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Reflecting on "Bad Ideas About Writing"

One of the most thought-provoking works we've read lately is Bad Ideas About Writing, edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe.

This open-access book from the University of West Virginia examines popular myths and assumptions about the teaching and learning of writing. You’ll find brief, “opinionated encyclopedia entries and researched mini-manifestos” from experts in writing studies. These pieces will get you up-to-date on research and conversations about writing and help you reflect on your teaching practices.

Below is a sampling of “bad ideas” from the book. Do you agree or disagree with the arguments? 

Quick summary: No two writing situations are exactly alike. Expectations vary from one writing situation to the next, so it is difficult to generalize what good writing is and how to do it.

Key quotation: “[E]very new situation, audience, and purpose requires writers to learn to do and understand new possibilities and constraints for their writing.”

“But this isn’t bad news. Rather, it gives all writers permission to keep learning, to fail, and to engage in new kinds of writing in new situations.”

A better idea: Instead of teaching writing in general, show students how to adapt to new writing situations, such as studying examples and considering the purpose, audience, and context. Assure them that the messy, feeling-out process of writing is normal and not a sign of failure.

Quick summary: When we judge students solely on their ability to write and speak Standard English, we risk marginalizing their language skills and intelligence, especially with students from diverse linguistic backgrounds.

Key quotation: “In adhering to so-called correct language, we are devaluing the non-standard dialects, cultures, and therefore identities of people and their communicative situations that do not fit a highly limited mold.”

A better idea: Grow students’ awareness of Standard English and situations where it is expected, but also acknowledge and celebrate diverse language practices, including when assessing writing. Learn about code-switching and code-meshing.

Quick summary: Students may interpret well-meaning writing advice as rigid rules rather than strategies.This happens when teachers frame writing advice as all-or-nothing.

Key quotation: “Wisdom about writing—as a product and as a process—is often expressed as hard and fast rules. Always begin an essay with a catchy hook. Never use the passive voice. Always make your writing flow. Always make a detailed outline before you start to write. Never edit as you draft.”

“People will continue to present useful techniques as though they are divine laws. However, we suggest that writers mentally translate rules into suggestions and what if questions.”

A better idea: Frame best practices as strategies rather than rules or mandates. As students add strategies to their writing toolkit, give them the freedom to pick and choose different tools for different situations.

Quick summary: Because of testing demands, curriculum tends to over-emphasize the teaching of a five-paragraph formula. Students, in turn, begin to see writing as rigid and formulaic.

Key quotation: “[T]he five paragraph theme has become the primary genre, not because of its educational merit or real-world applicability, but as a result of its pragmatic benefits for testing companies.”

A better idea: Push policy makers to make assessment localized. Empower teachers to evaluate students’ college writing readiness. Base assessment on capstone writing projects that feature a variety of genres and media, especially ones students will encounter in college and in their future careers.

Quick summary: The ability to name and define grammatical parts does not automatically create stronger writers.

Key quotation: “An effective writer cannot be measured by her ability to identify and define grammatical parts. This is not the same as saying that writers should never learn to identify direct objects or spot a dependent clause. . . .”

“The most useful grammar knowledge is much less explicit than naming, formed through exposure to language and its many options, arrangements, and infinite combinations and built upon our intuitive, tacit experiences with sentences.”

A better idea: Expose students to lots and lots of good writing and strong sentences. Have students study sentences to discover the grammar, punctuation, and usage choices writers make in real writing situations. Then have students practice rules and strategies in their own writing.

Quick summary: A thesis-first research process leads students to seek information and ideas that confirm what they already know or think they know.

Key quotation: “If all researchers started the process with preconceived answers, no new findings would ever come to be.”

“Genuine inquiry—the kind of research that often leads to new ideas and important choices—tends to begin with unsettled problems and questions, rather than with thesis statements and predetermined answers.”

A better idea: Begin research projects with a question worth looking into or a problem worth solving. Encourage students to choose topics they are genuinely curious about or confused by rather than something they think they know.

Quick summary: Plagiarism is not always the result of outright cheating or laziness. Attribution standards and practices vary depending on the context. Separating other people’s ideas from their own is a challenge for students.

Key quotation: “Rather than assuming that writers are trying to pass off someone else’s work as their own and therefore deserve punishment, we should recognize the complexity of separating one’s ideas from those of others, of mastering authoritative phrases, and of attributing according to varying standards.”

A better idea: Give students plenty of practice with using and attributing sources. Unless students are outright copying and pasting or cheating, treat instances of potential plagiarism as teaching moments.

Quick summary: Grades do not communicate what is and is not working in writing. The grading process influences teachers to read for weaknesses rather than strengths.

Key quotation: “[A] focus on failure leads teachers to approach student writing in search of deficiencies instead of strengths, which puts students in a state of preventative or corrective mindsets when trying to learn. These mindsets are especially troubling for students in writing classes, where errors must be made in order for students to grow and develop.”

“Formative evaluation creates safe spaces for student learning because students are not focused on trying to avoid failure but, instead, are searching for insight and growth.”

A better idea: Focus on giving formative, non-graded feedback at various stages of the writing process. Use holistic approaches to summative evaluation, such as writing portfolios and student self-reflections.

Teacher Support:

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Standards Correlations:

The State Standards provide a way to evaluate your students' performance.