohio State Tests are also helpful.  

The big picture piece is to now take a look at your text sets, questions and prompts to see if your team has provided students frequent opportunities to focus on the following Ohio Learning Standards for ELA – Writing:

  1. Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
  3. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
  4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  5. Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.
  6. Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.
  1.  Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused     questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
  1.  Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information, while avoiding plagiarism.
  1. Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and  research.

I have had many conversations over the past 6 years with teachers who are working to shift from grammar and mechanics as the starting point for writing feedback and assessment to the idea that content and structure are the base for evaluating student writing.  It is helpful to spend time looking at authentic student work.  The Vermont Writing Collaborative  In Common Project has annotated samples of student writing based on a single text.  The Ohio State Tests portal has released annotated student responses which are found in the scoring guides on the Ohio State Test Portal.  The Performance Level Descriptors from the Ohio Dept. of Education are also a good resource for this discussion.  They serve as a roadmap for future instruction, intervention or differentiation by describing what students look like and sound like at each level from Basic to Advanced within the Ohio Learning Standards for English.   

Finally,  I have found the vetted, standards based ELA lessons that are available on the Achievethecore.org website to be useful models of what integrated reading, writing, speaking and listening look like at the high school level.  The embedded text dependent questions, focus on academic and content vocabulary, and culminating writing prompts can be used as is, or as the framework for a team to create similar unit plans.   

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