Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

The Trouble with Letters: The Alphabet Soup of Writing Strategies

Michele Dunaway, who teaches English and journalism at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, Missouri, has been frustrated by the welter of acronyms for writing strategies that teachers are expected to focus on as part of the Common Core curriculum standards.

One of the non-core teachers caught me in the hall the other day. She'd been to a meeting where all her subject area teachers had been told they'd be infusing reading and writing into their curriculum, and that they'd be assessing over how well kids read through constructed response questions. While I stood there dumbfounded, she also told me that every teacher in her content area needed to decide what measure of writing strategy they would focus on and teach. So she showed me a handout and asked me what I taught. I looked, seeing such acronyms as ACE, PLAN, RACE, RAPP, and READER. My face blanked. "I use all of these," I told her. "Well, we have to pick one so we can be consistent. And we have to decide which," she said.

It was at that moment I realized that this Common Core/Race to the Top testing insanity has simply gone too far.

While it's a great idea that teachers are going to infuse reading and constructed response questions into their curriculum — after all, reading is everywhere and there is more to art than just performing in the medium and more to singing than just vocal exercises — to make an entire district worth of subject-area teachers pick one writing strategy as the end-all-be-all is a little bit overboard. It's a bit like going to the buffet and being told you can only have one item, and that's the only item you can ever have.

Even if those teachers can use others, they still must come back to that one. This is ridiculous. I'm a writer. I write. Teaching kids to write is about modeling good writing and then showing them various samples. What those poor teachers are doing is focusing on is a bunch of acronyms. They aren't English teachers, so they've been thrown into a maze of strategies and told there is one answer. So let's break those strategies down.

ACE — Answer the question. Cite Examples. Explain your Answer.

PLAN — Pay attention to the prompt (pick apart the prompt). List the main idea. Add supporting details. Number your ideas.

RACE — Restate the prompt. Answer the question. Cite Examples. Explain your answer.

RAPP — Restate the prompt. Answer the question. Provide examples. Proofread.

READER—Restate the question. Answer the question. Detail and explain. Restate your answer at the end.

I'm not much of a genius, but even I can tell there is very little difference between all these. Basically, they're simply a way for kids to remember what to do when answering questions. During Missouri state testing, we used to tell the kids to "Write 3 to get 2." This meant they needed three sentences: 1. Answer the question. 2. Text example one. 3. Text example two. So I guess we were RACEing along. Or RAPPing. The bottom line was it didn't really matter. To earn the full two possible points, a student had to have two text-based examples.

Unlike in "The Miracle Worker," things don't necessarily have to have a name. I've read multiple writing books that all come up with new names for the same old things.

Teachers shouldn't need to worry about what singular writing strategy to teach, or be forced to pick one. We need to keep the entire kitchen open for exploration. After all, who knew throwing bacon and chocolate together would work, and yet somehow it does. As educators, we are beginning to lose ourselves in the nitty-gritty small stuff, rather than focusing on the big picture of raising global citizens who can both think and perform. Give my students the worksheet the non-core teacher had with all the acronyms and meanings, and then give my students a question, and they could write you an answer for each type (and a good answer, too), although I have never once taught them any of those specific writing strategies.

What I have taught them is how to write, and how to write in the best format for their personal style. There is no one right way to write (minus good grammar and punctuation, but really, e.e. cummings broke that mold, too). But we are scared into a formula by the ongoing testing political madness and testing companies who make $400-700 million in profits. One size doesn't fit all, and whereas these strategies might be a good place to start, they are not the finish line. Creativity cannot be stifled. As we teach grammar and writing, if a kid uses a semicolon wrong, at least he is trying to learn. After all, failure and relearning are part of growth. We don't need to do everything the same way.

Case in point: I went to the website of Somers School District, in New York, who had a handout on PLAN. Here PLAN stood for Predict. Locate. Add. Note. Not quite the same as the handout my colleague was carrying around.

In the end, if the students can do all these things and do them well, getting caught up in the letters shouldn't matter.


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Comments from our users:

Tuesday August 13th 2013, 5:02 PM
Comment by: mac
there is a big question underlying this piece but there is an answer. chocolate goes with everything.
Wednesday August 14th 2013, 2:04 PM
Comment by: Judith C.
BRAVO!

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