Sunday, March 1, 2009

Can I Call That Good Writing?

If you've spent time teaching students the proper format for writing anything, be it an essay or a lab report, you have probably noticed that it is impossible to separate the thinking from the form. Teachers have a lot of questions about this, because in Ontario the subject achievement charts used to guide assessment and evaluation, separate thinking from communication.

Let's use procedural writing as an example. When we teach students the format for writing a recipe or a lab report, we are teaching them a framework for communicating information and ideas (thinking). However, as a science teacher from one Writing Across the Curriculum team noted,

I have a student who uses all of the appropriate terminology and flawless format
when writing a lab, but when I read what she has written it's obvious that she doesn't understand the concepts that she's writing about. Her critical thinking and analysis is flawed, so her lab doesn't make sense. Under communication, I have to give her a reasonable mark, but can I call that good writing?

No. If writing is indeed thinking through the end of a pen, or thinking through the keys of a computer, then writing is about organizing thought into words and into a form. The thinking is what the writing is all about. We cannot divorce the thinking from the form, even if our achievement chart suggests we do this for assessment purposes.

Can you think of any exceptions?


  1. Sorry it took me so long to comment - but alas, these are busy times. I have been asked this question long before I took the role of A&E coor, and my answer hasn't really changed. When we look at an assessment, way too often we focus on coming up with a mark, versus the learning opportunity it presents. In the situation presented (lab report), I am sure the teacher is more concern about the fact the student doesn't understand the concepts. Thus, leave the mark blank, get the kid in and fix the understanding - then give him/her a chance to redo the lab (if necessary). What you end up with is the same reasonable mark in communication, but improvements in understanding - thus, good writing.

  2. This is a hot topic. OSSLC (Ontario Secondary School Literacy Course) teachers were in today for a moderated marking session. They marked student summaries and many of their comments matched what we are hearing from the teachers who selected summary writing as their inquiry question. The OSSLC teachers and the inquiry group teachers all noted that students tend to cut and paste (seek the information and then copy it word-for-word into their summaries). At its best, this cut and paste process shows us that students can locate key points, but it does not show us that they understand the points. One does not necessarily equal the other. This again raises the issue of form and thinking in student writing. You can have one without the other, but how do we alter our teaching/improve student learning when students 'have' the form and not the thinking?

    Is anyone else challenged to help students move beyond a 'cut and paste' mode? What strategies have you tried?


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