A Simple Prescription: Write More, Read More – And Often

A tip of the hat to the Marshall Memo for pointing to this recent article by Deborah Hollimon in Reading Today.  In “It’s Simple: Read More, Write More, Teach Vocabulary”(subscription required), Hollimon’s suggestions are right in line with the research of Anders Ericsson.  Here’s Hollimon getting straight to the point:

What our students need are opportunities for voracious reading in classes brimming with engaging materials of all sorts, at many different levels… Reading means reading something engaging in every class, every day.

We could not agree more.  We’ve written extensively on the importance of students reading more.  First, Ericson’s research on what it takes to move from novice to expert is informative here.  Critical to the development of expertise is time on task, or practice.  In other words, if students wish to become better readers, they then obviously must spend more time engaged in reading.  Second, the Common Core State Standards has established a proposed ‘staircase’ of text complexity.  That document recommends that students face the challenge of increasingly complex texts as they progress from grade to grade.  Third, Nell Duke, among others, including, again, the Common Core State Standards, recommends that students must learn to grapple with a wide variety of texts.   To put it another way, a student brought up on a steady diet of fiction will find himself ill-prepared to face the challenge of real-world, informational text as they move into college or the workplace.  Duke, like Hollimon, recommends that students be exposed to informational text from a much earlier age.

On writing, Hollimon is even more succinct:

Writing more means writing every day, in every class, mostly without fear of red ink… Content teachers can easily incorporate quick-writes, exit slips, learning logs, or journals into daily lessons. What better way for teachers to check for understanding than to peruse the writing thoughts of their students?

We would echo Hollimon’s point on writing more.  Targeted and deliberate practice applies across a range of human activities, including writing.  Our personalized learning platforms, Oasis and MyWritingWeb were built around the very simple idea of allowing students to engage in daily, deliberate, and targeted practice in reading and writing.  Hollimon’s ideas on easy ways to incorporate writing into the content areas mirror our own belief that writing should occur across content areas and need not be limited to full-length, 3-5 page essays.  MyWritingWeb and Oasis, for example, allow students to write essays of any length, giving students plentiful opportunity to practice and teachers an easy and administratively painless way to keep students writing more.  And because both Oasis and MyWritingWeb are based on the Lexile Framework for Writing, educators have the added benefit of being able to monitor student growth in the domain of writing. 

If you haven’t yet checked out these platforms, be sure to take a look.

The Development of a Writer: Write Now, Write Away

Here’s Paul Collins over at Slate taking a look at the first ‘How-To’ guide for fiction writing and reminding us that much of today’s advice to aspiring writers bears remarkable similarity to what was dispensed over 100 years ago.  The first known guide offering systematic advice on creative writing  (as contrasted with ancient Greek works on the essential elements of drama) was How to Write Fiction by the 26 year old Sherwin Cody.  There’s nothing all that startling in Cody’s suggestions – at least not by today’s standards – and most of it is by now familiar enough that there’s little need to belabor the details: write what you know, show don’t tell, and, of course, don’t plan on writing full-time.  As an aside, Cody’s Victorian upbringing shines through in his admonishment that art should shy away from controversy or his warning that a good writer does not make the reader uncomfortable with stories about ‘peculiarities’.   Today, Cody’s work strikes us as a bit quaint.  But that’s not entirely fair.  The idioms may reflect today’s culture, but many of the contemporary ‘how-to-write’ guides proffer the same sort of generalities as Cody.

What is useful about Cody’s work, however, – and other ‘how-to’ works, more generally – is what it represents, or, more accurately, what it implies.  Implicit in Cody’s work is the idea that good writing is something that can be improved through effort, that good writers can be developed through hard work and by applying certain principles of practice to their work.   Despite the occasional insistence that great writers are born, not created, there’s nothing inherently strange in the idea of learning how to write.  Expertise in writing, like any human endeavor, is an adaptation acquired through repetition and hard work. 

We’ve written before on the work of Anders Ericson and on what it takes to move novice to expertise.  Ericson found that attaining expertise in a chosen activity required the following attributes:

  • Targeted Practice: practice at a developmentally appropriate level
  • Real-time Corrective Feedback: specific and based on one’s performance
  • Intensive Practice: practice performed on a daily basis (or often)
  • Distributed Practice: practice over a long period of time; allows for monitoring growth toward expert performance
  • Self-Directed Practice: practice in the absence of a coach, mentor, or teacher

There’s no reason to think that the act of writing is any different, or that writing somehow exists outside the range of other human activities and belongs to a special distinct class of human behaviors.  The qualities of a good writer are no more ineffable than what makes a good reader or a good cook.  If we think of writing as just one more human activity, as on a par with other endeavors, like swimming, mathematics, or chess, then we can dispense with the whole notion of treating writing as an essentially distinct activity and as somehow beyond the influence of practice.  Instead, we have much to gain by treating the practice of writing as one more useful skill that can be trained.

The idea that writing can be improved through practice and that great writers can be trained applies to all forms of writing – even fiction.  In fact, there’s been recent evidence to suggest that creativity – presumably the essential element of a great fiction writer – is a skill like any other, one that, in addition to responding to environmental cues, can be cultivated and learned.

Sites, like Figment, are attempting to do just that by providing a forum where students can read and write fiction.  By providing a social network, Figment allows students to present their writing to a peer community for review and criticism.  Our own work at MetaMetrics has incorporated Ericson’s research into our metrics.  In fact, The Lexile Framework for Writing (and its applications: MyWritingWeb and Oasis) is built around the idea that students have the ability to improve their writing skill through frequent, sustained, and targeted practice; and that writing performance – like reading comprehension and math readiness – may be measured.  Writing is a measurable skill, and by providing an automated platform in which students may practice, it is our hope to facilitate an environment where students may improve their writing ability through sustained and deliberate practice.

Solving the Creativity Crisis

Creativity is typically defined as something like ‘the production of something original and useful’.  This recent EducationNews.org article, however, warns that the United States is, for the first time, experiencing a creativity crisis.  Worries about the crisis have prompted some to worry about the far-reaching consequences of a sustained decline:

If American creativity continues to decline, there will be a domino effect in the U.S.: innovation and entrepreneurship will decline, new jobs will not be created, unemployment will rise, the debt will spiral out of control, Gross Domestic Product will decline, and military capability will be weakened by a reduced budget. 

The U.S. has rapidly moved up the value chain transforming from an industrial-based economy to a knowledge-based economy to an innovation-based economy.  Consequently, many U.S. factory jobs and back-office jobs have moved overseas, and creativity is the last skill Americans have to offer the global marketplace. (more…)

MetaMetrics is an educational measurement organization. Our renowned psychometric team develops scientific measures of student achievement that link assessment with targeted instruction to improve learning.