Designing Writing Assignments: The Essentials of an Effective Writing Assignment

Last November at the NCTE convention, I purchased Traci Gardner’s Designing Writing Assignments with the intentions of reading it much earlier than I have. I find it helpful to reflect on my professional reading here, so I hope you’ll pardon me if this kind of thing isn’t why you visit the blog (why do you visit, anyway? I’m curious). I don’t intend to rush through the book, but I do have several professional books I want to read this summer.

As its title suggests, the first chapter discusses “the essentials of an effective writing assignment.” Gardner notes that the problem with the language we use in constructing writing assignments is that we typically use academic language the students have difficulty “unpacking” (6), or we use vague “stripped down” language that invites “extremely general responses with unclear purposes and audiences” (1). Gardner cites several research studies and articles, including Storms, Riazantseva, and Gentile (2000); NAEP/NWP (2001); Nelson (1990); Nelson (1995); and Yancey (2004) in support of her argument that one factor in students’ inability to meet expectations for writing assignments is ineffectively written prompts. Based on the NAEP/NWP study, Gardner suggests four essential characteristics of effective writing prompts:

  • The content and scope asked students to focus on critical thinking, rather than reiteration, by interacting with a text.
  • The organization and development provided scaffolding that supported students’ writing process.
  • The audience for the writing assignment focused on communication with an authentic group of readers regarding a topic on which the writer was an expert.
  • The range of choices for students’ focus was balanced with support and direction so that students could engage in the process as equal partners, rather than be directed to complete teacher-driven tasks. (Peterson qtd. in Gardner 2-3)

One area in which I can improve is creating more choices for students. UbD has really helped me think about how to create authentic performance tasks that address audience, and on reflection, I have to say my most effective writing assignments are performance tasks created as part of a UbD unit. I could do more with the writing process. With my lower level students, I build in a lot of in-class writing with the requirement of peer editing, and I think that scaffolding is effective, but it could be more effective if we went through the writing process in a more formal fashion. I noticed a key word in that sentence, too: we need to provide scaffolding for the students’ writing process. To me, that means it’s ineffective to require students create a formal outline as prewriting if a web, jot list, drawing, storyboard, or just plain plunging in and drafting works better for that student. I think construction of questions that focus on critical thinking is at the heart of UbD.

Gardner quotes Kathleen Blake Yancey’s Teaching Literature as Reflective Practice (2004), describing three (often different) curricula in the classroom. The “lived curriculum” is based on students’ prior experiences and knowledge; the “delivered curriculum” is “the one [teachers] design”; and the “experienced curriculum” is the result of the students’ prior knowledge and the delivered curriculum (qtd. in Gardner 5). Garder describes the experienced curriculum as a mashup of the other two types—a term I liked for its connotations with Web 2.0 interactivity. I think it’s important to remember that students don’t always make the connections we think they’re making or learn what we think they’re learning, but we can do more to enhance what Gardner calls overlap between the delivered curriculum and the experienced curriculum: “expand the writing assignment in ways that help students construct a reading that matches the goals for the activity” (6).

One of my favorite quotes from the chapter, which I tweeted in two sections earlier this evening: “Because all readers come to a text with different experiences and prior knowledge, all readings are different and none is absolutely identical to the writer’s original intentions” (6). Gardner isn’t suggesting that all readings are correct or that any interpretation goes, but I have a better answer for students who challenge my or their classmates interpretations of texts than I have in the past. We have all, at some point, been asked by a student if the writer intended something or other we have found in a text. My answer in the last few years or so has been close to Gardner’s, but her sentence captures the essence of what happens with interpretation so much more eloquently than I have been able to do thus far.

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3 Replies to “Designing Writing Assignments: The Essentials of an Effective Writing Assignment”

  1. Dana,

    First you ask why people visit your blog. I visit it for a number of reasons. You've re-introduced me to Jane Austen, I've enjoyed the experience, and so I find myself trusting your voice (and recommendations). Secondly your blogs have a nice mix between confidence/experience and open-mindedness, like you're wanting to learn more (this one is a good example!) And also you've talked before about ideas connected to Teaching for Understanding (or UbD), and I find those to be interesting frameworks which help get to the essentials.

    This post brought to mind lots of things: (1) what Howard Gardner says about naive understanding (sounds connected to 'lived curriculum'; (2) that sweet spot (one of Kelly Gallagher's terms) which seems to me connected to what you/Gardner write about the experienced curriculum and (3) the really big and interesting question of how different readers will see different things in texts.

    This last one is a very big one, I think. At my school we actually have a course for our Year 11's which explore those ideas … and then, despite this, there's a tendency (reflected in some of our assessment practices) to think that a reader's response is only determined by what's in the text, that meaning is put there by the author, and that there is only one acceptable meaning which students have to find by digging around.

    Anyway, I found the post very interesting and very relevant to issues that pre-occupy me.

  2. Why I visit your blog:

    * because I almost always find something of use or interest in your posts

    * because we have many of the same positions on education and technology, but you have more practical experience than I do

    * because you often discuss resources I've seen (like the book in this post) and give me a good idea of whether or not I would actually find them useful before I spend the money!

    * because I'm a new teacher and still looking for mentors and guidance anywhere I can find them!

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