Why Students Struggle With Evidence-Based Writing
I have been writing and teaching students how to write for a very long time. Made
lots of mistakes along the way, two. I mean to. (You get the point.) Yet, because I am
pig-headed (ask my mom) and love a good challenge (again, talk to Mom), I’ve
readily embraced the task of figuring out how to turn low-performing student
writers, grades 3 and up, into consistently competent, capable composers.
Happily, I’ve attained a great deal of success. And I am proud to say it’s translated
into empowering students to be able to write well in ELA as well as across the
disciplines. Wanna know the secret?
There is no secret. But there are some time-tested strategies which teachers of
writing too frequently forego much to their own chagrin. First and foremost is…
Note the cliffhanger. More sophisticated components of writing with resoundingly
resonant voice (like using cliffhangers or alliteration) come later on in the writing
process once a kid is ready to embrace more advanced writing techniques. My belief
is that the place to start with underperforming student writers is with teaching
them how to apply of the principles of sound organizational structure to their work.
Young writers benefit from understanding that all forms of writing have an
underlying architecture. Journalism has a time-tested structure of effectiveness. (i.e.
Don’t bury the lede.) Movies have a time-tested structure for their narrative (i.e. The
Hero’s Journey). From writing business plans to white papers … you name it,
structure offers wings on which writing can fly.
Experience has shown me that the foremost reason students struggle with evidence-
based writing is not because kids lack the ability cite textual evidence to support
their assertions. Nope, working year after year with low performing student writers
has illuminated to me that the number one reason kids struggle with evidence-
based writing is because they have not yet been taught that the key to success exists
understanding and executing the form’s underlying constitution.
That’s right, they need a lesson in architecture to compliment their bevy of lessons
in reading comprehension. Like building a house, once they understand the
principles of creating a solid foundation – and know how to consistently execute this
construction – achievement will explode.
For evidence-based, on-demand, short-response writing the structure is
straightforward and exceptionally effective. Students need to know how to 1) make
a claim 2) provide credible evidence to support their claim and 3) pen a conclusion
that ties their evidence to their claim through logical reasoning.
As mentioned, once they own this skill their achievement will explode.
Of course, I always begin with short-response writing because my belief is that if
students don’t know how to write a grammatically correct, logical short response,
chances are they’ll never be able to create a nuanced, multiple-paragraph essay. You
must learn to crawl before walk. The biggest mistake I see is teachers bypassing
short-response writing and going directly multiple-paragraph essays.
Another benefit is that kids don’t just become better writers, they also
become better readers. Speaking to decades of research proving the reading/writing
connection, I can tell you, kids who write well become stronger readers and vice