Better writing means better thinking

At WriteBoston , we were intrigued by an article in the October issue of The Atlantic Monthly, which details the experience of one school, New Dorp High School, on Staten Island, as it grappled with the (arguably universal) problem of American high school students who struggle to express themselves in writing.  

The substance of that dilemma is how to help kids move forward in their writing in a way that encourages them, simultaneously, to become better thinkers. Good writing shows, the theory goes, good thinking. At WriteBoston we believe that, in fact, writing is thinking, that good Jenny LaVigne photo writing leads to good thinking. We assert that the rise in reading comprehension and achievement scores at New Dorp is attributable to students being given the tools (via scaffolded language prompts/templates, in this instance) to be successful writers, and therefore better thinkers. Their thinking is, in turn, informed by their writing. The New Dorp experience reinforces our belief that writing instruction and thinking instruction are inseparable.

Worth noting is that the leaders of the New Dorp revolution relied heavily on one of the basics of good instruction–scaffolding–and used it in a thoughtful and effective way to nudge their kids closer to where they needed to be. It’s worth noting that an incorrectly executed scaffolding or formula can have deleterious effects on student writing and thinking. The New Dorp approach involves giving students a formula that offers them some ways to use language effectively, and invites them to rely on these until they develop more confidence.  For example, because students were explicitly taught how to use words like although and despite , their writing contained complex sentences; having access to the structure of dependent clauses empowers students to express ideas that are, in turn, more complex. (As we know, traditional instruction in grammar does not yield such transformative effects on writing.) This technique reminded us of the sentence stems in They Say/I Say (by Graff and Birkenstein), which advocates a similar approach to help students set up and manage arguments in essays. Because of the renewed emphasis on argument writing (because of its central place in the Common Core), WriteBoston is paying a lot of attention to successful innovative efforts like this one, and we hope that everyone else is too.

You can read the article at http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/print/2012/10/the-writing-revolution/30909 .

Jenny LaVigne is the WriteBoston Writing Coach at Boston International High School. She previously taught writing, literature, and ESL for sixteen years at Chelsea High School while also acting as a mentor teacher and coach. She has also worked at various schools and social services throughout the Boston and Cambridge areas. She received an MEd from Suffolk University.

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