It can be a dispiriting experience reading the first drafts of students’ personal statements – it can also be dispiriting to read the fifteenth draft but that’s another matter – because many students simply don’t write very well. Their grammar is creaky, their vocabulary is limited, and their paragraphing is all over the place.
These students are supposed to be at the top of their game. They are ready for university and so three or four paragraphs of coherent English should not be a problem, but the problem is there for all to see. So what is to be done?
The answer provided by the authors of The Writing Revolution is that “students need explicit instruction in writing, beginning in the early elementary grades.” They need to start with sentences and then build up. That doesn’t mean a return to stand-alone grammar lessons because “the content of the curriculum drives the rigor of the writing activities” and writing instruction needs to be “embedded in the content of the curriculum.” All this should be music to the ears of the many educators who are currently embracing a content-rich, knowledge-based approach to teaching.
What I like about The Writing Revolution is that it has forced me to become more rigorous. I have always given my students writing tools but I now realise that I could have given them many more. To give just one example, I had always assumed that teaching students about topic sentences was enough to ensure that they used them in their essays. I now see that there are a whole range of activities (pp.87ff) I could have used to embed the practice in their written work.
One of the great strengths of The Writing Revolution is that it is a practical handbook. It provides technical tips that are eminently sensible. Tips like this:
It’s much better for students to use a pen or pencil to underline key words and phrases than to use a highlighter. Once they have a highlighter, students have a tendency to highlight too much. It’s also harder to annotate a text when using a highlighter, because students need to put down the highlighter and pick up a pen or pencil to do so. Sometimes they lose their thoughts in the process.
It also provides great writing tips that produce immediate results. The authors point out, for instance, that we often set questions that are much too broad for many students, questions like “Why was the Industrial Revolution important?”
Starting a sentence with a subordinating conjunction instead gives students a way into their writing and encourages them to write much more precisely:
- Before the Industrial Revolution, …
- Although the Industrial Revolution was important, …
What The Writing Revolution offers, in other words, is a systematic approach to writing that can be easily incorporated into the lessons of every department. That is why I shall be sharing some of the ideas in this great book with my colleagues at school this week. Reading draft personal statements might never be the same again.