Language Arts Department Guidelines for Adult Assistance in the Writing Process

    The English department writing objectives, of all the skills in the English courses of study, have typically posed the greatest challenge to Madison students. The department seeks to produce writers who tackle essay tasks with the confidence that stems from mastering the thinking tactics of:

    ·         prewriting (brainstorming, forming a central idea and supporting points, organizing ideas),

    ·         composing (completing a rough draft according to the task directions)

    ·         revising (rewriting, polishing content where necessary) and

    ·         editing (correcting grammatical and mechanical problems).

    We are proud that Madison is known, in higher academic circles and in the world of work as well, for graduating students who possess strong writing skills. Thus we are pleased that parents seek to help their children master the critical writing stages noted above. However, not all adult input results in writing growth on the part of the student. Some adult help can result in the student becoming totally reliant upon assistance or in writing which is not original enough to be called the student’s.  Too much adult input (whether parent or tutor) of an inappropriate nature can harm this student growth, not aid it. It is very appropriate and helpful that parents or tutors read essays and react, but the students must play the active role in the pre-thinking, composing, revision, and editing processes. This active role will result in the student "weaning" him/herself from reliance upon adult help and internalizing the strategies that produce effective writing.

    According The National Commission on Writing, "If students are to make knowledge their own, they must struggle with the details, wrestle with the facts, and rework raw information and dimly understood concepts into language they can communicate to someone else. In short, if students are to learn, they must write" (9)….If there is too great a gap between the a student’s in-class work and writing done as homework or long-term projects (sentence structure, vocabulary, organizationand maturity of ideas), then a problem arises as to the nature of adult input into that particular piece of writing, and ultimately, whether the piece will be graded as original.

    Below are some approaches devised by the English department and grouped by writing stages. Provided are effective adult approaches to aiding student growth in writing. These approaches have been phrased as comments that an adult would pose to the writer. They are followed by various statements in red/italics that reflect adult assistance of an inappropriate nature, assistance that will not help the student to internalize writing skills and become an independent thinker.

    Prewriting Stage:

    When is this essay due? When did you get the assignment? Where is it noted in your homework pad?

    What is your essay supposed to be about? What is the assignment? Do you have notes or a handout from the teacher? Let me see them.

    [NOT HELPFUL: I think you should write about...let me write down an idea you could use...that idea’s not good; use this one... you tell me your idea and I will put the words on this paper/screen.]

    What is the central idea or main point of your whole essay--tell me in your own words? OK, write that down. Read it back to me aloud--does it make sense? Does it match the teacher’s directions? I’m still not clear what your overall point is. Tell me/rewrite it again. [NOT HELPFUL: I can’t understand your idea. Say it this way, it’s clearer. Let me write it for you. Is this what you mean? ]

    What’s one point you could use to support/prove that idea? Write that down, it would make a good Roman numeral. What’s another idea? Write that down. Where in the book could you find a quote to back up that supporting point? Let’s write some more points down. OK. Which points are the 2-3 best? (depending on extent of the writing assignment). What else did that character--or another character--do that relates to this idea? Where in the book is that? [NOT HELPFUL: You tell me the ideas and I’ll type/write them as you dictate. Here’s a good supporting idea--why don’t you use it? Here’s what I’d say. Here’s another point you could use.]

    OK, you have good ideas here. Is this the best order to deal with them in the paper? Number them in the order you want to discuss them. Are there teacher directions about the sequence of ideas? Is this idea weaker than the others? Shall you discard it...replace it...rewrite it?

    [NOT HELPFUL: Put your ideas in this order. Cut this one out--I’ve just thought of a better one.]

    Composing stage

    Make this Roman numeral idea into your first topic sentence and put the other related ideas in the same paragraph. Do the same for the other Roman numerals. Show me those paragraphs when you are done and take a break. [NOT HELPFUL:  Here’s a good topic sentence for that point. Now you should say this..and this..and this. Let me type it, I’m faster.]

    As you write, check every topic sentence against your main idea. Are you sticking to the subject? Keep in mind how many quotes you are supposed to be including. [NOT HELPFUL:  You’re off-subject now. Change that sentence to say....and cut out this point.]

    Revision of Content

    Ok, I’ve read your rough draft.

    Now read your body paragraphs aloud to me. OR Listen as I read your body paragraphs. When I’m done, you tell me which one of your paragraphs is off the main idea of the essay. It’s way out on a tangent or it’s just reciting plot. What can you do about that? [NOT HELPFUL:  I’ll delete this paragraph.]

    How many quotes from the literature were you supposed to have? How long are they supposed to be? Does this quote relate to your major idea? Why did you pick this quote? Are there any other quotes that would be better, that you recall the teacher talking about in class or that you took notes on?

    I’ve checked in the margin three sets of sentences of this page that aren’t related; can you relate them better? should you delete them? Two quotes are good; a third is really not that related to the idea in your paragraph. Can you find the weak quote and get a better one? [NOT HELPFUL:  Let me use the keyboard/pen. You should say this, not this. Here’s a better way to join those two ideas. This quote is a problem--let me see if I can find a better one on that page.]

    In the margin, I’ve put a check next to some paragraphs that contain sentences that are illogical or goofy. Read each paragraph aloud to me, find the weak sentences, and reword those. Can you spot the sentence(s) that is/are a problem? OR Let me read this paragraph aloud back to you. Listen for weird sentences; you have several. [NOT HELPFUL:  Let me read your essay to find the problems. This sentence should be reworded like this. Take this out. Here’s a better way to say that.]

    Underline your clincher sentences that wrap up your major sections. Are you sure this is a clincher?  Perhaps you’re missing one and need to write it at the end of the paragraph. [NOT HELPFUL:  Here’s what your clincher should say....]


    Circle all the transitions you have used. Is that enough? Do you see that you are jumping from one sentence/idea to the next with no linking words? Where is your grammar book--what page are transitions on? [NOT HELPFUL: You need a transition here, here, here--say this, this, this.]

    I’ve put a check next to any line that contains weak vocabulary, like good, bad, nice, wonderful. Reread those lines and find the weak word in that line and replace it with a more mature word; use the dictionary/thesaurus. [NOT HELPFUL: hese words need to be replaced by THESE words.]

    Are you sure that your intro and conclusion have followed the directions of the teacher? Double-check. [NOT HELPFUL: This intro/conclusion needs to say this.... That’s not the way to write a conclusion. Do it this way.]

    Now go back and make a clean copy of this draft that you’ve corrected and show it to me.

    Revision of Mechanics

    Run this through a spellchecker. Careful of homonyms; the machine doesn’t know the difference basically. OR Here’s the dictionary; read your essay aloud again, look up words that don’t look right.

    Circle every comma; do you need it? Should it be a semicolon? Are there commas, periods, question marks, missing?

    I found three fragments; find them and join them to other sentences or make them into complete sentences.

    This is about literature; you should stay in present tense, not jump back and forth; I found several examples of tense shift that you need to correct.

    [NOT HELPFUL:  You have a lot of misspelled words and some grammar problems. I corrected them.]

    As you can see from the above scenarios, the effective approach for adults to use when helping students with writing is the one that focuses the student on applying previous learning and on doing the thinking steps him/herself. Solutions to revising and editing writing weaknesses must come from the student, not from the parent or tutor seeking to offer assistance. The more students actively devise their solutions to their writing weaknesses, the faster the internalization of effective writing techniques and the growth of confidence in the capacity to write.

     "Writing is both a ‘marker’ of high-skill, high-wage, professional work and a ‘gatekeeper’ with clear equity implications."

    The above is based the English Department’s study of the latest research on writing. For information from one key source, please refer on line to The Report of The National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges: The Neglected "R" and the Need for A Writing Revolution - April 2003. A copy of the report is also available in the high school library.